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Eschewing the Fat

By Terry Joseph
April 09, 2004

Good Friday is a most appropriate time to pray Health Minister John Rahael carefully weighs indigenous considerations before burdening us carte blanche with conventions adopted by the global coalition against obesity, the largely self-inflicted condition and most preventable cause of death.

Speaking at last Friday's Brian Lara Promenade launch of Health Promotion Month, Minister Rahael, described obesity as "a global epidemic increasing at near exponential rate", saying the four-week observance will focus on increasing awareness of the dangers of excess body fat and ills of sedentary living.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates obesity increased by 50 per cent over the past seven years, listing 15 million people in developing countries as suffering from related problems, incubators of potentially fatal conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases and various cancers.

Of course, the dismissive Trini response is that it must be better to die with a full belly than starve all the way to the hereafter, which gets full marks for astuteness, since no one knows the precise travails, length of the journey, method of transportation or, more importantly, if refreshment centres punctuate what might well be an arduous route.

It is a curious but enshrined local attitude and one that ensures every stage of our existence is marked by sumptuous servings. Saturday soup and Sunday food have long been established as lifelong bi-weekly banquets. Special and often ostentatious efforts are mounted for public holidays and festivals.

This all-you-can-eat bargain philosophy operates from cradle to casket. At baby's christening or comparable ceremony there is food and drink aplenty, an eating ritual repeated each birthday and for coming-of-age, school graduation, family gatherings, anniversaries, weddings, divorce, career shifts, housewarmings and retirement.

We have even developed a victuals vernacular, from formidable "cutters" to three-course "jhorts", with sub-titles along the "nyam" continuum including "blue-food", "sancoche", the river-lime carte du jour, bake and shark, roti, doubles, pies of all description, the Amerindian legacy of "pong" plantain and callaloo and other delights of our diverse culinary heritage; which almost invariably deliver rich and greasy food.

Women who grow portly are flatteringly described as "pleasingly plump" and soca singers annually pay homage to the rolling bum-bum. Men are said to have a "good li'l size" when their stomachs distend and fat babies are lovingly described as "roly-poly", left to grow up in a land where the concept of finger-food is often at least a handful.

I suspect nowhere else in the world are there icons of gluttony, professionals who "demolished" huge meals before incredulous audiences, like the legendary "Ocean" from San Juan who, after arriving late to perform such a demonstration, astonished the gathering by explaining that he was delayed rehearsing at home on "carter-man sponges" and a couple of "chest-provokers", particularly heavy cakes, either of which could singularly sink a battleship.

Then there were specialists, those who boasted adult ability at eating two or more oversized Mangal's roti, no doubt a consequence of the schoolboy practice of posting to still tender stomachs, two "covetti pocham" and a couple of biscuit cakes, purchased for a penny apiece each weekday morning from Stauble's Frederick Street Patisserie, this indulgence coming mere minutes after having breakfast at home.

Most of these already hefty meals were "washed down" with jorums of ultra-sweet beverages, notably indigenous preparations of robust viscosity like snowball, or punches made from peanut butter, barbadine, soursop and seamoss. Desserts offered a whole new range of lactose-excessive or sugar-filled fundamentals, crowned by icing or other ill-advised toppings of super saccharine content.

In fact, it seems we never created a meal that would help shed weight and in recent time, the popularity of fast-food snack-packs and combos, a Godsend for working women, only exacerbated the obesity problem. Check the long lines at stands operated by nocturnal vendors, men literally living off the fat of the land, for clear indication of how many people confront-on a nightly basis-the outlawed practice of eating far too near bedtime. Apart from gym-junkies, everyone seems to be riding the dining car of the food train, railroading us into believing every next good meal represents another rung of privilege. Some even justify it. When formerly skinny ragga-soca artiste Maga Dan put on weight, he simply changed his name to Maximus Dan.

Still, everyone offers you something to eat. Even in Minister Rahael's talk at the launch, he evidently couldn't avoid repeating the phrase: "feeding information to the public". He had to give them something to chew on, lest they retired to the nearest leisure facility, take drinks and just chew the fat.

Minister Rahael must therefore understand the extent of the challenge he so assuredly recites. We are not a people beholden to Atkins and South Beach diets, hung up on tofu, soya, sushi or colon-cleansers. We are a culture in which "good food" is measured more by quantity, temperature, odour and taste than nutritive value.

The goodly Minister must consequently plan his assault on obesity within these paradigms or he too-in the tradition of his office, some say-will go down as doing nothing more than chewing the fat.

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