Back in 1989 I read a terrific novel by Oscar Hijuelos titled “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” about a couple of Cuban-American brothers who co-led a band in the 1950s whose greatest achievement was an appearance on the “I Love Lucy” show. After one brother dies in an auto accident, the other stops performing and takes a job as super in Washington Heights. Most of his free time is spent listening to old records of the Mambo Kings and hanging out in the neighborhood, playing dominoes, eating comidas tipicas, and drinking beer.
As happens to many people in their 60s, the surviving brother’s health starts to decline. After he survives a heart attack, the doctor puts him on a strict diet. No more comidas tipicas–just salads, fresh vegetables and lean meat. And absolutely no beer and no salt. After a month or so of this regimen, he develops such a craving for a Cuban sandwich (ham, pork, and melted cheese topped with a nice salty pickle) and a bottle of beer that he decides to go out in a blaze of glory. He brings home a Cuban sandwich, a quart of Budweiser, and dies in the middle of enjoying them while a Mambo Kings record plays away reminding him of his well-spent youth.
I really loved the novel and that particular passage. But that was nearly 25 years ago when I was 44 years old and fairly blasé when it came to matters of health, aging, and the big D. (That’s death.)
As you will learn as you hit your fifties and sixties, the weight tends to accumulate over the years, largely a function of a slowing metabolism. About 10 years ago I took a blood pressure test at work and learned that it was “slightly elevated”. And then around a year ago my taking naps on a nightly basis for a month got my wife so worried that she pressured me into seeing a doctor. I tried to explain to her that I don’t like going to doctors because I don’t want to get any bad news like I have cancer or something. Apparently medical experts are divided on most questions including the value of yearly checkups.
But the long-sacrosanct recommendation that everyone should have an annual physical was challenged yet again recently by researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen.
The research team, led by Dr. Lasse T. Krogsboll, analyzed the findings of 14 scientifically designed clinical trials of routine checkups that followed participants for up to 22 years. The team found no benefit to the risk of death or serious illness among seemingly healthy people who had general checkups, compared with people who did not. Their findings were published in November in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal).
NY Times, January 21, 2013
I was not surprised to learn that I still had elevated blood pressure but also too much of what they called “bad cholesterol”. Now my diet was nothing like the Mambo Kings guy but I do confess to enjoying eggs on the weekend and a buttered bagel. The bigger problem for me, however, was finding some healthy food to eat at lunch when I was still working at Columbia University. The only place that was convenient to my outpost in Manhattanville, where the school was colonizing as if it were the West Bank, was a Fairways grocery store that had food to take out at lunch. Yes, I will bare my soul. Many days I brought back sausages and peppers or meat loaf with mashed potatoes back to my desk. Plus I confess to having a half-muffin each morning. The feelings I get over this now are similar I’m sure to what somebody who kicked a $200 per day heroin habit must feel. How can I have been so stupid?
But what makes this all the more disconcerting is the memories I have of my mother’s last 2 or 3 years as she battled congestive heart disease. Yes, she was in her mid-80s when things got bad but who would want to do anything that makes hardening of the arteries more likely? I know I have to go some day but the idea of being a stroke victim or some other circulatory disease scares the pee out of me. When I used to visit my mother at the special nursing unit of the local hospital, I was always shook up when I saw Milt Brizel my high school geometry teacher who was paralyzed from the neck down, the aftermath of a stroke identical to the one depicted in the 2012 movie “Amour”, directed by Michael Haneke.
Haneke’s typical plot involves some deeply painful setback to a comfortable petty-bourgeois family, from home invasions to environmental collapse. The virtue of “Amour” is its willingness to describe exactly what befalls an elderly couple when one becomes incapacitated. At a certain point the wife demands to die but the husband keeps her alive, a challenge to notions about what really defines “love”.
As a sign of how backward American society is, the right of someone to end their own life in dignity is excluded in all but three states: Washington, Oregon and Montana. A truly civilized country would allow someone suffering some painful and terminal disease to take a couple of pills to end their misery. But the grip of organized religion is so great that it was capable of making someone as saintly as Jack Kervorkian to serve 8 years of a 10-25 year second-degree murder conviction sentence.
When I had my physical a year or so ago, I weighed 160 pounds. The doctor told me that he saw no need to put me on the kinds of medications that are advertised relentlessly on the network news each evening. He advised me to change my diet and get more exercise.
Once I retired on August 31, 2012, it became a lot easier to make those life-style changes. To start with, I cook my own food and not the junk they prepared at Fairway. Each morning starts with a bowl of steel cut oatmeal mixed with flax seed. When I first read that steel cut oatmeal was good for reducing bad cholesterol, I decided to get on board even if it reminded me of the Garrison Keillor radio show’s spiel for the fictional Raw Bits cereal: “It gives you the strength to get up in the morning and do the things that need to be done.”
Now, just a bit more than 6 months after retiring, I am down to 145 pounds and wearing size 32 trousers, that are actually a bit baggy on me. In a few months I will make another appointment with the doctor even though the NY Times does not think it is necessary (nor do they think that criticisms of Napoleon Chagnon are valid.) So, you ask, how did I do it? I imagine that most of you except the most morbidly curious have stuck with this post since it would remind you of the typical geezer telling you about his or her latest surgery.
Well, it has been the result of fasting every Monday and Thursday. Back in March 2012, a most remarkable article appeared in Harper’s magazine titled “Starving your way to vigor: the benefits of an empty stomach”. Written by Steve Hendricks, who embarked on a fasting regimen himself, it is an eye-opening account of its history as a medical treatment rather than a guide to spiritual elevation (something that interests me about as much as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO.)
In the 1960s a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania named Garfield G. Duncan be came troubled by the epidemic of American obesity, which then afflicted a shocking one man in twenty and one woman in nine. (Today it afflicts one in three men and women alike.) Like other researchers, Duncan fasted obese patients and studied how many regained their lost weight. Unlike other researchers, he noticed that the blood pressure of every patient who was hypertensive fell to within normal limits during these fasts. He reported, for illustration, the case of a man of fifty-three years and 325 pounds whose unmedicated blood pressure was 210/130 and whose medicated pressure was 184/106—still menacingly high. The man fasted for fourteen days without drugs, and his blood pressure fell to 136/90. Six months later, it was 130/75. Duncan did not record how many of his patients sustained such improvements after their fasts, but the possibility of a simple cure for some forms of hypertension seemed well worth pursuing.
Not until 2001, however, was there a definitive follow-up to his work. Its au thor, Alan Goldhamer, had fasted thousands of patients at his TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California, and had seen high blood pressures trill downward like Coast Range streams. He studied 174 hypertensives who fasted for ten days; 154 of them became normotensive by fast’s end. The others also enjoyed substantial drops in pressure, and all who had been taking medication were able to stop. In patients with stage 3 (the most severe) hypertension, the average drop in systolic pressure was 60 mmHg. In all patients, the average drop in systolic/diastolic was 37/13. According to Goldhamer, this was and remains the largest reported drop in blood pressure achieved by any drug or therapy. Like Duncan, Goldhamer did not formally study how long his subjects maintained their newly lowered blood pressures, but he surveyed forty-two subjects six months after their fasts, and their average blood pressure had risen hardly a jot.
For me the best part of fasting is that is really easy. You don’t have count calories. All you need to do is not eat. Can anything be simpler? What I learned almost immediately is that you don’t get any hungrier 12 hours into the fast than you were in the first hour. Plus, you can eat pretty much normally on other days, which for me consists of the sort of food that the Mambo King guy hated. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than some beans and a glass of red wine.
As my readers know, at least those who have stuck around long enough to read this ponderous piece, the issue of food and health has reached a crescendo of late, largely having to do with Michele Obama’s hypocritical campaigning. As a huckster for Walmart’s Healthy Food Initiative, she is just as shameless as her husband who just put a long-time Walmart executive in charge of the White House budget office. That shows where the second coming of Herbert Hoover’s head is really at.
Last Saturday morning Chris Hayes had a special food show on MSNBC. His featured guest was Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef and host of the hit TV show “Top Chef”. He was there to promote “A Place at the Table”, his new documentary on hunger that reflected his deep-felt concerns about poor people getting adequately fed, just like our First Lady. Colicchio told Hayes:
People look at feeding programs whether it’s snack or whether school lunches a handout as a charity program. And we have to look at it as sort of a tool to prepare our children to eat, especially when you look at breakfast programs. There`s a new study that just came out by Deloitte that was done with Share a Strength and No Kid Hungry.
And they`re showing when kids eat breakfast in school, their math scores go up by 17 percent. They have less incidence of being absent. And so, there`s all kinds of benefits. And so, the school lunch program is just — right now, it`s just not funded. And that clip that you showed actually set up the — I actually testified in front of Congress on behalf of the school lunch program.
Colicchio joined a panel in the second half of the show that took up other questions related to food and the poor, in this instance the lowly paid workers who often had to rely on tips. Hayes introduced the segment this way:
In 1960, according to the CDC, Americans spent just 26 percent of their food budget eating away from home. By 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 49 percent.
Food retail and service is one of the healthiest growing industries in the country. For the past decade food industry job growth has far outpaced totally sector job growth.
And yet by almost any measurements, most of these are simply not good jobs. They are some of the worst jobs in the country. In fact, food industry workers use government assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps in much higher than the general workforce does.
Over 27 percent of the food industry workers on Medicaid, compared to 19 percent of the general workforce, and over 13 percent of food service workers receive food stamps compared to just 8 percent of the general workforce.
According to Food Chain Workers Alliance, a workers advocacy group, nearly 80 percent don`t have paid sick days or don`t know if they do. Eighty- three percent of food industry workers do not receive health insurance from their employer, and 58 percent do not have any health insurance at all.
Given his familiarity with the terrain, or at least what his researchers fed to him over the teleprompter, one wonders why Hayes failed to grill Colicchio on this:
NY Times December 13, 2008
Lawsuit Accuses a Top Chef of Wage and Tip Violations
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Tom Colicchio, the celebrity restaurateur and judge on Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” television show, was sued in federal court on Thursday by a former waitress who accused his company of misappropriating employee tips, withholding some overtime pay and sometimes failing to pay minimum wage. Mr. Colicchio’s restaurants — including Craft, Craftbar and Craftsteak — were also named in the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, the waitress, Nessa Rapone, who used to work at the bustling Craftbar restaurant at 900 Broadway, between 19th and 20th Streets, asserted that Mr. Colicchio’s company, Craft Worldwide Holdings, improperly shared employee tips with supervisors, did not keep proper time records and fired her when she protested.
The lawyers for Ms. Rapone, a Brooklyn resident who worked at Craftbar from March to May 2007, are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan. It accused management of federal and state wage law violations, including failing to pay workers time and a half for all hours worked beyond 40 a week. It also asserts that management shared employee tips with other workers who were not eligible under federal and state law to share in the tip pool.
Ms. Rapone’s lawsuit also accused the company of not compensating her for the cleaning and care of the uniform that she was required to wear at Craftbar.
“The Craft restaurants, all upscale establishments designed by well-known architects and catered by award-winning chefs, have earned Mr. Colicchio and his partners great success,” one of Ms. Rapone’s lawyers, Justin M. Swartz, said in a statement on Friday. “This success, however, has come at the expense of the restaurants’ hourly service workers to whom the defendants have denied proper minimum wages, overtime compensation, and tips they earned from customers.”
If you go to Craft’s website, you’ll see a bunch of farms that supply locally grown and organic meat, fish and vegetables with names like Cavendish Game Farm—not a supplier to TGIF’s, you can be sure. Colicchio says, “Please enjoy some of the great ingredients grown, raised and caught by our friends that share our commitment to serving great food. We feature their bounty on this evening’s menu.”
All this “localism” got started, as you probably know, at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley where reservations have to be booked months in advance and where a typical entrée is $85, and where the rhetoric is quite Green:
Alice and Chez Panisse are convinced that the best-tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations.
Chain-smoking and hard drinking celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain, who would have probably sought out the Mambo King’s favorite restaurant, is unimpressed with Waters to say the least:
I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I’m not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I’m a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits. I’m suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth. I’m a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we’re eating is killing us. But I don’t know if it’s time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s. My libertarian side is at odds with my revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we’ve chosen to eat and our fast food culture. I’m really divided on that issue. It’d be great if he [Obama] served better food at the White House than what I suspect the Bushies were serving. It’s gotta be better than Nixon. He liked starting up a roaring fire, turning up the air conditioning, and eating a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup. Anything above that is a good thing. He’s from Chicago, so he knows what good food is.
I know little about the cable TV comedy Portlandia, except that it pretty obvious from this clip that they are as fed up with “local” and “organic” food pretensions as Bourdain:
Having said that, I of course believe in environmentally sustainable farming, ranching, and fishing. I own Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan books on healthy food and Green practices and swear by them.
But ultimately, like any other intractable social problem like global warming, food and health are ultimately a function of the mode of production. As long as there is profit in industrial farming and the peddling of sugar-laden fast food to the masses, the nation will continue to endure an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and all the rest.
The 90 year old Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite Marxist historians and political theorists, wrote a book in 1996 titled “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom” whose final pages are worth quoting in their entirety as a coda to this post.
What does the American future hold, so far as eating is concerned? In a series of brilliant recent papers, Cornell University scientist David Pimentel and his colleagues have predicted sweeping changes in American agriculture, and hence in American eating patterns over the next half century!’ Indeed, the changes that these scientists forecast, if they do occur, will be more radical in their effects on American eating than even those of the last half century—which is to say a very great deal. Demographic, agricultural, and other factors enter in. Pimentel and his colleagues, working from present trends, predict a doubling of the national population by 2064; a reduction in arable land (through both erosion and urbanization) in the neighborhood of 180,000,000 acres, or 38 percent, in the same period of time; and a total exhaustion of national fossil fuel resources in not more than two decades. The figures on rapidly diminishing water supply are similarly worrisome.
This is an unbelievably grim scenario. If it eventuates, food exports (now calculated at an average of about $155 per person per year, given our present population) would be reduced to zero. For Americans, food costs would increase by a factor of between three and five—at worst, up to more than half of total income. Should these calculations prove correct, however, the composition of the American diet would also have to change substantially. While nearly two-thirds of the national grain product of the United States, grown on over two million acres, is now used as livestock feed, by 2060 all of it would have become food for us, not for our cattle and pigs and poultry. In effect, Pimentel sees North Americans coming to eat as most of the rest of the world eats, with meat representing a much reduced fraction of our total caloric and protein intake. Since India’s nearly one billion people and the People’s Republic of China’s even larger population get 70 to 8o percent of their calories and nearly all of their protein from grains and legumes, such a change in the States would be in the direction of aligning North American consumption with that of the rest of the world. It would also contribute to a vast improvement in American health. Substantial farmland could be returned to agriculture; the number of bypass and cancer operations would certainly decline.
But will it happen? As I write, McDonald’s looks ahead to a rapid expansion of its enterprises in such places as the People’s Republic of China, where it aims to add 600 retail establishments in the next decade; and Japan, where it now boasts more than a thousand. Whatever the scenario for the United States, many companies are working hard to spread our way of eating world-wide. Nor is there evidence that many Americans are much concerned, either about our fossil fuel consumption or our diet. Driving cars and eating meat are highly valued acts; though both involve the expenditure of unimaginably large quantities of water, soil, cereals, and fossil fuel, there is no collective indication that anyone is deeply concerned. Only sudden shortages reveal, as if in lightning flashes, how deeply held such consumption values are; Operation Desert Storm was a case in point. Indeed, one solution” to the Pimentel prophecies is war. Successful aggression could keep meat and gas available and affordable, at least for a good while longer. Its effects on American moral integrity would be utterly disastrous. But the enormity of the decisions involved in such trade-offs would not be clearly grasped until after the decisions were made. There is a real trap in our not separating what we are free to do, but need not do, if it is a bad idea—from what we cannot help doing, even though it is a bad idea, because we think someone is trying to stop us from doing it.
No one can look down the road and predict how the American people will behave, fifty years from now. One sinister prophecy is embodied in the words of Josef Joffe, the editorial page editor of Suddeutsche Zeitung, who writes: “It is profligacy—being hooked on the sweet poison of consumption—that might yet lay low the American economy and thus American might.” But the worry is not that we will let our consumption gluttony destroy our economy; it is, rather, that we might let our obsessive notions of individual freedom destroy our democracy. The long-term lessons of our economic and agricultural policies are there to be learned now. But we have to be willing to learn them.