Leave us one stress-free feast

November 27, 1997|By Froma Harrop

THANKSGIVING's enormous popularity can be explained as follows: It is the one meal in which Americans know exactly what to eat, when and with whom. For the rest of the year, Americans dine in a state of confusion, if they dine at all. Health requirements, diets, diverging social schedules, eating options, long working hours and environmental politics have virtually destroyed the family meal. In brief, America is having a nervous breakdown at the dinner table.

A nice familiarity

Except on Thanksgiving. Today, everyone knows the menu, the day and approximate time to dine. The dining companions are predictable: family, friends.

What does the American eater confront on the other 364 days? Health warnings, diet dictates, guilt-mongering, social rejection, relentless experimentation. Small wonder that formerly sociable diners now sneak off to their own fast-food joints, vegetarian grills, dairy bars or just bars to sin alone.

Like a burglar alarm with an electrical short, the steady blare of health advisories has destroyed the peace of the American gastronome. No need to go into the more paranoic manifestations: scares over irradiated strawberries or apples sprayed with alar. Valid advice linking certain foods with avoidance of dreaded diseases turns meals into unappetizing sessions of self-medication. Cabbage, broccoli and canola oil are said to fight cancer. Oat bran and the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish reduce heart disease. Gee, and we used to like these foods.

Lest the diner relax in the belief that eating right will guarantee extra decades of collecting Social Security, there are worrisome headlines to contemplate. ''Study finds fish-heavy diet offers no heart protection.'' ''The unwholesome tale of the herb market.'' And just last week, ''Fat in stick margarine poses greater health risk than butter.'' For the younger set, there was the campaign a few years back to reduce children's exposure to cow's milk. Dr. Benjamin Spock posed before six milk cartons painted funereal black and labeled with such dangers as diabetes, heart disease and anemia.

Obesity is growing among U.S. teen-agers and children,

according to a recent government study. Another reported that overweight Americans now outnumber ''normal''-sized ones. These trends, if true, probably have more to do with what's in the garage than what's in the pantry. Americans aren't eating more so much as they're moving less. The World Health Organization last spring predicted that the American lifestyle would kill off large segments of the global population as other countries adopted our love of hamburgers and sedentary living.

Those Americans who remain on a friendly basis with food still have to contend with -- or ignore -- the noisy parade of changing food fashions. Northern New Mexican, nouvelle cuisine, kiwis, mesquite smoking, Jamaican jerk, Spanish tapas. The chaos culminates in what's called fusion cooking. This is the blending of many cuisines: serving high tea in a bento box or doing odd things to bagels and pizzas.

De-Pilgrimization

One can be sure that even Thanksgiving will not escape #F attempts to lower calories or de-Pilgrimize the menu with other ethnic variations. And expect, of course, the guilt-inducing reminders that the thing on our plate once gobbled.

In the Boston Globe, a natural food store advertises its ''stress-free'' turkeys. ''Our turkeys are raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country with plenty of space to roam, lots of light and fresh air, and they're even kept warm in the winter!'' reads the ad for Nature's Heartland. (The description bears an unsettling resemblance to the conditions Nike now claims for its Asian workers.) ''This produces a healthier, less-stressed bird. . . . ''

Though comforting, the ad cannot help but remind the reader that even the fulfilling turkey life comes to an abrupt end toward the end of November. Though far from being vegetarian, this writer would prefer not looking at Thanksgiving from the turkey's RTC point of view.

The great majority of us will discard these negative thoughts and sit down to the Thanksgiving meal knowing what, when and with whom to eat. And let's not leave out the ''how much?'' How much is strictly up to the individual, at least this one time.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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