Friday, February 20, 2009

The Death of Rationalization

[A slightly different version of this piece appears in the February 16 edition of Nation's Restaurant News.]

In the 1983 film The Big Chill, Michael (Jeff Goldblum) and Sam (Tom Berenger) have the following exchange:

Sam: You're rationalizing.

Michael: Don’t knock rationalizations. I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.

Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

I thought of that exchange at lunchtime on January 5th while contemplating the menu board at Cosi. It was the first day back to work after the New Year, and I was on the classic New Year’s Resolution Diet. Five straight weeks of holiday feasting and I was tipping the scales at – well, it doesn’t matter exactly what I was tipping the scales at. Let’s just say that if you were a gambler who bet the Over, you won.

So on the first lunch day of the work year, I headed to Cosi on 56th Street in Manhattan for a salad. The salad would not only begin the process of creating a newer, slimmer me, it would also make me feel better about myself. After all, what could be a healthier life choice than a salad for lunch?

That’s when I saw the menu board.

You see, New York City has joined the list of U.S. municipalities that have enacted menu labeling laws, requiring chain restaurants with a certain number of units to post nutritional information. So I was now fully aware of how many calories each and every salad contained.

The Cosi Signature Salad for example, a tasty confection with mixed greens, fruit, nuts and gorgonzola was 611 calories. But, the menu helpfully informed me, I could “Lighten Up” – meaning, I could halve the cheese and swap out the sherry-shallot vinaigrette for the low-fat sherry-shallot vinaigrette, and that would lower my calorie count to 371. But not so fast - the warm artisan bread that comes with the salad is an additional 211 calories.

Now I’m the kind of guy that enjoys a good rationalization around food. I like to order the Cobb Salad, loaded with eggs, bacon, cheese, maybe a creamy dressing, and then say to my wife over dinner, “I’m hungry. I only had a salad for lunch.”

But menu labeling is putting the kibosh on that.

There are some interesting philosophical, political, and economic debates around menu labeling, and I’ve been following them with interest. Issues of freedom, personal choice, consumer protection and even culinary creativity all come into play. (Not to mention the fact that it probably doesn't work: years of nutritional labeling on consumer packaged goods have not made America any thinner).

More importantly, as a person who draws his paycheck from the restaurant industry, I’m nervous about any regulation that could put more pressure on restauranters, who are suffering dearly as people cut back on eating out.

But none of that concerned me as I stared at the menu. I wanted to have a salad with lettuce and fruit and an exotic dressing. I wanted my full serving of gorgonzola and my tasty artisan bread – and I wanted to feel that I had made a healthy choice. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Menu Police wanted to make darn sure that I knew exactly how many calories that was going to cost me (822). He was taking away my rationalizations. If the Cosi Signature Salad was 822 calories, I shudder to think what my precious Cobb Salad goes for.

So I lightened up, cut the caloric intake to 582. And felt a little bit guilty with each nibble of bread.

Oh, and at 4pm I was starving. I grabbed a bag of candy from the vending machine and scarfed it down with nary a glance at the label. It was delicious.

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