Lay the chips down

  • April 13, 2023

About a decade ago, I concluded that the underlying affliction in North American society is potato chips.

On a car ride from Kingston to Ottawa, I tested my hypothesis on Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and my then-colleague Fr. Raymond de Souza, with whom I co-founded Convivium magazine. Both of these supremely brainy Catholic clergymen looked at me as if I were mucho nachos shy of a full bag.

Yet I hold to my theory because of these irrefutable facts: in 2012, the value of the potato chip industry in North America was US $7 billion. According to Market Data Forecast, it grew to US $12.42 billion in 2022 and is predicted to reach US $15.41 billion in the next five years.

Here is a product that’s worse than worthless as far as nutritional benefit goes. You might as well eat the bag it comes in. Indeed, you’d probably be better off by at least reducing the actual chips’ contributions to obesity and heart disease. Yes, but they taste so good, don’t they? Ah, but there’s the grift. 

They “taste” so good because they have been chemically and psychologically manipulated to manipulate your taste buds and your brain into believing they taste so good. There’s a reason one potato chip company snidely sloganeered: “Bet you can’t eat just one.” It is a sucker’s bet because the chemo-psycho industrial addiction complex had done its work well and knows you can’t.

Even the aforementioned potato chip bag is part of the sting, having been crafted by the shysters of irresistible packaging design, and deliberately placed among grocery store foodstuffs, to push your impulse buying buttons. And we shovel billions worth of this emptiness into our mouths each year?

So much for the rational consumer. So much for our self-aggrandizing claims to the primacy of personal choice and autonomy. So much, almost, for free will. Almost, because we know free will is true. We know it is true because if it were not, there would be no such thing as sin and, well, Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. Or as an eminently wise priest once told me: “Of course the Church is full of sinners. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t need a Church.” QED.

So, the fallacy is not free will. The foolishness is the failure to remain aware that there are forces and influences around us against which free will must be steeled and exercised so we are ready in the crunch. That’s not an appeal to paranoia. It’s not raising alarums that the Devil is in the Doritos. It is arguing that God’s spiritual gift of free will must inform both our habits and our intelligence in even the most seemingly unimportant of choices.

We need not go on the all-locust diet. We can recall Our Lord’s admonition to Israel that it is “not what goes into your mouth but what comes out” in order to avoid the contemporary temptation to provender puritanism that mirrors our profligate potato chip addiction. But what we must have and hold is the Christian — particularly Catholic — understanding that eating is a spiritual exercise not mere consumption or indulgence. Never have we been in more need of such understanding than at this moment when the pharmaceutical industry is set to realize US $50 billion revenues from the manufacture and marketing of what Leonard Cohen called “those drugs that keep you thin.” 

Elsewhere on these pages, Register columnist Cathy Majtenyi masterfully unmasks the social injustice of diverting supplies of the Type 2 diabetes medication, Ozempic, for use as an easy-peasy weight-loss option. There is  something stomach churning about corporate entities such as Weight Watchers abandoning their commitments to help people modify overeating behaviours, and instead becoming snake oil salesmen for instant svelteness by directing dieters to doctors dispensing drugs to those who just want to drop some pounds.

More troubling even than the corporate greed is the underlying affliction of forgetting that food, like free will, is a gift from God. It’s skipping straight to dessert without reciting the immortal Dogan Slogan: “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty.” I’ve always been partial, too, to the words my wife’s family add at meals: “et donnez du pain à ceux qui n’en ont pas” (and give bread to those who have none).

Grace. Gratitude. Charity. Certainly beats $15 billion worth of potato chips, doesn’t it?

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