For a week earlier this month, we watched the drama unfold off the Mexican coast. A ship was stricken and the US navy was despatched to its aid. Helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan were scrambled. The emergency? A fancy American cruise ship had run out of food.
It was headline news for days. No food! Omigawd! The navy dropped tinned crab, croissants, Spam and Pop-Tarts. Sixty thousand pounds of food in total, according to the host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno: that's roughly 20lbs per passenger for two days. (I am not sure a Pop-Tart can really be called food, but perhaps I'm alone.) As Leno asked: "How fat are those passengers?" Very, is the obvious answer. Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese and, from what I have seen of cruise ship passengers, the proportion is higher still on-board. The industry seems to cater to those too fat and lazy to heft themselves on to a plane. Or perhaps they don't fit into the seats.
While obesity is partly related to wealth in the UK, in the US it cuts through all social groups. Obesity-related health problems account for nearly a tenth of the total US health budget, up from 6.5 per cent in 1998. Over-eating is part of the daily diet of American news. Barely an edition of a newspaper seems to be complete without at least a report, a debate or a commentary on the problem.
The same edition of the paper in which I first read about the emergency food lift gave front-page billing to the news that a medical journal was reporting - surprise, surprise - that fat kids become fat teenagers, who become fat adults. There was another story about the city of San Francisco banning fast-food restaurants from giving away free toys with kids' meals that breach nutritional guidelines.
It is not as if Americans are unaware that they have a weight problem. They eat grotesquely unhealthy food - too much of it - and get fat and diabetic; everyone knows it. But they do not seem able to confront it.
After three weeks of travelling around this country, it strikes me that America may now have the worst food in the entire world, at least among countries that actually have food. Whether you can even call much of it food is debatable: great piles of carbs and overcooked steak or the ubiquitous burger. Every suburb of every town is a sprawl of fast-food lights: Wendy's, Subway, McDonald's, Burger King. (Wendy's is being hailed as a health crusader because it has decided to put sea salt - something Americans haven't really discovered yet - instead of table salt on its chips.)
One night in a restaurant in Wyoming, sick of burgers and fries, I steeled my stomach and ordered a lasagne, which the menu claimed would come with spaghetti on the side. I didn't really believe it would come with spaghetti. Yup. A whole helping of spaghetti bolognese, side by side with the lasagne, on the same plate. This kind of double eating might have been acceptable when Huck was heading over the hills on a three-day cattle drive; it is revolting when you are only going as far as your truck to drive up the freeway and settle down at home in front of the television.
Vegetables? You must be joking. On the rare occasions when you do find a vegetable in a restaurant or diner, it invariably comes smothered in gloop or pulverised with butter and dubbed "creamed". It is as if anything remotely healthy has to be disguised as gunk to get it down an American throat. Even the plain fresh fruit in supermarkets is vile, tasting of plastic and tin and chemicals. All this would barely be worthy of comment were it not for the sad tale it tells about the US today.
I refuse to believe that all of these people do not care that they are fat - it must be making them miserable and it is certainly making them sick. And the reason behind it is staring you in the face in every overpackaged piece of chemically enhanced, mass-produced corporate gunk. Like the Pop-Tart.
Do the mashed potatoes
A really good book by the American author Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food, shows how the idea of what constitutes "food" in the US has become hijacked by the food industry and nutritional lobbies, whose influence stretches right up to government advisory boards, so that what is sold as food bears less and less relation to anything naturally grown. Result: a food industry as fat as its consumers and a health industry that then feeds off them. It is gross, it is corrupt and, when you see these people, it is tragic.
And it is very hard to fight. The effect is insidious. After a few weeks in America, I find myself thinking that pancakes and maple syrup are a perfectly reasonable breakfast (it's what everybody else has) or that a "chilli sausage and egg breakfast burrito" is healthy because it has a bit of chilli in it! Suddenly, I crave sugar all the time. I think mashed potato is healthy because it's not chips.
The passengers on the Carnival Splendor complained that they were being given cheese and beetroot sandwiches - it was the beetroot that upset them, I imagine. "If you could see the things they put on sandwiches, seriously, this could be the only cruise ever where people lost weight instead of gaining weight," one woman said. But no: as they drifted - or waddled - off the ship towards the end of the week (disembarkation took a day because many were unable to walk up the flights of stairs and the lifts were broken), one woman confirmed: "We had plenty to eat." Yes, the US navy made sure of that, just as the pact between the US government and the food industry has made sure all the fat Americans have had plenty to eat. It just isn't food.