Tag Archive: Diets

No Fat Vegans

Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for awhile might remember my critique of The China Study a couple of years back. Keeping in mind that my criticism was directed mostly at the book, not at the concepts it presented, I try to keep an open mind. In fact, here at home, the majority of what I eat tends to be vegetarian, often even vegan – and here and there a bit of seafood and chicken. We virtually never eat red meat at home, well, I don’t, sometimes on request I’ll cook it up for Henry. It isn’t an ethical commitment, it’s simply I tend to feel better without eating it – I’ll still indulge on occasion if we’re out and about, but it’s rarer and rarer.

Anyway, that book and another, which I’m going to get to today, led to viewing the movie Forks Over Knives – it’s not a movie that presents any particularly new information, but given that a large percentage of the population wouldn’t pick up a book of the genre, it’s a film that they might. Well, probably not unless it airs on television because let’s face it, the likelihood is that the only people who saw it were people already interested and quite possibly committed or thinking about a change in diet. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the movie is pretty much based on these two books and the work of the two authors, both of whom, though they quote each other’s work, and know each other, like to claim that they’re the only person really out there making an effort to change things. Book publicity I suppose.

What I really should do is just tell you to go read the other critique. Why? Because I could almost copy it here. Okay, there’s some different focus, the studies are different, this book is actually better written and a more interesting read, and, the author’s wife packs the last section with recipes. But, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D.’s Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The revolutionary scientifically proven, nutrition-based cure in many ways might as well be the same book.

Again with the bludgeoning, though at least here the good doctor swaps back and forth between the phrases “plant-based nutrition” and “plant-based diet” almost as fast as Mitt Romney can switch positions on an issue. He does go a step further than the vegan diet recommended by T. Colin Campbell, PhD – he goes for full on vegan plus – eliminating chocolate, nuts, avocados, and plant-based oils (though, strangely, after deriding all types of nuts in several places, other than walnuts, which he considers acceptable, the recipes in the book often make use of nut milks…). In fact, if one gets to the end, while not officially limited to it, the recommendations are so overwhelmingly restrictive that only the most dedicated would follow them – “It is helpful to keep breakfast and lunch simple – and nearly the same every day.” The breakfast recommendations were pretty much all variations on oatmeal made with fruit juice instead of water or milk, and the lunches were pretty much undressed green salads. Example dishes touted for dinnertime include black beans and rice that we could eat just as is, every single night, and apparently be perfectly happy about, or maybe the much touted bowl of boiled, unseasoned kale.

But back to some of the science. Thankfully, the book isn’t as loaded with numbers and graphs as the other one, part of what makes it easier to read. Instead, it’s basically chapter after chapter of personal anecdotes and those of the doctor’s patients who participated in his scientific study. Here’s, however, where I get all uppity about the numbers. You see, that revolutionary (as if no vegan before had ever suggested that a switch to the diet could be beneficial healthwise) scientifically proven study consisted of 24 people. Well, really 18 people because 6 of the folk who agreed to be in the study gave it up as a bad thing after a brief fling at it. There was no control group to compare against, the doc’s clinic decided that wasn’t in the budget. There was no accounting for any other life changes – in fact the doc specifically poo-poos the idea that exercise is all that important because he’s not familiar with any studies proving that exercise is good for heart disease. His statement, not mine. Yet, he notes, anecdotally, that all of his patients became more active and got into exercise – he considers it an after-effect of the diet and it’s cure, rather than an adjunct cause.

And while he studied those 18 folk over a long period, a couple of decades, his studies are based on self-reporting. Oh yes, he drew blood and did laboratory analyses, but he relied on the patients in his study to account for how well they stuck to the diet. And he’s quite sure they all did because they told him they did, and why would they have any reason to lie about it? Certainly not his admonition that anyone who reported straying from the diet would be dismissed from the study…. Strangely, in a moment of candor, he admits that he strays from the diet himself – claiming just once a year on New Year’s Eve when he binges out on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Sure, I buy that. Just once a year. But of course, none of the patients would do such a thing. Right?

To be honest, at the end of the book I think I’d be less likely to even consider a vegan diet than at the beginning, unless I was in the dire circumstances of one of his patients. Oh, did I forget to mention that they 18 folk who participated were all basically at death’s door, their regular docs had told them to put their affairs in order and go home and die. These were folk who had had multiple heart attacks, bypasses, were on major medications, and nothing was working, so perhaps, just perhaps, they had some impetus for doing something truly radical. Interestingly, he does go back and mention that twenty years on he followed up on those six folk who walked out on the study and one had died and five of them still had heart problems. Ummm, wait, these were people who were supposed to be all dead within minutes if they didn’t participate in the study. Right?

So, another diet book written to spout a philosophy that no doubt has some validity behind it, but isn’t really doing much of anything but lining the author’s pockets. If he was as truly committed to what he claims to be committed to as he says he is, he’d be putting the information out there for free.

Maybe I should take on critiquing one of the diet books at the other end of the spectrum – a little Paleo or South Beach or something of that sort… hmmm.


Some “Light” Reading?

Cooking Light is America’s recipe for healthy living, dedicated to helping readers eat better, feel better and look their best. Each issue celebrates light cuisine via more than 75 kitchen tested, beautifully photographed recipes. Our editorial focus is to provide fitness from a common sense angle as well as a reachable/user friendly exploration of delicious better-for-you food. Our mission is to be embraced by readers as a part of their daily rhythm; our goal is to help each individual reader keep a better lifestyle balance. (Eat smart. Be fit. Live well.)”

– Mission Statement from Cooking Light magazine

Through a very round-a-bout process (which took them from Alabama to New York to Oregon to California to Uruguay and then I picked them up there while visiting the friend who’d snagged them in California), I recently received a couple of cookbooks from the publishers of Cooking Light magazine with the intent on their and my part to give them a test drive and review. The two books are, I gather, collections of recipes that have been published over the years in the magazine, plus, perhaps some additional ones specifically for the books – I’m not sure, there’s no indication in either book one way or the other on the latter.

Let’s start with my “problem” with Cooking Light and just get it out of the way with, because on a practical level, it’s irrelevant. The recipes that the magazine and books offer up have always relied much more heavily than I would like on canned and jarred goods – particularly sauces – and frozen vegetables. That’s it. The reality of daily life, however, is that that’s a step up from how most people cook – which consists of mixing prepackaged ingredients together or heating up something premade and frozen, or more likely, giving it up as a bad move anyway and ordering out Chinese or picking up fast food drive-through. I realize Cooking Light is focused on the food aspects of things, but really, “cooking spray” instead of just a little rub of oil on something? Part of living healthy is keeping the environment healthy too.

While from my personal perspective, I’d much rather have a stalk of fresh broccoli sitting in my kitchen than a bag of cut, blanched and shocked florets sitting in the freezer, I have the skewed viewpoint of someone whose workplace is in the kitchen. It’s not the place I’m forced to head to after putting in an 8 hour day at the office, or running kids around to all their after school events, or whatever it is that takes up the majority of people’s lives day in and day out. I actually enjoy cutting up the broccoli and doing the whole process to get it ready. And, it doesn’t cut into my day.

Nine times out of ten I’d rather chop up tomatoes and onions and garlic and peppers and all the rest to make myself some salsa that will only keep in the refrigerator for a few days instead of a jarred one that is preservative laden and will last for months, or even, buying a fresh one made by someone else. But that’s my passion – most people just want to get dinner on the table without exhausting themselves. So in the end, on a practical level, I am content that the books and magazine push people to use some fresh ingredients and actually spend time learning how they go together.

Cooking Light: Complete Meals in MinutesI don’t use cookbooks as recipe books directly in the kitchen. By that I mean that it’s rare that I would ever have a cookbook sitting on the kitchen counter, open to a page, with, likely, something holding down each side of the book so it stayed open while I refer to it back and forth. It’s just not the way I cook, but that gets back to what I do for a living and how I approach it. So it took me a moment to realize that the design of this book as a ring binder had multiple positive things about it as opposed to just taking up extra space over a normally bound book. You can open it and the pages lay flat, you can remove a single page and just have that in the kitchen with you, you can add to it with additional pages if you want, though the last, with 700+ recipes already in the binder, might be a bit of overstuffing. It’s eminently practical.

Cooking Light: complete meals in minutes is a straightforward recipe book. There’s no text, no prose, no reasons given for any of the recipes. In the context of the magazine there would be reasons given for certain choices, here the assumption is, just trust us, we’ve done the work. And that’s fine. It’s like the laboratory workbook that accompanies the textbook – when you’re in the lab, in this case the kitchen, you don’t need all the extraneous detail. A bit is provided – at the bottom of each recipe is a nutritional analysis of the key things people on a healthy eating kick might be concerned about – calories, fat, protein and carbohydrate content, cholesterol, iron, sodium….

As to the implied purpose of the book, it’s hard to say – “complete meals” are certainly possible out of this book, it covers everything from appetizers to desserts – but what was missing for me were any kind of suggestions like “hey, if you’re making this here on page 273, it goes really well with such and such on page 419.” (Those are random numbers, I don’t necessarily think that you should pair Country Captain Chicken and Grilled Nectarines with Blue Cheese.) You still have to do the menu planning yourself and figure out what you already have around the house and what you need to buy. The recipes are well thought out, easy to follow, and each includes an estimation of how much time it will take to complete them, the “in minutes” part of the subtitle, and they’re pretty accurate – if you decide to go the route of fresh vegetables rather than frozen in some, you’ll add in the few minutes to prepare them, that’s about it.

I tried out a good handful of the recipes, more or less selected at random and all turned out tasty. None was complicated to make. Here and there I have some quibbles about the choices of ingredients – for example, Chicken Paprikash, a favorite dish, is traditionally made with sour cream – what was behind the decision to use whipping cream in the recipe which not only takes away that nice tartness, but doesn’t lower the calories, fat or cholesterol in the dish? Why not light cream, or half and half, or better yet, yogurt? No doubt there was some sort of explanation in the original magazine article, but it isn’t here in the book. And a few things are probably well-known to the average norteamericano homemaker but that I haven’t a clue what they contain – “1 16-ounce package frozen bell pepper stir-fry” – is that just bell peppers? Does that have other stuff in the mix? What is actually in a “24-ounce package refrigerated sour cream and chives mashed potatoes”? I didn’t even know they made such a thing and really wish I didn’t now – and of course, the pushing of particular brands – I assume they’re advertisers – is a little annoying, and probably irrelevant to anyone outside of the U.S.

Overall, if you’re looking for a good, solid recipe book with lots of quick (I think every dish is 30 minutes or less) and easy to make dishes that are healthier than that frozen pizza (really? you have one of those in your freezer?) or snagging takeout from some fast food joint, this is a great choice.

Cooking Light: VegetarianThe second book from the same publishers I both like more and less than the first. The book itself – Cooking Light: way to cook vegetarian is a straightforward hardcover. Now that I’m enamored of the ring binder that is the first book, this one loses points, but only in comparison. On the other hand, it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a book to sit down and read, because it’s got some good material in there – so it gets those points back.

Many of the same things could be said about the recipes that are in the book – the ease, the frozen, canned and jarred thing, the advertiser pimping (do I really want to know what “1 12-ounce package meatless fat-free crumbles” are?). The recipes here are more of a mix, some simple and some more complicated, and they don’t have that helpful “in minutes” part for the harried homemaker. Many of them require a bit more planning, but it’s all well spelled out. Visually, it’s a quite beautiful book, with not just great photos of the dishes, but also step-by-step how to sections on various topics like making ricotta, preparing certain specialty vegetables and making omelets; sidebars that explain the differences between grains, tofus, tempehs, and many of the other things that a budding vegetarian might want to read about. It’s like a really cool, well illustrated “for Dummies” book. But better.

It falls down in a couple of places. I found myself searching the index with no luck for many of our current fall vegetables – cauliflower, brussels sprouts, parsnips and cabbage, somehow or other not one of these make it into the book, or at least aren’t listed – yet at the same time, it delves into things like celeriac, lemongrass, jicama and quinoa, with gusto. Even broccoli gets short shrift with only three recipes, two of which are variations on “in cheese sauce”. The focus seems to be on grain based dishes – whether the grains themselves in one guise or another, or things like pastas, sandwiches (or other similar dishes like bruschettas and pizzas), and a whole lotta stir-fries on rice. And why tout seitan as a great protein alternative and then only offer one page and two recipes using it while tofu warrants a 25 page section and tempeh, which is probably harder to find, a 10 pager with lots of recipe options each?

Although the index parses out the vegan recipes, and they’re marked in the text as well, there’s no explanation of the differences between vegetarian eating and a vegan lifestyle, or even that the latter isn’t, generally, just a diet. And even in some of the vegan marked dishes they use honey, which for the majority of vegans is a no-no.

Overall – visually a great book, and well, well worth it for the techniques and sidebars – some of which will likely clear up all sorts of mysteries for the kitchen novice, particularly someone exploring a vegetarian alternative, or who just wants to expand their repertoire of vegetable recipes. It’s not, as the subtitle asserts, “the complete visual guide to healthy vegetarian & vegan cooking” – it’s far from complete, but it would be an excellent library addition to anyone with those goals in mind.



Would The China Study Turn You Vegetarian?

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

– Aaron Levenstein, retired professor

For that matter, would any study turn you vegetarian, or change your diet in any particular way? The China Study came to my attention over dinner with one of my students, her husband, and a friend of mine, after a vegetarian cooking class. She, in particular, has been responsible for me teaching more and more such classes, and has been a steady student for more than a year. The two of them decided to “go vegan”, primarily after reading this book. So, despite setting out with a mindset that it would be highly unlikely that I would ever change to a vegan diet (been there, done that, wasn’t happy) as my sole fare, I wanted to see what the author had to say.

Now first, for anyone who’s spent any time studying nutrition, bluntly, there’s nothing new here. There’s more data, new data, but none of it is really revelatory. The author claims it is, and goes to pains to point out that he’s the only person out there, pretty much, who’s talking about this subject. I think he’s spent too much time in his lab and not enough checking out what’s available on bookshelves, magazine racks, etc.

And, he’s an annoying writer. Really annoying. He repeats phrases and information over and over again, until you begin to feel like a harp seal on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, being clubbed over and over again. By the end of the first couple of chapters the “whole foods, plant based diet” mantra became irritating to the point I was ready to put the book down and forget it. But I forged ahead. And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the idea, in fact, it is possible that such a diet actually is better for the average person’s health, and the planet… it’s just annoyingly presented.

My problem, however, with the book is not that. It’s the data used to back up the presentation. Now, I understand that this book was an attempt to distill a massive amount of data into a reasonably readable format for that same average person. There are graphs and tables of numbers, all designed to look very impressive and back up the core point of the book.

But here’s the thing. I’m a numbers person. I was one of those geeky people in high school that everyone liked but was still annoyed by because I did stuff like solve quadratic equations and matrices in my head, corrected teachers who made numerical errors, and never quite learned to keep my mouth shut about it. So numbers tend to catch my eye, particularly when some of them relate to information I already know.

And he misuses them continuously throughout the book. I’m not going to get into a deep analysis of it – there have been articles and blog posts across the internet delving into the same stuff. And responses from he and others to those critiques. And I don’t think he’s making the numbers up, he’s simply picking and choosing things that support his arguments and leaving stuff that doesn’t out.

A couple of things that caught my eye early on – a comparison between fat content in skim, 2%, and whole milk that was just blatantly wrong… unless, of course, you’re considering skim to be truly, completely, skimmed of all fat, which it never really is, and whole milk to still be “full cream” milk, i.e.,, straight out of the cow, not what is sold for whole milk in the supermarkets. When it comes down to it, the milk fat content that most of us get out of the carton for those three types run about .5%, 2%, and 3.5% – not a huge range and certainly not the “0, 28 and 64% of calories from fat” claimed.

He also quoted a nutritional study that I happened to be familiar with that he claimed supported his “whole food plant based diet” plan, but which actually didn’t study vegan diets, not even vegetarian diets, just simply diets that tilted towards more vegetables and fruit and less meat. And, he made the claim that the Chinese rural population that he was studying verified the same information – but then admitted in the endnotes of the book that none of the populations he studied actually had whole food plant based diets (see how annoying that starts to get?), but again, just less meat and more vegetables – primarily for economic reasons. And of course, they work at hard field labor all day, which gee, might just have had an effect on their health as well. (He compared their level of labor to that of office workers in a major city… Really??? On what planet?) In fact, virtually all of his conclusions seem to be extrapolated from the tenuous idea that if a diet that is higher in vegetables and fruits than the “typical Western diet” yields better health, then if you go all the way to vegan, it will be even better – a logical leap that has no evidence to back it up.

And finally, he picked out various national statistics to back up different chapters – Uruguay and Argentina show up in “high incidence of diabetes”, which he immediately equates to the high consumption of beef in both, but doesn’t give any thought, or at least text space, to the fact that both countries have among the highest per capita consumption of refined sugar in the world. And, he conveniently leaves both out of the discussion of “high incidence of heart disease”, since neither country makes it into the top echelon of places that do, and instead picks out countries that happen to have high rates of heart disease and meat consumption. He seems to ignore in the same vein that India, one of the countries with the highest rate of vegetarianism in the world, and the lowest beef consumption, has the highest rate of heart disease of any country in the world. He uses similar stats for cancers, but conveniently doesn’t, other than a couple of truly critical ones, separate out what sort of cancer he’s talking about. Some of the rates and places he uses have got to include things like skin and lung cancers, that likely are not caused by nutritional issues (even if they may be exacerbated by them).

So, that’s enough. It wasn’t a life changing book for me. It was an interesting read, despite the presentation flaws, and it brings up some good points, throughout, that anyone might want to consider to better their diet. But for me, at least, it doesn’t accomplish what the author sets out to have it do. It’s a binary, black and white point of view of how nutrition functions, when the reality, based on pretty much every published study, including the data behind this book itself, is laid out in shades of grey.


Vacation Books

“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

– E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951

Buenos Aires – One of the things I like about vacationing by myself is that in between the various bits of sightseeing, I can catch up on reading. There are too many distractions at home to read as much as I’d like. While out and about, I can read while I eat, I can read in my hotel/b&b room, whatever strikes my fancy. So, beyond a couple of magazines that I just took along for entertainment value and to get them off my reading stack, I took two books with me.

The Last Chinese ChefFirst up was the reading for total pleasure. I’d run across references to the book The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, in various spots on the internet – I think I even used a quote from the book as part of one of my posts not that long ago. It sounded completely intriguing, and then a couple of food biz friends recommended it highly. I do the same. By turns a romance, a food book (and I’m already tracking down recipes to try out, some of which the author provides on her website), a personal narrative from several perspectives, and even a touch of suspense, the book is well crafted, an enjoyable read – not a completely light, easy reading book, but not overly intellectual either. Initially I thought it was a little… fluffy… when it started out – the narrative part, at times, does have a sort of harlequin romance character to it – but it quickly becomes clear this is intentional and meant to reflect the proponent’s personality more than anything else – sections that are narrated from the point of view of other characters take on an entirely different style, tone and quality of writing – it’s clear that Ms. Mones can write well, and chooses simply to use a lighter style of writing for the first character introduced. I never read her other book for which she is famous – Lost in Translation – I hated the movie, but then, never judge a book by its movie… you know? Highly recommended reading material for anyone who likes food and cooking.

BottomfeederMy other book was a bit more on the serious side. Bottomfeeder: How to eat ethically in a world of vanishing seafood by Taras Grescoe, has been sitting on my reading stack for months now. Like other books of the genre – the more prominent recent ones being what seems a slew by Michael Pollan, it’s a grim picture of what we’ve done to our food supply, what’s going to happen if we continue the way we are, and suggestions for what we can do about it. Unlike Pollan, Grescoe tackles the theme with a bit of a sense of humor, and a bit of self-deprecation – in his quest for information, detail, and some of the whys and wherefores, he finds himself, by conscious choice, eating his way through a selection of seafood that he already knows, based on his thesis, he oughtn’t to be. He excuses himself with “this will be the last time I ever…” sort of reasoning, which doesn’t really excuse it, but is the same reasoning that most of us use when confronted with ideas of the sort that we have some responsibility for the planet and our bodies in our choices of what we eat. The old “it’s already been caught, so if I don’t eat it, someone else will or it will go to waste” is a specious argument – lowering demand, in the long run, can only help towards a change in the approach of restaurants’, fishmongers’ and fisheries’ attitudes. One bite at a time. The book does not end on any sort of upbeat or hopeful note – Grescoe seems to have concluded that it’s unlikely change will come in time – one hopes he doesn’t actually believe that, as, if so, the only reason for having written the book would have been self-promotion and greed – and I don’t think that’s the case, I think he just doesn’t sum things up in a way that is as likely to lead towards change as he could have – he’s presented his case, he’s basically stated what he’s going to do about it, and he leaves it up to the individual reader to decide what he or she is going to do. The case statement was powerful, the summation to the jury of his peers could have used more punch. Still, overall it’s well worth a read – not to mention taking some action.


The Glow

“Given our shared passion for cooking, how is it that we were suddenly convinced to retire our pots and pans for good? It’s not just the extra cupboard space that our oven now provides.”

– from the book reviewed here…

Raw Food real worldBuenos Aires – Okay, pet peeve in regard to book titles. Yes, book titles. If you have a catchy title, if you, or your editor or publisher, gave it some thought, why do you need a subtitle explaining what your book is all about? Is it really that difficult, with a book called Raw Food Real World for anyone to grasp the subject matter at hand? Does it need 100 Recipes to Get the Glow? Which, by the way, comes across to me at least as less explicative than the title – sure, I get the 100 recipes part, but “get the glow”?

That out of the way, let’s look at the book. It’s a subject matter that’s all the rage these days – raw food or life food. It’s written by a chef who, at least within the New York foodie world, is pretty well known, and his wife, who isn’t. It’s beautifully illustrated with photos of the food, and less so with lots of pictures of the two of them, presumeably glowing. Not that they’re not a cute couple, in fact, Matthew Kenney is… well, was… one of the cutest chefs around – but that’s 15 years ago or so when he was running Matthew’s on the Upper West Side (which was not a raw food vegan restaurant and was a spot I regularly dined at and had a good number of late eve conversations with Matthew about the industry after introducing myself) – we all lose a bit of cuteness with age, you know? Graphically, it’s not well designed – the recipes for the most part are fine, but the chapter introductions are all done in spindly white text set on vividly colorful pages, with a particular fondness it seemed for yellow and orange, making them difficult to read.

Their explanations of how and why they got into a raw food lifestyle are relatively straightforward, if, perhaps, punctuated by a few too many gee golly gosh how good I felt after I did this moments that get a bit repetitive. The level of detail is probably just about perfect for someone who’s more interested in this as a recipe book than as an explication of the lifestyle itself. The recipes are well written and clear, and sound delicious. On the other hand, most of them sound like things that are fairly complex to make – the “real world” part of the title is a bit misleading. I did a little surfing online to see what sort of reaction the book has garnered among the raw food folk, and one of the most common comments is something to the effect of “everything looks so good, but way beyond my skill level to make”. Which was my reaction and I cook for a living.

The recipes, and the whole story they present, in general, are clearly aimed at those with a lot of time on their hands to make stuff, and more, with a lot of cash to burn. Exotic ingredients, professional level equipment – and no suggestions for substitutions on either – in fact a bit disparaging of any attempts to make this food without using the best (and most expensive) kitchen tools and ingredients out there (with supplier sources listed for where to order all this exotica from should you live somewhere, say, other than New York City or San Francisco).

On the positive side, I like that they don’t preach. In fact they’re quite clear that they aren’t fanatically committed to a 100% raw food vegan lifestyle, and actually enjoy eating both cooked food and non-vegetable food, when they eat out, but have chosen this for home – and even that has it’s minor exceptions. In their lead-ins they do make it sound like anyone could jump on the bandwagon should they want to, it’s just a shame that the recipes make it seem far harder than it has to be to do so. And that leaves this book, for me, as one to sit and glow on the coffee table, should you be so inclined, and less likely to be on the kitchen bookshelf where it might be used.


South Beach Cosmo

Outlet Radio Network
August 9, 2004

South Beach Cosmo

Never let it be said that we Americans don’t know how to carry a good joke just a little too far. My current fave for “okay, enough already” is the low-carb diet craze. Atkins or South Beach or whomever else has popped onto the radar, let’s stop the insanity!

Though not carb-related, it first struck me when I picked up a carton of Tropicana OJ and noticed that the label now proclaims that it is Cholesterol Free! And Lactose Free! Yes, I was quite worried about all the animal fat and dairy in Florida oranges. Okay, it’s just marketing for the masses, but…

It came up again in the wine shop. Someone came in and asked to be directed to the low-carb vodkas. Someone else asked about the low-carb wines. Then in a bar someone ordered a cosmo made with low-carb vodka.

Let me set the record more or less straight…

Here are the raw numbers: Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram; Fats have 9 calories per gram; Proteins have 4 calories per gram; and Alcohol has 7 calories per gram.

A standard five-ounce glass of wine has approximately 100 calories, of which roughly 90 calories come from the alcohol. The rest comes from, yes, Carbohydrates – a whole 2-3 grams of them. (Actually, to be technical, they are Carbohydrate Equivalents – there are really less than 1 gram of true carbohydrates in a glass of wine.) The new “low-Carbohydrate” wines are reduced to an amazing 1.6 to 1.9 grams, cutting the Carbohydrate calories by approximately one-third!

The wine still has almost 95 calories.

Straight spirits, i.e., vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and whiskey, have zero carbohydrates. Yes, zero. Always have, currently do, probably always will. So a “no-carb” vodka on the shelf for twice the price of your current favorite brand? Totally marketing hype.

And that cosmo? The carbohydrates come from where? Oh yeah, the cranberry juice, the triple sec (sugary orange liqueur), even the lime juice! Not the vodka. No carbs to cut. And the only way to lower the calories in spirits is to lower the alcohol content.

Oh, and a final point… All those low-carb diets tell you not to drink alcohol during the initial phase, and then limited quantities in the later phases. Why? Not because they have carbs. Because they screw with your blood chemistry and tend to induce you to eat more.

Gin & Tonic please? Hold the lime, I’m watching my carbs…

I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.


Food for Thought

Q San Francisco
September 1999
Pages 52-53

Food for Thought

Inventor Nikola Tesla subsisted a good portion of his adult life on milk and Ritz crackers, served in multiples of the number three. He basically invented “AC” electrical current. He tried to invent a way to transmit it through the air so we wouldn’t have to plug things in. He was terrified of pearl earrings.

Noted inventor Oliver Heaviside, who essentially created the technology for long distance telephone circuits, lived primarily on milk and potatoes. Occasionally he helped himself to a cauliflower as a treat. He was a teetotaler who believed that he could get alcohol poisoning by eating grapes. His mathematics were so advanced that many of his formulae are still considered advanced today. He painted his nails cherry pink on a daily basis and used large granite blocks as furniture.

Among his many literary accomplishments, Samuel Johnson could include the Dictionary of the English Language. Written in the late eighteenth century, it is still considered one of the finest reference works on the subject, replete with quotes and examples instead of simple definitions. Rancid rabbit meat and meat pies with rancid butter sent him into a feeding frenzy. Among his quirks, he wouldn’t walk through a doorway, instead he jumped through from several feet away.

Though not well known outside the scientific community, chemist and mineralogist Richard Kirwan was a pioneer in multiple fields. He published numerous important books on chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and meteorology, some of which remain standards to this day. His entire diet consisted of eating ham and milk. Terrified, however, of being seen swallowing, he would leave the dinner table to do so, and then return to his guests. An obsessive hatred of flies led him to actually pay neighbors to bring him dead ones.

geniusExcessively shy, Henry Cavendish, physicist and chemist, wouldn’t let people look at him while talking. He was a famed experimenter, and his accomplishment which most affects our daily lives was the perfection of the mercury thermometer. He lived on lamb and nothing but. His clothes consisted of a rumpled old purple suit and triangular hat and he was so mortified to be in sight of women that he had a second staircase built in his house just to avoid his housekeeper.

Geoffrey Pyke, a sort of renaissance man-inventor, is, let’s face it, not a name that we are all familiar with. He controlled one-third of the world’s tin supply, was a brilliant military strategist, a major charity fund-raiser, and created the first school with a “jungle gym”. Much of his adult diet was limited to herring and crackers. He hated socks.

Before anyone panics and thinks I’m going to try to concoct a recipe from these oddities, relax. I was asked to delve into the idea of “brain food”, i.e., do diet and deep thought correlate. If the above members of the genius circle are any indication, we’re in deep trouble. There are a lot of modern-day nutrition experts out there who are going to have to rethink the value of nutrition on the brain.

In general I am of the view that a good dinner should promote conversation, stimulate activity and create an atmosphere of fun. Now and again, however, it is worth sitting down to a plate and glass that cause one to pause and consider life, the universe, and everything that matters (and has matter). For me, that requires a steak, medium rare, perfectly seared, perhaps crusted with some spices…

Pan-Seared Deep Thought Steak

2 8-12 oz. steaks (I’m fond of porterhouse)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon flour
1/4 cup Armagnac or other brandy
1/4 cup heavy cream

Basically, this is my take on a steak au poivre. You’re going to need some sort of spice grinder, coffee bean grinder, blender, whatever. Or you’ll have to use ground spices, but it just isn’t the same. Crush the pepper, allspice and salt together – they should remain somewhat coarse. Rub the steaks on both sides with the mixture and let them sit for twenty minutes.

Heat a large cast iron pan till very hot and then toss in the steaks. Let them brown on the first side, then flip them and brown the other side. Cook until done to your preference. Remove the steaks and set on a plate to rest for a few moments.

Sprinkle the flour into the pan, still over the heat, and stir rapidly, scraping the meat drippings together with the flour until the flour is lightly browned. Take the pan away from the heat if you have an open flame. Pour in the cognac, return to the heat and let it warm in the pan.

You can either light it by slightly tilting the pan to catch a little bit of the flame from the stove, or use a match.

When the flame has died down, stir quickly to incorporate all ingredients. Add the cream and stir until thickened. Pour over the steaks and serve. You can pretty much directly scale this recipe up for more people if you wish, you just might need more than one pan.

Cabernet franc is the under-appreciated ancient parent of the more well-known Cabernet sauvignon. Personally, I prefer it. It has more “wild” or “sauvage” notes, darker fruit, and spicier tones. In my view, some of the world’s greatest reds come from this grape.

Starting in California, because, well, why not, check out the Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc “1er Etage”. This is Fritz Maytag’s winery – the man’s into everything these days – washing machines, blue cheese, gin, rye, and…Cabernet franc. Staying domestic, but crossing the continent, the eastern seaboard offers Millbrook Cabernet Franc Reserve and the Macari Vineyards Cabernet Franc. Joe Macari, at the latter, organically farms too!

On the opposite side of the Atlantic the offerings are almost too many to choose from. The hotbeds of cab franc growing are the Loire Valley, parts of Bordeaux, and northern Italy. From the first, my current pick is the Château de Fesles Anjou “Vieilles Vignes”. In Bordeaux, if it’s in your budget, a bottle of Château Cheval-Blanc St. Emilion, if your credit card would melt like mine, a more than acceptable alternative is Château Figeac St. Emilion. Northern Italy offers my absolutely favorite cab franc, Quintarelli Alzero – it costs nearly as much as just flying to northern Italy, but it’s worth it.

Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.