The research begins months before: Where to eat, what dishes to order, what's new, what's worth revisiting. Can we sneak one more meal in between lunch and dinner? A palate-cleanser? We savor every bite, from the food stands and lunch joints to the fancy and not-so-fancy dinners. I know you're thinking: "That's not healthy!" But it sure is fun.
I may practice Judaism, but I observe Foodie-ism. And Foodie-ism is becoming less and less fun.
Food has become the obsession of an increasingly judgmental nation: We care not just about what we should eat, but what we shouldn't. Adherents of this cult believe that certain foods are inherently good, and others bad. The food police are everywhere, and the political correctness surrounding food has become a topic in recent books from Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" (Harper Perennial, 2005) to Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (Penguin Press, 2006). Foodies appreciate restaurants and chefs much like they once did books or films, and the topic of food now finds its way into discussions of health, medicine, science and travel -- it is all-encompassing.
Within this cult, social status rises and falls on where you shop for your food, how it is prepared and where you and your children eat it.
In his new book, "The Gospel of Food" (Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.95), USC sociology professor Barry Glassner discusses how, in his words, we have created "a religion of eating."
Consider the following: Will eating egg yolks shorten our life? Will drinking pomegranate juice extend it? What makes a restaurant exceptional? When is a cuisine "authentic" and does it matter? What is organic? How is it different from "natural"? Is organic or natural produce fresher, healthier, better? Or is it just more expensive?
Increasingly, we define who we are by where and what we eat.
I have often wondered why I am supposed to be impressed when a friend brags that his toddler enjoys sushi (after all, it's not so unusual in Japan). And I have seen the look of horror on a parent's face when she learns that her child loves McDonald's (particularly if the child went there with the nanny). Is fast food really evil?
Don't pretend that you don't have an opinion. But what you think may not be true. Glassner's book is here to tell us that "everything you think you know about food is wrong."
Recently, over an excellent meal downtown at Zucca Ristorante, which I confess included a shared mushroom pizza, Glassner explained that, "pretty much every prescription of how to eat has huge holes in it."
By eating foods with little taste (such as a boneless, skinless chicken breast with no sauce) are we actually extending our lives, and if so by how much? No one can give an exact number. Are we eating foods that we believe are "good" for us, at the cost of actually enjoying what we eat? On the contrary, Glassner quotes many studies that demonstrate that we absorb more nutrients when we enjoy what we eat.
As Glassner makes clear, the science behind many of these studies is imperfect.
No one food or diet suits every person, just as no study can take into account each subject's genetic history, the way their body absorbs nutrients, their stress and the impact of physical activity in their life. They are just postcards of what we, as a society, are choosing to believe at the moment. It is exactly the kind of topic Glassner loves to explore.
Glassner was born in Roanoke, W. Va., which has a small but tight-knit Jewish community. He attended Northwestern University, graduating with a double major in journalism and sociology, and then received his doctorate in sociology from Washington University in St. Louis. He worked as a journalist for ABC Radio and freelanced for newspapers before returning to academia.
Currently Glassner holds the position of executive vice provost at USC, and he spent six years as the director of the Casden Institute for the study of the Jewish Role in American Life (disclosure: in 2001 Glassner hired me to co-author the institute's first survey).
Glassner is probably best known for appearing in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" as the voice of reason speaking about "The Culture of Fear," his last book in which, as Entertainment Weekly put it "Glassner lucidly exposes how the media and politicians play to Americans' fears, presenting anomalous incidents as rampant dangers."
He has brought the same approach to the subject of food. Glassner focuses a critical eye on the scientific studies that have sought to demonize foods such as the egg yolk, the potato, cheese or whole milk, and he debunks the doctors, nutritionists and writers who promote what he calls "the gospel of naught -- the view that the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks. The less sugar, salt, fat, calories, carbohydrates, preservatives, additives or other suspect stuff, the better the meal."
His conclusion is that "no food is inherently good or bad." Much like the scene in Woody Allen's "Sleeper," we have learned that foods that were thought to be "bad," like chocolate, coffee or wine, have now been found to have health benefits.
Over the course of five years spent on the book, Glassner had some amazing meals, he told me, at some of the country's best restaurants, such as The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Daniel in New York and Spago in Beverly Hills. "The Gospel of Food" explains what makes these restaurants and their chefs great, and also why the reviewers tend to have great meals there (generally the restaurants know who they are and give them better meals).
He also enjoyed a great variety of ethnic cuisines, becoming familiar with the varieties of Thai cuisine, Korean cooking and even a Korean version of Chinese food.
As part of his research, Glassner also talked to food chemists, nutritionists, and business executives in the food industry. In his book Glassner shares with us the surprises he encountered along the way, such as the great chefs working for McDonalds and Burger King; or how natural foods can include "natural" filler, such as wood pulp, and can be more processed than foods that do not carry that label. Similarly, Glassner recounts how Americans spend $2 billion a year on food with added vitamins, minerals or herbs that provide no proven health benefit and may interfere with prescribed drugs.
"I'm interested in where these ideas come from?" Glassner said. "Who benefits from them?"
Would you be shocked, shocked, shocked to learn that the beneficiaries are politicians, advocacy groups, agri-business and product marketers -- each of whom has a large stake in having us behave in a particular way? Glassner details how each profits from a shift in dietary attitudes. Make no mistake: Billions of dollars are at stake in getting us to eat certain products.
Glassner also devotes a chapter to McDonald's and fast food restaurants, which, as the K-Fed Super Bowl ad indicates, are routinely mocked and blamed for everything from obesity to the breakdown of family values. Glassner makes a compelling argument for the value inherent in "value meals" for the poor, the harried, the homeless. And we all know how good the French fries are.
Which brings us to Glassner's final chapter and the question on all our minds: "What made America fat?"
Glassner asks some good questions: In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the average diet consisted of all the bad foods that we are told not to eat today. (I can still recall the oil sizzling as my mother placed the veal cutlets, soaked in egg and milk and covered in breadcrumbs, in the cast-iron skillet to make my favorite meal of wienerschnitzel). Yet there was no epidemic of obesity. So what changed?
It's not fast food. Glassner shows that the proliferation of fast food establishments preceded the obesity epidemic by a decade.
Glassner suggests one important difference: People smoke less. According to studies cited by Glassner, during the period obesity rates shot up (the 1980s-1990s), the number of smokers declined by a third -- and former smokers on average gain 10 to 20 pounds after quitting. So this may account for some of the national weight gain. Conversely, is it also possible that people stopping smoking is the reason for a decrease in heart disease (as much or more so than eating low fat foods)?
But what about childhood obesity, you may ask.
I asked Glassner this very question. "No question there are more sugary drinks and candies," he said. But the question remains: "What has dramatically changed?" Glassner believes that one big change is that kids today enjoy "a lot less physical activity." One reason for this harkens back to Glassner's last book, "The Culture of Fear"
"Parents are afraid of letting children out of their sight," he said. Decades ago children spent their free time outside playing and exploring. Today overprotective parents are afraid to let their children play by themselves outdoors for fear they will be abducted or be put in harm's way.
Finally, Glassner suggests the possibility that for both adults and children, our culture of diets and diet foods may be responsible. Any diet that restricts certain foods that our body (or our psyche) craves may cause us to binge on them and other foods. Could years of yo-yoing from fad diet to fad diet have resulted in the increase in obesity? As a group of Harvard and Stanford scientists put it: Dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain. I certainly can believe that.
In my own lifetime, I can recall attempting the Royal Canadian Air Force Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, Atkins, The Zone and the South Beach Diet. I have watched national crazes over grapefruit diets, cabbage diets, even ice cream diets. I have seen waves of food pronouncements on red meat, carbohydrates, dairy products, grains, pastas and fruits and vegetables.
Over the years, I have lost hundreds of pounds -- actually, the same 20 to 30 pounds over and over again. Although rationally I realize that my body is genetically programmed to give me the winning physique of my Eastern European forebears who were short and stout of bearing, I still cling to the notion that there is a better-idealized version of myself to achieve (the only difference being that the weight at which I once began my diet is now the weight that I strive to reach). But given the positive effects of statins on lowering cholesterol, is yo-yo dieting more dangerous than enjoying the foods you like? Where does this leave us?
I am reminded of the old joke about the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose doctor tells him to go on a diet. He goes to his favorite trattoria and asks his favorite waiter: "Tell me which is the healthiest sandwich for me to order?"
To which the waiter answers: "Maestro, for you, the healthiest sandwich is ... half a sandwich." Perhaps it is best to focus on fit, not fat. Although Glassner's book provides no prescription for a healthy diet, when pressed, Glassner answered that in matters of food, "Turns out your mother was right." (I assure you he is referring to his mother, not mine -- mine was getting injections of sheep's urine to lose weight and buttering my bread with cream cheese.)
His recommendation: "Enjoy what you eat; eat moderately, eat your fruits and vegetables."
Or to sum it up in two words: "Eat well."
Good advice that I intend to follow and would like to discuss further, but I have some meals to plan for my Foodie-ism holiday.
Barry Glassner www.barryglassner.com/
The French Laundry www.frenchlaundry.com/tfl/frenchlaundry.htm
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.