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Leaves Of Grass And The Kingdom Of God

Erik Reece grew up the grandson of a fundamentalist preacher, but he left his church in search of a less punitive religion. He describes his struggle with religion in his new book, An American Gospel.


Other segments from the episode on May 13, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 13, 2009: Interview with Erik Reece; Review of Charles Tolliver's new album "Emperor March - Live at the Blue Note;" Interview with Dr. David Kessler; Review of Starz…


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Leaves Of Grass And The Kingdom Of God


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. As the grandson of a fundamentalist
Baptist preacher in rural Virginia and the son of a preacher, my guest,
Erik Reece, spent the first 18 years of his life as a compulsory
churchgoer. That was followed by 18 more years of trying to extract
himself from the church.

After doing that, he wanted to create an American gospel that was both
religious and democratic, a collection of readings by American
philosophers, poets, utopians and political and religious leaders whose
vision is relevant to our country in the 21st century, people like
Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William James and
John Dewey.

His new book is called “An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the
Kingdom of God.” Reece’s previous book, “Lost Mountain,” was about
radical strip-mining and the devastation of Appalachia. It won an award
for environmental reporting from the Sierra Club, as well as an award
from the Columbia University graduate school of journalism. Reece is a
writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Erik Reece, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your own
religious upbringing and your religious life, would you describe what
you call the American gospel, or “An American Gospel,” that you’ve put

Mr. ERIK REECE (Author): It’s a way of thinking about religion and
democracy that is in many ways rooted in the thinking of Thomas
Jefferson, his notions of a very decentralized kind of agrarian country,
and it’s really rooted in the idea that really fundamental phrase in
Luke 17:20 of the kingdom of God, whereas in Luke it says that the
kingdom of God is in our midst. And the gospel that I’m putting
together, or that I put together here, is really a way of trying to
rethink the way we would live if we thought about the kingdom of God as
not something in the sweet hereafter but something that’s actually in
the here and now.

GROSS: What’s the vision of Jesus that you grew up with? Your
grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher. Your father was a
preacher too.

Mr. REECE: Right, right. It was a very, I guess I would say, oppressive
kind of Christianity. It was very – it very much emphasized our innate
sinfulness, our unworthiness before God, and it was a – it was a heavy,
a heavy kind of Christianity.

The American philosopher William James made a distinction between what
he called religion of the sick soul and religion of healthy-mindedness,
and I think in many ways my grandfather preached a religion of the sick
soul, not that he wasn’t a very loving man, because he was, but I think
he really thought that his job was to get his congregation to save their
souls, and the way to do that was to convince them of their guilt and
their sin. That was the sort of simple message that he preached to his

GROSS: Are there any things from his sermons that you vividly remember?

Mr. REECE: I remember he preached a sermon about the creation story, the
Genesis creation story, and it was about how the serpent had tricked us
into disobeying God and that because we had been tricked we were just
innate sinners, and because we were innate sinners, God had to send his
son to save us all, and it was a very forceful kind of sermon and it was
a sermon that was supposed to lead, as all of my grandfather’s sermons
were, to people coming forward and confessing their sins at the front of
the church, kneeling beside him, and it was a very dynamic sermon.

My grandfather was a very dynamic, charismatic preacher, and I just
remember sitting in the third pew with my grandmother, listening to him
pound the pulpit and really express this real force over his

GROSS: What was it like for you when you were young and all these people
who decided they were sinners would come up to the front of the church
to kneel by your grandfather, the preacher? Was that powerful for you?
Was it alienating for you? Like what did you feel, watching that?

Mr. REECE: It was powerful. This was a small fishing village in
Tidewater, Virginia. My grandfather was the moral force, the head of the
community, and I understood this, and I understood the power that he
wielded, and I understood that he was never wrong, that what he said was
right and that I needed to constantly be questioning my own life and my
own sinfulness and really be doing a lot of soul-searching, as clearly
everybody else that was coming forward was.

GROSS: Because your grandfather believed in a kind of punitive religion,
where you know, unless you, like, walked the line you’d be punished and
go to hell, was his religion a comfort to you or did it scare you?

Mr. REECE: It scared me. It wasn’t really a comfort. I remember when I
would stay with my grandparents for long periods of time, just the fear
that would overcome me, that it was really a fear that my grandfather
would go to one place and I would go to another place. It was a fear of
being separated from him and from my grandmother.

GROSS: You mean like heaven and hell, that kind of separation?

Mr. REECE: Right, right, right, yeah, and so it was - it really was a
fear, and it’s something that later in life I began to think about.
Well, if we took all the fear out of Christianity, then what do we have
left? So it was a question, and it was an influence that stuck with me.

GROSS: Now, your father was a preacher too, but he took his life at the
age of 33 when you were three years old?

Mr. REECE: Right.

GROSS: Would you describe how your father took his life?

Mr. REECE: Well, he was - he had a .22 rifle that my grandfather had
given him for – it was a hunting rifle, and my mother had taken – she
was a schoolteacher and she had dropped me off at the babysitter and she
had gone to school, and when we came home in the afternoon my father had
never gotten out of bed and he had shot himself.

GROSS: You ascribed his suicide to two things – one, brain chemistry,
because he had bipolar disorder.

Mr. REECE: Right.

GROSS: And the other, religion. How do you think religion figured into
your father’s suicide?

Mr. REECE: I think the two things really just reinforced each other. I
don’t think either one probably would have led to the suicide, but I
think that my father first of all probably shouldn’t have become a
preacher. I mean, he felt the pressure from my grandfather to be a
preacher, but he wasn’t very good at it.

He was very introspective, very quiet. I think he would have been a good
seminarian or a Bible scholar or a teacher, something like that, but he
did feel the pressure from my grandfather to sort of carry on this
family tradition.

But I don’t think he could really ever escape the heaviness of my
grandfather’s fundamentalism. I think that just innate, inherent
sinfulness, that guilt was just something that he just – he couldn’t
ever shake it, and he could never step outside of my grandfather’s
shadow, and so I don’t feel like he could really ever find his own way.

He could never find any accommodation, and so at one point, you know, it
just - he really felt like the best thing he could do for himself and
for everybody was to end his own life, and my mother feels no bitterness
about it. She says to this day that she honestly feels that he thought
he was doing us a favor.

GROSS: Twenty years after your father’s suicide, your mother gave you
the Bible which he had used since his days in seminary, and the cloth
marker was at Matthew 10, and I’d like you to read an excerpt for us.
This is on Page 28 of your book.

Mr. REECE: Okay. Never imagine I have come to bring peace on Earth. I
have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set a man
against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law
against her mother-in-law. Yes, a man’s own household will be his
enemies. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. He who
will not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who
has found his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake
will find it.

GROSS: Now, when you found that, your father’s Bible was marked to this
page. You couldn’t know for sure what that meant, whether it was an
accident or whether that’s really what he had been reading before he
killed himself, whether this was a significant passage for him or not,
but your reaction in the book to this passage is: who is the egomaniac
speaking these words? Would you elaborate on that reaction?

Mr. REECE: Well, it just struck me as, who is person speaking 2,000
years ago, a complete historical stranger, saying that we should love
him, who we are really incapable emotionally of loving, more so than we
love our own fathers and our own sons? And it just seemed like an
incredibly egomaniacal kind of claim to make, and on the one hand, I
could conclude that this was something that my father simply couldn’t
do, or on the other I could conclude that it’s something he took very
literally, though from everything everybody told me, he wasn’t the kind
of person that would’ve done that.

GROSS: My guest is Erik Reece. His new book is called “An American
Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God.” We’ll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Erik Reece. His new book is called “An American
Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God.” So at some point
you broke with the church. You felt – I think it’s fair to say you felt
like your father felt, imprisoned by the church, and didn’t know how to
get out because of his ties to his father, who was also a preacher, but
you left the church at what age?

Mr. REECE: Well, our church burned down when I was 17 years old, and I
took that as a pretty good omen that I should get out then, and I never
really went back. And it caused quite a bit of hurt feelings among my
family, but it was really then that I sort of set out on my own
religious pursuit.

GROSS: And I think it’s interesting. Some of the people who you excerpt
in the American gospel you’ve put together are poets and writers, like
Walt Whitman has a very prominent place in the American gospel you’ve
put together.

Now you’re an English professor, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …that you’re turning to poets, but tell us why. Why turn to poets
when trying to understand religion?

Mr. REECE: Well, I think there’s a lot of poetry in the Bible, and I
think the imagination is really an incredible moral force. The
imagination helps us to – it helps us to belong inside our own skins and
to belong in the world in an intense kind of way, and it helps us
imagine a better future, and so I think poetry is very important in that

Emerson said that poets are liberating gods, and I think they can
liberate us to see things differently, and so it was sort of with that
impulse, I guess, that I began really thinking seriously about Walt
Whitman, because he is such a poet that is – he’s really a celebrator of
life, and he has a religious view, but it’s a religious view that’s so
different from my grandfather’s, because it really is one that sees the
creation infused with the creator and with the sense of the divine, and
it really does portray the natural world as the kingdom of God. And I
found that very, very inspiring.

GROSS: There’s an excerpt of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” that you
include in your book. Well, there’s several excerpts you include in your
book, but there’s one in particular that I’m going to ask you to read
that’s on Page 114. Why don’t you read it and then tell us why you’ve
chosen it.

Mr. REECE: Okay. I see something of God each hour of the 24, in each
moment then, in the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face
in the glass. I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every
one is signed by God’s name, and I leave them where they are, for I know
that others will punctually come forever and ever.

GROSS: Why is this such an important passage to you?

Mr. REECE: Well, I think, again, this is Whitman saying that he sees the
divine in the ordinary. He sees the work of God in this world, in both
the natural world and in other human beings, and it’s – again, it’s that
religion of healthy-mindedness that I think really helped me begin to
understand that religion didn’t have to be this heavy, dogmatic, guilt-
ridden kind of force, that it could actually be a very, very inspiring

GROSS: There’s something I really want to play for you. Have you heard
the Fred Hersch musical settings for “Leaves of Grass”?

Mr. REECE: No, I haven’t.

GROSS: Well, I have to play it for you. Fred Hersch is a jazz pianist,
but a few years ago he took parts of “Leaves of Grass,” set it to music,
and this passage is one of the passages that he set to music. So here it
is, and Kurt Elling is the singer.

(Soundbite of song, “Leaves of Grass”)

Mr. KURT ELLING (Singer): (Singing) Why should I wish to see God better
than on this day? I see something of God each hour of the 24, and each
moment then, in the faces of men and women, I see God and in my own face
in the glass. I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every
one is signed by God’s name, and I leave them where they are, for I know
that wherever I go, others will punctually come forever and ever.

GROSS: So that was Fred Hersch’s musical setting for a passage from Walt
Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” with Kurt Elling singing. Isn’t that

Mr. REECE: It is, you know, and it really reminds you that one of the
great services Whitman did for us was he really brought together body
and soul. There’s so much of a dualism in a lot of fundamentalist
Christianity, and there was a lot of in my grandfather’s, and Whitman
was bringing these things back together again.

I remember I was walking with my grandfather once, and we were having a
good conversation about nature. He loved nature, and I said something –
I quoted a line of Whitman about if somebody asks to see the soul, then
I point to this tree and this rock. And my grandfather became very icy,
and he said that’s pantheism. And I don’t think it was.

I think Whitman was not saying we worship the trees in the natural world
but that we see the handwriting of God there.

GROSS: My guest is Erik Reece, and he has a new book called “An American
Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God.” He’s put together
an American gospel, excerpts of texts ranging from the Gospel of Thomas
to Thomas Jefferson’s re-working of the New Testament. Also included in
the American gospel you’ve put together is William James, the
psychologist and philosopher who died in 1910. Tell us about one or two
of the excerpts from his work that you’ve included that are meaningful
to you.

Mr. REECE: Well, there’s one excerpt where he says that religion should
– the purpose of religion should be to make life more interesting and
more meaningful, not less, and I thought that was very important because
in many ways I look back at my grandfather’s religion, and it did kind
of make life seem not that interesting because life was this thing we
were supposed to escape, and for James it was just the opposite.

And he took it further, and he said that one of the main tenets of
American pragmatism, which is the only school of philosophy that America
has ever contributed to the world, he said that one of the main tenets
here is that if you have a belief, that belief has to lead to an action.
If you simply believe something but it doesn’t change the way you do
things, then it really isn’t of any consequence.

And so James said that religion should be a habit of action, and I think
that’s something that in a lot of mainstream Christianity we tend to
forget. So James was very important to me in that sense.

GROSS: You know, I’m just thinking about some of the things you said
earlier about your father’s suicide and about the pain that religion
caused you when you were growing up in a fundamentalist family, with the
idea, the main idea of religion being sin - you know, don’t do this,
don’t do that, you will suffer.

Mr. REECE: Right.

GROSS: And do you think of religion as having caused a lot of pain in
your life?

Mr. REECE: Yeah, I do. I think it was inadvertent. I don’t think anybody
meant to inflict it on me. In many ways I inflicted it upon myself
because I took to heart probably too much of this emphasis on sin and
guilt. I mean it’s interesting to look at my mother because to her
Christianity is very liberating; it’s a force that really helps her in
her life, even the fundamentalist kind of religion. And I guess I was
just sort of psychologically tuned to see it more the way my father saw
it and less the way my mother saw it. So I guess that’s more – as much
about me as it is about the message that my grandfather was preaching.

GROSS: Do you go to church now?

Mr. REECE: No, no, I don’t. I usually spend Sundays out in the woods.

GROSS: Erik Reece, thank you very much.

Mr. REECE: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Erik Reece is the author of the new book, “An American Gospel: On
Family, History, and the Kingdom of God.” He’s a writer in residence at
the University of Kentucky in Lexington. I’m Terry Gross, and this is
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Charles Tolliver Big Band Marches On


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Trumpet player Charles Tolliver made some big band recordings in the
1970s and played his arrangements with a few European jazz orchestras.
In 2003, he revised his Big Band for gigs in New York, and later then
made an album for Blue Note. In February, Tolliver's band recreated the
charts for Thelonious Monk's 1959 "Town Hall Concert." They now have a
new live album out. Jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead says the band is
hitting its stride.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Charles Tolliver’s Big Band playing the blues and
diving headlong into the cheerful exuberance of the big band's
birthright. Tolliver came up in the 1960s among musicians who took their
cues from John Coltrane's splashy, high-energy modal jazz, where players
would stretch out a while on a single chord or scale. Tolliver’s Big
Band honors those groups.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: Marcus Strickland, stirring the cauldron on tenor saxophone.
That's from the Charles Tolliver Big Band’s "Emperor March," recorded
live last year in New York. Most every big band smacks of urban bustle,
trafficking in horn riffs and counter riffs. Tolliver's mass trumpet,
saxes and trombones call out to each other like friendly rivals who are
on the same side.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: Few musical formations build excitement like a big band when
everyone piles on like that. You can hear what these leviathans get from
the polyrhythmic energy in Cuban orchestras, even when the material is
not officially Latin.

(Soundbite of "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: There are plenty of good soloists here, including trumpeter
Charles Tolliver himself, and saxophonists Bill Saxton and Billy Harper,
who’s featured on a favorite ballad of Coltrane's, "I Want To Talk About
You." But above all, big bands need forceful drummers. This one is Gene
Jackson who patches those Latin inflections and lays down a size EEE

broad beat.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: Even when horns melt away to let the rhythm trio run, they
play like 16 players are still at their backs: Bassist Reggie Workman
was in Tolliver's 70s Big Band. Anthony Wonsey is on piano.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: The Golden Age of big bands is long gone. But in truth, most
modern bands don't come close to matching swing era orchestras for
precision or playing in tune, though they are many worse offenders than
this one. Charles Tolliver's album "Emperor March," shows why a few
idealists continue to mount these high overhead, lucky if we break even
ensembles of a dozen and a half players.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

WHITEHEAD: They're a lot of fun to write for, and to play in, and to
listen to.

(Soundbite of album, "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note")

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the
University of Kansas. And he's a jazz columnist for He
reviewed "Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note" by the Charles Tolliver
Big Band.

Coming up, why we can't stop eating foods rich in sugar, fat, and salt,
and why there's so much of those ingredients in fast food and processed

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Mind Over (Food) Matter: Combating 'Overeating'


Once you've had a bite of salty french fries, or a cheeseburger with all
the extras, or a cinnamon bun, you want more and more. It can be hard to
stop eating even when you're full. It's not just you. Years of research
has taught former FDA commissioner David Kessler that sugar, fat and
salt change the brain. Those ingredients are the stars of Kessler's new
book, "The End of Overeating." It's about why there's so much sugar,
fat, and salt in fast food and processed food, and how that's affecting
our brains as well as our waistlines.

Kessler was the FDA commissioner under Presidents George H.W. Bush and
Bill Clinton. He's the former dean of the medical schools at Yale and
the University of California, San Francisco.

David Kessler, welcome to FRESH AIR. In your book, you blame overeating
not only on a lack of willpower, but you say we're eating foods
basically that are designed, perhaps intentionally designed, to get us
to just keep eating, and that things like sugar, fat, and salt increase
your craving. Why do they do that? Why do we keep wanting more sugar
when we're eating sweet or more salt when we're eating popcorn, or
pretzels, or potato chips?

Dr. DAVID KESSLER (Author, “The End of Overeating”): We used to think of
- food was something we ate to fill us up, to satiate us. But in fact,
much of the food that we're eating, this trifecta of sugar, fat and
salt, stimulate us. And what we now see is the science that shows that
much of the food that we're eating, this very highly palatable food, is
excessively activating the neurocircuitry of many of our brains. We used
to just think that, you know, food tasted good, but we now know what's
behind that, and for many of us the reason we keep on eating is because
of this sustained stimulation.

GROSS: Now you describe how foods that sound really healthy like a
potato or a chicken breast can really just become vehicles for the
trifecta of salt, fat and sugar. Give us an example of a food that it
kind of sounds healthy, but when you're done with it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... when the industry is done with it, it isn't.

Dr. KESSLER: Take the spinach dip. You see the word spinach on the menu,
you think boy, that's good for me. What is it? You know it's fat and
salt with some green things in them. Even our basic chicken breast
increasingly has food that's injected or marinated or mixed in a huge
cement mixer and it has sugar and fat and salt injected into it. You
know, and it's very stimulating. It's very highly affective in getting
us to eat more and more.

GROSS: But, you know, as you point out in your book, restaurants aren't
shy about advertising all the stuff, not ingredient per ingredient, but
how rich these foods are. And you give an example from the T.G.I. Friday
menu. And you describe T.G.I. Friday’s as the chain restaurant designed
to be the ultimate food carnival. So this is one appetizer, the
parmesan-crested Sicilian quesadilla. And it says, packed with sauteed
chicken, sausage, bruschetta marinara, and bacon, and oozing with
Monterey Jack cheese. We coat it with parmesan and pan fry it to a
crispy golden brown, then drizzle it with Balsamic glaze. So what's
going on in that parmesan-crusted Sicilian quesadilla?

Dr. KESSLER: If you translate what it says on the menu, what is it? It's
fat on fat, on fat, on salt, on fat. That's what it is.

GROSS: Let me read another menu item. This is how the menu describes it,
or at least how it described it when you were writing the book. And this

is from Chilis, which is another chain restaurant, and this is the
Margarita grilled chicken. That sounds pretty healthy. Okay. So here's

Dr. KESSLER: Absolutely.

GROSS: ... here's a description. We start with tender, juicy chicken
breast, marinade it with our classic Margarita flavoring and grill it to
perfection. And then the dish is served with rice, beans, strips of
fried tortilla, and salsa. And that, I mean that sounds pretty good. So
what are your objections to the Margarita grilled chicken?

Dr. KESSLER: Well, if you go look what's actually in the chicken - let
me read you what's in there. It contains a 15 percent solution of a
marinade, which now - marinade has orange juice, sweet and sour mix,
which is sugar, citric acid, soy bean oil, artificial colorings, has
triple sec, canola oil, tequila, salt - and that's all added inside the

GROSS: This is for the marinade?

Dr. KESSLER: The marinade, it's mixed in this huge mixer, sometimes it
looks like a cement mixer. And so you have these sugary, fat, syrups
added inside the chicken. You think you're eating good grilled chicken.
You think it's healthy. Only then do you understand that you have this
solution of this sugar, fat and salt added to something that we think is

GROSS: And it's not like you can say hold the sauce because it's already
embedded in the chicken.

Dr. KESSLER: It's - unfortunately it's hold the chicken.

GROSS: Well you actually have a theory about conditioned hyper-eating.
That's what you call it. What do you mean by conditioned hyper-eating?

Dr. KESSLER: What the science seems to be showing, and it's still
evolving, is that for many of us, many people who are susceptible,
highly palatable foods, the foods that we're eating every day now are
excessively activating the neurocircuitry of our brain. And for many of
us, once we get stimulated, our brains, this neurocirtcuitry doesn't
shut off. And the behavior becomes, and this is important, it becomes
not only conditioned, but it becomes driven. When it comes, you know, to
certain stimuli and certain neurocircuits, not only does it form habits,
not only do I learn it, but I become motivated to seek it out. So the
behavior becomes conditioned and driven.

You know we used to think it's, you know, it’s simply a matter, if you
want to control your weight, it’s a matter of willpower. No one's given
us the tools to be able to deal with it. Diet and exercise, sure it’ll
work for some period of time. I take you and I put you on a diet. But I
don't change your brain circuitry. I get you through the next 30 days,
or 60 days, or 90 days, yes you'll lose the weight. But then I put you
back in your environment, I can continue to cue you and I've not added
any new learning on top of that old learning, and what's going to
happen? Of course you’re going to gain the weight back.

GROSS: So what are some of your suggestions for effective food rehab?

Dr. KESSLER: There are things I can do just to decrease the amount of
stimulation. So don't cue me. You know, take that bread away. I don't
want to see that because that's only going to increase the stimulation.
Or don’t deprive me because if - deprivation's only going to increase
the reward value. So taking away the cues, not being primed, decreasing
feelings of deprivation, all those can decrease being stimulated. But
how realistic is that in our current environment? So, you know, the
ultimate goal is to cool down the stimulus. And the way to do that is to
want something more. So I can set rules for myself. I can eat in not a
chaotic way and say boy, I don't want this now, I'm going to want
something better later. So rules work. Structured eating, eating in – in
meals. But ultimately is to have what psychologists call a critical
perceptual shift. If you look at a huge plate of fries and say wow,
that’s great. But if you can get to the point of looking at those - that
food, that plate of nachos and say boy, what is that? That’s just fat on
fat on sugar and fat. If you can change what, you know, what scientists
call the reward value of the stimulus, then when you are cued by that
stimulus, your brain doesn’t get stimulated, you don’t get activated.

GROSS: What are the ways that you can find out, now, what you are
actually putting into your system? If you shop for packaged food in a
super market, it’s going to say on the label what the ingredients are,
how many calories are in it, how many fat calories are in it. And you
could actually have a, you know, what you can assume, I think, is an
accurate breakdown of what you are going to be eating. You are partly
responsible for that, aren’t you, those labels, when you are FDA

Dr. KESSLER: We are partly responsible for that. In fact one of the
people I was interviewing in the book, in the food industry said, you
know, Kessler this is all your fault…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KESSLER: …because you are pretty effective in putting on processed
foods, the food label. But where did this go? You know, once you got
that under control, where did this go? It went to restaurants and that -
there was no food label.

GROSS: Would you like to see food labels in restaurants so that when we
ate a cheeseburger or a nacho that we would have the same information we
would get if we bought it in a super market?

Dr. KESSLER: I think disclosure is very important. But it’s also
important to understand that eating has to be pleasurable. It has to be
rewarding. But we have to adjust, and I think what’s critical, is we
need to change how America looks at food. Now – the plain hamburger may
be fine. I’m not here to give nutrition advice. And some of my
colleagues will disagree with me. But, you know, a hamburger - four or
five hundred calories at a meal, you know, I don’t have a lot of
problems with that. It’s when that hamburger has layers upon layers, you
know, of bacon and cheese and dressings and you take that four and five
hundred calories and you make it eight hundred or 1200 or 1500 calories.
That’s where I think the damage is being done.

GROSS: What are your concerns about children who grow up with this
highly fat, sugar, salt kind of fast food. And that’s their normal.
That’s what – that’s the kind of zest-up food that they think is normal
food. And that’s the way their compass is set when they desire food.

Dr. KESSLER: As a pediatrician that gives me the greatest concern.
Because I now understand, that once you lay down that neural circuitry,
that gets activated by this highly palatable food - you lay down that
learning, that learning stays with you for a life. And we have children
now - three, four, five years of age - who are eating constantly all
day: fat, sugar and salt. They have never been hungry for a moment in
their lives. If you look at the science, what we used to see, was that
children at ages two and three and four used to compensate for the
eating. Which meant, if I gave them more calories at one meal, they
would eat less later on in the day.

Now by giving them this highly palatable rewarding food, they’ve lost
the ability to compensate. The reward circuits of their brain have taken
over any of the homeostatic mechanisms that allow them to control their
eating in the first place.

GROSS: Well I can hear some people are thinking is now he is going to
recommend that the government regulate McDonald’s or regulate T.G.I.
Friday’s. Do we want the government being in the kitchen with the chef?

Dr. KESSLER: If you look at the great public health successes, if you
look at tobacco, if you look at seatbelt - how did we win those battles?
Sure there’s a role for government, I mean, in part. But in the end what
do we do? We changed the way we look at tobacco. We changed the way - I
get in the car and I don’t feel normal unless I put on that seatbelt. So
yes, government has a role, the industry has a role, we as consumers
have a role. But the first thing is we have to change how we look at
food and this is about our relationship with food. It’s not simply a
matter of government regulation.

GROSS: David Kessler, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. KESSLER: Thank you.

GROSS: David Kessler is a former FDA commissioner. His new book is
called, “The End of Overeating.” Coming up, our critic-at-large John
Powers recommends the Starz series “Party Down.” It’s about to end but
there is still ways of watching it. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Hollywood Wannabes ‘Party Down’ On Starz


Our critic-at-large John Powers has been watching the TV series, “Party
Down.” The series ends Friday but John had a sneak peek of the last
episode and declares it a winner along with all the rest.

JOHN POWERS: When I first moved out to Los Angeles, a friend joked that
the city’s motto should be: but really I’m. As in: I work as a waiter,
but really I’m an actor. Or: I may be selling you jeans, but really I’m
writing a script. Of course, most Angelenos actually don’t have
aspirations to showbiz. But hundreds of thousands do dream of hitting it
big, even as they do jobs that feel small. Theirs is the world of “Party
Down,” a comedy series on Starz that might be the love child of Ricky
Gervais and Judd Apatow. It’s about Hollywood fringesters who work for a
catering company called Party Down.

And each half-hour episode takes place entirely at one of the events
where they are serving. Everything from high school reunions and porn-
awards parties to ceremonies for a college conservative caucus. We meet
the “Party Down” team through the watchful eyes of its new bartender,
Henry, played by Adam Scott, who looks like a flattened out version of
Tom Cruise. Henry is a washed-out actor whose great claim to fame is a
beer commercial where he says, are we having fun yet?

A line superbly deployed throughout the series. Henry is instantly drawn
to Casey, a struggling comedian played with enormous verbal brio by
Lizzie Caplan, an actress I find uncommonly fetching. Henry and Casey
are the sharp ones along with Roman. That’s the reliably acerbic Martin
Starr, a wannabe screenwriter who loves Sci-Fi and yearns to get laid.
The other three are sweetly dim dreamers. There is the catering team
leader Ron, played with manic desperation by Ken Marino, who dreams of
opening a soup franchise restaurant.

There is the cocky-but-sweet actor Kyle, that’s Ryan Hansen, who has a
delightfully easy style. And then there is Constance, a fading bit
player who still talks about working with Jan Michael Vincent. She’s
played by Jane Lynch, one of our great comic treasures. The show’s
backdrop changes from week to week. What’s always the same are these six
characters who inhabit a sitcom riff on a Beckett universe where
everyone is always at work and waiting for the break that will spring
them from limbo. Until that happens, they swap stories and hook up,
malinger and badmouth their clients.

Here at a business retreat Roman starts ranting to Henry and Kyle about
the guest speaker, the L.A. Laker turned actor - Rick Fox.

(Soundbite of TV Series, “Party Down”)

Mr. MARTIN STARR (Actor): (As Roman DeBeers) Why would anyone pay money
to see Rick Fox speak on any topic?

Mr. ADAM SCOTT (Actor): (As Henry Pollard) Well, he is a winner Roman
and people want to hear what winner’s have to say.

Mr. STARR: (As Roman DeBeers) No. A winner is like Arthur C. Clarke or
Steven Hawking or Kafka. He’s just some eight-feet tall freak.

Mr. SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) When did you turn so completely against
Rick Fox?

Mr. STARR: (As Roman DeBeers) A: He was overrated on Lakers. And B: He’s
all over Casey like a (Bleep) sleeve.

Mr. SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Ha. You’re jealous of Rick Foxx. That’s

POWERS: When I first saw “Party Down,” I thought the idea was better
than the execution. Like many shows, it took a few episodes to hit its
stride. Now the show is genuinely funny and filled with terrific
writing. As in the great scene when Roman blows his chances with a Sci-
Fi loving porn actress named Cramzy, because she likes the wrong kind of
science fiction. Or the recent episode when Russian gangsters treat the
“Party Down” team as celebrities, because Eastern Europe is one place
where they actually show the straight-to-video movies and TV shows that
actors like Kyle and Constance have been in.

The whiff of failure makes “Party Down” the flip side of that other
Hollywood series “Entourage,” whose ordinary guys get to live large -
cool cars, hot chicks, fancy restaurants. Where that fizzy HBO series
was an almost perfect expression of a bubble economy, “Party Down” seems
just right for an economic downturn in which people still harbor
oversized American dreams, but know they need a job to survive. And
though the show has fun with the characters foibles and limitations
they’re all slightly deformed by their ambitions.

It avoids what we might call Day of the Locust Syndrome. It doesn’t look
at them as little people or treat them with fear and disdain. It’s
affectionate. Everything turns around Henry, who as episodes spin out of
control, remains the show’s still center. Beautifully underplayed by
Scott, he reveals himself in bone-dry quips and almost imperceptible
inner crumples that betray his mortified sense of his place in the

Alone of the six, Henry has abandoned his hopes of the big time. But
what’s great is that this has made him humane, not cynical. Even when
his coworkers are being foolish he never looks down on their dreams.
Wised up and sad, he’s “Party Down’s” hero and melancholy heart. He
knows that he’s not an actor. He really is a bartender.

GROSS: John Powers is a film critic for Vogue. “Party Down” is on the
Starz Network and can be seen on demand in reruns and streaming from
Netflix. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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