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Healthy Junk Food

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At least some of those pervasive Southern California stereotypes ring true.  We’ve got gorgeous weather, we’ve got omnipresent fruit trees and we have a surplus of fitness buffs jogging around, all hours of the day and night. 

When I first moved here, many years ago, I discovered that one of the most peculiar reflections of Southern California’s character could be found within the aisles of our neighborhood convenience stores.  There, prominently displayed beside our favorite artery-clogging indulgences were a plethora of irrationally healthy choices.

There were Pita Chips right across from the usual Tortilla and Sodium Twisties.  Nacho-flavored rice cakes (which my husband fondly refers to as “compressed styrofoam”) co-existed with Barbecue-flavored Pork Rinds—one of the Seven Deadly Digestive Sins, in my humble opinion.  In a refrigerator, beside the usual 200 types of leaded and unleaded cola, were 57 varieties of water.  There was regular bottled water, flavored bottled water, carbonated water, flavored/carbonated water, vitamin-enhanced water and flavored-vitamin-enhanced water.  (Personally, I feel that if God had intended us to drink water in this fashion, he would have created waterfalls in the shape of soda fountains.)

Improbably, there was a rack of appealing “fresh choice” sandwiches—sealed in plastic and delivered daily—in the exact same spot where the petrified hotdogs ought to have been!  And don’t even get me started on the sushi.  Yes, my local convenience store carried sushi.  I would be willing to bet a sizeable amount of money that, back in those days, the neighborhood 24/7 stores in Mazomanie, Wisconsin and War Trace, Tennessee did not provide any items made from raw fish… Beef Jerky spicy enough to erode your esophagus, maybe, but sashimi, no. 

At our store, there were meal-replacement drinks and smoothie facsimiles back-to-back with the Trans-Fat-A-Palooza ice cream bars.  And speaking of bars, the selection of bars available in this store was greater than the number of species on Noah’s ark.  They offered granola bars, nutrition bars, meal-replacement bars and exotic tiger’s milk bars, in addition to the carbohydrate-laden candy bars of yesteryear.

It seemed to me that these equal but opposing products could not exist under the same roof.  Like matter and anti-matter, I would have thought that they’d cancel each other out and bring about some kind of nuclear explosion.  The Glucose-Gloop rolls that my children loved were the antithesis and arch-enemy of those little cartons of yogurt in the dairy case.  The amount of sodium in those dehydrated ramen noodle packets—the ones that have been sitting on the store shelf since 1812—was about 95 times what you’d find in 10 bags of trail mix.  And how could you seriously stock your store with vegetable-fruit blend juices like Carrot/Mango or Pineapple/Tomato and maintain a cooler full of Old Gut-Buster Beer?  The contradictions were mind-numbing; not to mention, tastebud-numbing.

There were those people—including those within the ranks of my immediate family—who were appalled by the concept of “healthy junk food.”  My brother recently reminded me of a day I drove him to the coast, during one of his many visits out West.  En route, we passed through fields of lush red and purple berries, orchards achingly full of sunshine-bright oranges and lemons and ranches bursting with cucumbers, peppers and pistachios.  I felt compelled to stop at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand and buy some of this bountiful produce for my kids.  I lovingly selected the juiciest most enormous strawberries I could find.  But when I served them after dinner that night my older son looked at the bowl, aghast, and exclaimed, “Mom, that’s not dessert!  That’s fruit!”

Similarly, my husband is philosophically and morally opposed to the very concept of carrot cake. He adamantly insists, “You must not make dessert out of a vegetable.  It’s a culinary faux pas.”  (Zucchini bread and pumpkin cake are also, understandably, incompatible with his world view.)

And yet, it appears that in the ensuing years since we left the beef-crazed Midwest for the veggie-mad West Coast, the rest of our nation has moved closer to the California model, in regard to the consumption of healthier snacks.  Collectively and individually, we still have a long way to go—I’m as guilty as anyone of picking chips over carrot sticks.  But when my local convenience store stocks the potato-chip substitutes that are popped rather than fried, I usually pick the popped snack.  When they carry a whole-grain tortilla chip besides the traditional kind, I opt for the whole grain.  And when they offer a bran wafer next to an ice-cream bar… well, of course I choose the ice cream bar.  It’s all about balance right?

In any event, I remain encouraged by the proliferation of healthy junk food.  This widespread trend bodes well for our future.  If food items as light and insubstantial as air live can side-by-side with convicted aorta killers we must be living in an age of greater diversity.  And, if our Swiss chocolate rolls can live in peace with our sushi rolls, perhaps there is hope for the rest of Mankind.