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Food: We Can't Live With It, but We Can Live Without It

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The Center for Disease Control has estimated that overweight people add about $147 billion annually to the cost of health care. When factored for inflation, this means that in the 1950's my family added roughly $1.75 million to the nation's health care tab.

In my family, food was really, really important. It was the subject of subtle competition. It was the motivation for 1,000 cubic feet of people cramming into an 850 cubic foot apartment.

The speed and quantity of consumption were treated as diagnostic tools. Everyone knew, for example, that if you were thin you had tapeworm. If you moved too slowly around the buffet table, you needed a hip replacement. If you circled the buffet table only once, you needed your head examined.

The phrase "nice piece of fish" was regarded as an oxymoron. Most of what we ate was domesticated fowl or of the bovine family. Most of what we drank came from the Nehi family. Alcohol was not part of the regimen, as it impeded judgment. And impeded judgment meant you might not get to the other turkey drumstick before your cousin Corinne.

There was a special place on the table reserved for hot dogs. In Chicago, hot dogs are the subject of heated... sometimes steamed ...debate. The subject matter ranges from casings to buns to condiments. In my family, there was no talking, only grabbing. Someone, a closet sadist, occasionally brought an uneven number of hot dogs to family events, resulting in the only non-edible entertainment of the evening--a fat people's wrestling match.

My mother and her five sisters were extraordinary cooks. When we gathered, there was virtually no food on the table that hadn't been made in one of their homes. The variety of foods at these events was so vast as to insure that anyone who disliked anything on the table would find something else to eat that someone else disliked.

Each of my aunts had a specialty, and when one sister tried to replicate the dish of another, a quiet descended over the room. What we were expected to say on these occasions was, "This is good but it isn't as good as Aunt ____'s," thereby saving faces and getting on with the stuffing of our own.

Restaurant dining was heresy. It was something you did because someone had died or your mom was defrosting the freezer. There was no fast food, slow food or food in any other gear. There was homemade and Chinese. Period.

I regularly slept over on weekends at an aunt's house in a Chicago suburb. On one of my stays, my usually effusive aunt greeted me with a glum face that remained frozen through dinner. After we'd eaten she led us on our customary postprandial walk to a corner store where she usually bought us ice cream.

When we reached the store we saw across the street a group line of about fifty people standing in in front of a squat white and red tile building with two sliding glass windows. Above it towered a sign that read, "McDonalds 000,000,000,000,163 served." Clearly this was an aspirational hamburger stand.

My aunt, of course, understood that this was the beginning of the end. From that point forward, culinary life as she and her sisters knew it began to shrivel like the Wicked Witch of the West, except the water was milk shakes. "Can't we go to McDonalds?" was the cruelest question you could ask them, and the frequency with which we put it could fairly be characterized as a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights.

As the firmament shifted beneath their feet, the sisters' focus shifted from practicing their art to shielding their secrets. Requests for recipes were routinely denied. Formulas were passed along with key ingredients omitted. There were leftovers at family trough gatherings.

The only person with whom my mother shared the keys to her cooking kingdom was my spouse, Marjorie. It was likely an act of penance on my mother's part for having failed to reveal until it was too late, the details of what she knew about me.

During the first year of our marriage, there was virtually nothing Marjorie cooked that wasn't terrific. There was, however, a pea under the culinary mattress. Actually, it wasn't a pea, it was scrambled eggs.

When I was growing up I liked scrambled eggs. They weren't just a tasty food, they were a happy food. They looked up with their sunshine smile as if to say, "We love you even though you're going to eat us."

The problem with Marjorie's scrambled eggs was that they didn't smile like my mom's eggs. They seemed pale, like they'd had a bad night out. They looked like their estimated taxes were due.

For six months I never mentioned this problem to Marjorie. However, one day she asked me directly how I liked her scrambled eggs. At this early stage in our marriage I'd never told her an untruth, so I said the eggs were washed out, unlike my mom's. We did the dishes in silence.

A few months later, while visiting my parents, Marjorie raised the scrambled eggs issue and asked my mother what she might be doing wrong. My mom then ticked off the relevant ingredients: eggs, a little milk, a little salt, a little pepper, a little yellow food coloring.

Marjorie's face went red -- without additives. She suddenly realized that for twenty years her spouse had been the victim of a ruse and that she was now paying the price for that fraud. Outraged, she asked why my Mother added food coloring to her scrambled eggs. My mother replied, "Because people eat with their eyes."

Today, forty years later, it occurs to me that if my mother was right -- if the look of food is what makes people want to eat it -- there may be a cheap, effective way to counter the scourge of obesity and to dramatically reduce the cost of health care in America.

The answer, I suggest, is to make food look like things people don't want to eat. If by federal law fried chicken were required to look like carp, a hot dog like a carrot; and pate like, well, pate, the world would be a healthier, albeit a much less happy place. As a bonus, however, because we'd want to push away from the dinner table in about three minutes, we'd spend more time working, producing significantly more tax revenue for the Government. This is a lose-win-win situation.

The goal is well within our reach. If this exceptional, one-of-a-kind country can send a man to the moon and Michele Bachmann to Congress, it can turn the stomach of every man, woman and child within its borders.

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