Smerconish: Look homeward to end obesity

I have a home recipe to solve the obesity crisis. You could say it's an ingredient that could help tip the scales back in the right direction.

What's indisputable is that we're too heavy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate that 68 percent of American adults are obese or overweight, which explains the recent efforts to combat the epidemic in both the public and private sectors.

First came New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of supersize sugar-sweetened drinks. Cambridge, Mass. — the home of Harvard University — is contemplating a similar move.

Bloomberg recently took his campaign to the Bronx, where more than two-thirds of residents are overweight and a variety of creative weight-loss approaches are under way. As the New York Times noted this month, one Bronx hospital offers Zumba and cooking classes. Farmers' markets are distributing coupons for fruits and veggies. Bodega owners are encouraged to stock low-fat milk. In one apartment building, the stairwells were decorated with artwork to encourage residents to bypass the elevator.

Here in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter twice attempted to tax sugary drinks, and the city has dedicated $900,000 in federal funds to an ambitious program aimed at boosting the availability of healthy foods and produce in 632 urban corner stores.

Meanwhile, a more comprehensive approach was embraced in last month's British Medical Journal, which found that a so-called fat tax is an effective means of combating obesity so long as it is at least 20 percent, applies to a wide variety of foods (not just soda), and is levied while government subsidizes healthier foods.

Those are just the public-sector initiatives. Disney will soon ban advertising of unhealthy foods on its television channels, radio stations, and websites geared toward children. Additionally, the iconic Mickey Mouse image will soon be used to flag healthy foods at Disney parks and resorts.

The approaches sound thorough, but there's something missing.

Our kitchens.

Time constraints have decimated the dinner hour. We love to watch Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis cook on TV while we're eating fast food and General Tso's chicken. None of the government and private-sector initiatives will work unless there is a return to basics at home.

My mother is one of the Grovich Girls of West Hazleton, Pa. Mom is one of 11 — eight sisters and three brothers, and the sisters are all great cooks.

For Christmas a few years ago, I gave my wife a recipe book composed of my aunts' staples. In light of the obesity debate, I reviewed the collection.

They were crafted before America was calorie-conscious. My mother's famous peanut butter cookies are revealed. So, too, is her recipe for shoofly pie. There is also “Dick's mother's sunshine cake” and “Aunt Dorothy's cheesecake.” The dinners bring back many memories: Nanny's stuffed peppers, Melanie's chicken, Dorothy's horseradish sauce, Vi's fettuccini, Uncle Tony's cannelloni beans, and Aunt Rose's meatballs.

Mostly they are evidence of an era in which dinner was prepared and then served at a regular hour, delineating between meal time and snack time. To really address our obesity crisis, America needs to find the time to make dinner again, limit the snacking, and rely on basic, unprocessed ingredients like those found in the Grovich Girls' kitchens. Some of my family's recipes seem light on meat and heavy on vegetables, probably a reflection of humble roots and the scarcity of the former. In fact, Nanny Grovich's homemade bread recipe lacks milk and eggs, presumably for the same reason. It's a classic.

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.

Nanny Grovich's homemade bread

(for 7-8 loaves)

7 lbs. flour

“Handful salt”

“Handful sugar”

3 packets dry yeast (with 1 / 2 cup lukewarm water)

1 quart lukewarm water

1 / 2 cup Wesson oil

Mix all ingredients

“Knead until tired”

Place in covered large container, cover with towel, and put in warm (not hot) oven for about 1? 1 / 2 hours. Then remove, punch it down, and knead again. Divide into eight loaves, reinsert in warm oven for an hour. Put “a little” warm milk on top of each loaf. Finally, bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.