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The age of innocence. October 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood proved the truth of this saying, as we do every week, when we went to our local farmers’ market yesterday. There we were, standing in front of the bread baker’s stand, once again agonizing about whether we should get a perfect, crusty, chewy, nutrient-free white-flour baguette, or the much healthier but much less baguette-like (forget crusty and chewy) multigrain version. The white-flour baguette would be bliss; the multigrain baguette would be wise. Aaaarrrggghhhh!

Walking glumly away from the stand without either kind of bread, we passed by stand after stand of delicious desserts—cream puffs and eclairs, brownies and bars, just-made doughnuts—not to mention stands stocked with locally-made potato chips, French fries still hot from the oil, the best regional chocolates. At last reaching the produce stands, we bought mushrooms, sweet onions, sweet potatoes, green onions, Concord grapes, and winter radishes, which we knew our CSA wouldn’t be offering. (Oops—trouble! One veggie stand was offering their own homemade pumpkin rolls. Run away!!!) We swung by the Mennonite cheese stand for some locally-made herbed yogurt cheese. We bought this week’s addition to our Hallowe’en display, the most astonishing, breathtaking deep red pumpkin with black (probably actually dark, dark green) mottling. Then, with all the delicious scents of baking and frying still haunting us, we fled.

As we drove home, Silence and I had the discussion we have pretty much every time we go shopping or go out to eat. It’s the “Why is everything that tastes so good so bad for you?!!” conversation. Obviously, some things that taste good, like fruits, veggies, yogurt, and, yes, homemade multigrain bread (just not multigrain pseudo-baguettes), are also good for you. But, basically, if it’s sweet, fried, fatty, or white, it’s baaaaaaad.

Yet another case where the Information Age, for good or ill, has stripped us of all innocence. Our triple obsessions with being thin, looking young, and living forever have resulted in a barrage of media bulletins on health and healthy living. We are endlessly reminded that unprocessed is good, processed is bad; fat-free is good, fat is bad (unless it’s the couture oil of the month, doled out, of course, drop by drop); raw is best, steaming for five seconds is okay, as long as whatever you’re steaming is still rock-hard and not too hot, and every other method of food preparation is bad; plain is good, sweetened (or buttered or salted) is bad; brown is good, white is bad.

No religion could be more demanding, more intolerant, more certain of its certainties (no matter how often new data disproves or amends them), or more guilt-inducing than the creed of the health and diet gurus. There are doubtless many who embrace this new creed with fervor, but our friend Ben and Silence are most unwilling converts. We pass up the gleaming jars of cherry jam and marmalade at breakfast, practically with tears in our eyes. Our friend Ben has not had a piece of hard candy, which I love, since reading eons ago that studies had found that hard candy was even worse for your teeth than chocolate. Just thinking about it makes my teeth hurt. Silence and I watch dolefully as boxes of chocolates are passed around by our friends. (Yes, the health gurus now claim that a teensy, tinsy bit of bitter chocolate is good for you. Well, I don’t know about you, but we don’t have friends who dole out teensy, tinsy pieces of bitter chocolate, and we’d frankly resent it if they did.) And, oh, God, the seismic guilt we feel on the occasions when we do actually eat a warm, yeasty, buttered dinner roll at a restaurant, make white rice for dinner, or succumb to that white-flour baguette!

As I write, Silence is reading a book on the food history of the 1950s called Something from the Oven, which brings all our modern guilt over nutritionless and overprocessed foods into sharp perspective. (We were at first confused by the title, since the book basically chronicles the rise of convenience foods, but apparently there was a famous Pillsbury jingle from the era that said “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven.”) Silence has been updating me nightly about what she’s been learning through her reading.

Though it was certainly not author Laura Shapiro’s intention, hearing about the relationship of people to food in the Fifties makes our friend Ben long for the age of innocence, the age when nobody had a clue about the health consequences of their diets and welcomed food that tasted good and/or kept well with innocent joy.

Picture the arrival of white rice and white flour, which didn’t go rancid immediately like their brown counterparts, back in the late 1800s. There was no electricity, there was no refrigeration, and here you had rice and flour that weren’t bitter and kept until you could use them up. The joy! And of course that white flour made light, delicious breads, cakes, and biscuits, contributing no flavor of its own so you could add whatever flavor you chose, rather than supplying the dominant flavor to be complemented by your additions. Picture the appearance on the scene of sugar and salt that poured, so you didn’t have to chip it off cones or blocks every time you wanted some. And abundant white sugar, which again contributed sweetness without flavor, allowing everyone to make the luscious candies, cookies, pies, cakes, and other sweets they craved rather than hoarding whatever sweeteners they could get their hands on, feeling like bears jealously guarding a honey-filled hive, and doling it out bit by bit. Think of how ecstatic families must have been when canning was developed, allowing them to put up otherwise perishable produce so they could eat every bit of their garden’s bounty and enjoy fruits and vegetables out of season!

Those, our friend Ben maintains, were the days. I challenge you to try to imagine ripping open a bag of your favorite chips and filling a bowl with a decadent dip, or picking up a bowl of hot, buttered popcorn, and just eating and enjoying it, without giving one thought to its cholesterol or caloric content. Grabbing a bag of soft white balloon bread and making a big old sandwich, piling on as much cheese and full-fat mayo or peanut butter and marshmallow cream or whatever the hell you wanted and just biting in without giving a thought to anything besides how good it tasted. Grabbing a triple cheeseburger and a huge bag of fries; eating as much fried chicken and salted, butter-drenched mashed potatoes (made with cream, as they should be), or pork barbecue with all the fixin’s, or pasta or pizza as you could hold, piled high with your favorite toppings. Or savoring a sundae with lots of hot fudge and caramel and marshmallow cream and whipped cream, or a malt or milkshake, or a dish of (oh, no, chemicals!) soft ice cream, with a hot-from-the-oven brownie or some warm, gooey chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies on the side.

Do you feel sick, guilty, disgusted just thinking about it? Thank you, science. Thank you, medical juggernaut. Thank you, diet industry. Thank you, health reporters and websites. Unquestionably, your hard work has kept us younger, thinner, and healthier longer. It’s also made us question every god-damned bite we put into our mouths and every drop we raise to our lips. It has made shopping an agony rather than a delight, as we pore over labels and avoid whole sections of stores rather than enjoying the abundance around us. It has made it impossible to go to a restaurant or eat at a friend’s house without guilt if you eat what you want and dissatisfaction and regret if you eat what you should.

Our friend Ben is lucky. Nobody has to urge me to eat my vegetables. I love a big salad and a piece of fresh fruit. But please don’t insult my intelligence by trying to pretend that whole-wheat pasta—that abomination—bears any resemblance to real pasta, or that anything at all can taste like (and substitute for) butter or salt or whipped cream, or that brown rice can be switched interchangeably for white, or sweet potatoes for baked potatoes. (I actually love sweet potatoes and enjoy brown rice, but they are what they are, not a substitute for something else.) Or that, say, a multigrain baguette shares any characteristics with a real baguette beyond its basic shape.

The age of innocence. A time when food was welcomed, enjoyed, appreciated, devoured. A time when, if something tasted good, it was good, end of story. No guilt, no fear, no frantic calculations.

Would our friend Ben return to such a time? There is, after all, a lot to be said for eating the freshest, most flavorful, locally-grown food that you can find and afford. Our modern lifestyles enable many of us to make this choice, and I applaud it. But I would like to cook my fresh, locally- and organically-grown broccoli until it is cooked through and thoroughly hot, and I would like to put butter and salt on it as well as lemon juice. And if I wanted to serve it up over an ample helping of regular or artichoke pasta, both of which have the springy, resilient texture that makes pasta worth eating, with a topping of shredded Parmesan, a big side salad with as much balsamic vinegar and olive oil as I chose to put on it, and a glass of wine, I would like to do so without so much as a molecule of guilt or a censorious glance or thought from anyone. Is it really too much to ask?

The age of innocence. When people grew up and grew old while gaining status for their life wisdom rather than losing it for their altered appearance. When people lived their lives and thought their thoughts and raised their families and took their place in their many generations and their communities, and felt their value in doing so. When people assumed that they would slow down, gain weight, develop wrinkles and white hair or less hair as they grew older, and it would never have occurred to one human being that the desirable life goal was to try to look like a seventeen-year-old for their entire lives. When death was viewed as a passage rather than a disaster, a chance to be reunited with all your loved ones rather than a single, isolated, irrevocable ending. When the goal in cooking was to make food as flavorful, rich, and delightful as possible, whatever your means, and good food meant good health.

I suppose it’s impossible to truly recover innocence, to “go back” to that pre-knowledge mindset no matter what changes we may make in our lives and lifestyles. After all, now we know. But our friend Ben maintains that, no matter what we know, we don’t necessarily know better. I doubt that I will ever find that innocence in my own life, or be able to eat an eclair or a French fry or a slice of crusty, marvelous baguette without a little voice telling me I’ve made a bad choice. But I have an ultimate fantasy: In my dreams, I want to eat like a Victorian. Whatever I want, whenever I want, however much I want, enjoying every, single, delicious, perfect, guilt-free bite.



1. Becca - October 4, 2008

OFB, I have to tell you: we don’t feel much guilt about the occasional splurging. I love making cakes and cookies with white or brown sugar or flour: whatever’s on hand at the time. Fried chicken is the best…as long as it’s accompanied by gravy and rice–hot buttery dinner rolls would really be heaven!

You’re so right about the youth cult. I have always been thrilled to be around older people–much more interesting than young people! I really enjoyed this post.

Thanks, Becca! And good for you for getting beyond the guilt. Older people are often just amazing! I am humbled and awed by how much they know and have achieved.

2. hayefield - October 4, 2008

Ow. Now you’ve made me really miss the Allentown Farmers Market – especially the pumpkin rolls. And oh, that salad from the one stand on the end, with the feta cheese and artichoke and onions and other veggies. You do realize that because of you, I still have a feta obsession, all these years later? Something else to feel guilty about (well, not *too* guilty…mmmm).

Hey, feta is good for you! The Mediterranean diet and all that, right? Uh, right?! Uh…

3. themanicgardener - October 4, 2008

Wow. This post is a bit like a fun-house mirror–really scary. Why do we waste all that energy on guilt? Not worth it, I’m convinced. Not if it means we don’t enjoy our food.

In “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” Mireille Guiliano points out that, well, French women don’t get fat even though they eat heartily of foods that Americans shun and fear, because they don’t eat so dang much of them at one time as we tend to, and because they do thoroughly enjoy their food. I don’t think I can give up reading when I eat, though–which may be why I can’t lose those five (ten? Hey, let’s not quibble) pounds.

As for the friends giving you side-long glances, well, Pete Seeger would know what to do with them. He could get everyone in Carnegie Hall singing the chorus to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”: “And if the person next to you looks at you like you’re singing too loud, just kick ’em in the shins and get ’em singing too.” So I’d give those friends a swift one and hand them an eclair.

Ha!!! As an action plan, I love it, Kate. And I agree that giving up reading while eating (or at least while eating alone) is a near-impossibility.

4. Daphne Gould - October 4, 2008

I used to feel this way. At some point I changed, though not sure why. I had no guilt when my husband brought home the large slice of dulche de leche cheesecake. Yes I ate half of it. My husband ate the other half. We took two nights to do this, so we only had a quarter of it each night. We reveled in it. We loved it. We enjoyed every bite of it without guilt. Though I confess neither of us ate the whipped cream on top. I hate whipped cream. Ick. Anyway we didn’t eat a lot each day. Somewhere I picked up how to eat things in moderation, but never deprive myself. I really savor every bite of what I eat. Yumm. Food.

Yum, dulce de leche cheesecake!!! I would have eaten half of it too—but probably for breakfast. Hot coffee and luscious cheesecake: now there’s the breakfast of champions!

5. deb - October 5, 2008

Man oh man you made me miss the days when I could sit down with a gallon of ice cream and just go for it.

Well, I never tried that one, but I’ll bet I could easily have finished off a whole fried chicken (well, at least half) and a big bowl of buttery mashed potatoes, and still had room for a mess of green beans!

6. Geraldine - October 9, 2008

If we chose wisely and eat healthy 80-90% of the time, is the remaining 10% “splurge allowance” really such a bad thing? I don’t think so. I actually LOVE healthy, whole foods. Even as a kid I liked the ‘weird and wonderful’ turnips, broccoli and brussels sprouts that too many children now (I think) are brainwashed into thinking that this is yucky food that is not to be tolerated and certainly not enjoyed.

This was a very interesting post with much food….for thought.

I agree, a healthy balance is best, Geraldine! I frankly wish I just didn’t know that the “bad things” were bad for you. I do eat some of them—crusty white bread, pasta, rice, butter—more often than I should, but things like dessert I eat so rarely I’d love to just innocently “have my cake and eat it too” without the spectres of calories, diabetes and tooth decay looming over me like Dickens’s Christmas ghosts. Like you, I’ve always loved things like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and (raw) kale and mustardgreens, as well as salad turnips (cooked ones, no). I think kids come to hate them when they’re over- or undercooked, bitter, and/or stinky. What a shame! I also think it’s a shame that people seem to think they have to doctor luscious fresh fruit to persuade kids (and adults) to eat it.

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