At city cancer convention, healthy eats (mostly) rule


Is it an accident that near the Convention Center one can order a buttery filet mignon as easily as hailing a cab?

Hardly. Conventions - vacations with expense accounts - are all about decadent entrees, bottomless drinks and saying "pass the eclairs." Unless, of course, the convention consists of 800 experts in cancer prevention, people who have dedicated their careers to sapping the fun from Alfredo sauce and french fries as they solemnly extol the virtues of cabbage, broccoli and other puritan edibles.

But is this American Association for Cancer Research crowd really all baked, not fried? Do they practice what they preach? Had any of these doctors taken the hypocritical oath?

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph caption in yesterday's editions with an article about the eating habits of cancer researchers misspelled the name of Sherry Chow.

Late yesterday morning found most convention attendees in a darkened conference room, listening raptly as one of their colleagues revealed study results while colorful slides of cells flashed like modern art on the big screen behind him.

Something about mice, tumors and tobacco.

Though beverage tables laden with sugary sodas waited just outside the seminar door, the thirsty in the crowd reached right past them for the pure and saintly bottled water.

Karen Johnson, who is with the National Institutes of Health's cancer prevention division, stirred powdered creamer into a wan cup of tea.

"Artificial creamer - no cholesterol," she pointed out brightly, then added with a note of disappointment: "It's not green tea. They didn't offer green tea."

Johnson, hungry and not afraid to admit it, was looking forward to hitting the Inner Harbor for a working lunch with a colleague: "Maybe a nice salad."

A few feet away, a leafy green lunch was also on the mind of Louis Shackleford, a doctoral student in nutrition at Alabama A&M University. For dinner the night before, he and his adviser, Martha Verghese, deflected the Cheesecake Factory's fat and calories onslaught to order grilled chicken. Shockingly, that isn't one of the cheesecake flavors.

These people and their iron-clad willpower! Seems they're really buyin' what they're sellin' with that whole grain, lean meat, beta carotene spiel.

Four Convention Center food service workers sat glumly, waiting for anyone - anyone - to come out of the seminar and buy a snack. Chips. Hot dogs. Pizza. It was all there for the taking, but no one was.

Yesterday they rang up only about $100 in receipts, a veritable diet compared with the thousands they would see from a typical convention.

"All they were looking for," said Laverne Damon, "was whole fruit, water, pretzels and yogurt. We don't even have yogurt."

Though a surgeon general could kvell from such healthfulness, upstairs in the media room, the association's communications staff hinted that behind the virtuous facade, a whiff of indulgence could lurk.

First, they whispered, there had been much interest in where to find Maryland's famed crab cakes. No one - horrors! - asked about broiled vs. fried. Second, there were the hijinks of AACR spokesman Warren Froelich.

Last night, in the cover of his hotel room, woozy from a long day of work, Froelich picked up the phone and dialed room service for not a salad, not a bowl of shredded wheat, not some steamed broccoli, but a flagrant example from the tippy-top of the "DON'T" list: A hamburger. With fries.

"I confess," he said, hanging his head. "I didn't consume all the fries, though."

And dessert?

"It was fruit ... a tart."

And there was more insurgence. While her colleagues dabbed balsamic vinaigrette from their lips yesterday afternoon, Elena Martinez sat unashamed at City Cafe before a crab cake and french fry platter.

"Forget the healthy stuff," the slim researcher from the University of Arizona said with a laugh. "You say and do very different things, especially when you're out of town. ...

"Besides, we don't get crab cakes in Arizona."

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