Splutter. Incoherent horrified utterings. What?
It was starting off as such a pleasant morning. The alarm didn’t feel intrusive. The coffee tasted great. Another gluten-free breakfast. And I was sitting in my favorite chair by the window, reading The New York Times. And then I read this:
Low-fat fried chicken may seem like a contradiction in terms, but not to Stephen Kelleher. On a recent summer morning, he hovered over a whirling assembly line as a waterfall of gray liquid cascaded over slabs of breaded chicken. Then the magic began. During the bath in the liquid solution, which consisted of water and protein molecules extracted from a slurry of chicken or fish tissue, a thin, imperceptible shield formed around the meat. When the chicken was submerged in oil, the coating blocked fat from being absorbed from the fryer.
Voilà! The chicken contained 50 percent less fat than a typical piece of fried chicken.
Just another day in the strange world of food scientists. Mr. Kelleher, the founder of Proteus Industries in Gloucester, Mass., is one of many chemists who work, often in secret, in a little-understood part of the $550 billion processed-food industry. These are the people who ultimately put food together, and their mission is critical: developing foods that let consumers have their cake and eat it, too.
With two-thirds of Americans considered overweight and yet many professing a desire to eat healthier, every major food producer and food-ingredient company has ordered its scientists to find the holy grail: products that either have less bad stuff — fat, white flour, sugar and salt — or more good stuff like whole grains, fiber and fish oil.
Some of these food additives are natural and some are not. But even those that are natural hardly evoke images of a country harvest. Fat-repellent coatings, after all, do not grow on trees.
Coming soon to your grocery store, for example, could be salty corn chips cooked in oil but that are marketed as healthy because the addition of chemically modified starches make them high in fiber. Labeled simply as “modified cornstarch,” this additive cannot be broken down until it reaches the colon, much like the natural fiber found in fruit and vegetables. Also coming soon: bread containing microscopic capsules of fish oil, enabling food companies to contend that the bread is “heart-healthy” because of the cholesterol and triglyceride-lowering omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.
(To finish reading “Science’s Quest to Banish Fat in Tasty Ways,” click here.)
What are we doing to ourselves?
When did we go so wrong? Lunch is a drive-through hamburger and fries, eaten in the car. Dinner is frozen pizza, throw in the microwave. People go days without eating vegetables. No one drinks enough water. And almost everyone is amazed, and intimidated, when I tell them that I cook.
I’m not the most sophisticated cook in the world. I adore food, in all its natural forms, and I have so much to learn. So much. I have a gourmet taste, on a modest budget, and more enthusiasm than art for it. But still, most people stand astonished in my kitchen. When I lived in New York, and made apple pies nearly every week of the fall, people always asked the same thing: “You made this?! But you didn’t make the crust, did you?” As though making crust for apple pie is more difficult than dealing with the North Korean nuclear situation. We have become an entire nation of people who long to make our own food, and we don’t even know how to do it.
So people eat crappy fried chicken, desperate for some taste in the cardboard and chemicals, and eat more, because there’s only so much taste in chicken wilting under heat lamps in the grocery store. Or worse yet, at KFC, where the rancid grease smell assaults me when I drive by it on 10th Street and Pine. And then they worry that they are growing fat, and massively at risk of heart attack, and life still doesn’t taste as good as they had hoped. I know, they think, maybe if I had lower-fat chicken, I could eat more of it. And it will finally fill me up.
Have you ever noticed that home-cooked food fills you more than any take-out ever could? And when you really, truly taste it, you eat far less than the junk?
I remember the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. My mom’s, about fifteen years ago. I had graduated college, and my brother was just behind me. He invited one of his best friends home for dinner, and I came over too. My mother worked all day, coating the chicken in peppery flour and frying it in batches, whipping mashed potatoes, making gravy from scratch, and baking homemade biscuits. It took her several hours. The table was laid out with napkins and wine glasses. And we all sat down to eat. Matt, my brother’s friend, dug in. From the first moment he started eating, he looked stricken. Not with pain, but with pleasure. His face melted into a smear of happiness. As he grew more and more ecstatic with the taste of the chicken, he finally just had to do it—he groaned. He groaned and hit his fist against the edge of the table, in an animal grunt that expressed for all of us the way that chicken tasted. My mother grinned.
That’s what we’re longing for—that entire experience—not some fish-slurry-covered-half-the-fat-and-what-the-fuck-is-really-in-it chicken.
Everything I learn about processed food scares me, more and more. For those of us who are trying to live gluten free, these new fat-control, low-carb, unnatural acts of man are especially scary, because there is bound to be gluten hidden in all these “foods.” But this is where having celiac disease is such a blessing.
We can never eat that crap again.
No more Twinkies, neon-orange Doritos, Tombstone pizza, pigs in a blanket, Snackwell cookies, or microwave burritos. Oh darn.
After all, there’s nothing like fresh corn, just off the cob, in August, with just a touch of butter and sea salt. Who needs anything else?
I’m sure that many of you reading this already love food. Let’s spread the word: eating well is an act of social justice. And if you’re just diagnosed with celiac, and wondering what your life is going to be like from now on, here’s a clue: learn to cook whole, real food, with natural ingredients in season, and filled with flavor for it, and you’re going to be perpetually pounding your fist on the table in pure pleasure.