For years now we’ve been told that one of the leading causes of the Obesity Epidemic (boogeda, boogeda!) is the way that Americans eat out too often. It’s been blamed on Mickey D’s and Col. Sanders (for those of us old enough to remember the good Col. who is now known as KFC), on MarieCallendar and your corner steak house and, well, really just about anyplace outside the home where you might get something to eat.
But now a new study informs us the problem is closer to home. For those not familiar with other work by Brian Wansink, who’s a marketing professor at Cornell University, he’s also the author of a recent comparison of how fat people and thin people eat at Chinese buffet restaurants that concluded fat people are fat…because they put napkins on their chests rather than their laps or sit at tables rather than in booths. Now he is putting the blame for American girth squarely on good old home cooking.
Yes, it seems the real culprit is The Joy of Cooking, that staple of American gastronomic literature. Wansink found that of eighteen recipes (chosen because they appear in every edition of the book from 1931 to the present), seventeen of them had risen in fat content, portion size, and calories. Some recipes had risen in calories by as much as forty per cent. The ones that included meat used more meat than when they started.
For instance, the Chicken Gumbo recipe in 1936 made 14 servings at 228 calories each. The same recipe in 2006 made 10 servings at 576 calories each. On the face of it, that sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?
Reality, though, is a very different question. The study not only picks a miniscule number of recipes to compare (according to Amazon, the number of recipes in the 2006 edition of Joy of Cooking is a whopping 4,500, which makes 18 look prettyteensy potatoes), it does not take into consideration the way people actually eat or how that has changed over the same time period.
When Joy of Cooking was first published in 1931, people who had suffcient money to get what was considered adequate food ate a lot more courses per meal than we do now. Even when I was a child in the 1960’s, it was not unusual for dinner to consist of meat; a potato, rice, or noodle dish, often with a sauce or gravy; two vegetables or a vegetable side and a salad; bread or rolls and butter; dessert. That’s about six different foods being consumed in a single meal. Now most people eat from two to four things per meal. Meat, veggies, and grain or potato dish, with an option of dessert, which many people avoid or save up for special occasions. The human body still needs more or less the same amount of fuel to get through the day, but we expect to consume it in less dishes. It stands to reason that a few of these dishes would be served in larger portions.
Another aspect that isn’t being considered very carefully is the changes in society and availability of food over these same years. 1931? Yeah, that was the Great Depression when my father in law frequently had a single raw onion on white bread sandwich to see him through from the time he woke until dinner, when he got beans or macaroni and cheese sans any veggies or meat because his family couldn’t afford them. According to Wansink , the rise in calories in his handful of recipes started in the second half of the 1940’s…about the time that WWII rationing was being phased out and there was easier access to sugar, meat, and other high-calorie items. This is also a period in which huge advances were made in learning how to preserve and transport fragile foods across the country. Instead of seeing how the economy and science might be affecting what people were able to get,Wansink sees this, apparently, as the spur to restaurants increasing portion size in the 1970’s…some thirty years later.
What’s more, he seems to see it as a universally negative thing…something I’m sure my late father in law would have been happy to argue with him, despite the fact that he continued to consider those onion sandwiches a taste treat.
Wansink further seems to ignore the possibility that the original portion sizes were out of step with what and how people were actually eating. Anyone who has ever made a recipe according to instructions and wondered how anyone managed to get six dozen cookies out of it in the test kitchen knows what I’m talking about.
In short, Mr. Wansink has determined that eating out makes us fat and eating in makes us fat, and being fat makes us die. So where and how shall we eat, Mr. Wansink?
And by the way, I would consider that bowl of chicken gumbo a nice dinner in and of itself. I don’t think 576 calories is at all unreasonable for a one-dish meal, do you?
No, I didn’t think so.