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Zaleski: No food police in grandma’s kitchen

It’s the time of year when the food police concentrate on kids, their eating choices and school menus. The fashionable conclusion is that American children are fat, eat too much “junk” food, and the federal school lunch makeover is inspired. And for good measure, the demonization of all things sugar and most things fat continues apace.

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Wait a minute. Slow down the “we-know-what’s-good-for-you” food train.

Think back a generation. If you’re around my age, think back to your youthful eating habits. (Habits? We didn’t know eating was a habit.)

Without finger-wagging food snoots to guide us, we ate pretty much everything — and that means early versions of McDonald’s hamburgers and fries, and fatty-sugary-salty fare from moms, grandmas and aunts.

Sugar was everywhere and it was welcome. Kool-Aid powder was mostly sugar. Pour it in a pitcher of icy water to take the edge off the heat and humidity of an August day in southern New England. The corner store’s candy counter beckoned with a plethora of sweets — all, I’m sure, made mostly of sugar. A nickel’s worth filled our pockets.

Fast food? Been around a long time. We sucked up a helluva lot of McDonald’s burgers (15 cents each) when the golden arches were a new phenomenon. A hole-in-the-wall hotdog place was a must-stop nearly every day: chili dog, onions, brown mustard on a starchy white bun. We washed it down with 10-cent Cokes that were sweetened with, yup, sugar.

Fat? I once watched my high school’s cafeteria workers pry open cans of chicken, noteworthy for yellow globs of fat floating in the broth. The chicken was heated on steam tables; fat melted into the stewed meat, and it was served for school lunch with salty gravy on mashed potatoes, maybe a scoop of soggy green beans that no one ate. We gobbled up the greasy chicken, soaking up the goop with Wonder Bread that was smeared with butter. No steamed broccoli, veggie burgers or crisp romaine salad with low-fat balsamic dressing on the menu.

Well, say the foodies, the crisis is a-brewing because so many young people don’t eat meals prepared at home. They go to convenience stores for processed burritos and an over-sized jug of Mountain Dew. They buzz like flies into the mall food court where they are poisoned by fast foods that taste good because of too much fat, sugar and salt. Is that really the problem?

There’s irony in the hand-wringing about food. Everyone I know waxes nostalgically about the foods that were prepared by grandmothers and mothers. Whether Scandinavian, Polish, Italian, Irish or German, our ethic roots are nourished by food memories — and recreations of Old World recipes in our own homes. By today’s standards, very little of it was good for us:

Thick soups made with heavy cream and a pork base. Mashed potatoes made smooth with butter and cream, and in some traditions (mine) spiced with salt pork. Fatty, salty sausages were unique to every nationality. Pastries and pies in which crusts were flaky and melt-in-your-mouth delicious because they were made with lard; and fillings that were (are) sugary, creamy or cheesy. Fish served up in a bath of melted butter (think lutefisk). Carbohydrate-loaded linguini smothered in fat-rich meat sauce (my mother’s recipe).

Sound familiar? How is it we survived those splendid feasts? How is it that despite all the breathless warnings and contradictory studies about food, we still warm our hearts and souls with recipes handed down over generations?

Eat the good stuff. Exercise. Go easy with portion size as you age. (Tough when it’s so darned good.) But enjoy. And disregard the food police when their warnings stray to the apocalyptic.

Zaleski is the editorial page editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.