Religion & Jewish Life

Yale professor’s exhibit shows that ‘Big Food’ is real — and scary

Sarah Conley, a visitor to the "Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating," exhibit at the Yale Peabody museum of Natural History in New Haven, Conn., grimaces as she handles the equivalent of five pounds of human fat while her sister, Gloria, looks on. (Yale School of Public Health).

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (JTA) — What is it with Jews and food? We’re obsessed about it, but often with the wrong kind, like the large bagel we crave on the way into work — 337 calories, add another 50, plus 3 grams of saturated fat, for one tablespoon of cream cheese.

Or, the oil-laden latkes we’ll be scarfing down come December — 83 calories, 5 grams of fat, and that’s merely one frozen potato pancake. (Courtesy of the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s vast nutritional database, Food-A-Pedia.)

Jeannette Ickovics, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, is also obsessed about food, but more often with the right kind. Yet she credits this directly to growing up in her Jewish home.

Ickovics is the lead curator of “Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating,” an exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Conn. Despite the lofty subtitle, it’s really a graphic and entertaining display of our society’s escalating descent into obesity, provoked by bad food choices and the creeping supersizing of portions.

The exhibit runs through Dec. 2, but chances are you may not make it there — New Haven tends to get outflanked by Boston and New York on the I-95 corridor — so I’ll give you a digest of the highlights.

I begin my Ickovics-guided tour with lunch: She thoughtfully schleps a portable smorgasbord of lentils, grilled peppers, zucchini and at least three other vegetables to the Peabody, so that I will be less inclined to grab a slice of Frank Pepe’s legendary pizza on my way into town.

Ickovics tells me her parents — both Holocaust survivors — settled in Philadelphia in 1961 by way of Hungary, where her father joined the army during World War II, using fake Catholic papers, before spying for the Russians in the Resistance. Her mother came through Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Reichenbach concentration camp. Post-Holocaust: a displaced persons camp; Genoa, Italy, and finally, Haifa.

In 1960s America, when other parents opened boxes of Kraft spaghetti dinner for supper or Kellogg’s brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts for breakfast, Ickovics’ newly immigrated mother, Rachel, served borscht from fresh beets, shlishkes — the Hungarian version of gnocchi — and walnuts and honey or an occasional apple cake for dessert — homemade, of course.

“We grew up on whole foods,” says Ickovics. “We didn’t get meals from a can, box or plastic bag.” She ate in the same way her mother was reared in her Hungarian Jewish home: fresh vegetables, beans, everything from scratch, she says.

In her own life, Ickovics believes in moderation; she says research indicates this way of eating is more sustainable, especially for weight loss.

“You could argue that there are traditional foods, Jewish treats like bagels, lox and cream cheese, that are high in fat and sugar, and that you should never have them,” she says. “But that’s not where I draw my personal line as a mother or professor of public health. Enjoy them, but only occasionally.”

Ickovics clearly draws the line, though, at soda (or “pop,” as I called the Diet Rite Cola that was a staple in my ’60s suburban Chicago home).

“Big Food” is unmerciful towards sugary drinks: Choosing these is a no-no.

One exhibit showcases cans and bottles of liquids alongside varying numbers of bright orange spoons corresponding to the amount of sugar in each: 16 spoonfuls of sugar in a 20-ounce can of Red Bull, 19 spoonfuls in a 23-ounce can of Arizona Iced Tea.

A slide show on milestones in our food history heralded the 1982 introduction of Diet Coke (weirdly, in retrospect) as one of the most successful product launches of the decade. How misguided we were: I also learned that “just one 8 oz. sugary drink every day increases a child’s odds of becoming obese by 60 per cent.”

Another display features clear plastic baby bottles painted with Diet Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew logos. Ickovics tells me that she’s overheard people walking by, loudly complaining that it was poor taste for “Big Food” to fabricate such monstrosities for the exhibit.

But they weren’t fabricated, Ickovits says.

“They were purchased,” Ickovics insists, explaining that companies shrewdly manufactured these bottles because they knew that kids, potential consumers, “learn to identify logos before they learn to read.”

We walk through the narrow entry to the exhibit, lined on either side with Plexiglas panels shielding, among other items, a mountain of 2-liter plastic bottles of Coke, Sprite and Pepsi on one side, and fake round loaves of white bread and a large oval platter of 36 pounds of dummy French fries on the other.

The exhibition illustrates to scale the amount of food the average American eats every year. This includes 170 pounds of red meat, 79 pounds of added fats and oils, 607 pounds of dairy, including 33 of cheese and 5 gallons of ice cream. Compare this to only 127 and 149 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, respectively.

A mock kid’s room, complete with a teen mannequin supine on his bed, his left hand reaching into a bag of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips and his right fiddling with a TV remote, wordlessly puts many of the exhibit’s messages together.

Sneakers lie unworn on the floor, a desktop computer is on, a sociology text sits closed on the night table next to a Pepsi can, a psychology book for school is also unread. Message on the computer monitor: Log out, go outside and play.

Another exhibit speaks more pointedly to this kid’s parents. Chili con carne recipes from two editions of that American classic, “The Joy of Cooking,” are compared. A single serving in the 1936 edition is 243 calories; the 2006 version shoots up to 611 calories, thanks to three times the amount of beef.

Perhaps Big Food’s piece de resistance is the slimy-looking yellow blob marbled with pink, situated alone in a case in the middle of the exhibit: the plastic equivalent of five pounds of human fat.

A teenage girl walks by and tells her mom that “it’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.” Her mother responds: “I can’t believe that’s really just five extra pounds.”

Big Food is fun to wander through, although the obesity statistics are sobering: In 2010, more than 20 percent of the adult population in every state was obese, and in two thirds, that total was over 30 per cent. One out of every two adults and one out of every three kids is overweight or obese.

So what’s fun in Big Food? You can try “Smash Your Food,” which identifies the fat, sugar and salt in what you’ve (virtually) smashed. There’s another game consisting of prettily colored wood doors, with a nutrition facts label posted on the outside of each. Visitors have to guess what food’s inside.

One lime green door is plastered with an ingredient list 18 lines long. We learn that a single serving of this mystery product is 260 calories and contains 14 grams of fat. Open the door, and you’re staring at a package of Nacho Cheese Doritos.

Big Food also turns its attention to that ubiquitous Jewish (Polish, to be exact) delicacy, the bagel. Two replicas, one looking minute, represents the bagel, circa 20 years ago (140 calories), the other, huger in comparison, signifies the bagel of  today (350 calories).

Even time-honored Jewish foods can’t escape supersizing.

Ickovics says that Big Food has reached more than 100,000 people  and that negotiations are underway for “Big Food to Go,” a national tour. The opportunity to improve the health of individuals, families and communities is part of her personal tikkun olam, and the reason she chose a career in public health and curated this exhibition.

“All the work I do is guided by a moral compass deep in my core that says we must not be indifferent in the face of injustice and inequity,” she says.

I asked if she had parting nutritional advice for a Jewish audience.

“Break bread (not not too much), enjoy your latkes (with applesauce instead of sour cream) and raise your glass (water, not soda). L’chaim!”

Elisa Spungen Bildner is the co-chair of JTA’s board of directors.