Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Progress Report

So it's been about three weeks since I decided to curb my drinking, and it's been going really well. I haven't gone completely dry, I still drink wine, but I did manage an entire week without any booze at all, and I haven't touched whiskey for close to a month. I can't say I miss it at all. I feel pretty good. I can't say my sleep has changed. When I was up at my parents' house in NY, I stayed up really late painting and/or hanging with my friends almost every night, and my sleep cycle has remained as fucked as it ever was. Baltimore, in case you haven't been paying attention, is suffering from record-breaking heat, and that has certainly made me feel lethargic and sleepy. But I feel good otherwise, and I remember every evening, even fun raucous ones, with great clarity. So far so good.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meat Heads

I read a lot of paleo blogs, and I find them all really interesting. However, I've noticed two things 1) most people approach paleo from the fitness and athletics perspective and 2) most paleo bloggers are married, live in the burbs, and often have kids. I don't know a lot of poor artists, metalheads, or long-haired hippies doing paleo, or at least none that are blogging about it. More importantly, I don't know a lot of chefs who are openly paleo.

I came to paleo after a few years of researching nutrition in order to avoid becoming diabetic like my father, but I've never been much of a health nut. I have never been a gym rat, I'm not by any stretch of the imagination an athlete, and my preferred exercise is long walks, lifting amps, and bike rides. I also pride myself on being a really great cook. I respect culinary traditions and the identity and values bound up within a culture's cuisine. My reverence for food is what drives my passion for paleo as much as my belief that it is the healthiest nutritional paradigm.

I will never ever ever be a raw foodist or do the 80/10/10 thing except maybe at some point as an experiment on myself because I love cooking. I think there is a lot to be learned from culinary traditions, and I find cooking to be therapeutic and meditative. I also believe that cooking developed for a good reason, that our ancestors weren't idiots, and that some foods need to be cooked to make their nutrients fully absorbable. Cooking is also like alchemy, it creates such wonderful fragrances and tastes, and I can't possibly give that up.

Aside from the paleo reasons for doing so, I largely eschew grains and legumes because I view them as filler, as nutritionally worthless dry goods that people use to pad out a meal when they're too cheap to eat or serve real food. I avoid sugar, not simply because of the diabetes thing, but also because I think it's a way for a cook to cheat, to disguise certain flavors, to get sweetness without proper caramelization, and to make a food more palatable without putting in the work to bring out the real flavors of the ingredients. I respect a cook who can take ingredients and make them delicious without adding too much to them. A good cook is patient, attentive, and trusts her ingredients. I often don't use any seasonings other than salt and pepper, maybe some lemon juice.

I think this culinary perspective is missing from the paleo movement. I saw Eric Ripert on some show the other night where he made market vegetables over a bed of cauliflower "couscous" - he had made faux couscous out of a head of cauliflower. I did this the other night, and it was incredible, almost like the real thing, except for the (duh) cauliflower flavor. His recipe was almost completely paleo (minus some canola oil which you can easily substitute with olive), fresh, simple, and vegan to boot! I'm not saying I'm going vegan, but it's odd that a celebrity chef accidentally (or not?) has created a mostly paleo dish, and the fact that it excited me, an enthusiastic carnivore, means a lot. It means that no matter your preferences and restrictions - vegan, raw, low-carb, etc - you can and should eat really exciting, fresh, well-made food that also happens to be paleo.

It also means that you don't have to be a power-lifter, a cross-fitter, and endurance athlete, or even go to the gym to enjoy and benefit from paleo. We aren't all meat heads.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Circle the Wagon

[This picture is an embarrassing reminder of what I'm like at a party]

On Independence Day, I went to the End of the World, the little grassy patch by the canal that separates the Bywater from the 9th Ward. I watched fireworks with a bunch of nice people and some new friends. Overall, it was a pleasant evening. The whole time, however, I was slowly sipping at my usual half-pint of Evan Williams, which I was mixing with water. I was also having some of the champagne that people were offering me. I wasn't aiming to get drunk, I never am, I just enjoy drinking, especially in social situations where I've become dependent on booze to take the edge off social awkwardness. I was on foot, having walked all the way from the Tremé because the bike I was borrowing got a flat. The night became blurrier and blurrier, and a friend suggested we go to get some food and wine at a nearby wine bar. When I got there, I snarfed down a sausage, despite the fact that it was on bread, because I had the drunk munchies (I usually avoid things that have even touched gluten), and I had a glass of wine from the bottle my friend bought.

And that's the last thing I remember before I suddenly found myself alone, walking in a completely unfamiliar part of town. New Orleans is a dangerous city, and it's really not smart to walk around alone at night, especially when you're drunk. Not too long ago, a girl was shot in the face just for wandering into the wrong neighborhood — the very neighborhood I was stumbling around in that night. I was very far from any of the areas I was supposed to be in, and I had no clue how I managed to wander so far off. I have no idea how close I came to death or violence, but with the help of a very special woman on the other end of the phone, I made it back to the house I was staying at safely. I woke up in the morning with the crystal clear knowledge that I had put myself in a completely unsafe and stupid situation that wouldn't have arisen had I been even slightly more sober. The painful fact is that I have gotten myself into similar situations before. I'm a pleasant drunk, I'm friendly and well behaved, I don't puke, and I usually just pass out before I do anything really retarded. I've always assumed that I posed no risk to anyone else. But I realize now that I've been putting myself at risk pretty regularly for a long time now, and it's getting to the point where it's impacting the people around me.

I have a drinking problem. I'll admit, every other aspect of paleo living has been pretty easy for me, and alcohol may not be completely verboten for most paleo folks, but I definitely drink too much. The minute someone I love says "Your drinking hurts me" is when I know I have to stop. I've managed to clean up the rest of my diet and quit smoking, and my drinking has been the elephant in the room considering how much I rant about health. I don't feel the need to be puritanical about drinking, and I don't intend to give it up entirely forever (I still believe moderate alcohol consumption is healthy), but I definitely need to press the reset button. I want to get to the point where I can have one or two glasses of wine with dinner and leave it at that (currently, I can down an entire bottle by myself). I want to be able to go just one night without a drink, which I haven't done since I cooked on the Lady Maryland about a year ago (I was completely sober for 10 days, then, and I didn't miss booze at all, so I know I can do it). I want to not feel anxious when there's no booze around. So tonight, I may have one drink to celebrate my last night in New Orleans, but when I get back to Baltimore, my main goal will be to sober up and make it up to all my loved ones who have had to drag my half-conscious body from a party, stayed on the phone with me while I wandered drunkenly in the streets, or otherwise had to put up with me when I'm wasted.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Definitely Food

One of the fundamental attitudes towards food most people have that I want to change is that it's fuel. I remember the movie Barfly, based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, where Mickey Rourke (as Bukowski's literary persona, Henry Chinaski) is rampaging through his run-down tenement building looking for a ham sandwich as he shouts, "I need fuel!" Well, that sickly, hungover, pot-bellied vision of humanity is apt, especially when people think of food as equivalent to gasoline.

But food is not fuel. Food is nourishment. When you put gasoline in a car, does the car integrate the gas into its body? Does the car metabolize and repackage the gas into new compounds that integrate themselves into the makeup of the car itself in order to keep it alive? Does the car grow and generate new tissue based on the gas it ingests? No. Because a car is a machine. The human body is not a machine, it is alive, and the food it eats is alive.

I can rant on and on about how the calories in calories out paradigm of nutritional thinking is flawed, but many other paleo bloggers have done it better already, so I won't bother. The point I'd like to drive home is that not all calories are created equally. If food were merely fuel, you could just eat 2,000 calories of anything at all and be done with it. It wouldn't matter at all what you ate, you could just down glasses of sugar water for sustenance, and stay healthy forever. But what sane person believes that you can do that? Obviously, what you eat - the quality of it, the way it was grown or raised, its freshness, and its compatibility with the human body - is way more important than how much you eat. Think long and hard about this, would it be better or worse to eat 500 calories of steak or 500 calories of high fructose corn syrup? Would it be better or worse to eat 500 calories of fresh vegetables or 500 calories of white flour? Even if you're not paleo, I think you intuitively know which choices are better.

So why are healthy foods better? Is it because of how much starch relative to protein they have? Is it the amount of fat or the lack thereof? Well, here's the other piece of the "what is food?" puzzle that I'd like to address. Nutritionists and even paleo people are way too stuck on the macronutrients we ingest. Macronutrients, for those who don't know, are fat, protein, and carbohydrate, the three main categories of food we eat. A sweet potato is carbohydrate. Table sugar is carbohydrate. Does this mean they're the same when it comes to our bodies? Gluten is a protein. Tuna is protein. Butter is fat. Margarine is fat. Is it all the same? Obviously not. I won't even get into talking about how micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) are more important because there are also those that think we can isolate the micronutrients and take them in pill form. We are only barely even beginning to understand how various nutrients work in concert in whole foods, and we are still discovering new vitamins and nutritive and antioxidant compounds in our food, and many supplements are turning out to either be ineffective or even downright unsafe. Why would you take resveratrol (which hasn't been proven to do anything in isolation) in pill form rather than just having a glass of red wine? Makes no sense.

Let's talk about T. Colin Campbell's book The China Study which contends that animal protein causes cancer. The vast majority of the research that his argument was based on was founded on studies that fed isolated casein (a protein in dairy) to rats, thereby inducing cancer. Forget that mice were never evolved to eat isolated dairy protein and that their casein chow also contained sugar, grains, and other processed food, but whey protein, another dairy protein, has been shown to reduce cancer. Therefore, whole milk seems to have a neutral effect on cancer.

Another example is fish. People make a huge deal about the mercury in fish, but studies have found that the presence of selenium in fish binds to the mercury, thereby making it harmless to humans. Therefore, most commonly available fish is safe for humans with regards to mercury. Fish with lower selenium levels, such as shark and swordfish, are more risky to eat because the mercury in their bodies exists in a much more toxic state. Also, people make a big deal about PCBs and dioxins in fish, but in reality, all other food is more likely to contain those toxins. Eat fish.

My point is that we're too reductive in our thinking about food. We're too focused on what food does and doesn't contain - the pollutants, the additives, the isolated compounds, macronutrients - that we lose sight of what real food actually is. Don't get me wrong, it's important that our food isn't polluted, but it's also important not to be so paranoid about it that you're avoiding real food. Think about it this way: food is sunlight, minerals, and chemicals packaged in such a way that our bodies can absorb and integrate into our cells to help us stay healthy. That's it. Stop worrying about how much red meat you're eating or how much shellfish, or how many naturally nitrate-laden leafy greens. Just eat real food.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not So Simple

I hear a lot of paleo people saying that it's really quite simple to eat paleo, you just eat what's natural. I want to agree, and I've found it pretty intuitive to decide that meat, fat from animals, and vegetables are the things we were evolved to primarily eat, it's really not that simple for others, especially when they're getting over fat-phobia and the inability to cook.

Most people in America, even paleos, are only just barely starting to learn what real food is and learning how to cook it at the same time. It's huge. I know plenty of devoted and disciplined paleo people (who are eating this way out of medical necessity) who approach every meal like a battle, because they're only now learning how to cook, how to shop, how to budget, how to taste, how to plan meals, and how each food makes them feel. To do it all at once is not simple.

I had the benefit of always being in love with food and cooking, so when I started eliminating grains, sugars, and legumes, I already knew how to cook meat and veggies. I already knew how different fats behaved when heated. I already knew how to season, how to pare flavors, how to cook well, what it meant to sear a piece of meat and what cuts needed to be braised or roasted. In a way, paleo was just a welcome culinary challenge for me. How do you thicken a sauce without a roux? How do you render lard? How do you make something tasty besides noodles to soak up your bolognese? How do you make a dessert without any sweeteners, artificial or otherwise?

When you're learning it all at once - the nutrition, the techniques, the tastes, and also how the food makes you feel - it can be totally overwhelming. I think this is a huge reason why people give up and just go back to pasta and sandwiches. Knowing how to cook was crucial to my being able to adhere to paleo. It has never been a big deal to me. I never worried about what snacks were ok, what packaged foods were good and which weren't, what new foods I had to get used to. I never had to suddenly confront the fact that I had to prepare pretty much every meal for myself from scratch because I was already doing that. I cook the way I've always cooked, I just don't make a pot of rice or pasta anymore, and I cook a greater quantity of veggies and meat.

The last few months I was eating pasta and bread, I was making and baking my own - I knew I was about to give it all up, so I figured I should learn the traditions and techniques behind them so I could appreciate them, and understand more about what I was changing in my habits. I even brewed my own beer. I'm a freak who has the luxury of time, space, and motivation. Most people don't have this luxury. Most people I hear who decide to eat paleo are married, have children and full-time jobs, hectic schedules that pretty much ensure they eat food they didn't prepare themselves at least once a day. They come to paleo as a last resort to address chronic and urgent health problems. I came to this out of a love of food and a desire to not become diabetic like my dad. I had no pressing health concerns I was trying to address, I wasn't overweight, and I'm not a gym rat who just wants to be ripped. I just wanted to eat the best food possible, and be as healthy as possible.

Even plastic and arsenic come from the earth. That's why the food industry is able to apply "natural" to so many things. Heroin is natural. Some common mushrooms will kill you if you eat them. You really cannot understate the minefield we face when it comes to the food most commonly available to us in the modern world, and you can't overlook the implications of several generations of people who have slowly lost the ability to cook and taste, and who have been raised to believe processed food is as right as rain and enticingly cheap to boot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Sorry for the lack of posts. Here's a lamb breast I made with Sichuan peppercorns. It's plated with a salad of radicchio, orange, and a touch of sesame oil and lime juice.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Glutenous Maximus

So, I won't go into the science of why gluten is bad for people especially those who are sensitive to it, but let me just reiterate that gluten can cause some serious health problems in people. This isn't just some new age, hippie, mumbo jumbo. This is medical fact, and even doctors will tell you so, even if they haven't yet understood that gluten-free diets can be beneficial for many people, even those who don't have celiac or allergies to it.

That said, I'd now like to address those of you who are seriously considering going gluten free: gluten contamination is very serious and real. Removing gluten from your diet is not a matter of discipline or being finicky. You can't order a bowl of chicken noodle soup and just pick out the noodles. You can't order a pizza and just scrape off the cheese. This isn't about you getting fat or not, this isn't a matter of discipline, denial, or moderation. If you have gluten sensitivity, you theoretically can't even have one molecule of gluten. You have to view gluten as a poison, which it is. Once a food (or a knife, or a plate) touches gluten, it is contaminated. This is important to understand in the restaurant setting, where there is a lot of cross-contamination, and it's important to understand when someone serves you a gluten-containing item. You must tell the person that you have a serious allergy to gluten, because that's what it is. Just as people with nut allergies can't have things that have even touched nuts (no other way to phrase that sentence, sorry), people with gluten allergies can't have anything that has touched gluten, and there's no such thing as "just a little bit" of gluten.

It's difficult, I know. Any change in lifestyle is difficult. But this is a matter of life and death. I hate to put it so dramatically, but the lust I see in people's eyes when they think about bread or cupcakes, and the excuses people make to indulge in those things even as they have medical proof that they can't have them, just makes me want to smack them. Unlike most "diets" and conventional nutritional advice, this is not a vanity thing. My advice has nothing to do with making people thinner or more attractive or fit into their swimsuits better. It's about helping people not get sick and die a slow death. It's about not developing painful and crippling autoimmune diseases.

I watched my dad eat himself half to death. Every time I tried to prevent him from eating something that even his doctors told him he wasn't supposed to eat, he just said, "Just a little bit." When pressed he would say, "What is life if I can't enjoy it?" But the problem is, these foods were killing him slowly, and we were left having to take care of him. I would have accepted his logic if he were eating honey-flavored arsenic, or if he were sky-diving. As it was, we were left watching him deteriorate and depend more and more on our help. Yes, enjoy life, but you can enjoy life without bread. You can enjoy life without pasta. Hell, they make really good gluten free versions of those things, but more importantly, there are so many other amazing foods out there that you can eat, the vast majority of which you haven't even tried yet! Eliminating gluten isn't about limiting your life, it's like a little obstacle to make you explore even more and love even more food than you previously imagined. Life is also about being there for the people you love and not forcing them to take care of you prematurely. Is having crippling arthritis or Crohn's disease for the last two or three decades of your life worth eating that cupcake? You want to sacrifice your health in order to enjoy Barilla pasta or Annie's mac n' cheese that you bought at the Giant?