My mom lived and learned to cook during the 1950s and ‘60s, the heyday of the congealed salad and dessert. So at every picnic, party and family get-together of my youth, there was Jell-O in all its jiggly glory.
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I learned how to concoct gelatin dishes in a spectrum of colors and forms just from being in the kitchen. I can whip up a lemon Jell-O with sparkling grape juice, a strawberry twist with whipped cream and cream cheese, and a lime delight with apples, celery and nuts. I’ve cut Jigglers into an array of objects and characters, and even had a sizeable mold to celebrate the year 2000 with gelatinous numerical digits.
What was new, exciting and novel to my mom became my normal.
The situation has been much the same with food across the board in the United States over the last few generations. As a young girl, I would observe with curiosity the excitement a bag of Fritos would inspire in my Great Aunt Edith.
“Come on over,” she’d say. “I’ve got Fritos. I’ve got it all.”
To a woman who was accustomed to hours of peeling, plucking, grinding and shelling in the kitchen, a bag of Fritos was a representation of progress, convenience, a perk of living in opulent times. To me, it was a bag of tasty chips off the grocery store shelf.
It was the same with boxed mac and cheese. To me, it was food. But to someone like Aunt Edith who was around for its 1937 introduction, it was a marvel. Also thrilling to her were Spam, Froot Loops, Twinkies and other fodder I grew up eating without a thought.
“Look, look, look,” Aunt Edith would say, visually scanning grocery store shelves. “What will they think of next?”
Ground-breaking food gurus of the 20th century did have it going on in the areas of quick, easy and tasty. But I wonder how much consideration processed food companies and consumers gave to the long-term toll such fare would take on the human body.
According to Beverage Marketing Corporation, the average American drinks 45 gallons of soda every year. We know all those empty calories add up in weight gain and related health issues, and that excess sugar rots our teeth. I convince myself I am doing better by drinking diet, then my dentist reminds me that acid alone in soda dissolves tooth enamel. And yet I continue to drink it.
Media reports mention trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, dyes and MSGs and their risks to our health even as we roll our carts to the register and shell out hard-earned money to eat and drink them.
What was once great, delicious fun has caught up with us. We are killing ourselves with progress.
One day, as I was getting my haircut, I noticed that the stylist looked far slimmer and fit than he previously had. I asked what he had done.
“If it comes in a bag, I don’t eat it,” was his response.
I like an occasional Dorito as much as the next girl. But I also savor the beauty of tearing into a juicy grapefruit or crunching a crispy radish.
Oftentimes, when I pull produce out of my purse to snack on, people react strangely, as if to say, “Are you going to eat that? You didn’t do anything to it.”
Now I’m going to get all pre-Aunt Edith era, ditch the Cheez-Its, and grab myself an apple.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is email@example.com.