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Help Yourself to a Culinary History of the USDA Serving-Size Concept : Early Food Guides Helped Lay Groundwork for Recommended Dietary Allowances

July 11, 1985|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Marge Powers, our copy editor, waved a press release about meat buying from the National Live Stock and Meat Board.

"How can they tell people that an 8 1/2-pound roast will serve 25 people? An 8 1/2-pound roast will serve eight people at my house," Marge said.

The Meat Board release stopped rattling, and Marge leaned a few inches over the partition separating our desks, lowering her voice a tad. "In fact," she said, "I think printed recipes are all wrong about serving sizes. I haven't seen one, yet, that gives the serving size people really eat."

Marge, I must explain, has a lust for food and passion for discussing it like few other people I know, partly because of her Italian heritage. "Italians," she says, "know how to enjoy food. They know food. It's like acting. You either have it, or you don't. The Italians do."

And I think she's right.

Anyway, I explained that the National Live Stock and Meat Board was not discriminating against food lovers. They were just giving the standard nutritional serving sizes designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a guide to healthful eating.

2-Ounce Steak

"Man's requirement for food is much lower than people think," I told Marge. "Did you know that a nutritional (as compared to household) serving of spaghetti is only half a cup whereas most people eat two to three cups? Did you know that a serving of cooked meat is only two or three ounces? Can you see a restaurant serving a two- or three-ounce steak ?"

"I don't care. I can't stand skimpy plates. I mean, what's a party for?" Marge replied.

"I have the same problem myself," I confessed.

I avoid like the plague going to dinner at people's homes where I know serving sizes are USDA standards. That's not my idea of hospitality, either. I might as well be sent to my room without food. I'd rather have bread and water. Starve. Go without.

"I hate going to people's houses where not enough food is served," Marge echoed, as if she had read my mind. "I cut those people off my list a long time ago."

"Me, too," I said, knowing well that I haven't. I am still vulnerable to entrapment. I still find myself driving to a dreaded meal at a friend's house, often wondering, once there, if there will be enough helpings for other guests if I take my full USDA portion, let alone a normal, enjoyable amount of food.

A couple invited us to dinner announcing that because of the demands of their brand-new baby poodle, dinner would be pasta takeout brought in. "Fine," I said, suspecting the worse. There was enough pasta takeout to feed one hungry post-surgery patient. We left their house craving a double-dip hot fudge sundae with lots of whipped cream on top.

The next time they pulled the same invitation I told them I would bring the pasta takeout. "How nice of you," our hostess said. And that was our second mistake.

I had brought enough food for eight. About 24 USDA servings. "Would you like to take home the leftovers?" our hostess asked after a fourth helping of my pasta takeout had been licked off her plate. The leftovers were a limp swirl of angel hair pasta and half tablespoon of tortellini, which would have been just enough for the brand-new baby poodle if the baby poodle had had teeth.

It happens that when this same couple comes to our house, the husband stands over the leftovers in my kitchen and starts finishing off the platters so that "nothing is wasted." "You know, Rose," he says, standing over his 12th helping of my dinner, "you prepare much too much food. I'm sure it's your, umm . . . upbringing, but it's completely out of step with what's going on in the world today ( munch, munch )."

"I know," I say. "It's a disease."

Restaurant Dining

I rarely accept dinner invitations to friends' homes. My idea of dining is eating at a restaurant where I know that the chef, who has at least eight years' experience on an hourly, daily basis, is behind the stove producing a fairly decent product. And the portion will be adequate even when the serving is nouvelle (i.e., tiny). A nouvelle serving, I might add, is slightly larger than a USDA serving.

The history of the USDA serving-size concept is not well documented. According to nutritionist Mary M. Hill and home economist Linda E. Cleveland, writing in a 1970 USDA bulletin, "Nutrition Program News," the concept probably had its start with food guides as early as the 1920s. The early food guides helped lay the groundwork for the Recommended Dietary Allowances, first published in 1941 by eminent scientists serving on the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, and revised every four to six years.

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