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How America Eats 

Pizza, Pizza

click to enlarge dining-9817.jpg

Photoillustration by Magali Pirard

Where's the beef? Blame it on Oprah if you must--the Texas beef industry does--but America's love affair with beef has diminished among busy consumers, which is not to say we are a nation of health food freaks.

America's eating habits are changing, but not necessarily for the better

By Bob Johnson

NO DOUBT about it: The people at Pillsbury like to poke. They poke their pudgy Doughboy dozens of times each week on national television while hawking frozen biscuit dough and boxed cake mixes, and now they're poking around our kitchens. Two thousand of our kitchens, to be precise, in an exercise to determine "How America Eats."

What did they find in our refrigerators and on our cupboard shelves? The answers may surprise--and perhaps dismay-- you. Furthermore, they found that what we eat at restaurants usually is quite distinct from what we eat at home.

We've been hearing for years that Americans' consumption of beef has been on the decline. The Pillsbury study confirms this contention. In 1987, the last time Pillsbury's spies trained their microscopes on our kitchens, steak was rated as our favorite food; by 1997--whether rare, medium, or well done, grilled, broiled, or blackened--it had fallen to fifth place.

During that same 10-year stretch, hamburgers dropped from sixth place to 10th, perhaps explaining why today you can buy a McDonald's burger for 29 cents on Wednesdays or a Burger King Whopper for 99 cents any day of the week.

Hot dogs also dropped a notch in popularity, from third in 1987 to fourth in '97. But as nutritionists point out, it would be a stretch to cite that as an indication of beef's sagging popularity. More likely, it's a sign of the public's slowly increasing disdain for mechanically separated turkey, pork, water, salt, corn syrup, dextrose, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrate. Bologna sandwiches also fell from favor, from eighth place to out of the top 10, but we won't go into the non-beef ingredients contained in that one-time lunchtime favorite--after all, this is only a 892-word story.

While beef and "near-beef" dishes have seen better days, several other staples are holding their own. Ham sandwiches maintained their No. 2 position, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches improved from fourth to third, cheese sandwiches went from seventh to eighth, and baked chicken held steady at No. 9.

Casting cholesterol concerns aside, the two dishes that registered the greatest gains in popularity both happen to feature cheese as a primary ingredient. Macaroni and cheese jumped from 10th place to seventh, and taking over the No. 1 position, ascending from fifth place in 1987, was ... drum roll, please ... pizza!

Yes, it's a great day in Sonoma County for Clo the cow.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN about ourselves from all these data? A number of things. We like to talk about health, but don't like to do anything about it.

As a society, we're not yet willing to sacrifice taste for more healthful food. Despite all the studies that show how a poor diet can lead to heart disease, cancer, and other life- threatening afflictions, we continue to take the George Bush approach to nutrition: "Hold the broccoli." Given the choice of a fat-laden pepperoni pizza or a nearly calorie-free salad, most people would choose the pizza. Steak or chicken? Steak. Mac and cheese or pasta salad with light vinaigrette? Mac and cheese.

When it comes to satisfying our taste buds, we prefer "in your face" to "subtle."

We're addicted to full-flavored foods, just as we have evolved to prefer flavorful beverages--hence the proliferation of sushi bars and Thai restaurants along with designer coffee bars and microbrew beer pubs. Especially when we go out to eat, "bland" is a four-letter word. "Would you like some black pepper for your salad?" Absolutely. "Hot sauce for your taco?" Por favor. We're in a hurry.

As our lives have become more complicated, time has come to be viewed as a precious commodity. When it's time to eat, we look for shortcuts. To enjoy a steak at home, one must first go to the market and select a cut, take it home, season it, and then cook it, checking periodically to make sure it's not being overcooked. On the other hand, to enjoy a pizza at home, one need merely pick up the phone and place an order, instantaneously freeing up time to attend to any number of other chores while someone else does the baking. Is it any wonder pizza has supplanted steak as our favorite food?

These days, it's impossible to wheel a cart down a supermarket aisle without encountering a bevy of products formulated (designed might be a better word) to help the purchaser save time. Hamburger Helper. Prewashed, cut, and bagged lettuce. Minute Rice.

Paradoxically, despite the proliferation of cookbooks, we apparently don't like or don't want to cook.

Or, at the very least, we don't like to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen. Of our 10 favorite foods, according to the Pillsbury researchers, not one is difficult to prepare. Six of the 10 are sandwiches or sandwich-style dishes, which can be assembled in mere minutes, and the other four require only minimal preparation. And even though the bologna sandwich disappeared from the list, it was replaced by the equally easy-to-prepare turkey sandwich.

Times have changed and time is tight, so we prepare our meals quickly, ingest them quickly, and move on to the next item on the day's "to do" list. Investment brokers would chew on those facts, crunch the numbers, and tell you it's a great time to buy stock in Pepto-Bismol.

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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