On July 23, 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a press release informing us of their support of a class action lawsuit brought against the Denny's restaurant chain by Nick DeBenedetto in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County.  Apparently the 48 year old DeBenedetto suffers from high blood pressure and takes prescription medication to treat it.  He also doesn't cook with salt at home or use the salt shaker.  He is, however, a regular patron of Denny's, and his favorite meal goes by the ridiculous and off-putting moniker "Moons over my Hammy".  This is an egg, ham and cheese sandwich which comes with a choice of hash browns or grits.  The sandwich alone has 2,580 mg of sodium.  Slap some grits on there, and it tops out at 3,240 mg.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average person should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium in a day.

Here's a quote from the plaintiff, "I was astonished...I mean literally floored...to find that these simple sandwiches have more salt than someone in my condition should have in a whole day."  Is this guy serious?  He was eating at Denny's on a regular basis.  I find it hard to believe that someone who uses no salt when at home can't ascertain that his sandwich is the culinary equivalent of a salt lick.  Besides, did he really believe that Denny's and other restaurants of that ilk are truly concerned about people with hypertension and high blood pressure?  Just thinking about this lawsuit gives me hypertension.  Perhaps I should sue him for raising my blood pressure.

To be sure, Denny's has been grossly irresponsible when formulating the recipes for that collection of wordplays they call a menu, and the CSPI has done some valuable work in helping bring to the light of day corporate irresponsibility when it comes to food labeling, marketing and product formulation.  But to assist in a class action lawsuit because someone failed to take seriously his own responsibility for his personal health seems to me to be more enabling of this type of behavior than it is assistance in helping people stop from acting like fools.  Sure, they may succeed in getting Denny's to reduce the amount of sodium in their food, but what about the millions of other folks who are busy shoving fast food down their throats and getting their oversized butts caught in revolving doors?  Perhaps they should sue the door manufacturers while they are at it.

This whole thing reminds of the recent ruling in the Wisconsin Supreme Court that threw out a lawsuit brought by a man who backed his riding lawnmower over his son severing his legs.  He tried to blame John Deere for the accident since they provided a lawnmower with a reverse gear.  He didn't seem to think that he needed to exercise caution or provide proper parental supervision of his child.  He thought he should get paid for maiming his son, in the same way this guy wants to get paid for eating too many ham sandwiches.

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to New York City.  While there, we decided one day to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  I had driven across it many times, but I really wanted experience it up close.  It's kind of an American tradition akin to going to Mount Rushmore.  We had planned to catch a bus up to Green Pointe because we wanted to visit a restaurant there called Marlowe&Sons.  My sense of direction and navigational skills being what they are, I put us on the wrong bus, and we ended up in Park Slope.  Making lemonade out of lemons, we stopped at a little French bistro and had charcuterie and cheese which I washed down with some good Belgian Ale.  Later that evening, we dined at the Spotted Pig in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.  I started with a fried pig ear salad followed by an incredibly rich dish of braised rabbit with fennel.  They make some amazing pommes frites there which they fry with fresh rosemary and shaved garlic.  We just had to get an order of those.  I followed all of that with a coupe of mugs of proprietary cask bitter ale.  To say that I was ill the rest of the night and into the early morning hours is a gross understatement of how I was feeling.  I don't normally eat that way, and my body cannot absorb that much fat.  Did I call the restaurants and complain to them claiming that they poisoned me with their food?  Of course I didn't.  I was the dummy who threw caution to the wind simply because I was on vacation and feeling invincible.  It was my own fault, and I paid the price for my folly.

My friend and fellow chef, Stewart Woodman, recently took note of this same story and made mention of it on his blog (http://shefzilla.com).  He would like to see a surcharge or tax applied to food that is deemed unhealthful.  As he put it, "Why am I paying to subsidize someones (sic) burger fixation?"  Well Stew, you better be careful what you wish for.  Who gets to determine what's healthful and what isn't and for whom?  What about that confit we make that's cured in salt and cooked in rendered duck fat?  How about that bacon we cure and smoke, and what about that head cheese I just put up in my cooler?  What do you think about that fried pig ear salad at the Spotted Pig?  No thank you.  I think we have just about enough people telling what to do and how to live our lives.

At Heartland, we have a standard procedure when we take a reservation.  We always ask the question, "Do you have any dietary concerns or constraints that we need to be aware of?"  We need to know if someone is lactose intolerant or has a nut allergy or, for that matter, is on a sodium restricted diet.  Why do we do this?  We do it because we care about the health and well being of our guests, and we make a concerted effort to respect their food choices.  Does anyone for one minute expect to hear that question at the hamburger joint drive thru?  And how practical is it for Denny's, where half of the food comes out of a box or a bag, to accommodate special diets?

If someone is that concerned about his or her health then he or she shouldn't be eating at Denny's in the first place.  That person should be eating at a place like Heidi's or Heartland or cooking at home where all of the ingredients are at one's fingertips.  It doesn't take a lot of common sense to understand that.  Perhaps the CSPI feels that the only way to get companies like Denny's to be more responsible is to hit them where it hurts, which is in their pocketbooks.  I, on the other hand, maintain it would be better and more effective if consumers just didn't patronize those places in the first place.  I guarantee it wouldn't take long for the Denny's of this world to take notice.  In the meantime, how do we feel about less litigation and more emphasis on personal responsibility?


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