"Moderation in all things"
- Terence (Publius Terentius Afer), 190-159 B.C.
Imagine Warren Thrweatt's surprise. The Baltimore man is standing at the Golden Corral buffet on a Sunday evening about to load his plate with a scoop of mashed potatoes, to be puddled with gravy, the better to accompany the considerable helping of chicken, the cabbage and the macaroni and cheese - and here comes some bozo with a question.
Excuse me, we're doing this story on, well, moderation. ...
"Well," says Thrweatt, a 46-year-old man of average build, "you want to stay away from me."
And he laughs. And why not?
For $8.29 Thrweatt might have ordered one appetizer at some stylish downtown place, not including the tip, of course. Or he could come here to Rossville Boulevard, to this suburban shrine to economies of scale, where for $8.29 folks may endlessly select the carved pit ham or roast beef, the sizzling choice-cut sirloin, pulled barbecue chicken, Bourbon Street chicken, fried chicken, meatloaf, Kentucky-style fish fillets, fried okra ...
On and on it goes, as it surely must, considering the crowds that pile in every night to pile it on.
Moderation? Nice idea, but what exactly might that mean?
"Exercise some restraint," says Thrweatt. "Exercise your self-control."
Asked about his plans with respect to the Golden Corral dessert buffet - an array of more than a dozen items, including banana pudding, Boston cream cake and German chocolate cake - Thrweatt responds negatively in pantomime, patting his very slight swelling at the belt.
Ah, the limits of human possibility.
In the midst of anecdotal and statistical reports of a national obesity epidemic, there comes the question of moderation. With America's customary grandiosity inspiring excess in everything from food portions to vehicle size to foreign-policy discourse, the ancient nudge toward a golden mean can seem almost radical.
Surely the temperate recommendation stands out in a forest of diet books promising wondrous new cures. The selection conjures the spirit of an old medicine show: The Glucose Revolution, The No-Grain Diet, Good Fat, Bad Fat, The Age-Free Zone, Potatoes Not Prozac, The Fat Flush Plan.
Note the absence of such titles as Live the Moderate Moment! or Blazing the New Middle Path.
While the notion of moderation may not be sexy enough to sell books, it does appear in advice emanating from sundry official sources.
In a 2002 statement, the American Dietetic Association rejects the extreme-diet approach, saying, "If consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with regular physical activity, all foods can fit into a healthful diet."
In its 2000 dietary guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advises, among other things: "Choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat"; "Choose beverages and foods to moderate your choice of sugars"; "If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation."
Last December, New York magazine published a piece on the new (or is it the "new new"?) Atkins diet craze gripping Manhattan in a frenzy of "killer"-carb paranoia. At the end, the writer brings on an eminent figure in the field, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, to play Voice of Reason. Willett suggests taking a tip from the Mediterranean diet: some vegetables in olive oil, a little fish, a little wine, a little pasta.
"You can envision the ideal, moderate diet if you just place yourself in Rome and walk down the piazza," Willett says in the article.
So, moderation it is. That settles the matter, yes? Suspend further health and nutrition studies, and studies of the studies that often seem to only advance public bewilderment?
Maybe not. Moderation may be an old reliable concept but perhaps not abundantly useful.
"I think it's different for everybody," says Tonya Estep of Baltimore, approaching the Golden Corral buffet with empty plate at the ready. "Everybody has a different appetite."
Dan Geelhaar, a rotund fellow who is in the midst of trying to lose weight, had the courage to visit the Golden Corral. He says he stuck to his regimen, assembling a salad with no dressing and one slice of ham on top. That's it. Oh, and a slice of cherry cake that he shared with his mother.
So what does moderation mean to him?
"For me, it's what I eat," says Geelhaar, in town from Atlanta visiting his family.
When asked his thoughts on moderation, associate restaurant manager Rodney Johnson says: "That's one thing we do not have. We have a lot of things."
The Golden Corral might not encourage light eating, but neither do other American restaurants.
A short walk down Rossville Boulevard toward Belair Road stands the International House of Pancakes, where you don't have to go any farther than the vestibule to notice IHOP appears to be sanguine about the obesity question.