One morning in 1994, I became faint and woozy upon walking into my office.
It happened sometimes, but that morning it was worse than usual, just as I was coming through the revolving doors on East 53rd Street. In truth, I suffered from an appalling crush on my boss, so I wrote it off to panic. But when blacking out became a probability, the company nurse stuck me in a cab and sent me off to a doctor who, after hooking me up to all manner of sirens and wires, diagnosed ventricular tachycardia which somehow managed to right itself. Nobody had to fire up the paddles, so that was good.
Athletic girls in their early 30s don’t have cardiac episodes, the doctor said. He was suspicious.
Have you been under a lot of stress? he asked.
My mother was sitting next to me.
Absolutely not, she replied.
He told her to leave.
Have you been taking drugs? he whispered.
I thought of the few times during my freshman year at school when I’d taken a puff from a friend’s three-foot bong and actually inhaled; like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I’d end up trying to take my pants off over my head. It wasn’t fun. It didn’t make me more interesting, or tall, or skinny. So I stopped. Then I thought of the object of my stupefying office attraction and the fact that I once saw her in the hallway and walked into a wall. I hoped she hadn’t noticed but I was certain she had. I was a hyperventilating moron in her presence. Pretty much everyone I worked with was.
The doctor put me on a beta blocker and told me to eat fat free foods — fat free salad dressing, fat free mayonnaise, fat free butter-like spread, fat free cottage cheese — and to go on vacation. When I stepped off the little plane at Ackerman Field on Nantucket, my symptoms went away, just like that. I came home and went back to my thrice-weekly exercise regimen, which included playing competitive squash. But to stay “heart healthy” and because I have a personal vendetta against fat free foods (which I still believe are far worse for you than their full fat counterparts) I just took to cooking everything en papillotte — wrapped in parchment paper when I could afford it and foil when I couldn’t — and completely devoid of fat (even olive oil. This was back in the days of sweet, slightly pasty, perpetually sad-looking Dean Ornish, who was considered in cardiac circles to be more important than God). Six months later, feeling pretty great about myself but hungry enough to eat my living room area rug so long as it was drizzled with olive oil, I quit the medication and went on with my life. Winter was rolling round, and I started loading up my party menus with things like Boeuf Bourguignon and Cassoulet Toulousain and Oeufs en Meurette, with nary a care in the world.
And that’s the way things have pretty much been, off and on, lo these many years: as readers of Poor Man’s Feast know, I go through spates of neurotic healthy eating — bingeing, really — which, when I write about them, invariably stink of a sort of furtive morality. But just like unhealthy bingeing, healthy bingeing is a way of life in this country; it’s something that most all Americans do to one degree or another, usually after the first of the year when we attempt to reverse all the excess we’ve indulged in over the holidays, as though eating great piles of steamed vegetables will suddenly mitigate two solid months of standing rib roast. Eventually, when I can’t stand eating another sliver of steamed anything, I race back to my old pork-loving ways: I yearn for a small loin roast rubbed with fennel pollen, grilled, sliced thin, and piled on a tangle of garlicky broccoli rabe. When the temperature begins to dip, I want Massaman curry, or just a nice, flavorful roast chicken. Then I’ll switch gears: whole days and weeks will go by when I’ll crave nothing but vegetables — flavor-heavy vegetable soups like this one, vegetable pancakes like this one, any recipe by this lady or this man, or the Scafata of my dreams. But then, Susan and I will look at each other after a few weeks of eating this way — we both know what the other is thinking — and we’ll hurry down to Steve Ford, our wonderful butcher, for a single steak that we’ll salt early in the day, pan-roast, and eat at room temperature with a platter of caramelized, oven-dried tomatoes that we froze during our summer harvest.
Ultimately, what I want to eat depends on the day and the season, and the kind of comfort that I’m craving. That said, I also want to feel good—I don’t want to feel like a dirigible stuffed with foie gras, or to have twinges. One thing is for sure, though: if what I’m eating is vegetable-based (or even vegetarian, and especially vegan), it has to be packed — loaded — with flavor. That flavor itself is comforting, and that comfort makes my endorphins course through my body like a river. I feel sated, and happy.
But every once in a while, there are those twinges — not horrific, chest-grabbing twinges, but twinges that take me back to that morning in 1994 when I wound up in a Park Avenue cardiologist’s office, sitting there and wondering if I had inherited my father’s fat-addled coronary arteries or the weird, electrical disturbance that killed my great grandfather-the-butcher when he was 40, or if it was the blinding crush on my boss that was going to do me in — and my response will to be to go whole hog in the other, oil-free, steaming-everything-in-sight, Dean Ornish-y direction. This is probably normal, if a bit reactionary and just a tad hysterical.
Recently, I failed a stress test, but not because I couldn’t do the exercise: my EKG just went a little bonkers. No on was too concerned about it. Then I had a few twinges. Then everyone, including my doctor, was worried. A bunch more tests, a bunch more after that, and then, nothing. We were concerned. I was feeling a bit grim. I started thinking a lot about Laurie Colwin, my hero.
“We’ll eat however we have to eat,” Susan said, piling a load of broccoli into the new gigantic stainless steel steamer we bought a few weekends ago. “If it means no fat, it means no fat.”
She’s a good egg that way. In every way.
So this past weekend, Susan and I attended a Farms2Forks Immersion in Claverack, New York, where we learned how to live according to the Forks Over Knives criteria, which was designed by Cleveland Clinic surgeon Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and T. Colin Campbell of The China Study. Although the program has been co-opted by everyone from triathletes to the more political folks among us, it is what I call Medical Veganism, meaning it was designed specifically for people with severe cardiac issues and related illnesses, like Type 2 Diabetes. Medical veganism is a simple concept: if you have significant heart disease, Dr. Esselstyn’s data says that you can halt it, and possibly even reverse it, by eating a no-fat, vegan diet.
As in no oil.
I don’t have significant heart disease per se, but I am a journalist and so this exercise is partly an experiment. The other part is personal, though: I often do have elevated numbers, my gene pool is littered with cardiac malfunctions — and there’s that nasty twinge factor and the wonky EKG and that day back in 1994— so we’ll see exactly how much of an effect eating this way for 28 days will have. I’ll be writing about my experience at the immersion in Prevention, and about the greater implications of drastic diets and their impact on culture, healing, and the comfort factor here, at Poor Man’s Feast.
I’d be lying if I said I was really looking forward to the next month because I like — I love — good olive oil, especially Yolo Press Olive Oil, which is produced by Mike Madison (brother of Deborah), out in California. Oil or fat of any kind is verboten, which will make the actual cooking process challenging, to say the least. And of course, there’s the flavor factor. And the simple truth that where there’s no flavor, there’s no comfort.
In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but hunker down, close my eyes, take my aspirin, and avoid the grass-fed beef concession at the farmer’s market. But only for a little while.