I want to talk about just one of the reasons why so many people (including me) are fat. As the title suggests, food has leapt way beyond its intended role of providing nourishment to performing as if it’s on your own little private Broadway stage. And let’s be clear about this: it’s not the broccoli or cabbage out there singing and dancing and stealing your heart with its talent and charm.
Oh, no. Although creative chefs know how to tart up these simple veggies, transforming them into caloric bit players roasted with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, beans and carrots are not the drama queens making us fat. (Well, except for lettuce. Watch out for lettuce. This simple, zero calorie, pile of green stuff can turn into Bette Midler belting out show tunes as soon as you pile on the nuts, croutons, grated cheese, ranch dressing, and everything else masquerading as health food on the salad bar.)
Now, food as entertainment can be addressed from two perspectives. First, there is the obvious element of people cooking food on TV. We’ve gone from Julia Child warbling about French food on PBS to Gordon Ramsay screaming at home cooks who dream of becoming the next MasterChef. There are multiple channels showcasing cupcake, barbecue, and holiday baking challenges. Guy Fieri is on TV about ten times a day, driving around the country salivating over gigantic burgers or pulled pork sandwiches at small town restaurants.
Yeah, I could go on and on about the whole food-as-entertainment on television. My favorite is The Great British Baking Show on PBS; at least the participants are nice to each other. But you’ll catch me watching anything from MasterChef Junior to Top Chef to The Next Food Network Star. I tell my son that these competitions are my version of sports.
They say sitting is the new smoking, so it would be bad enough if we sat on our butts watching cooking shows all evening (after a hard day at work sitting at the computer), but it’s not enough to just sit and WATCH people make food, right? No. It’s more entertaining on all counts if you actually EAT some food while watching people cook. And if you can manage to eat something similar to what you’re watching on TV, like eating pizza while Anthony Bourdain is sampling the same in the pizza mecca of Naples, then you’ve created your own private experiential television occurrence. Watch, listen, taste, smell. Synergy, right?
However, being entertained by people preparing food on TV (or in the movies; I saw Burnt last weekend with Bradley Cooper – loved it!), is only one aspect of food-as-entertainment.
Take pizza, for instance. As much as I hate to admit this, I remember having pizza for the first time. A pizza shop opened up next to the record store (and there was a drugstore on the corner with a soda fountain – hello, Fonzie!) in my little home town when I was about 13 years old. When we could afford it, some of us would stop in after school for a slice. You could have it with or without pepperoni. That’s it. It was greasy and limp and frankly, I only ate it to be sociable.
Fast forward about 50 years and think about what pizza is today. Would you like cheese stuffed in the crust? You can get that. How about a Mexican pizza or Hawaiian with ham, pineapple and cinnamon? The possibilities for what could be on your circle of dough are endless. And you thought that sad old slice of pepperoni pizza was fattening? Do not even check to see how many calories and fat grams are in a slab of a chicken-bacon-ranch concoction. You don’t want to know.
Is my mouth entertained? You bet. No way I’m settling for boring old pepperoni any more.
And going to the supermarket is a thousand times more overwhelming than contemplating the options on the Pizza Hut takeout menu.
Let’s say you want to get a healthy granola cereal to have on hand for breakfast. Let’s say you have the willpower to ignore the Cap’n Crunch and Fruit Loops and Count Chocula. As you zero in on what used to be a handful of choices that were more or less guaranteed to be full of fiber and relatively low in sugar, there are now dozens of options. And you’d better slip on your readers, because if you don’t read the labels, that yummy-looking cranberry and oat muesli crunchola may have more sugar, fat and calories overall than a serving of Trix.
My point, if it hasn’t become clear, is that the food-as-fuel concept only works if you ignore the thirty billion gazillion choices out there for everything from yogurt to sausages. As soon as we start entertaining our mouths with a new version of Chips Ahoy cookies with bits of salted caramel and dark chocolate nibs, we’re in trouble. The original Chips Ahoy, let’s face it, is meh. You can probably cruise past those on the shelf and not even be tempted, right?
It’s all that fancy, curious NEW stuff that makes you want to cheat on your healthy food plan like a sleazy salesman eyeing the local Lolitas in a Hilton lobby bar.
Do I want a Hershey Kiss? Nah. Not really. Do I want a Holiday Candy Cane Kiss? Why, yes please!
I think one thing that helps celebrities stay slim is that they are not personally wandering the grocery aisles, being exposed to the latest flavors of ice cream or seduced by the glossy pretzel buns in the deli. No, they have chefs and keepers who shop and cook for them, presenting gorgeous salads (hold the ranch) and perfectly seared scallops (no Long John Silver fish ‘n chips for you, Jen) when it’s time to eat. If someone would present me with a beautiful salad (as opposed to me buying all the ingredients and cleaning and chopping everything up because I am basically lazy) I’d be thrilled to eat it and give Hardee’s a pass.
One last example: it’s not just food that has gone crazy. The other night I went out to dinner with my friend Tina to a local bar and restaurant called Olivor Twist. Now, this is a fun place with good food (I actually did have the seared scallops with couscous and broccoli rabe and it was wonderful) and, as the restaurant name implies, a creative martini menu. I hope you can read the part of the menu I took a picture of on the left.
Remember when a martini was either with gin or vodka? At Olivor Twist, they offer the Oatmeal Cookie Martini, made with Bailey’s, rum, some kind of liqueur I can’t read now, chocolate and cream. What? No raisins? Or you might choose the Camp Fire which is basically an alcoholic s’more. There’s a Peach Cosmo and an Orange Creamsicle. The list goes on.
Since I’m a frou-frou drink kind of gal, a regular martini would be way too hard core for me. But a Birthday Cake martini? Well, for nine bucks, I’ll sing along and blow out the candle.
So here’s what I’m thinking. Remember that trite old acronym, KISS? Keep It Simple, Stupid? That is going to be my new healthy food plan. I refuse to go on any more diets, since I know all too well that I’m the type who goes ON a diet, only to dramatically and disastrously go OFF the diet at a later date.
I’m just going to try to stop entertaining myself with food. No more half pound burgers with crispy onion straws, Applewood smoked bacon,
cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce for me. Oh, no. My mouth thinks it’s going to a party. My mouth is dancing around like it’s got a lead role in Chorus Line. No more party in the mouth.
KISS. I’ll keep you posted (or not, if I fail miserably).
Oh. And have a Happy Thanksgiving. Try to be entertained by the football games or your strange relatives, if possible.