Fad Diets and Food Snobbery

If you really like Paleo or Olive Garden I'm sorry, I'm a jerk.

The solution, obviously, is to start working on these on Tuesdays then apply the finishing touches on Wednesdays, then schedule them for a reasonable time. Can’t seem to do that, so here we are. I’ll send this out to y’all sometime around midnight and y’all will read it when you wake up, which is about twelve hours after I wanted you to read it. Bah.

Last week I ended with Amanda and I starting to explore new ways of eating that were different from the way we’d grown up eating, and also different from the way we were cooking for ourselves as busy people in the early days of adult life.

My motivating factor to try something different was chronic heartburn. I developed chronic heartburn sometime in college, and had settled into a comfortable rhythm of popping a Pepcid after every meal to deal with it. Once I started noticing the antacids weren’t as effective as they used to be, I started researching alternatives online. Instead of choosing an over-the-counter pill to take every day, I stumbled across a few forums–yes, forums, OK, I wasn’t using AOL or anything but there were still forums and this was basically a different century in Internet years so just leave it alone–where folks were discussing how they’d altered their diets and greatly decreased the frequency and intensity of their heartburn.

We had also decided to start training for a half marathon, because why not. Running was an exercise I didn’t hate, and we thought it would be a fun way for us to get more active (read: a way for Calvin to ditch the Honeymoon Husky-ness). We thought adjusting our eating habits might make training suck less, and found the Paleo diet. It was just starting to become trendy, enough so that there were already books and blogs filled with advice on how to get started. We put together a Pinterest board of recipes, and I knew from reading the recipes that I was going to need to level up my cooking game.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Paleo diet. I’m not going to be thorough, so if you’re currently practicing this diet and get annoyed at my oversimplification of it, I don’t care. The Paleo diet, aka the caveman diet, dictates that you only consume fruits, vegetables, and meat. It typically excludes dairy, grains, sugar, certain oils, legumes (a fancy word for peas and beans) and sugar. The best thing about the diet is it forces you to stop consuming heavily processed foods because those have sugar, ‘bad’ oils, more sugar, and other weird junk your body can’t use that is made with science.

Practicing new cooking skills and training for a marathon was exciting. The race we had chosen to run is the best one in the U.S., the St. Jude Marathon. It’s the best because St. Jude is a childhood cancer research facility, and they’re headquartered in Memphis. So not only does your participation help fund cancer research for children, but the course also takes you through the St. Jude campus where children with cancer are cheering you on. You will cry. It is the best. Even if you only run half a marathon like we did, you still get to experience the campus segment, so do it.

We ran our race and finished in roughly the time we were hoping, and hobbled to one of our favorite BBQ spots to reward ourselves with BBQ nachos.

Pause. For those who are confused about those two words I just smashed together as if they were supposed to be together (“BBQ” and “nachos”), that was not an accident. Nor is it ‘wrong’ or ‘gross’. BBQ nachos are wonderful. It’s not a difficult concept: you take pulled pork and you place it atop chips then you cover the holy volcano in equal parts spicy sweet Memphis-style BBQ sauce, sometimes jalapeños, and nacho cheese. Not shredded cheese or anything remotely resembling actual cheese; gooey yellow nacho cheese like the kind that probably comes out of a hose at a baseball stadium. I think other places may occasionally put pork on chips and try to pass it off as BBQ nachos, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a Tennessee thang and they need to quit.

After the race, we took the rest of the winter off from running (present day: we do not run, at all…it’s so…hard). I was starting to prefer my knife to my can opener. But all the reading and recipe searching had piqued my interest in the eat local / kill the chain restaurants movement (Paleo people are often the same people that buy “Break the Chain” bumper stickers). Amanda and I had our favorite local spots from high school, but hadn’t ventured out much. We decided to do some exploring.

Unbeknownst to us Memphis had far more to offer than BBQ. We got interested in the food scene here at just the right time, and we’re lucky to still live in Memphis because amazing new restaurants open all the time. We found there were many places with award-winning chefs and a slew of ethnic restaurants we’d never experienced.

This is where things got complicated. I was seeing benefits of the way I had altered my eating habits, and I was confused about this other delicious food that was decidedly not Paleo. I felt like I had to maintain one way of eating at home, and whenever I didn’t maintain it at restaurants it was a ‘cheat day’ or I was just making a bad decision. I didn’t really do anything about my confusion, it was just a constant background conversation happening in my head.

I also hadn’t gotten rid of my heartburn. It wasn’t as intense as it was before, but it was still there and it flared up on a semi-regular basis. Amanda decided one night while I was lying awake in bed because of a heartburn disaster that she would find something else to try. She found a book entitled It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways, which despite its annoying title looked promising. She read a few reviews written by people who had experienced a lasting cure for their heartburn, and at this point I was willing to try anything except taking a pill every day.

The Whole30 takes some of the concepts of Paleo and goes further. The basic concept is you stop eating foods that could potentially be affecting your digestive system in order to establish a baseline of sorts, and after thirty days you try adding those foods back into your diet in small amounts to see what happens. It’s a big experiment.

It’s also difficult and not fun at all. I’ll list a few of the things I had to give up during Whole30:

  • Alcohol
  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Beans
  • Sausage
  • Pizza (obviously, but I just want you to feel it, ya know)
  • Cheese
  • Pasta
  • Sandwich meat, and SANDWICHES (again, feel this with me)
  • Potatoes (but not sweet potatoes, for some reason)
  • Sugar (unless it was accidentally in fruits because God made them that way)

The list goes on and on, but hopefully you think I’m crazy for trying this diet at all. If so, my work is done.

The subtitle of the book, …and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways, is very accurate. There were many unexpected things that happened during the Whole30 experiment. First and foremost, it must be said that I pooped so much. SO MUCH. It was unreal. The first ten days were a nightmare hellscape in our bathroom. My energy crashed, down down down into the floor and under the dirt. I was a wreck. And then magically, after the first ten days I regained all of my energy, and woke up every morning feeling like Alec Baldwin’s character in Friends (Season 8, get on my level). I drank coffee because I wanted it, not because I needed it. My face actually changed shape (in a good way) and my skin cleared up. But most importantly, I stopped having heartburn.

I couldn’t wait to reintroduce food groups to see which one of those bastards had been responsible for my years of suffering. But after reintroducing everything in the exact order prescribed and in the exact manner prescribed, nothing happened. The most interesting thing that happened was after the “reintroduction” was over, I found myself in a situation where I got a little tipsy and consumed half a pizza from Dominoes. I felt awful, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who drinks six beers and eats half a pizza isn’t going to feel great. After that, I did have a tiny amount of heartburn, but I earned it.

That was over five years ago, and I still don’t get consistent heartburn. Like I said, there is a way to ‘earn’ some heartburn by overindulging and being stupid, but the chronic heartburn stopped.

This isn’t an ad for Whole30. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. Hear me clearly when I say it was awful. I couldn’t eat a slice of pizza for months and months without feeling terrible. And that’s no way to live. But the Whole30 did two monumental things for me: one, it healed my heartburn. Or rather, it made me put my bad food habits on pause for long enough for my body to heal itself. And two, it taught me a whole new way to buy food.

Once we started Whole30, I had to start over when it came to shopping for groceries each week. With the diet being so restrictive, reading food labels was required. And reading food labels wasn’t something I had ever done since I’ve had the good fortune of not being allergic to anything. Whole30 has a huge list of no-no ingredients and if we were going to do this by the book I knew I wouldn’t be able to wing it. I was surprised at the amount of junk in most of the foods I like to eat. Let’s not even discuss sandwich meat, at least not yet, because reading the label on a package of turkey made me real sad. I hadn’t heard of “inert sugar” before that, and I’m still not sure what that is. It is a sugar though, so that meant I couldn’t buy deli turkey. My first trip to the store after starting Whole30 took me several hours.

Enough about Whole30, I’m tired of writing about it. The point is it was very intense, you should be very impressed that I did it and that I didn’t break any rules, and I won’t do it again. The reason reading labels is important is because I realized most people in the U.S. probably don’t read labels–unless as I mentioned before, you have a food allergy and you have to scan labels to make sure they don’t secretly contain gluten or were processed in a factory where they also process nuts or soy or leprechauns.

Here’s a tip I learned from Whole30 that you should immediately put into practice: if you cannot pronounce an ingredient, don’t buy it. That’s the easiest way to start shopping for less processed, more natural foodstuffs.

OK, now you’re aware of how I used to eat and a couple of the fad diets I tried. And you may be wondering why any of that matters and how it’s relevant to the rest of this book (ahem, newsletter). In short, I’m establishing that I’m not just going to throw shade at how you currently eat, or how Americans generally eat, without having been there, done that. I’ve spent actual years of my life practicing different diets and habits around shopping for and consuming food that have inspired me to write about how senselessly complicated all of this has become. I just want you to know how weird it has been for me so that you can, maybe, give me a little grace when you read some slightly offensive opinions I have about how we feed ourselves later on.

The subhead of this chapter also promised to talk a little bit about how “food snobbery” and what role that plays in my life. So let’s move onto that.

I have several friends that take great joy in recommending restaurants that they know I don’t like. The usual suspects are Olive Garden, Chili’s, Cheddars, and Applebees. I reward my loving friends with a consistent reaction of dismay and outrage at the very suggestion that I’d spend my money at any of these establishments, but I don’t usually have the time or energy to tell them why I don’t want to eat there.

Growing up, my family frequented all these places. We regularly ate at T.G.I. Fridays and others on the Endangered Chains List (this is not a real list, but I’ll make it real later, maybe) because they could easily seat a family of seven. The problem I have with these restaurants is that there are other restaurants that are just as inexpensive and just as accommodating as those places but have food that is way more delicious. Lots of these places know how to do one thing so well that people pay them every single day to eat that one thing over and over and over.

Have you ever met someone who is uncommonly efficient? This is the person who continually takes on more responsibilities at work, and you see the amount of work they have to do and you’re certain that that volume of work would crush you, but somehow they just keep going and keep delivering on time and under budget, and you want to be that way but you’re also lazy and you love Netflix so you aren’t going to be that way. This person understands prioritization. They’re able to do a Herculean amount of work because they can obliterate the urgent things and focus on the important things. They aren’t flitting about from task to task, chipping away at various monolithic projects; they take the big, difficult tasks and finish them, then move on. This is how I view going out to eat. There are priorities for me. Priority number one when I go to a restaurant is not to feed myself. I can do that at home. Priority numero uno is to have an experience. Chicken Crispers or 2-for-1 Apps are not experiences. Consumption orgies of deep-fried-over-salted-frozen-science. I’m not sure that was a sentence just now. The point: don’t just feed me, feed me something you, chef, care deeply about and know. Make me feel the way you feel about it.

Wanting more from the food I bought at restaurants made me want more from the food I made for myself. The main thing separating the food I was eating at home from the food I was eating at my favorite restaurants was technique. I wasn’t good enough or didn’t understand it as well as I needed to. And there was a flavor I couldn’t find. Mainly I just needed to use, like, a LOT more butter. But that’s not totally accurate I guess. So again – hope you’re sensing a theme here – I started researching, trying to find shortcuts and pro tips that would unlock the missing flavor I wanted. Enter American Test Kitchen. They helped me understand the why and the how, like why the skillet needed to have time to heat before food went in, why adding tiny amounts of anchovy paste could deepen flavors, why I should scrape up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan after adding stock, and how to know when things are…good.

From there everything got simpler. Not easier, but simpler. I had techniques to practice, and I practiced over and over and over and cooked hundreds of different recipes each year. Amanda would occasionally remind me that whatever we had last week was actually delicious and she would love if I would cook it again sometime, because I was moving through recipes so quickly she was worried I wouldn’t ever make the same thing twice.

This is when the idea to write about all this started floating around in my head. After the fad diets, learning to shop differently, and learning to cook better I started to wonder if there would have been a faster way for me to get to where I am now. I wanted some sort of “Getting Started” manual that would have helped me know where to look for good information, and that would tell me the important things instead of ALL THE THINGS, like the Internet does. I’ve tried to organize this in a way that is helpful for you as you start or continue learning more about the food you put on your plate.

I think it’s also worth noting, in case you didn’t pick up on this after reading my Buffalo Chicken Quesadilla recipe, I’m not a professional chef. I did work at Chick-Fil-A in high school, but I just cleaned bathrooms. I’ve never worked in a kitchen or done any training. I’m just a regular person that eats. I’m trying to feed myself and my family just like you are. I’m learned to draw pictures for money in college and know how to make websites. I have no special superpowers or inside knowledge or credentials. I say all this in order to make you understand that if I can cook and feed myself well, you can too.