A “meme” is a basically a “thought virus.”
In the same fashion that influenza infects one person, replicates itself and then spreads to another, eventually infecting large numbers of a population; memes follow the same process through the consciousness of our culture, affecting (or “infecting” if you wish) the way we react or behave. Unlike an “urban legend,” which is a widespread false story wrongly accepted as fact; or a “fad,” which is a behavior that explodes in popularity and quickly dies; a meme is more akin to a belief or a concept that affect our view of society — and therefore how we react to it.
As illustration, a recent diet meme was “carbs are bad, protein is good.” This spread so quickly and deeply to the point that some honestly believed that scarfing down a one pound bacon cheeseburger — providing you avoided the bun — was a healthy method of dropping weight. This misguided all-protein diet meme spawned several variations of fad diets. Currently, although the meme might remain, those diets are mostly debunked.
Today’s column had its impetus because I was (once again) irritated with an action by our “leaders.” In this instance, the meme currently winding its way through conventional wisdom is that Congress has defined pizza as a vegetable. The underlying logic (if indeed it can be classified as such) was that since a certain amount of tomato paste equates to a “vegetable,” and whereas there is more than said amount on pizzas; they too would therefore be classified as vegetables.
I imagined children being told by their parents, “If you don’t eat your pizza, you won’t get any dessert,” or seeing the old food pyramid returning with “pesto-chicken pizza” or “double pepperoni” on par with carrots and lettuce. (We can only wish.)
Umbrage redlining, I sought facts (because unlike some cable news networks, I wish to be accurate) and discovered that although the story is untrue, it is not made up out of whole cloth. What essentially happened is the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to increase standards so a half-cup of tomato paste would count as a vegetable serving, instead of the current one-eighth cup. In an over-simplified nutshell (which I fear might also soon be classified as a vegetable), in bowing to the wishes of large agricultural companies — and against the wishes of the Administration — Congress opted to maintain the status quo. Therefore, two tablespoons of tomato paste remain the virtual nutritional equivalent of one half-cup of broccoli, green beans or any other vegetable in a school lunch. (In fairness, Congress did not however re-classify pizza to be a vegetable.)
Although somewhat relieved to hear the complete story, it is still disquieting.
Childhood obesity is at all-time high. The current generation of youngsters might indeed grow up to need as much health care in their middle age as my generation will require in its old age, adding yet additional pressure to an already overly-expensive, ineffective health care system, and lowering the quality of life for two generations (plus burdening those following behind). Would it really hurt to teach them to munch on a carrot or celery stick now and then?
We cannot regulate what people eat, nor am I an advocate of doing so; but — tomato paste? Really? This too has become a political battle line? If we cannot stop bickering long enough to help develop standards of what we feed our kids, it will be a short leap before chips are equated with bread and wine is considered a fruit.