Healthy eating in America - fat chance

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The Independent Online

I am wondering about lunch. Lately, I have been patronising a Subway just around the corner.

I am wondering about lunch. Lately, I have been patronising a Subway just around the corner. They have these new breads - garlic and herb and whatnot - and their Italian cold-cut sandwiches, with lots of gooey dressings, are the best. But going there will mean a dilemma. Do I go for the 12-inch or the six-inch roll?

Of course, I know the answer already. The half-sandwich just doesn't quite do it. What's the point, if I am still peckish afterwards? And I have lived in this country long enough to know how a real American approaches these things. You treat every meal as if it is your last. Twelve inches it will be.

When it comes to food, my assimilation is almost complete. As a resident of Manhattan, that means first of all that I rarely cook. Shameful, but true. You should see the kitchens most of my friends have in their apartments. Usually, they are not kitchens at all, consisting of a tiny, totally neglected cooker, a couple of creaky cabinets and a fish-bowl-sized sink jammed into a recess in their living rooms.

So we order in. Each evening when I come home, the first chores are the same. Greet the dog and tidy up the latest menus that have been slipped beneath my door during the day. Who knew there were so many sushi restaurants within a few blocks of our apartment? I abhor sushi, but there are almost as many Tex-Mex joints. My favourite? Fajitas by the pound - half a cow, with onions, on tortilla bread.

Volume, you will not be surprised to hear, is the principal issue with eating in this country. Recent arrivals here are still astonished, if not repulsed, by the sheer quantities we are expected regularly to consume. I still cannot persuade any American I know that the cucumber sandwich really is something the people of Britain occasionally enjoy. To them, we might as well be eating air.

Eating big is as much a part of the American experience as, well, apple pie (with Reddi-wip from an aerosol on top). In France, they stuff geese for the sake of gastronomy. In this country, we are the geese and never mind the gastronomy. We have found the land of plenty and plenty is almost never enough. But now, all of a sudden, we are being scolded for it.

Last week, the government warned that over-eating is fast catching up with smoking as the primary cause of premature death in the United States. It announced plans for a series of public service advertisements on television to encourage us to follow the example of those who are shedding pounds. One spot features two lads on a beach stumbling upon a discarded human pot belly in the sand.

And look at McDonald's. True, even at my hungriest moments I cannot accept the automatic offer of their counter staff to super-size my meal. You need a snorkel to tackle a McDonald's super-sized drink. But now the company has vowed to end super-sizing by the end of this year in deference to the new mood of calorie temperance. This is surely a sad turn of events. "Super-size" is a part of the American lexicon, used liberally by headline writers to denote anything of huge proportions,

All right, I know, we eat far too much over here. No question. But what's next? I fear for the all-you-can-eat buffet, another essential component of the American existence. True, these are not so prevalent in Manhattan, where my only experience of gorging at will has been at Plataforma, a fancy Brazilian churrascaria on West 49th Street, where the waiters carve slices of juice-dripping meat onto your plate until you are defeated.

But beyond Manhattan, these fixed-price, take-what-you-can banquets are everywhere. Las Vegas has more buffets than baccarat tables. Cruise ships are buffets that happen to be on water. Anywhere there is a Wal-Mart there will be an all-you-can-eat nearby. They are cheap, fun and almost fatally filling.

Cocking a snook at the nanny state, my partner and I repaired the other night to the Grand Buffet in Hudson, a town two hours north of here where we have a weekend place. The restaurant is an orgy of anything that is vaguely Chinese in flavour. "A hundred different items daily", the paper place-mats boast. And how we gorged, all for nine bucks each. Finally a waitress bought us our fortune cookies - a hint that our stomachs had overstayed their welcome.

Here is evidence that it will take more than public service ads to change America's eating habits. There is one counter at the Grand Buffet that is always heaped with glistening fresh fruit. And, of course, no one ever goes near it. Why bother to have watermelon when greasy, fried won tons are only two steps away?

X-rated in-car entertainment

My daughter, aged 10, has just had the "birds and bees" class in her school. Surely a bit young for such information, I thought at first. But, when you consider the pornographic perils lurking on the American highways nowadays, maybe not. I am talking about people who watch naughty movies on their in-car DVD players with nary a concern for anyone drawing up next to them in a traffic jam with kids in the back.

This really is starting to happen. Only a few weeks ago, a driver in Schenectady, just up the road from Hudson, was arrested after he puttered past a police cruiser with something called Chocolate Foam playing on the passenger-side sun visor. He was charged with exhibiting sexually explicit material in a public place. Meanwhile, a Chicago mother, Andrea Carlton, complained last week to police after twice spotting people enjoying some X-rated material while driving. Never mind my daughter's sensibilities: how do they keep their eyes on the road?

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