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A Pyramid of Our Own

September 17, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, no, another food pyramid! First we had the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. Then came the Mediterranean and Asian and Aztec Food Pyramids. Now we've got the California Cuisine Food Pyramid.

At least it's stylishly slim. The other pyramids look a bit squat, with their broad bottom layers of grain. The California structure is based on fresh vegetables, with stodgy old grains kicked up to the second floor.

At a symposium held at the UCLA Faculty Club on Friday, eager, fully jazzed professor David Heber was quick to point out that this is not a diet pyramid for everybody--certainly not for growing children. It's a teaching tool aimed at preventing chronic disease among grown-ups.

"We have no quarrel with the USDA pyramid," said Heber, "but Californians are already more healthy than the rest of the nation. If we were all to follow the USDA recommendations, many Californians would actually have to raise their fat intake."

Heber is the director of the new UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, which was introducing itself to the world with this symposium. The ambitious aim of the center--and of the pyramid, for that matter--is simultaneously to introduce a more rigorously wholesome diet and to make good diet more enjoyable.

"We've had a traditional hostility between chefs and dietitians," said Heber. But the Center for Human Nutrition, which has grants from the National Institutes of Health for both cancer and obesity programs, will feature a demonstration kitchen (and a demonstration exercise lab) as well as the research, education and patient care services you'd expect.

The new food pyramid means to employ the prestige of California Cuisine to promote wholesome diet everywhere. To this end, celebrity chefs Jeremiah Tower and Barbara Tropp were on hand to speak to the doctors, academics and produce industry people attending the symposium.

After lunch (salad, of course), Tower, chef-owner of Stars in San Francisco, declared that only bad cooking is bad for you. "The problem with people who overeat," he said, "is that the little bell doesn't go off. At the end of the meal, you ask yourself, 'Why am I so full?' But if something's perfect, you only need a small portion."

He gave the example of a Paris cafe that serves a demitasse that's 50% chocolate and 50% cream. "But it's the world's best chocolate and the world's best cream," he said, "so you're satisfied, though it's only a tablespoon and a half."

Tropp, former owner of China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, agreed. "I find that when food is bland," she said, "you tend to overeat."

"I trust the human palate," said Tower.

This is an optimistic position, and there's definitely something to it, but it flies in the face of the common experience of overeating very tasty food. The problem, as one questioner suggested, was also a matter of portion control, or what we used to call the diner's own self-control. The term "portion control" had a faintly sinister suggestion that someday someone might just decide our portion sizes for us. (Another problem, of course, is what to do with all the chocolate and cream that aren't the world's best.)

Behind Tower stood a blown-up photo of a mango, avocado and arugula salad of his ("Avocado and arugula are a marriage made in heaven," he commented). He proceeded to make it on the spot with an improvised dressing of lemon, green chiles and olive oil. "And if I had any edible flowers," he added, "I might put them on. And goat cheese--goat cheese is wonderful."

Tropp was presented with a blown-up photo of a Chinese spring roll but said with dismay that it wasn't one of hers; she'd never seen it before. She gamely observed that it seemed to have a nice filling of vegetables and rice. "On the plate we also see some seared crookneck squashes," she said. "And the art director felt the need of some green, so they put a little artichoke up here, which actually looks pretty good."

Let's see the proponents of, say, the Inuit Food Pyramid come up with something as photogenic.

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