From the March 1995 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Hangin' out with the Health Nazis


A couple of weeks ago, I went to lunch with a colleague from the office. As the waitperson handed us the menus, my friend said, "I never eat red meat anymore." I mentally canceled my order for a tuna salad and decided on a cheeseburger. Rare. My friend ordered a grilled-chicken sandwich with low-fat dressing on the bun. I ordered mayonnaise on the cheeseburger. I hate mayonnaise on my cheeseburgers, but a lady has to have some standards. My friend proceeded to relate all of the dreadful symptoms that had befallen her the week before when she'd accidentally ordered soup made with beef broth. I salted the cheeseburger.

I don't mind when people decide they want to do something or other for reasons of health, but when they get that self-righteous glazed look and start to recite all the martyrdoms to which they are subjecting themselves, I'm seized with this sudden mad urge to order double fries with extra grease. And when they go on and on and on, during a meal, telling me why they're being so virtuous, all the while staring at my plate as though I'd just been served up live vipers, well, actually, O Best Beloved, I'd rather be stalled between floors in an elevator with a brace of Jehovah's Witnesses. At least I'd have something to read besides the "Heart Healthy Calorie Notes" on the menu.

One of the things I looked forward to most when I was very small was being old enough to do what I wanted. Unfortunately, I've never been allowed to experience the freedom that my parents routinely enjoyed as adults in the 1940s and 1950s. The first encroachment was courtesy of the President's Council on Physical Fitness: suddenly every schoolchild was confronted with a list of minimally acceptable standards for performing various unnatural acts. Instead of being able to retire happily to the left field of the girls' softball games (where nobody was ever able to hit the damned ball, allowing me to stand around with a handful of index cards conjugating verbs in preparation for next period's French quiz), I was given a preview of Marine boot camp, or Hell, as we ran laps, did pushups, situps, chinups, jumping jacks, and committed other dreadful exertions whose names, mercifully, I have forgotten. We were supposed to go home at night and do more of all of them, so that by the end of the school year, we could all meet the goals set "personally by Our President, because he believes that healthy bodies will help us beat the Russians," as our principal told us as we sat in rows in the bleachers. I figured that while we were running in place until we collapsed, the little Russkies were hitting the books so that they could grow up to be nuclear scientists. When it became apparent that my inability to yank myself into the air and rest my chin on a metal bar was going to keep my class from getting a Presidential Award, my gym teacher gave me extra lessons. Somehow or other, the physical-education department pummeled me through the requirements (sort of like the way nonreaders are graduated today), but I never completely lost my indignation at being forced to live up to somebody else's arbitrary standards of physical conformity.

We were so innocent back in the early 1960s; little did we suspect that pushups were only the beginning. Hardly a day goes by anymore that doesn't bring a news report of yet another pleasure that will kill us or a nastiness that will be good for us. There isn't a single food on my list of 10 favorite things that doesn't contain several times the maximum daily allotted amount of something guaranteed to shorten my life. Meat now comes with a warning label assuring me of dire consequences if I don't char it to the consistency of Naugahyde. The grocer's dairy case contains two shelves full of skim milk, one shelf of 1 percent milk, one shelf of 2 percent milk, and a quarter-shelf of high-test. My monthly food shopping has become a real ordeal; it takes enormous concentration to avoid buying the unsweetened, low-fat, unsalted, or otherwise emasculated versions of foods I used to be able to trust. And sometimes the socially approved version is the only one that exists anymore.

I realized things were getting out of hand when I was on a business trip recently. After a grim day of meetings, the idea of running into someone in the hotel restaurant to whom I might have to be civil was more than I wanted to deal with, so I ordered up a room-service dinner. The entire meal was unseasoned, and there was no salt shaker on the dinner tray. I called room service and asked for salt and pepper, a request which appeared to trigger a fair amount of chaos in the kitchen. After 10 minutes or so, the room-service waitentity appeared at my door with a saucer containing a couple of paper packets of salt and pepper. Subsequent trips to different parts of the country have confirmed that this was not an isolated incident, and I now carry a salt shaker in my overnight bag.

Alas! carnivorous pleasures are becoming more difficult to enjoy without a fight. Even animal byproducts are hard to come by: ordering "real butter" in a restaurant, even with a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and sausage that I'm willing to admit contains enough cholesterol to drop an elephant in its tracks, is no guarantee that you'll get real butter. More and more establishments don't even stock it, substituting a bizarre spreadable substance-not-found-in-nature that doesn't quite melt on toast. I'm not sure you could melt it with a propane torch.

Yes, I bewail the lost joys of the table, but I render daily thanks that I'm not a smoker. Those folks are really under the gun. As a nonsmoker, I do admit to a certain increased level of comfort and enjoyment now that domestic air travel is smoke-free, and I have chosen not to use ashtrays as incidental furnishings in my own home. But when our local baseball stadium (an open-air facility) banned smoking last year, I went ballistic. And when I dine out, I invariably look the room over very carefully before I specify whether I want to be seated in the smoking or nonsmoking section; not only is the wait for a table a lot shorter if you opt for smoking, the odds of being seated next to a small unruly child are vastly reduced. I'll endure second-hand smoke in exchange for peace and quiet any time.

Two things bother me about this enforced regimen of healthy living. First, nobody seems to get their statistics, or their stories, straight for very long. Medical experts seem unable to agree on what constitutes a permissible salt, or fat, or alcohol intake, or even whether a particular substance is harmful at all. Second, it seems to me that something has gone drastically wrong with Americans' tolerance. I am not referring to our countrymen's ability to cut a little slack for people who march to a different drummer; I'm talking about physically being able to resist certain discomforts and cope with common stimuli. When I was growing up, almost all men wore after-shaves and all women wore perfumes, and very few people had severe allergic reactions to the odors. Smoking was widespread, and hardly anyone of my acquaintance suffered from severe respiratory complications from being in the presence of smokers. Lots of people enjoyed rare steaks, and E. coli bacteria have always been present in normal digestive systems. Within the past few years, we have started hearing claims that undercooked beef can kill us. Have we so insulated ourselves from the normal hazards of life that we are becoming as fragile as H.G. Wells's Martians? It is certainly the case that the children of the 1950s were stuffed with high-powered antibiotics every time they caught the sniffles, and that new and virulent strains of tuberculosis, syphilis, and other formerly "conquered" diseases are springing up to defy conventional cures. Perhaps in our search for a hazard-free environment, and our refusal to suffer any discomfort or danger without demanding some curative supplement, we are depleting and deactivating our natural defense mechanisms and developing toxic reactions to conditions that were considered normal 50 years ago.

Perhaps in another 10 or 15 years, a rare steak with a little salt sprinkled on it will cause fatal seizures in persons who haven't ingested those substances for a prolonged period of time. Until I can be assured that this is not the case, I am taking no chances with my immune system. And just to be on the safe side, I'm taking the salt out of my carry-on baggage and putting it into my checked luggage, where it's not so likely to be detected by the scanners. You can't be too careful when you're dealing with clandestine substances.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where they consider vegetarianism just another one of those social diseases that the damyankee carpetbaggers brought with them.

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