The refrigerator and cupboards were bare. We had just returned to our New Jersey home after three years of living in Paris. The first order of business was a trip to the supermarket.
An hour and a half later, my car trunk full of groceries, I felt as though I'd made a trip to the pharmacy, not to a food store.
"High in vitamins A & C."
"An excellent source of oat bran."
The bold labeling had practically shouted down at me from the shelves.
The trend had been incipient three years ago, and now it was full-blown. American food companies, acceding to the desires of their fanatically health-conscious customers, had succeeded in reducing food to its nutritive components.
Like astronauts dining on tubes of protein paste, "consumers" are supposed to be satisfied ingesting what will make our corporeal machines run efficiently and the farthest without breakdown.
No longer does taste have anything to do with eating. Campbell's used to entice shoppers to buy soup by saying it was "Mm, mmm good."
That kind of advertising slogan is outdated now -- even suspect. If a food tastes really good, it must contain something bad for you.
America's puritan heritage has come to the supermarket shelves. Gone are the adjectives "creamy" "buttery" and "delicious." Instead, shoppers are supposed to salivate over the "percentage of U.S. recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein, vitamins & minerals."
With the new emphasis on nutritive components, food manufacturers are trying to provide it all, stuffing every RDA into their products.
Some breads have more iron than a package of spinach. It's confusing. Maybe Popeye the Sailor should really have been eating English muffins if he wanted to beat up Bluto.
My supermarket in New Jersey didn't even smell like a food store anymore. Almost all of the foods, including the fresh fruits and vegetables, were packaged in cellophane. There was not a food fragrance in the place.
The impact of America's sanitized shopping was more acute for me because I had spent three years browsing daily in the Paris markets, where the strong aromas of cheeses, freshly baked breads and meats on marble-topped butcher's shelves make food shopping a sensory experience. At first, the smells had taken me aback, but eventually I came to regard them as appetizing, spurring the imagination and kindling a desire to cook and eat dinner.
The spectacular fruits and vegetables, artistically arranged in colorful rows and pyramids in Paris's outdoor markets, were irresistible.
Shopping for a few apples often meant returning home with a cartload of goodies -- bags of pink peaches, a snow-white cauliflower and deep purple eggplant bought on the spur of the moment just because they looked so good. We ate healthy food instinctively, because it looked and smelled good.
In my New Jersey food store, even the fresh produce was labeled with its nutritive content.
"Nectarines, 99 cents per pound" announced the sign above some fruit that looked hard as pellets.
"An outstanding source of Vitamin A and potassium. Approximately 35 calories per nectarine."
If the fruit only looked better, I would eat it. Who ever salivated over the word "potassium"?
Everywhere I turned, I was hit by admonitions to eat healthy, beware of fat, take care of my heart and intestinal tract. A trip to the doctor could not have imparted more guilt and trepidation about eating.
Turning down the dessert aisle, I was delighted to see an old yummy favorite -- Entenmann's cakes. But as I got closer, my delight turned to dismay.
Big yellow labels on the boxes of pastry proclaimed: "New! Fat Free. Cholesterol Free with less than 100 calories per serving. Now You Can Eat Cake."
Standing in line at a new frozen yogurt shop, I heard the customer in front of me ask if the chocolate yogurt was really sugarless and fat-free. It was, the salesperson assured him. The fellow in back of him laughed, and when it was his turn to order said, "I'll take the sugarless, fat-free, invisible one."
In France, people still eat rich ice cream without guilt. They start the morning with buttery croissants that leave grease marks in the paper bag and a tiny cup of espresso that probably contains more caffeine than two full cups of coffee. They enjoy their food, use plenty of creamy sauces and love cheese so much that they make a full course of it.
Want to know a secret?
The French -- and the Japanese -- have the lowest rates of heart disease in the industrialized world. Why?
The World Health Organization would love to know and just a few years ago started a 10-year study to find out. The guess is that it has something to do with all the wine the French drink and the great amount of fresh fruit and vegetables they eat. France is not a meat and potatoes country.
In addition, the French eat in moderation -- only one large meal per day, with portions we would consider small. Food is savored and enjoyed.
So spare me the labels. Just make the food fresher and present it with care and pride. Then maybe Americans will eat better, out of sheer inspiration.