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Let Them Eat Steak  
Why we shouldn’t let fear deprive us of our basic enjoyment  

    March 12 —  I was actually going to write a thoroughly researched article on the prescription drug crisis in America, but my editor wanted me to eat a steak and write about that instead. That is, if I survived.  

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  REALLY, WITH ALL the “Mad Cow” delirium, who knew if, after eating a really nice sirloin, I’d still be able to pick up a pen and meet my deadline (a word that suddenly had an ominous ring to it)?
        Media reports have gotten increasingly hysterical. Images of English cows being slaughtered are everywhere, but a few weeks ago on ABC’s “20/20,” it got really weird. A reporter from the show actually donned a spacesuit before entering a barn that may have contained the tainted cow chow that causes Mad Cow disease. A spacesuit! And yet my editor wanted to send me into a steakhouse with nothing but a fork!
“odds...are remote,” “chances...are very small,” “risks...are minimal” and “beef...is...de ...li...cious.”
       Even my own beloved Newsweek tried to get you to give up beef with its Mad Cow cover story last week. In it, Geoffrey Cowley skillfully reported that bovine spongiform encephalopathy—which to me sounds like something that would be great in a white wine and garlic sauce—could become an epidemic here, even though there has yet to be a single case and our government has taken some wise precautions.
        A sidebar to Cowley’s article reminded that the chances of getting the human variant of Mad Cow disease from eating beef are “exceedingly rare.” Other phrases that stood out in Anne Underwood’s sidebar were: “odds...are remote,” “chances...are very small,” “risks...are minimal” and “beef...is...de...li...cious.”
        Despite all that, Underwood’s article pointed out that the Mad Cow scare in Europe has encouraged folks there to abandon red meat “faster than you can say ‘Bistecca alla Fiorentina.’ ” (Full disclosure: I can’t say “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” without sounding like I have a swollen lip.)
        Would United States consumers do the same? After all, meat consumption in our nation is down, thanks to fanatical dieting and the unspoken fear that if we don’t stop eating meat, we’ll all end up like Dick Cheney.
        And every week, it seems, another food group disappears, preventing us from enjoying our most basic pleasures. I’m not talking about smoking—which is a known killer—but treats we could once enjoy in moderation, like a few beers, a plate of fries or real ice cream.
        But it’s more than just food. A nation of worrywarts, we now seize on every latest report of some new ailment or condition as evidence of our imminent demise—even though we’re more likely to die slipping on a misplaced roller skate than from the relentlessly hyped disease of the week.
Our nation is no longer afraid to fear fear itself. In fact, it positively courts it.

       We’ve gone beyond hypochondria to fearochondria. Thanks to Mad Cow, we will finally prove FDR wrong: Our nation is no longer afraid to fear fear itself. In fact, it positively courts it.
        Well, not if I can help it. I love beef—always have. So when my editor told me to eat steak—and submit the bill for a full reimbursement—I headed for Frank’s, a 90-year-old New York City steakhouse, to publicly proclaim the safety of the American steer.
        Of course, there’s a downside risk of such a public display of affection for a product that has been known to kill. For instance, have you seen gun-advocate Charlton Heston in a major Hollywood movie in the past two decades (“Wayne’s World 2” doesn’t count; it was a parody)?
        And what about former British agriculture minister John Gummer? In 1990, he and his young daughter ate hamburgers on TV to demonstrate the safety of English beef. When Mad Cow showed up a few years later, Gummer’s daughter survived, but his career did not. His reputation remains buried under a pile of slaughtered British cows.
        Fortunately, I differ from John Gummer in two ways:
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I don’t have a reputation to worry about and, more important, I’m not the steward of our nation’s food supply. I’m just a guy who isn’t afraid to eat beef and wants you to join me (although my editor didn’t say she’d pay for your steak, too).
        Entering Frank’s, I saw a wonderful sight. All around me, steak-eaters were partying like it was 1959, completely unconcerned about the Mad Cow hysteria.
        “Listen, I’m a plumber,” said customer Joseph Cisneros. “My hands are in New Jersey toilets all day long. Do you think I’m going to worry about Mad Cow disease?”
        Those were wise words. So when my Flintstone-sized steak—a 16-ounce New York strip as long as a forearm and as thick as the phonebook of a fairly large city—arrived, I didn’t pull out an actuarial table or the current issue of The Lancet. I pulled out a knife and got to work.
        I have never been happier to be a journalist. But I also learned three valuable lessons:
        1. In a world of diminishing pleasures, where hysteria is the opium of the age, we should not let fear deprive us of our basic enjoyment.
        2. There is no better enjoyment than a perfectly cooked steak.
        3. I am very glad that Joseph Cisneros is not a prep-cook at Frank’s.
        My steak devoured, I ended the meal with a nice, thick piece of chocolate cake (for the anti-oxidants, of course) and a cup of decaf.
        Because, you know, that caffeine will kill ya!

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House, April 2001). His e-mail address is gershny@yahoo.com.

       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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