One of my co-workers, a young man with a buffed physique and bulging muscles, became a minor celebrity at our employee health fair when his body fat index yielded a score of 7 percent. To his credit, he was embarrassed by the attention.
When people started poking his midriff and squeezing his biceps, he beat a hasty retreat, not even stopping at the snack table where a group of older men were scarfing sausage biscuits and wondering what Greek yogurt is good for in the Deep South.
“Can it be used to make a dip for fried okra?” wondered someone in the chewing ranks.
“Naw. It’s what those skinny movie star gals eat,” answered another.
I had fasted since midnight for the drawing of blood at the health fair so my good and bad cholesterol could be measured. I was gobbling down a biscuit and eyeing a chocolate muffin when one of my companions observed that body type has become “the new form of prejudice.” He said it, not me — but I agree.
We increasingly are judged — and judge ourselves — on things like body mass score, fat percentage, height-to-weight ratio, calorie intake and a comparison to the “ideal” weight and shape. Tiny waists and rippling abdomens are the symbols of success and social acceptance.
Fat is the curse of failures and wannabes. Some think that without six-pack abs, you don’t exhibit the conviction or work ethic to be successful, popular or a leader of men and women -- at least, this is what our group of nutritional ne’er do wells at the snack table theorized when pondering the current national preoccupation with obesity. We loosened our belts, grabbed second biscuits and dove deeper into the debate.
Very smart, creative overweight people have been relegated to the dark corners of parties and business conferences. Never mind there are probably as many obese millionaires as skinny ones. “Fat” and “successful” are words that don’t go together in today’s Dr. Oz lexicon of health and happiness.
But not so long ago the aim of mothers and grandmothers in rural parts of America was to add layers of fat on infants and children. A healthy child was one tending toward plump. It was a survival technique developed long ago when periods of feast and famine occurred, when children had higher mortality rates than today and when it was believed -- and I think there was wisdom in the assumption-- that stored fat could help ward off the effects of disease and illness.
In other words, fat could make you stronger.
My sainted Granny did not include Greek yogurt or other popular modern health foods on her list of essential ingredients for the feeding of Appalachian grandchildren. Flax seed, non-fat dairy products, raw vegetables (except radishes, tomatoes and green-tailed onions), tofu, almond milk and coconut oil were unknown at my grandmother’s groaning dinner table.
Lard, however, was a staple of life. It was a key ingredient in most food preparation, from fried to baked dishes. It made cakes denser, chicken tastier and biscuits fluffier. Fresh butter and milk also scored high. Who knew what yogurt was?
I don’t remember much beef, lean or otherwise, coming out of Granny’s kitchen. But pork proliferated. Bacon, fatback, chops, ham, ribs, shoulders and roasts, fried liver, souse, pig knuckles — the joke was that Granny would cook the squeal if she could catch it. In other words, pork was the real “white meat” in those days, and platters of pig shared the menu with wild game and fresh-caught fish, all fried in lard, of course.
Babies in their mothers’ laps at the vast dinner table were judged by Granny on the basis of how lustily they gnawed thick bacon rind fried in, what else, lard.
Babies “off their weight” might be dosed for worms or given castor oil and homemade tonics. Granny was an herb woman and believed that a skinny child would grow up weak and be susceptible to all kinds of health issues. She raised 14 sons of daughters and a horde of grand kids, so her track record cannot be questioned.
“What was your body fat percentage?” asked a coworker as we munched at the health fair.
“Let’s just say that my grandmother would be proud,” I replied.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachia Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald biweekly.