I staggered back to the office, undid my belt, and pretended to be in meetings for the rest of the afternoon, too full to function properly and realizing I had one more low-carb stop to make: Burger King……”
It’s been a few months since my last rant, dear readers, and believe me, it hasn’t been for lack of topics that send me into a sputtering fit of pique. We’re gearing up for what may be the dirtiest, nastiest presidential election ever, as George W. tries desperately to avoid losing yet another popular vote in 2004; the war in Iraq has settled down into a gradual, headline-avoiding meat grinder of an occupation, with no end in sight; self-righteous, half-drunk, nacho-stuffed Super Bowl fans are screaming bloody murder over the “unplanned” unveiling of Janet Jackson’s right hooter; reality shows are happily plumbing the depths of human greed and depravity (Fox recently aired a two-episode horror called “The Littlest Groom”, complete with bikini-clad midget babes, plus “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé” sandbagged an entire family into suffering through a staged wedding, and of course, “Playing it Straight” will test a hot chick’s ability to pick the gay fellas from a stable of hottie hunks for a cool million). Don’t just take my word for it—go to http://www.realitytvworld.com/ for the latest news in just how low Fox and its ilk will go. These examples don’t even scratch the surface of what’s cheesing me off these days. I find myself faced, as usual, with a veritable cornucopia of crassness and cultural rot.
So what have I chosen to vent my spleen about this time? The low-carb diet craze, that’s what. Thank God most of the irritants I mention above can be avoided by turning off the damn TV and going into a sort of suspended animation with regards to popular culture, but when it comes to low-carb diets, there seems to be no escape. It reminds me of the advent of reality TV, when all around me people I normally considered to be reasonably well-adjusted and rational were yapping endlessly about the first “Survivor” series. Now it seems nearly everyone I know is on either the Atkins or South Beach diet, loading up on steak, bacon, eggs, cheese, butter, mayo, and hollandaise sauce while turning up their noses at bread, baked potatoes, pasta, rice, fries, chips, fruit—and supposedly dropping pound after pound of excess flub from their copious waistlines. Fried pork rinds are just fine, thank you, but you’d better start using those rice cakes for drink coasters.
According to the AP newswire, more than 32 million Americans are now on a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, and sales of the two most popular diet plan books are nothing short of astounding: the late Dr. Robert Atkins’ series of low-carb diet books, which began with 1972’s Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, has sold over 15 million copies, and 2003’s The South Beach Diet, by Dr. Arthur Agatston, has 1.2 million copies in print and has captured the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller list at least seven times. (In one of the most telling quotes I’ve read in a long time, Richard Pine, Dr. Agatston’s literary agent, said, “It’s the ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ of the publishing world.”) That adds up to a lot of Americans choking down a lot of meat and lard, and tossing a lot of now-taboo hamburger buns out of their car windows.
It’s a well-known fact that Americans are getting fatter and fatter—according to the American Obesity Foundation, approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million are obese, and 9 million are severely obese. I can’t claim to be exempt from the ranks of the portly myself; nobody relishes a meatball sub with curly chili cheesy fries washed down with a cold Terminator Stout more than I do. I’ve been fighting the battle of the bulge for as long as I can remember, and I don’t need a diet guru or a best-selling book to tell me why. It’s quite simple: I love food. I love to eat. A lot of that food I love to eat is not healthy food, and I don’t always manage to push myself away from the table in time; I succumb to time constraints and donut platters and fat-loaded, starchy restaurant items just as much as any typical American. It was pretty unsettling to see my doctor recoil in horror from my latest MRI scans and to hear him compare my arteries to cross-sections of a 7-11 corndog; watching his eyes bug out when he took my blood pressure was no picnic, either. The good doc really unloaded on me, threatening to sentence me to house arrest with a battalion of dieticians if I didn’t shape up and start doing something about my precarious cardiovascular condition, and I suspect I’m not alone in that regard. Clearly, Americans have to get a handle on their weight or there will be dire health consequences to deal with in the not-too-distant future.
I can’t claim to understand whether the low-carb diet is a good idea or a bad idea, or even if it works or doesn’t work; the jury is still out on that, with many doctors claiming it puts dieters at risk by robbing them of fiber and nutrients, and the Atkins camp predictably defending its program through study after cherry-picked study. They even have a feature on their website—“Talking About Atkins to Your Doctor”—that coaches Atkins adherents in how to talk their doctors into abandoning their “knee-jerk anti-Atkins reactions.” But the whole thing definitely gets on my nerves. It’s not so much that low-carb diets—Atkins especially—have generated a huge amount of controversy, or that the Atkins empire is raking in tons of cash through sales of books, bars, shakes, condiments, vitamin supplements, and frozen dinners. What has me tearing out the few hairs I have left is the fact that many of America’s fast-food chains have jumped on board the low-carb craze and are catering to what they must see as a potentially huge cash cow.
It just blows my mind that there is really such a thing as a fast-food hamburger with no bun. It’s just so…American, the whole Atkins craze seems to fit perfectly with the American obsession with having it all, right now, a quick solution to a very complex problem. Somehow we need to be able to look good without sacrifice or discomfort, and nothing points that out more clearly than fast food chains scrambling to take advantage of the American consumer’s new obsession. Carl’s Jr. was the first chain I noticed running TV ads about a low-carb burger; before long there were commercials touting “Atkins-Friendly Subway Wraps,” and reader boards on local Burger Kings started to tout “low carb items.” You can get pizzas with “half the carbs” (read: a thinner crust). Jack in the Box hasn’t done any ads yet, nor do they push low-carb items in their restaurants, but their website offers “Drive-Thru Dieting: Now you can enjoy low-carb versions of your favorite Jack in the Box burgers and sandwiches. We’ll hold the bun and sauce, and serve the item in a sealable container, with a knife and fork on the side.” McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell haven’t weighed in yet, possibly deciding to wait and see where the whole craze goes.
I recently decided it was time to head out to the field, Dan Rather-style, and look the enemy squarely in the eye. I couldn’t very well write terrible things about food I’d never actually tried, now, could I? So I put up my “out to lunch” sign at the Smokebox editorial offices and jumped into my car, intent on finding out just what the fast-food giants have to offer.
Since Carl’s Jr. started my latest tirade with their “Low Carb Six Dollar Burger,” I decided to try this lettuce-wrapped monstrosity first. The hype started before I even made it across the parking lot—the windows of the restaurant were plastered with Volkswagen-sized hamburgers blown up to colossal proportions, sporting sesame seeds the size of cell phones, and sure enough, one of them was sans bun. I stepped into the restaurant and was immediately confronted by huge, glistening cutout displays of various Carl’s Jr. victuals hanging suspended from the ceiling; the blazing interior of the restaurant bombarded me with images and messages: “Make it a Combo”; “Make it a JUMBO Combo”; the entire layout of the building screamed “This way to the feeding chute.” The low-carb burger was emblazoned everywhere; you could get it as a combo with a salad and diet drink, but I felt enough like a tool to be eating a burger with no bun, so that’s all I ordered before shuffling obediently to my table.
I have to admit it was impressive to look at when they plopped it in front of me. It didn’t have the beautiful curly lettuce they use in the posters and ads, but other than that it was exactly what they promise: a gigantic broiled beef patty with American cheese, pickles, red onions, ketchup, and a large glop of mayonnaise all wrapped in leaves of iceberg lettuce and paper. It wasn’t bad, either, other than the fact that I just couldn’t get over the fact that I was eating a bunless burger. I always feel embarrassed eating adulterated food items like soy hot dogs and garden burgers when it seems that I should just face the fact that I need to cut hot dogs, burgers, and the like from my diet and get some exercise. But nobody’s lining up to buy a book that says that. I finished my burger, wiped the grease from my hands, and beat a hasty exit, not exactly impressed, but definitely not feeling deprived of ground, full-fat meat. Next stop: Subway.
I’ve never been a big fan of Subway, and I’ll probably never be able to forgive them for ruining what was once one of the truly great American food innovations: the submarine sandwich. The subs of old were a far cry from the flabby, overstuffed tubes of ghastly concoctions hawked today by Subway’s 20,644 restaurants around the world, not least of all because the old subs were made on crusty, chewy, wonderful French rolls. But Subway is aggressively advertising their Atkins-friendly wraps, so I had to try one. Their strategy is quite simple: instead of their usual fluffy, sugary, air-filled (and carb-loaded) sub roll, they simply substitute a flour tortilla and then let the customer have at it with toppings. I chose a chicken/bacon/ranch filling and had them throw on the works; by the time the Subway drone was done I was presented with a football-sized wrap and an empty drink cup. Once again I have to say, it wasn’t bad, and it would have been quite filling even if I hadn’t consumed that massive broiled meat patty earlier in the afternoon. I felt much less like a total choad for having ordered it; it really didn’t pretend to be a sub, it just was what it was, loads of meat, cheese, shredded lettuce and vegetables and ranch dressing in a flat flour wrapper. For what it’s worth, the Subway wraps are done in partnership with Atkins Nutritionals Inc., the corporate entity of Dr. Atkins’ empire, so far the only major fast-food company to do so.
I staggered back to the office, undid my belt, and pretended to be in meetings for the rest of the afternoon, too full to function properly and realizing I had one more low-carb stop to make: Burger King. I wasn’t looking forward to it either; Burger King just makes me depressed. It’s sad what they’ve done to hamburgers—somehow they’ve managed to suck all of the life and joy out of eating them, so normally I avoid the place at all costs. The only way I was able to bring myself to go was by using the drive-thru. I ordered two low-carb Whoppers (Mrs. Grant was curious to try one too) and pulled forward. The drive-thru guy seemed incredulous that anyone would order such a thing. I paid for my burgers, tossed the sack onto the car seat, and headed for home.
What greeted us on my arrival home was nothing short of appalling. Burger King’s idea of a low-carb burger strikes me as an “up yours” to anyone who would be so audacious as to attempt eating in a healthy manner at one of their restaurants. They simply took everything—and I mean everything—away from a regular Whopper except the gray, flavorless, dry meat patty, some shredded lettuce, and a leathery slice of tomato, put them in sealed plastic container, and tossed it in a bag with a plastic spork. No mayo, no pickle, no seasonings, no nothing. It was horrible, a real poke in the eye to anyone who is unfortunate enough (or, in my case, stubborn enough) to consume such twaddle. It was quite simply the worst thing I ever ate in my life. That vile thing brought my field work to a screeching halt.
Overall, the Subway wrap was the least offensive item on my fast-food low-carb grazing run, but I have to wonder how anyone could make a regular habit of eating them. I set out to see for myself what the fast food conglomerates have to offer to those who feel the need to cut out the carbs, and all I really found were stripped-down, vaguely disturbing versions of burgers that no health-conscious person should ever eat to begin with, or bizarre sandwich/burrito hybrids that can be said to be filling but not much else.
So who or what will be the most obvious casualty of the low-carb craze? You hear about bakery stockholders on the verge of swan-diving out their windows, or scientists at Hershey scrambling desperately to come up with low-carb chocolate bars that don’t taste like crumbling linoleum, but if I had to name who really suffers from this Atkins business, I would say it’s those scruffy little birds you see in fast-food joint parking lots waiting for their burger bun and french-fry handouts. They’ve been living large for decades, snapping up scraps tossed by car-bound diners who gobble their greasy repasts parked outside their favorite burger trough. I don’t think they stand much of a chance now if all they can get are hunks of charred ground beef or iceberg lettuce shards. The poor little buggers in the Carl’s Jr. lot were looking a mite peaked to me, shuffling up to my car halfheartedly, responding to my empty-handed shrug with a hollow eyed resignation that told me they expect things to get a whole lot worse before they get better.