If you have an internet connection and friends you've probably been sent a "Hey look at this!" email regarding the blog-in-pictures This is Why You're Fat. Readers send in pics of hilariously high-calorie foods that no sentient person would ever eat, ostensibly to help explain why Americans are so goddamn fat. Yes, it's funny. Limited in range, but funny. I mean, 99% of the content repeats one of these themes:
1. Like normal food, only bigger
2. (Thing that isn't healthy) + (bacon)
3. (Thing that isn't healthy) + (gravy or cheese)
4. One unhealthy food stuffed inside another
5. An enormous number of things simply piled atop one another (plus gravy)
While the website is both funny and probably correct to some extent, I have a much better theory about why we're fat. We've become food crazed, and it's a relatively recent development. Let me explain what I mean.
I saw a fabulously interesting interview with Wolfgang Puck several years ago on a network TV show and he recounted a story of when he moved to L.A. in the 70s. He'd go to a club and try to talk to a woman, and he said when they asked what he did for a living he'd either lie about it or admit that he was a chef and the conversation would be over. It was a shit profession for people who were either pretentious French assholes or unemployable borderline-criminal types. And now, Puck told the host, you're interviewing me on national TV. Being a chef went from one step above being a child molester to being a high-glamour profession.
There is a network devoted to 24-hour food/cooking related programming. Dozens of other cable networks (Discovery, Bravo, etc.) have food shows. The Culinary Institute of America now includes media training – how to give an interview, how to court the press, and so on – in its curriculum. Anthony Bourdain is wildly famous for writing a book about how shitty it is to work in restaurants. Enormous stores sell nothing but cookwares most of us would never use. People spend $1200 on sets of knives. High-end restaurants and grocers – some of which will mail exotic ingredients to your door – are doing well even in a horrible economy as people shell out per-ounce prices for spices and cheese that were formerly associated only with heroin. We are absolutely food loco as a nation.
Why? There are a lot of explanations – diet and kitchenware as status symbols, better education about the downsides of processed food, etc. – but I favor the following one. First Americans had to accept that drinking was bad for them. No more three martini lunches. Then they found out that smoking was a killer, so the educated middle class shunned that too. Then the 1980s arrived and it turned out that indiscriminate sexual activity could end up killing you, so the bourgeois who spent the 70s doing blow and nailing everyone in sight had to put a stop to that. Then we started hacking away at the middle class lifestyle – salaries stopped going up, paid time off became a thing of the past, and many people saw their standard of living collapse – so people couldn't enjoy escaping on vacations or trips to the lake with their boat. In short, everything Americans used for sensory pleasure has been taken away (although not from the poor; we wanted to make sure we could still market the cigarettes and booze to someone, and who really cares if they die of AIDS?)
Food is what's left. We are fat because we use food as an escape. The pleasure we might have once had from functional alcoholism, chain smoking, or wild partying has left us with endless sublimated desires for physical pleasure and nowhere to satisfy them. So we eat. We eat and look for ever more exciting sensory experiences from our food. We not only shovel down more food to fill the void but we're constantly looking for more indulgent things to eat. If you're ever in Chicago, go wait in line at Hot Doug's some afternoon and watch dozens of hipsters and young professionals – people who have two or three degrees apiece – wait in a lengthy line to eat french fries cooked in rendered duck fat and a hot dog covered with 1000 calories of foie gras. Then you'll see what I mean.
That's my theory, anyway. The bacon-laden peanut brittle isn't helping either, admittedly.