Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cracker Jack

The Food Police are an endlessly annoying lot. In Texas they're taking before and after shots of kid's lunch trays. The purpose? As explained in the article Food police target Texas schools with cameras, "The cameras will allow officials to track who eats what, how good it is for them and what it means for their overall diet. Reports will be printed out that reveal serving sizes, calories, fiber counts, and sugar and protein counts."

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants potatoes, aside from sweet potatoes, banned from school breakfasts and greatly cut back in school lunches. There is also the move afoot to make restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains all clearly post the calorie count for each item on their menus.

Ronald McDonald, that pied piper of childhood obesity, has also recently been in their cross-hairs. Through newspaper ads and other pressure, activist groups are demanding that the Clown stop marketing Happy Meals to children. Of course, Happy Meals have long been a target of the Food Police. I doubt that there is anything that drives them crazier than those toys that accompany burgers and fries in a colorful box.

When I was a kid the closest equivalent to a Happy Meal was a box of Cracker Jack. I liked the carmel corn and peanuts, but most of all I liked those little paper wrapped "prizes" that came in each box. They were simple things: little plastic figures, airplanes and cars, toy rings, miniature comic books, maze puzzles with tiny ball bearings, spinning tops and the like.

I collected them in a shoe box. When you opened a Cracker Jack box you didn't get right to the prize, you always had to impatiently eat your way down until the little paper bag with the prize was reachable. Then you had to hope for the best. If unlucky you would get a girl's ring. I most liked the ones with several pieces you had to click together to make a little mechanism -- a bicycle or something like that.

The Grandmother who gave me the Cracker Jacks was a Slovakian lady with a thick accent. She had immigrated to the States when she was 13 years old. She spent her adult life during first the Great Depression and then the rationing of WWII. Still, to her she was living in the Land of Milk and Honey. Far beyond the "Streets Paved with Gold" mythology of the U.S., she loved the freedom of America and the dignity it conferred.

She used to write to the relatives back in the Old Country and send them packages. At the end of WWII, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Bratslavia, my distant cousins decided discretion was the better part of valor and joined the Communist Party. They would irritate her by singing the praises of Communism in their letters, while asking her to include this or that in her next package to them. Finally, in one letter to her, after the usual Soviet panegyrics, they asked for a refrigerator. Disgusted, she wrote back that,  "if they wanted a damn refrigerator they could ask Uncle Joe Stalin for one." That was the last letter she ever wrote to them.   

I always think of her when I read the latest antics of the Food Police. She would have been spitting mad at another's presumption that she did not know how to feed a child. She had her fill of the grim life and she did not begrudge a child the taste of candy and cheap plastic toys. And besides, what she put on a table or in a lunch bag was nobody else's business.

That's the problem with the food Police and other Nanny-Staters, they're so fixated on their imagined wrongs of the world that they will not leave a person breath. They don't understand that there is more to life than a perfectly balanced diet. There are things you cannot measure, like a shoebox full of prizes or a shared meal of hamburgers and salty fries. Life is too short to never taste these things.

Because he says it better than me, I'll end with an except from Richard Fernandez's old post All the streets were dark and bare:

My grandmother always gave me a present for Christmas until the year she died.  She was living with my parents by then, and without a source of income. I remember her saving coins for some purpose no one could guess until on Christmas day we found out what it was for. She gave me a chocolate bar.

It was days before I could bring myself to eat it. When I finally did, I stared for a long time afterward at the foil and paper, wondering as many of us probably have at such gifts, on how so little a thing could carry so great a weight of human love.  


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