It used to be the sight of a cigarette dangling from a person's mouth that would send the health police into a frenzy.
Now it's a french fry.
America's favorite vegetable delivery system is the latest villain in the battle against obesity. The anti-fatties cringe at anything deep-fried.
Atkins folks shudder at consuming all those carbohydrates. Posters promoting the anti-fast food documentary "Super Size Me" show director-star Morgan Spurlock's maw crammed with fries.
Consumption of frozen potatoes (mostly as french fries) fell to 55.1 pounds per capita in 2002, the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics available, the lowest level since 1993. The recent declines could be due to the popularity of low-carb and low-fat diets, the briefing from the USDA's Economic Research Service concludes.
Is the french fry evil?
"It's our appetites that are evil," says Russ Parsons, a food journalist who has written about french fries.
"I believe in moderation in all things, including moderation."
Most of us don't, especially when it comes to french fries. Despite the recent decline, potatoes are still America's favorite vegetable.
The typical American consumes almost 100 pounds of potatoes a year, more than half as fries. That's roughly a pound of fries each week, all year long.
And tests by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest indicate that a large order of fast-food fries contains 430 (Hardee's) to 490 (Arby's) calories, with fat grams tallying 19 (Hardee's and McDonald's) to 22 grams (Burger King).
A large order of fries has about the same calories and fat as a Quarter Pounder, the CSPI report concluded.
"It's a perfect little combination of flavors and textures," Parsons says.
"You start out with a crisp crust and, because it's a potato, it has a very moist -- almost melting -- interior. Then you have the flavors that come from deep-frying. That kind of oil-browned flavor is just irreplaceable."
Yet mindlessly downing a sack of fast-food fries every day shows "a lack of imagination," he says. Instead, we should treat a well-fried potato with the culinary respect it deserves.
"It's like a chocolate truffle," says Parsons, who indulges twice a month. "Have just a little bit to remind you how great it is, and then have a salad, fresh fruit or a vegetable."
A word about the name "french fries." Some culinarians insist that the term "french" refers to the technique of "frenching" -- cutting potatoes (or green beans or other vegetables) into long, thin strips.
But most food historians, giving credit to the French or (French-speaking) Belgians for the creation of the dish, suggest "French" indicates the country of origin. That's why, in the wake of France's lack of support for the American-led war in Iraq last year, some conservatives renamed them "freedom fries."
Interestingly, it's American soldiers who probably coined the term "french fry," when doughboys stationed in France and Belgium during World War I couldn't get enough of the pommes frites sold in restaurants and by street vendors, according to potato producer OreIda.
These soldiers wanted the same tasty treat when they got back to America.
But they had a long wait. Because of the laborious process of cutting and double frying the potatoes, it's not a job many home cooks were willing to tackle.
But the french fry did prove to be a perfect food for the fast-food restaurants that began to grow in the 1950s and 1960s to serve America's car culture. They kept big vats of beef tallow ready to fry up baskets of frozen sliced potatoes.
In 1964, the food-service industry used 79 percent of the frozen fries, according to the USDA. By 1998, they were using 90 percent.
While we're not about to call french fries a health food, potatoes are high in potassium, vitamins C and B-6 and minerals. And you can eat them fried -- on occasion.
"It's all a matter of calories in and calories out," says John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council. "There's room in there for french fries."