Where Butterball meets fat-free

November 26, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I am careening through the supermarket, speed-shopping down my Thanksgiving list, when I arrive at the poultry aisle. A vast landscape of turkeys stretches down the 50-yard chiller.

Before me lie tons of turkey, boulders of birds, glistening piles of plastic-wrapped, plucked and prepared poultry. These domestic creatures bred to elephantine proportions are lined up breast-by-breast waiting for the customers.

I have come fowling, as the Pilgrims described their hunt, for the requisite creature, a bird bearing 25 pounds of flesh on its bones. But it's the language in the sales pitch that stops me in my tracks.

The words on the packages roll over my tongue like a fine giblet gravy. Juicy. Succulent. Tender. Plump. A genuine Butterball.

When, I wonder, was the last time that butterball was a compliment? Or that plump was pleasing?

The anointed feast-maker for my family, I am traveling across this marketplace into a cultural collision. I am trying to prepare an indulgent flesh-pleasing banquet in an era when culinary virtue is fat-free and lean is not mean, but loved.

This morning, the good-news bulletin on the wire is that scientists are closing in on a new way to cut body fat. If they can control leptin, they boast eagerly, anyone can be drugged into better shape. Indeed, the same shape as their model rats.

Last week, I a read cheering article about a new improved method of liposuction. Some 51,000 people had their fat sucked away up the surgical straw this year. But that number, they hope, will be dwarfed by the folks who will rid themselves of these meddlesome globules the new way.

A hostess in turmoil, I turn to the next aisle, past the juicy, plump Butterballs, past the stuffing and pumpkin pie filling, the yams and cranberries and into another country with its own vocabulary. The homeland for those who regard fat as a four-letter word.

The signs on everything from milk to brownies speak of a light and lite life. They talk of low fat, reduced fat, no fat, and of course fat freedom, as if fat were a prison sentence.

This year's dream product is nothing other than a kind of fat-free fat. After 25 years and $250 million, the scientists at Procter & Gamble produced fat-feel in the mouth without a gram on the body; they made a potato chip that goes through you without leaving a trace. When the FDA approved olestra only the professional scolds questioned the value of a nutrient-free food in a world where 850 million go to sleep hungry.

At the supermarket crossroads where Butterball meets fat-free in a crossfire of mixed message, I wonder how you plan a dinner in the midst of an eating disorder.

What would some time-traveler say about a country paying $33 billion a year to lose weight? And gaining weight.

Please pass the fries

About people carefully choosing fat-free brownies and downing 8 million more orders of french fries in the past year?

About a place where the poor are fat, the rich are X-rays, and only a true contrarian like Richard Klein would write a book suggesting, gasp, ''Eat Fat''?

When the Pilgrims gave thanks in their days of feasting, food was celebrated as an unmitigated blessing. The good fortune of a good harvest, the luck of temporary plenty was cause enough for the joy of eating.

A half-century ago, the family that Norman Rockwell painted in the most famous image of Thanksgiving dinner was round-eyed with anticipation, round-cheeked with the bounty on their table. What would we call the grandmother now? A candidate for a heart attack, unpleasingly plump?

Today for most Americans, there is plenty of plenty. But the healthy fashion is scarcity. The favorite phobia is fat. Our gratitude for food is numbed by regular injections of the Novocain of guilt.

I push my cart away from this thought and directly to the checkout counter where Reader's Digest promotes a cover story on how to ''Fat-Proof Your Child.'' Inside they offer a special supplement on baked goodies ''Like Grandma Used to Make.'' Fat-full.

I escape the market with a Butterball in my arms. This year, I announce rebelliously in the parking lot, will be a fat-free free Thanksgiving. Guilt be banned, this will be a thankful feast, thankfully prepared according to the Pilgrims' pleasure principle.

But as I utter this Thanksgiving proclamation, somewhere from deep in the culinary culture a small voice whispers a warning in my ear: Fat Chance.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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