About 64 percent of Americans are overweight. Almost a third is actually obese. Sugar consumption alone is up 28 percent in the past 20 years. At the same time, there's an epidemic of anorexia and other eating disorders. We agonize over it all.
At the moment, comfort food is in. So are new diets.
"It's kind of cultish," says New York Times Fashion Writer Kate Betts. "I mean, who's in which diet club."
Betts says the recent fall runway shows turned into diet discussion groups, as show biz and fashion folks debated eating all fat, no fat, or macrobiotically.
The first thing that everybody always says at a fashion show … in the fashion world is, 'You look great,'" says Betts. "So, the next thing is not, 'Thank you,' or 'You know this is my new Armani jacket,' it's, 'Oh, I'm on the Atkins diet.'"
On the other side of the spectrum, Jill Connor Browne is the head Queen of the self-proclaimed Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, Miss. The group of hometown pals love to strut their stuff.
Their mission in life is to have fun. And for them, fun means food. They've even published their recipes for homemade goodies like "Chocolate Stuff" and "Pig Candy."
"We have two emotions, and those would be sleepy and hungry," says Browne.
The Sweet Potato Queens are not the only ones living large these days. Suddenly, food and fuller figures are in. Goodbye "Ally McBeal," hello "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." People magazine has even featured a spread on spread.
And crowds are lining up at places like the Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan, where caramel pecan brownies, chocolate fudge brownies, yellow cake with butter cream and chocolate and coconut layer cakes temp even the strongest of wills. The managers says a lot of customers will buy more than one.
"I don't believe that food is sinful. It just isn't," says Gourmet Magazine Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl. " We keep trying to put all these moral values on it and that's ridiculous. You know food is food."
But Reichl is fighting history. Food anxiety is just as much a part of our heritage as Thanksgiving dinner.
"I do trace it all the way back to the puritans," says Michelle Stacy. "There really was a fear pleasure. A fear of bodily pleasure. That was dangerous thing.
Still, says Michelle Stacy, author of "Consumed: Why Americans love, Hate and Fear Food." Plumpness was pleasing in the early years of our nation. It was seen as a sign of upper class, because you had enough money to eat enough food. And it was seen as very attractive, within reason.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, thin came in.
If you were going to be a refined elegant and upper-class, you had to eat in a very refined and limited way.
The food supply in the United States has always produced enough food for its people. What has changed is the processed food.
Marion Nestle, Chair of New York University's Nutrition Department says that America's food fight began in earnest after World War Two with the introduction of new "convenience foods," increased production and competition in the food industry.
It has to do with $30 billion worth of marketing pressure to get people to think that it's OK to eat all day long. Furthermore, some believe it is desirable to eat all day long in larger quantity.
These days, commercials bombard the public with messages urging Americans to eat more and faster. But guess what? Speed eating is not a new trend.
Way back, even earlier than the 19th century, when visitors would come to the states, many of them remarked on how Americans ate very quickly — shoveling in their food.
But in case you're starting to get heartburn over the state of American cuisine, cheer up. There is some good news on our plates. More Americans are getting interested in what they eat. Fruit and vegetable consumption is up. And in our fast food nation, there is also new respect for regional cuisine.
The key, says Gourmet's Reichl, is to seek out good food and remember to enjoy it.
"When you have really good food, it's so delicious that you slow down, you savor it, you taste it," says Reichl. "Three bites of something really splendid is enough to keep you going for an entire day."
But what about Thanksgiving — the day the whole nation seems possessed with the urge to overeat?
"Just do the best you can," laughs Reichl. "It's not a good day to try to diet."
Now, what's a Sweet Potato Queens Thanksgiving like?
All they have to say is that it's big.
The Sweet Potato Queens' drug of choice. The biggest problem with the recipe is that it doesn't make very much. Automatically double the ingredients. Doubled, it will make three pans. This has proven to be just enough.
Beat two eggs with a cup of sugar and a half-cup flour. Add a teaspoon of salt. In the microwave melt together one stick of real butter (don't use unsalted) and two fairly heaping tablespoons of Hershey's cocoa. Get the Hershey's in the dark brown box-anything else is different and will screw it up. Dump the butter-cocoa mixture into the other things, and stir it up good. Then add a running-over teaspoon of vanilla. Stir that up, too. If you decide to go for nuts, use a whole mess of pecans, chopped up fine.
Pour the Stuff into a greased loaf pan, set the loaf pan in a pan of water, and stick the whole business in the oven set at about 300 degrees. Depending upon how your oven cooks, it needs to stay there 40-50 minutes. You can reach in and tap on the top of it at 40 minutes. If it seems crunchy, take it out. You can't really undercook it, since it's good raw, but you don't want to overcook it and lose the gooey bottom so crucial to the whole texture experience.
You can't even imagine how good this is and how easy it is to make, which makes it even better. You start with bacon, and don't y'all just know how I purely love a recipe that starts with bacon! I myself like Bryan thick-sliced bacon, but any good bacon will do. Now, that's redundant, isn't it-like there's bad bacon? Well, actually, I guess there is. I really hate that lean bacon-you know, the kind that has less fat, and they act like that's a good thing. The fat is the whole point of bacon. If you're interested in the red part, get a ham or something.
So anyway, you start with bacon, and the only other ingredient is brown sugar-and do I really need to say the dark brown kind? You just roll the bacon in the dark brown sugar ( you can add pecans too) and then you bake it (at 350 for about 20 minutes or so, depending on your oven and also how you like your bacon-put it on a rack on a cookie sheet and you don't even have to turn it over!)-and voy-ola! Pig Candy!
Recipes excerpted from "The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love" and "The Sweet Potato Queens Big Ass Cookbook," by Jill Conner Browne. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.