Furtively, the Chef and I glance in other people’s baskets and gesture toward each other. “That one has Fig Newtons, Oscar Mayer hot dogs, and bottled spaghetti sauce,” he whispers to me.
“Yeah? Well that girl has twenty little containers of the yogurt with the gelatin and food dye in it. She’s also buying nonfat cheese, six boxes of low-fat cookies, and a twelve-pack of diet grapefruit soda.”
“Ewwww,” he shudders against my shoulder.
To be clear, the Chef and I are not making direct judgments about the people with the baskets. Honestly, we never look at their faces. If we did, we would see their stories, and then we couldn’t play the game. More, we both have an autonomic response to this kind of bad, packaged food.
You have to understand — I grew up eating all that stuff, even more than most people. It made me sick, all my life. When I look at bad packaged cookies and quick preparation foods, it evokes a visceral reaction in me, like I’m looking at people buying Drano for their kids.
The Chef sees it that way too. But he also knows the joy that comes from cooking from scratch and feeding people with those tastes. Nothing compares.
Convenience is over-rated.
The Chef will eat almost anything, made from scratch. He doesn’t turn up his nose at any food. (Well, with the exception of lima beans, which warms my heart, since that is the one vegetable I cannot stand.) Pork belly, sunchokes, sweetbreads, celeriac — any food that other people might think looks knobby, funny, or just plain gross? He jumps at the chance to eat them. He knows that great food doesn’t always look pretty. Really, for someone with such a fine palate, he’s not picky.
There are only two foods he refuses to eat. If I want to make him shudder and shake his head in disgust, I only have to say two things: tofu. And American cheese.
The tofu thing? Well, he’s a straight guy. I have to admit — I haven’t met many straight men who like the stuff. He’s fairly well versed in Asian cuisines, having cooked them many times. The flavors and techniques of various Asian cultures have filtered down into his dishes. But he just cannot stand the thought of tofu. I think it’s a texture thing.
And American cheese? That stuff is just plain disgusting.
One part of my book is a kind of horrified nostalgia for the food I ate as a child: everything wrapped in plastic and dyed, the ingredients list a dozen names I never knew how to pronounce. We all ate that food, or most of us did. Remember Crunchberry cereal? Twinkies? Canned chili with Fritos crunched on top? I lived on the stuff as a child.
Now, however, the sight of endlessly packaged foods in other people’s grocery carts turns my stomach, just a bit. What are we doing to ourselves? How is this any way to feed each other?
I have to admit: before I went gluten-free, I still ate some pre-packaged foods. Sometimes, the exhaustion of not feeling well caused me to buy boxes of macaroni and cheese. And I remember one time, late at night (more near dawn), my friend Gabe and I sat on the counters of his Seattle apartment kitchen, swinging our legs and eating a bowl of Cookie Crisp cereal. We still talk about it, however, since it was the first and only time either one of us had eaten it. Simultaneously, we lay aside our bowls, because we could not stomach the sweetness.
However, once I went gluten-free, I was liberated from packaged foods. Oh sure, at first it seemed like a loss. What would I eat? But over time, and fairly quickly, I came to see what a gift this celiac diagnosis truly is. Since most packaged foods contain gluten, I had to start cooking.
My life has never been the same.
I have never eaten better than I have since I went gluten-free. After the Chef entered my life, my eating improved twelve-fold, because he is astonishingly talented, plus he expresses his love through the meals he makes for me. But it’s more than that.
One afternoon, a few months ago, I said to him, “You know, if you’re going to make the restaurant gluten-free, I really have to investigate every product you have in the kitchen, just to make sure there isn’t any hidden contamination. We don’t want anyone getting sick.” He agreed.
It took me about three minutes to realize that this would be a short task.
The Chef never uses anything packaged. What is in his kitchen? Boxes of fresh produce. Chickens ready to be cut down. Veal stock he has made from scratch. Butter. (What restaurant kitchen could exist without butter?) Spices ready to be ground. Exquisite cheeses from around the world. Rice. Polenta. Cream. Milk. And so on. There was absolutely nothing in his kitchen that would require a phone call to a major corporation. He makes it all by hand.
I know that’s part of the reason his food tastes so damned good. He makes it all by hand.
Those of you reading who are recently diagnosed? Take it from me — throw yourself, gleefully, into the world of cooking and baking food from scratch, and your life will improve, irrevocably.
This weekend, Michael Pollan published an incredible article in The New York Times magazine, called “Unhappy Meals,” about how we have done ourselves damage with the way we eat. I encourage you all to read it. He breaks it all down, fairly simply, especially the nine guidelines he gives at the end of the piece. Following every fad, terrified of fat, then carbs, we are perpetually worried about food and what it does to us. We regard food as the enemy, and we are allowing it to kill us.
The longer I live with food and write about food, the more convinced I am — we are pretty screwed up in this country, when it comes to food.
I especially loved this paragraph:
“This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates’ famous injunction to ‘let food be they medication’ is ritually involed to support this notion. I’ll leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say, or socializing — makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe that it may make them more healthy. This is what we usually have in mind when we speak of the ‘French paradox’ — the fact that a population that eats all sorts of unhealthful nutrients is in many ways healthier than we Americans are. So there is at least a question as to whether nutritionism is actually any good for you.”
That has been the biggest discovery for me, since I went gluten-free: the ineffable pleasure of eating.
Living gluten-free is no loss.
What was in our basket the other night when we stopped at the store? Two pounds of Oregon country natural ground beef; an organic onion; fresh herbs; free-range eggs; canned tomatoes from Italy; a small tub of sour cream. Some people might have looked at our cart and thought, “Oh, the horrors! Beef. Full-fat dairy. Eggs.” But that’s such a short-sighted view of food. The night before, we ate a quinoa salad with smoked salmon and a dozen vegetables. Once in a while — in the name of eating a variety of foods — there’s nothing wrong with meatloaf.
That night, there was everything right with this meatloaf. I hadn’t eaten meatloaf in years, since it also requires breadcrumbs. The Chef, however, seems to be on a quest to cook me foods I have been missing all this time. Of course — with all apologies to my mother — this meatloaf is the best I have ever eaten.
And one of the fullest pleasures I have had lately was watching the Chef eat a cold meatloaf sandwich, on toasted gluten-free bread, in bed next to me, sometime after midnight that night.
2 pounds ground beef
½ medium yellow onion, chopped fine
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
½ cup gluten-free bread crumbs (this bread makes great crumbs)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespooons olive oil
¼ onion, diced
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
½ cup canned tomatoes (we only use San Marzano)
1 whole tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
½ teaspoon turbinado sugar
¼ cup ketchup
Preheat the oven to 425°.
Place the first half of the ingredients (from the beef to the black pepper) in a large bowl. Mix them all up with your hands until they form a coherent mixture. Put the meatloaf in a loaf pan and bake it for about an hour.
Bring a skillet to heat. Add the olive oil to the hot skillet. When the oil runs around the skillet as easily as water, add the onions. Cook them, stirring occasionally, until they have started to soften. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more. Add the tomatoes and everything else on the list, except for the ketchup. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the food for fifteen minutes, or until it all smells redolent and enticing. Move the tomato mixture to the blender, then add the ketchup. Puree it all up.
Brush this tomato mixture over the top of the hot meatloaf, coating thickly. Return the meatloaf to the oven and continue to cook it until it has reached an internal temperature of 160°.