Last week, I salivated as I beheld a photograph illustrating a newspaper article about the newest villain in the rogues' gallery of foods suspected of colluding in human destruction. The photo showed a frieze of sizzling strips of bacon, caramelized crispy brown at their edges, striped russet and tawny gold down their curling lengths. I wished the picture had been scratch-and-sniff. Seeing it, I longed to fry up a mess of bacon on the spot (I sprinkle it with sugar as it sputters, which adds sweetness and crunch) and pile it atop an egg salad sandwich (made with Hellman's mayonnaise, naturally).
This photogenic foodstuff had just been revealed by the World Health Organization to have a probable link to colorectal cancer, along with other processed meats (sausage, salami, cold cuts, pâté and the like) and any red meats (beef, lamb, pork) cooked in a way that makes them especially appetizing, such as grilling, barbecuing or pan-frying. (There is not enough data to determine if blander preparation — say, boiling or sous-vide — makes them safer.)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, in analyzing the risks of these comestibles, placed processed meats in the fearsome "Group 1" of noxious substances guaranteed to negatively affect human heath, such as asbestos, alcohol and cigarettes. Non-processed red meats narrowly dodged this onus; the scientists conceded that "eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer." But the implication was clear: Don't blame us if ill health smites you.
Exasperated by this pronouncement, I had two thoughts. The first: What will this do to Oktoberfest? The second: If bratwurst, cold cuts and red meat are as dangerous as cigarettes, there can be only one rational response — start smoking.
My 96-year-old grandmother has smoked (and eaten red meat) for as long as I can remember, and she is as hale as an ox. Men and women have eaten meat pretty much since they discovered fire. In "The Odyssey," Greek soldiers made sacrificial offerings of succulent beef to tempt their deity Poseidon: "thighbones in fat lay burning for the god." If "The Odyssey" were written today, they'd probably burn him quinoa instead.
In "The Chronicles of Narnia," a schoolgirl named Jill rhapsodizes at the "delicious smell of sausages," which were "not wretched sausages half full of bread and soya bean either, but real meaty, spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt." Too bad C.S. Lewis didn't know about the benefits of kale.
This is not to knock the merits of cautious moderation. Horace, that sage advocate of measured enjoyment, warned two millenniums ago against weighing down the stomach through overeating, and his advice still makes sense. And just as sensible diabetics avoid s'mores, anyone who has received a colon cancer diagnosis will understandably be grateful for this advisory.
But good health is a lottery. Vegetarians are not immune to disease; people who don't smoke, like people who do, succumb to cancer and heart attacks; strokes befall both the lazy and the fit; and if you get sick, it doesn't necessarily follow that one less hamburger or one more hit of beet-and-wheat grass juice would have spared you. Many winners of hot dog-eating contests live into their dotages. To be alive is to be at risk.
Americans who conscientiously seek to obey the continually shifting dietary dictates of the fear brigade need to ask themselves: Where does prudence end and joy-sapping paranoia begin?
In the 1970s, Americans were told to eat margarine instead of butter. Eventually, it turned out that these solidified vegetable fats were worse for the heart than butter — something my mother, steeped in Illinois farm wisdom, intuited from the first. People were also told to shun eggs because of demon cholesterol. Then, in February, the national Dietary Guidelines Advisory Community quietly reversed 40 years of yolk phobia, admitting that cholesterol wasn't a "nutrient of concern" after all.
Beef was already on the wall of shame back then too. In high school in the 1980s, I performed a "Saturday Night Live" skit for a variety show, in which Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner) addressed the red meat panic by reciting the poem her grandmother, Nanna Roseannadanna, used to tell her. Wearing a huge frizzed fright wig and persimmon lipstick, I drawled in Roseannadanna's nasal accent: "I hope this don't scare you, so please don't cry, but all food you eat will make you die. If the meat is red, it'll make you fat, it's bad for your heart and you don't want that. If the meat is white, your veins will thicken, considering the chemicals they inject in a chicken."
Last week, it occurred to me that little has changed in the world of dietary science in the intervening decades — except, perhaps, for our willingness to laugh at the capriciousness of the rulings. Which is a pity, because, as Roseanne Roseannadanna said: "We're all gonna die, from all things or one thing; as my daddy used to say, 'It's always something.'"
And now, please excuse me: It's time to turn the bacon.
Liesl Schillinger is a writer, translator and the author of the book "Wordbirds."