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BEATING BACK THE NUTRITIONAL TERRORISTS by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: Japonais by John Mariani
BEATING BACK THE NUTRITIONAL TERRORISTS
by John Mariani
Recently I watched in awe as two very fat middle-aged people attacked their Cinnabons (below) like famished hogs, the man looking over at his wife’s pastry in the hope she wouldn’t finish it, so that he might. I wonder where these people buy their clothes, which they spill out of, and how they can possibly fit into the already despicably tight airline seat, which they overlap. And I wonder how, after decades of medical and media jeremiads on the dangers of obesity, such people can with such regularity gorge on such awful food. As someone always trying to lose ten pounds, I sympathize with anyone struggling with being overweight, and I am fully cognizant that obesity can be an addiction. But now it’s become an epidemic.
If, as I do, you spend a lot of time in airports waiting for your plane to be canceled, you begin to sense the enormity of Americans’ obesity problem. Arrayed in fidgety, lip-smacking lines leading to a Cinnabon store or Burger King, sweatpanted behemoths—men, women, teenagers, and children—wait to tank up on gargantuan pastries, hamburgers, and soft drinks in 32-ounce plastic cups—and this is at 9:30 in the morning.
The latest study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that from 1971 to 2000 American women increased their caloric intake by 22% and men by 7%--this despite all we have known about unhealthy eating for decades. Two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight and an astounding one-third obese—a doubling of rates in 30 years. It doesn't surprise me in the least that, according to an AP report, nine out the 10 states with the highest obesity rates in a new study are in the South, led by
That such factors lead increasingly to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, bone problems, liver and kidney problems is obvious and costing us all soaring costs for medical coverage. Estimates of the damage done by obesity in the U.S. range from $75 billion to $125 billion in health care.
It would seem rational, then, that our federal officials should attempt in some way to fight this epidemic rather than merely suggest why unhealthy eating patterns are dangerous. The first steps in the education process were to force processed food manufacturers to list their ingredients and RDA of vitamins and minerals on their labels (although the term “serving size” has no more legal meaning than does “dress size”). I’m not sure how helpful any of this information is except for those who might indeed wish to limit their intake of carbohydrates or find themselves amazed that the first ingredient listed--the largest by volume--is sugar or salt. Such labels may be more moralistic than efficacious.
Now comes a new proposal from the World Health Organization (WHO) that seeks to tax “junk food” and impose advertising limits on items like Twinkies, a misguided and draconian proposal that, as an editorial in USA Today noted, is like “fining shoe manufacturers for bunions, mattress makers for backaches and perfumeries for allergic reactions.” Ironically, one of the senatorial backers of the WHO proposals is roly-poly Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
I insist on putting “junk food” in quotation marks because there is no legal definition for a term coined back in 1971 by food writer Gael Greene in New York Magazine, who wrote, “My respect for the glories of French cuisine are unsurpassed, but I am a fool for junk food.” The connotations of the term are of course obvious to everyone: “Junk food” is high in calories, fat, sugar, salt, and chemical additives, with little nutritional value. Though always linked together, “junk food” is not necessarily the same thing as “fast food,” which refers more specifically to food ordered and eaten quickly, but also an umbrella term that can include “junk food” along with salads, sandwiches, and sushi. Incidentally, a book entitled The Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food by Andrew F. Smith (Greenwood Press) has just been published for those seeking the origins of Kool-Aid, Pringles, and Taco Bell.
The problem with blanket condemnations of any food is that it usually comes from organizations trying to promote themselves and sell their own products, like the DC-based Center for Science and the Public Interest, which deliberately uses sensational headlines to terrorize us into believing that eating buttered movie popcorn is going to kill you. After the CSPI condemned Mexican fast food for its unhealthfulness (citing lab tests showing that eating a chile relleno was like eating an entire stick of butter), the Mexican food industry said its sales fell 5 to 15 percent.
One has only to look beneath the headlines of the CSPI’s rants to see the pseudo-science it is based upon. (The organization has no labs of its own.). In excoriating Italian food as being unhealthy, a CSPI’s “Nutrition Action Health Letter” called fettuccine Alfredo a “heart attack on a plate,” advising consumers to “see if your cardiologist is on call before you order.” Their reasons: fettuccine Alfredo contains cream, eggs, butter, and salt. Assuming one were to consume fettuccine Alfredo every day of your life, chances are you would have a short life—unless your parents gave you the kind of DNA that scoffs at fat. But no one does eat fettuccine Alfredo very often, and now many diet doctors would recommend slurping up all the cream, butter, and eggs you want, as long as you throw out the carbo-rich fettuccine.
And therein lies the troubling duplicity of the nutritional terrorists: Like military intelligence, it is, by their own admission, an “inexact science,” which to me means no science at all. I can pretty much depend on light traveling at 186,000 miles per second and water boiling at 212◦ F (altitude considered), but nutritionists are still making proposals on the basis of data that are constantly changing. Fat is bad, fat is good; salt is bad, salt is good; alcohol is bad, alcohol is good; cholesterol is bad, but some of it is good; margarine is good, margarine is bad. And so on. Thanks to the late Dr. Atkins (below), the entire diet industry was turned upside down by his advocating the unbridled consumption of all the bacon and eggs you wish in order to lose weight. And, like all fad diets (one the doctor had re-issued about every ten years), it faded away. At one point or another in human history just about ever food has come under the gun. The 12th century monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux once moaned that, “Pulses are windy, cheese offends the stomach, milk hurts the head, water the lungs, whence it happens that in all the rivers, fields, gardens and markets, there is scarce to be anything fitting for man to eat.”
Which puts the WHO proposals to tax and ban ads for certain foods in absurd perspective. And such radical regimens as the high fat-low carbs diet sent seismic shocks through an American food industry that on the one hand has made billions from awful-tasting low-fat foods while on the other finds its consumers have stopped buying pasta and bread products. Of course, this fad too has faded and the food corporations have been left with a lot of low-carb glop on its hands.
So much of legislation is driven by guilt and moralism. As Lord Byron noted, “All human history attests/That happiness for man—the hungry sinner!--/Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.” To deflect this unfortunate sense of sin, America’s greediest lawyers are now attempting to find ways to capitalize on our love-hate relationship with fast food by bringing suits against its purveyors for causing obesity in their clients—cases rightly thrown out of court (at least so far) as not just frivolous but downright insulting to everyone’s intelligence.
Comparing the food industry to the cigarette industry is an absurd one: Cigarette manufacturers have been proven to manipulate both their products and the public in order to addict them to something that, when used as directed (light cigarette, stick in mouth, inhale smoke into lungs), almost always leads to horrible health problems. But for a person to declare an “addiction” to “junk food” caused by the industry is simply to shift blame from one’s own responsibility to eat reasonable. Nothing one could possibly eat at McDonald’s or KFC or Pizza Hut is in the least bit deleterious to anyone’s health unless an individual gorges on such foods daily—along with just about any and every other food in the supermarket, from potatoes and pasta to seafood and meat. Which is why the Lay’s Potato Chips advertising slogan “Betcha can’t eat just one” is so brilliant: It appeals to desire and appetite as well as to a sense of challenge.
I am not, of course, naïve enough to think the fast food industry is guiltless in trying to attract Americans to eat at their restaurants as often as possible, which is why movie tie-ins, toys, and children’s playgrounds have become requisite at such places. When something that was once considered a “treat” becomes an “attraction,” then some blame must go to the marketing minds of the fast food industry for giving their restaurants all the irresistible allure on Pleasure Island in “Pinocchio.” But the dirty little secret every sensible person knows is that calories do count, and eating too many of them in any form—from caviar to Slurpies—is bound to put on weight.
It is indeed a sad thing to see obese teenagers weeping over their addiction to fast food and junk food—and such people need professional help--but it is sadder thing that so many Americans do not wish to take responsibility for their actions. One gets on a slippery sociological slope when one wags one’s finger at obese “junk food” addicts because so many people at the lower economic scale, which denotes large numbers African- and Hispanic-Americans, do indulge in such foods to a larger extent than a college-educated, affluent suburbanite with the money to spend on Pilates, tennis lessons, liposuction, and fad diets.
As many overweight people as I see at the airport, I do not see anywhere like the same number in restaurants like The Four Seasons or Spago, where the options and temptations to gorge on foie gras, Dover sole cooked in butter, and crème brûlée are just as “unhealthful” as a Whopper, milkshake, fried pie, and 32-ounce Pepsi at Burger King or Wendy’s. But few people gorge on gourmet foods the way 19th century trenchermen did, as when Diamond Jim Brady (left) would show up at Rector’s restaurant in NYC and put away three dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, six lobsters, terrapin soup, a steak, coffee, and a tray of pastries—and this would have been his third meal of the day, to be followed by after-theater supper. Diamond Jim died at the age of 56 with a stomach six times larger than the ordinary man’s.
The problem with fast food is not just in its tasty appeal but as an icon of America as powerful as any of our pop symbols—which is why Pepsi, Coca-Cola and 7-UP hire awesome sex symbols like Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, and Paris Hilton (right) to sell their products. When one watches any of those celebrities suck down a Pepsi or munch a Carl's Jr. hamburger while dressed in outfits designed to pander to 15-year-old boys’ masturbatory fantasies, it’s obvious that the taste of the soda is secondary to the association with sex. And it should not be lost on Europeans that some of the most popular and profitable McDonald’s outlets are on the Champs Elysée in Paris, the Spanish Steps in Rome, and Pushkin Square in Moscow. When a McDonald’s opened in Kuwait (below), the waiting line of 15,000 people stretched seven miles into the desert.
Which is why the French are now protesting the introduction of Starbucks to their country, defiling with black spray paint the company’s advertising posters just hours after the first one opened in Paris. It’s not about the caloric content or health properties of Starbucks; it’s about an affront to France’s culinary culture. One must also recall the so-called “French Paradox,” by which the French seem to be able to eat larger amounts of fats and sugar than the rest of the world while having a much lower heart disease rate.
Despite the best efforts of organizations like the international Slow Foods Movement and WHO, Europeans and Asians are still gobbling up American fast food with the giddy joy of people who are partaking of American culture. No one, it seems, complains about the actual taste or quality of the food served in such places. It is an American reverie, an indulgence with free toys attached. It’s food full of yummy things like fat, salt, and sugar.
And therein lies the rub. Fat carries flavor. Salt intensifies flavor. Sugar provides a rush of energy to the body and spirit. And once the basic needs of nutrition are met—and it doesn’t take very much above the starvation level to achieve a relatively healthful diet—the pleasure principle kicks into the human psyche; food--glorious food!--becomes as desirable as sex and sleep for everyone on the planet save a few wizened ascetics. The joy one takes in a good meal, even a scoop of ice cream, is not only wonderful but beneficial to one’s élan vital. Two scoops becomes a guilty pleasure; three decadence; and a whole pint of Häagen-Daz Dulce de Leche edges into gluttony.
But gluttony is in itself not a bad thing, as long as it does not become one’s normal eating pattern, which leads to serious addiction and the need of the body to keep engorging itself and extracting more and more of those chemicals and enzymes that keep a grossly overworked machine going—until such time as it self destructs. An occasional overindulgence—a Superbowl party (left) leaps to mind—carries with it a sense of immortality or perhaps a deliberate scoffing at mortality, as if to say, “If I must die, let it be with the taste of salsa on my tongue and chile pepper rising to my brain.”
More important, it is the attendance at a great meal, with one too many courses and two too many glasses of wine, that makes civilization spin, romance bloom, and friendship consecrated. Family feasts, wherein everyone eats too much turkey and gravy and apple pie, is really a homage to one’s good fortune, a thanksgiving to God (especially among those who say “Grace”), and a continuance of important traditions. In their book Healthy Pleasures, Robert Ornstein and David Sobel insist that indulging in a great steak dinner and bottle of good wine improves one’s health by improving one’s spirit, and that denying oneself pleasure may lead to depression and physical illness. “The quickening pace of life may have made us more productive, efficient, and organized,” they write, “but less spontaneous, less joyful, and less connected to others.”
It is disturbing, then, to find that political and religious terrorists always wish to stamp out life’s pleasures, in much the same way nutritional terrorists wish do. Clearly nutrition is based on faulty science and studies underwritten by the food industry seeking a healthy rationale for a new breakfast cereal. I recall that during the brief heyday of the oat bran craze that one TV commercial had a woman in a cozy sweater curled up with a box of cereal telling us that some studies suggest that some people might prevent some cancer by eating oat bran, along with a healthy diet. Can anyone take such a claim seriously? Yet it drove the oat bran craze for months before another, quite small, study showed that oat bran made little or no difference to one’s health.
There’s no arguing with a fanatic, and the nutritional Nazis are the worst of them all, for they will find fault simply to find fault. That is their nature. As George Bernard Shaw (above) once observed, “Everything I eat has been proved by some doctor or other to be a deadly poison, and everything I don’t eat has been proved to be indispensable for life. But I go marching on.” Shaw, a vegetarian, lived to be 94. But then Winston Churchill, who once said, “I have taken more good from alcohol than alcohol has taken from me,” ate whatever he wished and drank whenever he wanted, died at 91. Nothing in the proselytizing, Orwellian world of nutrition could have predicted either man’s demise.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
111 East 18th Street
It really is nothing short of amazing how many gargantuan Asian restaurants can open in New York and, by and large, be packed most nights of the week--Spice Market, Ono, Nobu 57, Buddakan, Morimoto, Chinatown Brasserie, and two Megus. By their very size do they astonish--250, 300, 400 seats, with vast lounges and long sushi bars. And they ain't cheap, either, especially if you go with Kobe-style steaks that can cost above $100. Throw in some expensive neon-colored cocktails, and you have quite an evening to pay off. Downstairs lounge
Not all of them have impressed me (and some have de-pressed me), but Japonais, whose original is in Chicago (with another due to open in Vegas), has a style and panache I find most of the others lack, and it is encouraging to me how well the designer, Jeffrey Beers, has managed to tamp down a sound level that might otherwise be as deafening as in the rest of the genre. Beers has done plenty of big, brash, loud concepts, including Ono in NYC, Rumjungle in Vegas, and Silk Road in Tokyo, along with some beautifully refined rooms like Fiamma in NYC and Bistro Moderne in Houston. But as any designer will tell you, soundproofing is not an art, it is simply an option. Sitting at a booth under an overhang, I was able to carry out civilized conversation without ever raising my voice even though the room was pretty full after 8 PM.
I like the look of the place a lot, multi-leveled, with a large sushi bar, shadowy main dining room, and upstairs lounge (there it gets loud!). Striated, rippling wood slats in the ceiling, rich dark colors of brown vie with deep scarlet and shiny surfaces give the rooms a (more or less) Asian style. Tables have mats, candles, and good glassware. There's nothing cheesy about the decor or the textures and fabrics.
Actually, Japonais New York doesn't look radically different from Japonais Chicago, and, not surprisingly the food is pretty close in spirit and menu items, the best of which are the sushi and sashimi offerings. The menu, as in so many gastro-palaces, is far too large for its own good, with whole categories of negiri/sashimi, "Les Spécialties de la Maison" (why the sudden French? Parce que c'est Japonais!), Chef's Special Rolls, Maki Mono/Vegetable Mono, Soups, Salades. Les Entrées Froides, Les Entrées Chaudes, Les Plats Principaux, and so on, all within the purview of sushi chef Jun Ichikawa, exec chef Gene Kato and chef de cuisine Jason Hilgers. Given the fact that such a large menu would be difficult to bring off for 100 people a night, the thought of doing so much for so many more is more than daunting; it's counterproductive.
Carpaccio of lamb tataki
Nevertheless, the sushi and sashimi was very good overall. We scarfed up shrimp mousse-crusted, fried spicy King crab called kani nigiri as if they were chicken fingers, and shrimp ceviche (not my favorite thing) was tasty too. Then there was sashimi of hamachi, pristine and velvety, soy-marinated salmon, and baked freshwater eel. Crispy shrimp and salmon with wasabi-tobiko sauce went quickly at our table, and bin cho, seared baby tuna sashimi with arugula and shaved daikon in a citrus vinaigrette, was delicious. One of the Chef's Specials was a spicy octopus roll topped with an equally spicy tuna tartare and sweet eel sauce, the kind of dish that shows the influence on Japanese cuisine via Nobu Matsuhisa who added hot spices.
The hits just kept on coming, but, as with my meal at the Chicago Japonais, I found the entrees lacked luster by comparison with the excitement of the sushi and appetizers. Roast rack of lamb with Japanese vegetables and a spiced pear-sour plum sauce had an unpleasant sour taste to the meat, and a peach sansho glaze was too sweet for broiled miso zuke barramundi.
Desserts have little to do with either the Japanese or French themes here, and kobocha cheesecake is not likely to put S&S Cheesecake or Junior's out of business. And at $16 "Chocolate Indulgence" was too much literally and by price.
So if you're out for a singles' night experience, head for Buddakan or Ono or Spice Market; but if you're hungrier for good sushi and sashimi in a dazzling, sophisticated setting, Japonais is a much better choice.
Sushi and sashmi range from $3-$38, appetizers $4-$22, and main courses $26-$58. Japonais is open nightly, with lunch service to begin this month.
LOOKS MORE LIKE THE MALTESE FALCON TO US
Bodega Chocolates found a 2-inch column of chocolate
drippings the employees insisted looked a lot like
the Virgin Mary, and they have placed candles and
flowers around the figure. The chocolate is now in
a plastic case and only brought out to show visitors
who ask to see it.
TALK DIRTY TO ME
* From Sept. 24-30 in NYC, Telepan Restaurant will offer a special $30.00 4-course Greenmarket tasting lunch featuring ingredients sourced exclusively from the farmer's market during this week, with 50% of the proceeds to support the activities of the Greenmarket. Call 212-580-4300. For info on the Greenmarket Association visit www.cenyc.org./site/
* The Bourbon House in New Orleans begins its American Whiskey Festival on Sept. 27 with lunch with Harlen Wheatley, Master Distiller of Buffalo Trace ($25) and a Jack Daniel's Master Distiller Dinner with Jimmy Bedford ($75); on Sept. 28 the Festival will feature 4 Master Distillers: Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve, Harlen Wheatley, Jimmy Bedford, and Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey. Hors d’oeuvres and appetizers will be served ($30). Proceeds from the purchase of bottles signed by the master distillers and commemorative T-Shirts at the American Whiskey Fest will support the Crescent City Farmers Market Crop Circles and Share our Strength. Call 504-522-2467.
* On Oct. 8 La Cachette in
* One&Only Le Touessrok is launching culinary master classes hosted by the chef Vineet Bhatia, owner of London’s Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, the first Oct. 9-15, with demos, a cocktail master class, with sommelier Thomas Heimann, two 5-course dinners at Safran, including wine, and final dinner prepared by Vineet and Chef Canuti of One&Only Le Saint Géran’s signature restaurant, Alain Ducasse’s Spoon des Îles. £360 pp. Visit oneandonlyresorts.com
* On Oct. 11
* On Oct. 12 The Beard Foundation will showcase the 10 Spanish chefs as part of a three-day celebration at NYC's Guastavino’s, with dinner and Spanish wines, auction, and A celebration of contemporary Spanish culture. VIP Tables will be hosted by Michelin three-star chefs Ferran Adrià (El Bulli), Juan Mari Arzak(Arzak), and Martín Berasategui (Martín Berasategui). A menu will be prepared by Alberto Chicote (NODO), Quique Dacosta(El Poblet), Daniel García (El Calima), Enrique Martínez (Restaurant Maher),Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca), Paco Roncero (La Terraza), and PacoTorreblanca (Pasteleria Totel). Beard Foundation members $750, general public $1,000. VIPTables $35,000-$50,000. Call 212-627-1111.
* On Oct. 12, Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in
* From Oct. 12-15 in
On Oct. 23 & 24,
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