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Fat Americans

“The platter kills more than the sword.”
(England, 1384; Illinois, mid-20th century)

This proverb meant something different in the late 14th century than it does today. Most likely it was an attack on the corrupt and illegitimate luxuries of the church, expressing an attitude shared by all European peasants. Late medieval people were more likely to starve to death than to come down with gout, and church reformers depicted priests as bulky gluttons.

Piero Camporesi, the historian of Italian food, tells us in The Magic Harvest: Food, Folklore and Society that “the fearful threat of famine [hung] over people’s lives at least until middle of the 19th century…” Most of the population were “malnutritti,” the malnourished. Even “during the century of scientific and technical advance, when the railways had begun their rumbling progress,” Camporesi writes, “some people still ate foods made of acorns just as they did in the mythical golden age, when the hard labor of cultivation was unknown… .The terrible contradictions of human mythologies!”

As Camporesi puts it, diet is the red thread of history. “When the dark days of famine came, peasants tried to make bread,” “the fundamental element,” “with an infinite variety of materials…”: Rough grass, roots, vetch, thistles, hawthorn, sawdust of young trees, and vine shoots …” were baked and choked down, “but the ‘refuge’ of the rich was profoundly different from that of the poor,” and “in human history nothing reflects class differences so profoundly as diet.”

That may be true, but by the 21st century, the old relationship between body size and class has been inverted. The rich are thin, and everyone else is getting heftier, at least in the United States. Here, as is well known, income inequality has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, and more than a quarter of American children live below the federal poverty line. At the same time, 60 percent of adult Americans are overweight, and nearly 18 per cent of Americans are categorized by public health officials as obese. Even more concerning, the proportion of obese children is now 25 percent. Obesity and poor nutrition are implicated in a host of serious diseases, including one that used to be called adult onset diabetes. It’s now so common among children that doctors can’t call it that anymore. It’s now “Type II Diabetes.”

Here in Illinois, the size of people is astounding. Midwesterners are notorious for consuming high-fat, high cholesterol meals. A cluster of eight states in the Midwest and the upper south –Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana — are among the ten with the highest mortality rate for coronary heart disease. Together, they make up a region dubbed “Coronary Valley,” actually the ancient southern Mississippi River plain. Historically, black and white people in the upper south raised pork and corn, and often fried their food. 19th-century settlers from Europe brought sausage, pastry, and beer to the Midwest, reinvigorating the high-fat, high calorie pattern.

These dietary habits made sense when men and women labored in farm or factory for 12 and 14 hours. But today these preferences persist in the context of sedentary work, lots of driving, and reliance on processed foods. Recently, I took my son out to dinner at a family-run Italian restaurant. Like a lot of kids, the only thing he’ll order is chicken fingers. He got them, but since this is the Midwest, the deep-fried slivers of chicken came with a side of pasta, a plate of french fries, and “for free,” a plate of fried cheese. I’d never seen fried cheese before, but it’s very popular in this part of the country.

It isn’t just outgrown habits that are causing the American body to expand. It’s new habits, too. Most families eat more than seven meals a week away from home, and because they eat on the run they are inhaling more restaurant and processed foods. Poor and working families are more likely to eat at fast food restaurants where nutritional values are lower and calories higher. Food manufacturers have increased the calories in their products over the last decade, making them sweeter in an effort to get people to buy and eat more. Sugar is incredibly cheap and it seems to have as much of a stimulating as a satiating effect on eaters. Sodas and french fries are where the profits are in the fast food business. Putting two and two together, the hot “rollout” in the frozen food locker this season is cinnamon sugar-sprinkled french fries.

For several years, I’ve been pondering portion sizes — the very image of the lethal platter. Why is it that when you go out to eat, they try to stuff you instead of feed you? Why has a plate of spaghetti or roast beef or Chinese food gotten bigger and bigger, until we leave restaurants lugging a week’s supply of leftovers back to the fridge?

It turns out that this is a deliberate restaurant strategy, or so my students who have studied “food service marketing” tell me. Restaurant managers believe that customers go home feeling more satisfied if their guts are aching, because being overfed makes Americans feel they’ve gotten a real bargain. The managers are convinced that if you eat two of their meals, one in the restaurant and one at midnight in front of the TV, you have them in mind twice a week instead of once. This is eating as advertising.

Overfeeding is used in all price ranges except the most expensive, where the reverse principle operates and you pick lightly at a few slivers of belly of tuna comforted by a caper and an asparagus spear. In most restaurants, profits are made when the volume of inexpensive foods or “sides” increases on the plate. Commodity prices for most vegetables, starches and legumes are so low that restaurants have been able to double serving sizes with out doubling prices. Portion sizes have gotten so large that one can easily consume 2200 — 2400 calories in a single mid-price restaurant meal, more than the total an adult needs for a day. How can this be possible when an uncounted number of people in United States don’t get enough daily calories?

The super-sizing strategy gets extreme in the fast food industry, the part of the restaurant business that markets most heavily to kids. Here you really have to step back and marvel at the magic of capitalism. The fast food folks figured out how to make it more profitable to sell highly processed, mechanically shaped, frozen, artificially flavored and deep fat fried segments of potato, than it is to sell a plain baked or boiled potato. The key is volume. As Eric Schlosser shows in Fast Food Nation, McDonald’s has driven potato prices so low that they can sell a pound of cooked French fried potatoes for twenty times what they pay for it frozen.

Piero Camporesi writes that Westerners are of two minds about fat bodies. On one hand, in Christian tradition, especially as regards the Pentecost and Final Judgment, “lightness and agility were associated with salvation, purity and beauty, while ugliness was indissolubly linked with corpulence, slowness, heaviness, bad odours and (obviously) damnation.” But on the other hand, in the age of the malnuttriti, “the code of female beauty” was “florid and soft with white flesh.” Cushiony, creamy female bodies were considered beautiful and desirable, and powerful men tried to look large and well fed.

Camporesi laments that “the plump Venus no longer walks in our lands: she belongs in the past..,” as slenderness is not only considered beautiful, it signifies wealth and moral worth. But Piero, caro, come to Illinois!

Susan Davis teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. She can be reached at sgdavis@uiuc.edu

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