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You Are What You Eat 

"When the talk turns to eating, a subject of the greatest importance, only fools and sick men don't give it the attention it deserves." -- Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

By now all the New Year's resolutions have gone bye-bye, so we can close our ears to the abjurations of an army of Roxannes who, come spring, will all be trying to squeeze into bikinis of Britney's proportions. Yet most any day's paper gives nothing so much as it gives food news. Check these recent headlines: "Detroit gains ranking as fattest of 25 cities." "Lottery millionaires dine on burgers." "Miss Manners: You are how you eat."

So we are fat, and we are not happy about it, and then we are fatter. Are we merely eating more and enjoying less? Here's a scary opinion: We may be eating less, weighing more and enjoying less.

It is not an opinion lightly won. Many and well were the meals I saw finished. The up-ended pitcher of Brer Rabbit cane syrup, the last slurp of figs in their own juice or crabs in their own shell, the teeth-scraping of cornhusks to empty them of their tamale meat, the spooning of bay-leafed red beans in search of another chunk of picklemeat.

But now almost never, since Mother Nature decided not to grant immunity and instead to knot arteries like boys knot licorice whips, to fling out chest pains radiated to the middle of the back, to shut down something deep inside arm and leg and to leave in that something's place an everlasting sting. Since then, eating to live instead of living to eat. Yet obesity seems to be taking over America. Yet people in other times or in other lands have eaten more.

Here's Peter Mayle, telling of the cold-weather cuisine of Provence:

"It is made to stick to your ribs, keep you warm, give you strength, and send you off to bed with a full belly. ... There were p#226;tés of rabbit, boar, and thrush. ... There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in a fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped ... and the duck was brought in. ... We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in a dark, savory gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms."

Naturally it goes on, to a rabbit casserole, salad with cheese and fried bread, and an almond and cream gateau. Of course, this is France, and there even a middle-American like Ernest Hemingway could delve deeply into the pleasures of the table:

"The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l'huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draught of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l'huile were gone I ordered another serving and a cervelas. This was sausage ... split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce. ... I mopped up all the oil and all of the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to lose its coldness and then I finished it."

Americans on American soil were something else. Thomas Wolfe wrote about it in the lean times of the 1930s, and this is how he described lunch for a circus troupe:

"For their mid-day meal they would eat fiercely, hungrily, with wolfish gusts, mightily, with knit brows and convulsive movements of their corded throats. They would eat great roasts of beef with cracked hides, browned in their juices, rare and tender, hot chunks of delicate pork ... twelve-pound pot roasts cooked for hours in an iron pot with new carrots, onions, sprouts and young potatoes ... huge roasting ears of corn, smoking hot, stacked like cord wood on two-foot platters, tomatoes cut in slabs with wedges of okra and succotash and raw onion, mashed potatoes whipped to a cream smother, boats swimming with pure beef gravy, new carrots, turnips, fresh peas cooked in butter, and fat string beans seasoned with the flavor of the chunks of cooking-pork. In addition, they had every fruit that the place and time afforded: hot crusty apple, peach and cherry pies, encrusted with cinnamon ... blobbering cobblers inches deep.

"Thus the circus moved across America ... eating its way from Maine into the great plains of the West ... eating all good things that this enormous, this inevitably bountiful and abundant cornucopia of a continent yielded. ... Their life was filled with the strong joy of food."

Enough of this talk of strong joy. Home to the tuna lurking in the round flat cans and the Ryvita crispbread crackers and the lowcarbsugarfree barbecue sauce and the drink with one calorie and no taste.

Have to drive right past Angelo Brocato's. Inside, those big clear jars full of chewy cucidata and biscotti regina and glass freezers hosting torroncino, wedges of cinnamon gelato with crushed almonds, and castagna.

Turning light, changing lanes, easing over. There is beauty for the eye and beauty for the ear -- there must be beauty for the mouth as well, at least once in a while.

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