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Originally published July 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Hey, waiter, there's a calorie in my soup!

The way we live, the way we dress, what we eat and how we get through the day are the subjects of intense government interest, and more...

The way we live, the way we dress, what we eat and how we get through the day are the subjects of intense government interest, and more scrutiny is to come as the state looks over its shoulder and discovers our lives have been bad, bad, bad.

Locally, the newest scrutiny of how we eat will come with the addition of caloric content to menus at many eateries in King County. The county Board of Health, to which there is no appeal other than to move to Snohomish or Bainbridge, exacted a new price on the cost of having a good time. The health board is accepting the New York City limit on trans fats in prepared food and upping the ante on calories disclosed by requiring some restaurants to place — in an equal-size typeface on the menu — the calorie contents of what you are about to eat. A sample menu prepared by the staff of Anthony's HomePort restaurants was about the size of a pillowcase and spread dramatically, like something coming out of a washing machine.

The rationale for this dramatic change in keeping diners informed about the contents of their stomachs is health — what's healthy for some should be healthy for all.

In the first installment of a new cable series on life in an advertising agency in the transitional year of 1960, we can look at that age and marvel how bad people were. They smoked, drank alcohol throughout the day and appeared to be able to grossly insult each other right in the workplace.

I'm no TV critic, but "Mad Men," Thursday nights on AMC, should be watched with a caloric menu in front of you, no ashtray and a glass of mineral water, maybe with some low-sodium saltines on the side. Such is the distance we have traveled from steak and gravy to lean cuisine.

Owners of Seattle's restaurants have been pleading with the health board that adding up the calories to each item on the menu is useless and, as Rick Yoder of Wild Ginger restaurant said, "white noise" that diners will quickly ignore as part of the background to eating.

Yoder, whose place is popular with knowledgeable diners and serves as many calories as the next guy, is exempt from the calorie count on his menus — it depends on how many eateries you operate. So Anthony'sHomePort is not exempt, but along Shilshole's watering spots, Ray's Boathouse next door is exempt. Same calories, different menus. A menu at Denny's will be draped with calorie numbers; the one at Metropolitan Grill will not.

The state smoking ban was not nearly the start of this, it was just one of the howitzers aimed at leveling the remaining redoubts of the 1960s. Watching "Mad Men," all the characters smoke like chimneys and no one seems to mind. The aphrodisiac of smoke is embraced over the hacking coughs and the ashtray kisses. My favorite scene is the doctor lighting up and inhaling from the bottom of his lungs before he begins to examine a patient.

So that was then, and this is now. Health follows us wherever we go, even down the speeding highway where soon the cellphone will be banned from use. It's all to the public good: no more whiffs of Chesterfields or Scotch whisky, yet more information than ever before, and, oddly, more obesity, too.

Obesity — and there is none of that among the sleek characters of "Mad Men " — is the obvious target of the King County calorie campaign. But the caloric counts do not include the food inside schools, prisons and hospitals, where overweight people are often found, nor the packaged food at the supermarket. And caloric warnings can't work at buffet restaurants, where the food is crammed on the plate by you, without a government watchdog.

We are about to run out of the range of hearing of an earlier time, when cherry pie came just on a plate and the waitress would slide an ashtray toward you out of courtesy. I have little nostalgia for that time, wouldn't want to light up a Camel again, but there was something free about a platter of steak and eggs without the county telling me something I already know — it's a heart killer.

I think the new, calorie-clad menus are not going to be popular, or particularly useful. They turn dining out into a chore instead of a repast, and are elitist as only Seattle can be.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Editorial/Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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