Julia Child is under attack.
The woman who led Americans from burgers to bourguignon is being accused of cramming us with cholesterol and, in her newest book, "The Way to Cook," felt compelled to assure the reader that, "I am very conscious of calories and fat."
Everywhere, cream has been consigned to the closet of wicked desires, and so, it seems, has creme de menthe. The director of the Center for Addiction Studies at Harvard Medical School refers to the nation's drop in alcoholic intake as "a new temperance movement, the new sobriety."
What has happened to the brawling, roistering nation where not so long ago a proper dinner consisted of booze and beef, and Diamond Jim Brady lived in folklore as the man who had it all -- his normal dinner consisting of two dozen oysters, a half-dozen crabs, two bowls of turtle soup, six or seven lobsters, a double portion of terrapin, two canvasback ducks, vegetables and an entire tray of pastries -- and who had a famous actress, Lillian Russell, to share it with, she, unlike her weight-conscious descendants, matching him bite for bite?
What has happened to the country that grew up on rum and hard cider and where, according to social historian W.J. Rorabaugh, "A guest at an evening party might be dragged to the sideboard and forced against his protests to down glass after glass. A refusal to drink under such circumstances was viewed as proof that the abstainer thought himself to be better than other people. He would not be invited to another party. ... "
What has happened is that Americans have gone back to their roots. Puritans from the start, we have escaped the kirk and moved Calvinism into the kitchen.
Our ancestors sat on wooden benches thrilling to sermons that warned of the horrors in store for a sinner's soul. Modern man bench-presses weights and bounces aerobically about, determined to achieve the salvation of his immortal body. At least it will be immortal and we will live forever if only we can edge our way around the foods and drinks that will consign us to the grave.
Obtaining immortality for the body is, of course, much more difficult than achieving a similar end for the soul. Sin is set out plain to see in the Ten Commandments and a cautious person can trip past the dangers, steering clear of the roads that lead to hell.
But kitchen Calvinism is a murkier creed. Today's salvation can turn to damnation with the dawning of the morning light and the publication of yet one more scientific report.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But wait! Has the apple been treated with Alar?
The incredible, edible egg is the perfect protein and low in calories (though it may kill you with cholesterol).
Liver, which mothers once forced down the throats of their reluctant offspring, now is said to be the holding hall where pesticides gather, milling about with their banners held high.
Spinach, as of this writing, still is okay, and Popeye remains a man whose dietary advice can be followed without fear.
One noted food frightist wrote recently that she had detected a new phobia among her fellow Americans: fear of eating.
She couldn't imagine why.
In the face of the daily cautions thrown at us by the scientists and pseudo-scientists, Americans have become kitchen Calvinists. The principle of the Puritan, as stated by a not very sympathetic Macaulay in his "History of England," was to "torment himself and others with scruples about everything that was pleasant."
In self-defense, we have embraced the castor-oil theory of cuisine; if it tastes bad it must be good for you.
Though we are hardly the first generation to try to protect ourselves against poison on the palate, we may become the first to associate tasting good with being bad. It used to be the other way around and people reckoned that when a thing tasted horrid, nature was suggesting that it be left off the menu.
Rotten meat, rotten fish, vegetables that stank of decay were better consigned to the compost heap. Things that were rotten and maggoty were obviously inedible, but less obvious fallings from taste required the judgment of an expert.
In medieval England, there was an ale-conner whose job was to control the quality of the brew. Taste was a test, of course, but there was another, according to C. Anne Wilson, writing in "Food and Drink in Britain": " ... the ale-conner spilt a little of the liquour on a bench, sat on it for a time, and then made his assessment by whether his leather breeches had stuck to the seat or not. If they had, the ale had not fermented long enough, for it contained too much unconverted sugar and not enough alcohol ... "
This early predecessor of the FDA had an easier time of it than his career descendants, who were forced to resort to more complicated (if less uncomfortable) tests to determine what was good and what was bad. The first prosecution under America's Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 was against the imaginatively named Cuforhedake Brane-Fude (read it out loud and you'll get the idea of what it was supposed to be good for) and though the FDA was successful in proving that the Brane-Fude was offering more than it was delivering, the agency seems forever after to have found itself in the position of the mother who fails to warn her children not to put snails in their ears. Just when you think you've locked all the doors, someone punches a hole in the wall.
Though earlier generations had to worry about filthy slaughter houses, chemically colored canned peas, adulterated spices, and cunningly carved wooden nutmegs, before 1896 no American anywhere needed to count calories. This was not because girth was good. It was because no one knew what a calorie was. Then Prof. Wilbur O. Atwater figured out how to determine the caloric value of different foods, and America launched itself on the fight against fat.
If the early battles lacked energy, it was because there were no vitamins until after 1911. Of course, there was also no vitamin deficiency, since you can't be deficient in something that isn't. Or you could be, but you wouldn't know it. It took Polish chemist Casimir Funk -- who first isolated and named the food factors necessary to keep the human stove stoking -- to give birth to all those colored charts that tell us what food groups we've failed to dip into today.
Can you see a pattern here? The more we know, the worse things seem to get. Every time we pull something apart, we discover bits that might bite. It is only the egg yolk that has cholesterol -- which is bad, bad, bad. The egg white has lecithin, which is good. Now, a person might feel that, taken together, the good and the bad would cancel each other out, but scientists say it isn't so.
A vitamin-deficient, calorie-conscious America had more things coming its way. Pesticides in the food. Hormones added here and there to boost the production of this and that. Genetically manipulated plants and animals conjuring fearful pictures that, when lifting a head of lettuce in the produce department, one might uncover a creature from the black lagoon.
There have always been food faddists among us. George Bernard Shaw was a noted vegetarian. (He also was a wool-ist, wearing only natural fibers that could breathe and favoring a special knit suit that, Max Beerbohm wrote, made him look like a "forked raddish in a worsted bifurcated stocking.") But now, made fearful by daily reports of the hazards of eating, everyone has become a faddist. Even little girls who once were happy to be made of sugar and spice demand that they be made of tofu and sprouts.
Americans from coast to coast have crept into the kitchen with Calvin, relinquishing the pleasures of the flesh in order to give the flesh eternal life, shouting "Get behind me, chocolate, get behind me, cream."
There is another story that Lord Macaulay tells, of how George Fox, founder of a sect of Quakers, in his search for spiritual certainty, "wandered from congregation to congregation: He heard priests harangue against Puritans: he heard Puritans harangue against priests; and he in vain applied for spiritual direction and consolation to doctors of both parties. One jolly old clergyman of the Anglican communion told him to smoke tobacco and sing psalms: another advised him to go and lose some blood. ... After some time he came to the conclusion that no human being was competent to instruct him in divine things ... ."
And things of the flesh, as well, as those who have followed Calvin from kirk into kitchen may eventually learn. Today's panacea may become tomorrow's poison, today's caution, tomorrow's cure. The sensible eater will decide that the adjuration to follow moderation in all things, applies not only to eating, but to reading, and will abstain from partaking of more than one cautionary food article per week.