Essay: The delicious foods that I thought were my friends were just cholesterol's henchmen. Death or dieting. Is one easier to stomach than the other?


September 03, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

The doctor called. The world collapsed. It was the Big C.

"Cholesterol? I've got cholesterol?"


"What's cholesterol?"

Now you might think it impossible for someone to be abroad in this world and still maintain a pristine ignorance of one of its most iniquitous substances, something everybody else knows all about. Believe me, it is not so difficult as it sounds: it's the old pleasure/pain principal in action, by which all animals seek the first and avoid the latter as long as they are able.

I've been doing this for a long time. It was only a few years ago I had thrust upon me the existence of a fellow called Sting.

Understand, I had heard the word cholesterol floating about, knew it was something inside of us all, some kind of blood sludge. But it wasn't the kind of thing likely to hold my attention. Maybe I felt myself an exception, someone immune to the creep of what we now call, laughingly, "the aging process."

Accordingly, and probably predictability, my first reaction to a 290 cholesterol reading was denial. Impossible! The lab made a mistake. That's somebody else's blood.

This was followed almost immediately by annoyance. Annoyance? Of course, that I was just like everybody else. I, too would have this thick gunk slopping through my arteries. I, too, would soon start forgetting things, like the names of my children or how many I had, wearing odd socks. My life, too, would become just another re-telling of the tritest story of our times, the ersatz tragedy of the lowered expectations of an over-stuffed, middle aged man.

Would I yearn for all the lunches of yesteryear?

Doubt lingered for a while. I entertained suspicions that maybe cholesterol was a figment, a thing invented on Oprah or some wacky cyber venue where the ill-informed convene to offer ersatz sympathy to the ill-starred.

Everybody has cholesterol, usually too much. Except the French. They say it has to do with the red wine. The French have liver attacks instead. Actually a Frenchman, a chemist named Poulletier, discovered the sinister substance in 1784. But he was either unimaginative or didn't know any dead languages, so he didn't know what to call it. That fell to another more educated French chemist, Michel Chevreul, who in 1816, joined the Greek words chole (meaning bile) and steros (solid) to produce the word cholesterol.

The world has not been comfortable since "solid bile" swam into our ken.

A growth industry

Inimical as it is, cholesterol has produced a lot of gold and glory for the study of it. A kind of Cholesterol-Industrial Complex had grown up. Thirteen Nobel prizes have gone to scientists working on the stuff, according to Peter O. Kwiterovich, Jr., who wrote a book about it.

It has, on its own, stimulated the development of an entire industry of pharmaceuticals and pseudo-food, chemically contrived things like Olestra, which promised to make people thin but seemed only to make them incontinent.

Owing to cholesterol, hundreds of young people, each consumed by an ernest desire to protect people from themselves, have found jobs as food police, lobbying and militating on behalf of food think tanks, and evangelical organizations with names such as the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and so on.

When I made my first inquiries about cholesterol of a trim, rosy-cheeked nurse, and confessed my high numbers, she unveiled that smug smile of sympathy one reserves for a convert from food paganism to the religion of vegetable nutrition. She told me about this strange world within each of us, this network of arteries and veins, running hundreds of miles, through which pour our very life's blood. She told me about how cholesterol builds inside these rivers of our bodies, and in all the little creeks and brooks, how it slows the vital flow inside these circuitous canals, and finally stops it.

Bang! Your heart is attacked. End of story.

And how does one acquire this killer cholesterol?

The answer to that reveals the eternal devil's bargain: by living.

For me this is all too much, and the irony so painful as not to be borne. You see, I live among genius cooks: my wife, whose people over the generations have compiled a familial treasure of recipes; my daughter who has absorbed all this lore, as well as the desire to improve upon it, modernize it, update it, add to it. My son, who is working himself to death as a chef in a fancy Newport hotel.

(For entertainment the two siblings sit around watching the cooking channel.)

A tasteful role

Not only am I surrounded by these culinary artists, I am their taster. I yield willingly to their experiments.

Let me list my favorite delights: Osso Bucco; Beef Stoganoff, grilled kidneys, beef ribs, Fettucini Alfredo.

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