It happened again–my finding a nutrition-related story (or it finding me) where I least expected it. This time it was not “not a laughing matter”–but actually rather amusing.
Always appreciative of those who have made the world a funnier place, the recent passing of the comedian Sid Caesar led Pete and me to look for some footage of this icon of American humor. I sat nearby as he clicked here and there on his computer. He immediately started laughing, listening to the “double talk” for which Caesar was particularly famous.
Soon I was giggling with him. A few minutes later, he told me to come to look at what he just found. I leaned over as he played a sketch for me from Caesar’s long-running TV show, Your Show of Shows, called Health Food Restaurant. This piece dates to the early 1950s. Caesar and Imogene Coca play a married couple out to dinner at a fancy New York City restaurant. Yet instead of the steak, sausage, snails and hot tamales that Caesar craves, here at the Vitality Health Food Kitchen where Coca has taken him, there is only Pala Paka plant blossoms; the Vitamin B1 B2 B3 C D and H Dinner for Two; homogenized bone meal and wheat germ with a side of cructose; and spaghutti, made from a cabbage extract and a cauliflower derivative. Caesar of course mocks, whines, pleads and gags his way through the menu as described by the waiter, played by Carl Reiner–who you may recall, I once met. But, impressed by the youthfulness and vitality of the other diners, and in an earnest attempt to appease his wife, he forgoes his personal desires and literally digs into the dinner salad served with a set of gardening tools for silverware.
Although “health food” and “plant-based” proponents and movements have probably been around since our Paleo beginnings, there was just something very surprising about seeing this sketch which was made during a period after which we seemed to have left vegetables behind on rural farms and before the Back to Nature movements of the 1970s. It was a time maybe of boiled potatoes and blanched green beans at best which also coincided with the peak years for deaths from heart disease. As this interesting history details, it was also a time marked by an increase in the use of hydrogenated fats and vegetable oils and the advent of pasteurized milk.
I am not sure we can pinpoint the nadir of the American diet. Though the 1950s can be critiqued for its focus on meat and dairy along with the increased use of processed foods, plasticized fats, and high smoking rates, things seem to have gotten a whole lot worse since then. I don’t think we have hit bottom but there are some signs we are beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages.
Perhaps I am just being a little naive. Just as we don’t believe that people in the “old days” ever had sex, maybe I can’t imagine the nature of health food consciousness before my own time and the dietary context in which it existed. Though the use of refined sugar is presented as a modern-day scourge, its grip took hold long ago. A brief look into biographical information about health and fitness guru Jack LaLanne who was born in 1914–ages ago–interestingly states that he described himself as a sugarholic and junk food addict as a young boy with associated behavioral problems. His early education about natural foods changed the course of his life. Of course, attention to the attainment of physical, emotional and spiritual health has coursed through human history, the admonishment of gluttony is a big theme in the Bible, and there have always been grandmas telling us to eat our vegetables.
Nonetheless, Health Food Restaurant seems quite anachronistic for its day–at least six years before Jack LaLanne’s pioneering fitness show began airing nationally in 1959. Although it was just a spoof, it seemed rather prescient addressing current anti-aging and food toxicity issues. One of the dishes is mentioned to be good for the ankles. The edema of the lower extremities is a common symptom of poor heart, kidney or liver function. Interestingly, Sid Caesar who seriously battled alcohol addiction and depression eventually became a devoted natural food and fitness adherent to which he credited his healing–and maybe his longevity, being 91 at the time of his passing.
The sketch touched on a few things that I think about. It reveals the intensity of our food attachments and belief systems and even their influence on relationships. Though we usually reference money, sex and religion as divisive issues, food, and eating habits probably belong somewhere on that list.
Additionally, it looks at the center of a society’s dietary culture at any given time and how far out is its fringe. How and why did the standard American diet evolve and deteriorate in such a relatively short period of time compared to other cultures? What was sacred and what was sacrilege as we shifted from rabbit stew and acorns to beef and potatoes, to chicken nuggets and french fries? Nature, economics, politics, biology, capitalism, and science all drove this complicated national trajectory. For all that was good and bad, it seems that we did not slow down and smell the Pala Paka blossoms and those that did were either ignored or derided. It is interesting now to see how the tide is turning as we confront current health and environmental crises. It is those who were on the fringe who may be forging our new direction.
Mockery is an innate behavior with evolutionary purposes that makes us defensively joke before we proceed. Some from the tribe must be brave enough to venture out while the others sit back and have a good laugh at their expense. Thank God laughter seems to be good for our health. I am particularly grateful to those who bless us with their humor because as I look down as I stomp around in the primordial swamp of our food culture, I see far too many swollen ankles–enough to break my heart. RIP Mr. Caesar.
Well, as they say at the Vitality Health Food Kitchen, “Good Health To You and Good Health To Everybody”.
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In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Do you carrot all for me?
My heart beets for you, with your turnip nose and your radish face,
You are a peach. If we cantaloupe, lettuce marry.
Weed make a swell pear. Author unknown
(This post is dedicated to my friend Susan who is heading out to join the Peace Corps. May her plate be filled with tasty Armenian cuisine and her heart with good things.)