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Fat chance, New Yorkers

October 09, 2006|Mark Kurlansky | MARK KURLANSKY is the author of many books, including "The Big Oyster: History On a Half Shell."

AT FIRST I was bewildered. I could not believe that the government of New York City was considering barring restaurants from serving food containing artificial trans fats. While most of us have been preoccupied with dodging cholesterol, carbohydrates, pesticides, hormones, heavy metals, nitrates and salt in our food, we missed the artificial trans fat threat. Some studies show them leading to heart disease.

But what is odd about New York City banning artificial trans fats is that nobody I know eats them. They are not eaten in Manhattan and the better parts of Brooklyn. They are used in cheap restaurants for things like French fries. In my Upper West Side neighborhood, we don't eat French fries. In the unlikely event that we do not find ourselves on a low-carb diet, we eat frites. Frites are not cooked in trans fat but in the better oils, some of which, by the way, may also prove fatal.

In protecting New Yorkers from trans fat, the city would be largely protecting its lower-income citizens. And that is the surprising part. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- the billionaire reelected last year in a landslide against Fernando Ferrer, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, who convinced most voters of his incompetence by repeatedly bringing up issues affecting poor people -- defended the ban on trans fat by comparing it to the city's ban on lead paint. He had a point because the lead paint ban, which was adopted in 1960, was one of the last times anyone can recall that the city focused on helping the poor.

In my Upper West Side building, one by one the artists, waiters, musicians, teachers, actors and social workers have been leaving town and are being replaced by financial advisors and investment bankers. Over the last 40 years, government has slowly stripped away most guarantees of affordable housing. Today it is difficult to find an apartment anywhere in Manhattan large enough for a small family that does not cost more than $1 million or can be had for affordable rent. If the landlords who reap these enormous profits give a little bit away, they get streets named after them and articles written about their beneficence.

This displacement has happened to more and more neighborhoods in Manhattan until now it is beginning to reach into Harlem and the last few affordable areas. It has spread to much of Brooklyn, with Queens following suit. And if the Bronx doesn't get with the program soon, it will just be left behind like Staten Island, whose small but persistent separatist movement is cheered on by most of the rest of the city.

This is a trend that has been seen in most of the cities of North America and Europe. Paris, which developed the concept of suburbs for poor immigrants, is much further down the road to driving out the poor and middle class.

So why is Bloomberg's city government suddenly concerned about poor people's food? If the government in this city for millionaires is going to get into food issues, you would think it could involve itself with maintaining food for millionaires.

It would be more understandable if, like Chicago -- which has also moved on trans fats -- New York stepped in to ban foie gras. Now there is a moral issue that New Yorkers can ponder. It is argued that the fowl from which the fattened liver is derived is abused. But the other side points out that the bird lives a better life than most cattle slated for the steakhouse. Foie gras opponents needn't be deterred by this argument. The next step is to ban all but organic beef. By the time this happens, most people remaining in Manhattan will be able to afford $40 hamburgers.

The city ought to ban farmed fish because Manhattanites don't want to eat fish anymore unless it is labeled "wild." Recently I saw "wild rockfish" -- as though anyone had bothered to farm them. There are some good arguments, both environmental and gastronomic, against farmed fish. Why not ban them and sell all the remaining wild fish for $28 a pound? It would be good for the fishermen, good for the environment and good for New Yorkers -- the ones who are left, who can afford it.

AND MAYBE large vegetables ought to go too. New York City has established a much-loved system of neighborhood farmers markets. These markets, serviced by local farmers trucking in their goods, are a most fascinating collusion of small-scale farming and wealthy consumers. There is almost no limit to the price farmers can ask in these markets. Farmers traditionally like to grow crops as large as possible because the ratio of weight to effort is better. People like baby vegetables because they are cute -- tiny carrots, squash like peanuts and bean-sized Brussels sprouts.

But if you want to pay enough money, farmers will pick them when they are tiny. Cute little radish-sized potatoes from white to purple, from very waxy to very floury, sell in Manhattan for a price per size comparable to Manhattan real estate.

So maybe the city isn't protecting poor people from heart attacks. Maybe it is protecting us from poor people -- taking away their French fries the same way it took away their homes. Cars probably are a greater health threat than trans fats, but the type of New Yorkers who are staying like to have their own cars.

It's good to know that the city is looking out for us -- or some of us anyway.

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