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Guilt, misery and the dinner table

Dec 6, 2012 - By Clair McFarland

As it may be my mission to unfold the stray opinions of an average housewife in this column, I'll confess that the urge to write about children's books and manners is strong. However, before I insist that the reader hum the theme song to Six Flags commercials while reading the wordless portion of "Where The Wild Things Are" to a little one, allow me to get to the point, because the dance habits of the wild things may not be as relevant to everyone else as they are to me.

No, this column is on food. There's a topic we all love. Acting as, well, acting dietitian, within my household, I find myself torn between the two extremes of glorious indulgence in sweet, fattening, convenient foods, and the less-appealing, measured intake of quinoa and vegetables. This is an internal battle that not only affects me, but also those for whom I cook: the objects of my culinary love.

Amidst the stack of cookbooks that I actually read, the way some read juicy novels, I wage a self-war characterized by the wreckage of food-obsession, into which so many parents likewise fall when tasked with the innocent-enough mission of becoming amateur health experts for their children's sake.

This war has only yielded one hero, so far, and she is my Aunt Linda, who helped my mother prepare one family dinner by loading the whole-grain side of the evening with heaps of butter and salt. The result was delicious, but had a healthy, judicious name, putting it in the ranks of every junk food that has had antioxidants mysteriously squeezed into it.

Onward: Because I'm an ersatz health expert if there ever was one, and my dear Aunt Linda is an expert on guilt-free cooking, I decided to turn to the real deal for some direction. At the local library, Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" beamed at me from the shelf, promising greatness through a cover photo of crisp, green lettuce. Ignoring some cliché about judgment, books, and covers that actually has nothing to do with books, I grabbed the volume and laid it on the amazing bar-code detecting self-checkout kiosk I've yet to understand.

In Pollan's book, I read scary oddities of the food-culture world: man's tendency to replace fats with less-healthy substitutes (margarine, carrageenan, cornstarch), the cultural myth that eliminating carbs or eliminating fats is the fail-safe answer, etc. But the most interesting thing to be found in this book was not a food fact or a diet mandate at all, but the term "orthorexia." Pollan states that "we are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating."

This, of course, was followed by a theory that embraced moderation, vegetables of all kinds, and self-control. Who knew, huh?

The author also posed the question of why we, as a culture, have such extremes as the mystery meat fast-food burger, an enigma whose weight, at least, is evident to the consumer, and the grocery-store chicken that has been bred to meet a standard of leanness guaranteed to ruin every meal.

So why am I addressing this, since my fridge, at present, contains both turkey bacon and cookie dough? Because we seem to have lost the middle ground, wavering between a state of perpetual guilt, and a state of culinary misery.

So here's the theory of a housewife: Cook something from basic ingredients, and then enjoy it. Really enjoy it.

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