The dentist’s office is always a good place to keep up with popular culture. On a recent visit I found myself caught up in a magazine article offering readers nineteen secrets for staying slim and trim. Eggs are back on the list of healthy foods, no longer the anathema they were in the not-too-distant past. Indeed, the diet pundit advised that “if it ain’t yolk, don’t fix it”—choose eggs over bagels for a protein punch that will carry you through the day without noshing. Sensible enough, I thought, if you don’t overdo the cholesterol later on. But the next piece of advice really alarmed me. Apparently “familiarity breeds content” (as in satisfaction), and if we want to overcome the urge to indulge we must eat the same plain thing for lunch every day. Now that, to me, is a grim prospect, worthy of Cotton Mather. The article states, “Too much variety in meals can lead you to keep eating to experience the taste, not to satisfy the hunger.” But isn’t that the point, to taste our food? Once our basic needs are met, the quest for flavor is what it’s all about, which is why a single dark chocolate truffle will do more to satisfy hunger than a boxful of artificially flavored dessert cakes. Flavor is also the secret behind the “French paradox”—the French don’t feel the need to eat as much because what they do eat tastes so good.
Everywhere we turn these days we see conflicting advice about how to stay healthy and get slimmer. The usda has just weighed in with its own revised dietary recommendations in a new food pyramid that is squatter than ever and that makes a healthy lifestyle seem even more elusive. Last August in these pages Amy Bentley looked at the Atkins Diet. Two essays in this issue of Gastronomica continue to explore the way Americans eat. Rebecca Epstein examines contemporary American fast-food culture as seen through the cinematic lens in Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me and Jessica Eisner’s Muffin Man. But, as Nancy Pick’s essay on Edward Hitchcock shows, our national obsession with food is nothing new. Pick offers a charming look at the dyspepsia that plagued many nineteenth-century eaters, and how Edward Hitchcock, one of America’s leading naturalists, railed against immoderate eating and drinking, the cause of “the premature prostration and early decay of students and professional men.” As an indication of just how much times (and food fashions) have changed, Hitchcock considered green tea a poison, an unnaturally stimulating beverage. Today, of course, green tea is seen as just the opposite, a drink that not only calms but contains cancer-preventing antioxidants. Food fads, in other words, come and go. Other nineteenth-century dietary proselytizers included John Harvey Kellogg, who advocated for a vegetarian diet, and James Salisbury, who preached the opposite. (Unfortunately, cafeteria-style Salisbury Steak is still with us today.)
Subsequent generations generally view the dietary prescriptions of the past with tolerant humor. Just imagine how society will view our embrace of Atkins and other low-carb diets in a hundred years. Woody Allen was on to something in his 1973 film Sleeper when he created Miles Monroe, the cryogenically frozen owner of the Happy Carrot Health Food Store, who wakes up two hundred years in the future to find everyone happily eating fast food, smoking cigarettes, and drinking plenty of booze. These denizens of the future laugh at what they consider the primitive twentieth-century notion of “health food”; they are so much more knowledgeable now! Allen’s wonderful send-up reminds us that even good, healthy food fads have limitations. In the end, the real secret formula for a healthy life is most likely contained in one simple prescription. It’s called moderation.