Heal Me, Comfort Me

August 22, 2012 · 23 comments

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.

At all.


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.




{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mimijk August 22, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I wanted to keep reading…I always want to keep reading when you post..

2 Laureen August 22, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Lovely and insightful as ever . . . though I must admit, I am trying to figure out who the boss was that you had the crush on??? The fact that I am veganing, as raw as possible, without any medical reason clearly makes me insane 🙂

3 Annie August 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Ah, the fat free thing never dies, does it? I cannot believe that fat free is a healthful way for humans to eat. Nor vegan, which is clearly not aligned with how our ancestors evolved.

But it should be an interesting experiment. Maybe it works for some, and probably these binges are not bad per se. If you read Cabeza de Vaca, and actually if you just think about it, it’s the way our ancestors would have eaten. When things were in season, that’s all they ate for a while.

We have strange notions about food in this country. All the headlines on Huffpo are about what list of foods will perform what health function for you. Alternating with those are lists of supposedly delicious but disgustingly unhealthful foods that are deep-fried and covered with industrially-produced bacon and cheese… We have a love/hate relationship with food.

I try to eat the way Michael Pollan recommended, and mostly succeed, though I do have trouble with the “not too much” part of his advice.

Here’s hoping you get healthy.

4 dervla @ The Curator August 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm

wow. i hope this works for you, or at least makes you feel good enough that eliminating oil from your diet is worth it. Looking forward to hearing your reactions to the diet.

5 Katherine Whiteside August 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Oh Elissa, am I awful to kinda wish that this diet doesn’t work? I want you to be well, but without having to give up your joy in preparing and eating food. (Is this what we call wishful thinking on my part?) Then again, maybe the diet will work nicely and you can alternate months of veganism with your usual chow with chuckles. Good on you and Susan for trying… I salute you both for putting your health and safety above all. xo

6 Sarah @ studiofood August 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Wow. What an interesting experiment – I thought the fat-free Ornish-y, Fuhrmann-y ways of eating had been all but disproven? Maybe its just that other fads like Atkins and Paleo nudged them out of popular consciousness. I’m fascinated to see your medical/physcological results. I think I would need to be physically locked in my apartment if I had to do that diet for 28 days so I couldn’t access any food stores. I’d be hunting down a jar of peanut butter or a roast chicken for sure.

7 tea_austen August 22, 2012 at 7:38 pm

The things we do for health, to feel good. I’ve been there. I am sure I will be again. And I’ll be following your experiments with interest. You write so very well about it all.

PS. And you just got me to finally watch Forks Over Knives (which is on Hulu, who knew?). Now I want to have a big discussion about it. Grrrr.

8 Elissa August 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Tea_Austen, talk to me about Forks Over Knives. I’m curious to know what you think.

9 mdvlist August 22, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Oh, alas. Nobody could envy you that kind of even-more-crazy-than-veganism regimen– I don’t even particularly like meat and still I cringe for you– but I know I’ll enjoy reading what you have to say about your experience, as I always do.

10 Ruth August 22, 2012 at 10:07 pm

About 9 years ago I was diagnosed with left ventricular tachycardia, which was exercise induced. The docs put me on beta blockers, which really sucked as my resting pulse was already quite low; with the beta blockers I could barely get out of bed. Lucky for me, two years later I was cured through laser surgery: a probe was inserted in my femoral artery to my heart to try and instigate the arrythmia. Once it was instigated, the arrythmia was tracked to the heart tissue that was causing the problem and then a laser probe was inserted in the femoral artery to zap the naughty stuff. Instant cure. I passed the stress test 6 weeks later, and have been fine ever since — I’m running again and no symptoms have re-occurred. Perhaps you can discuss this option with your cardiologist?

Incidentally, I’ve just gone vegan (4 months) and I love it, but fat free would do me in!

Good luck with this.

11 Sarah August 23, 2012 at 1:45 am

Hoo boy, good luck, you.

I just went and researched a bunch more about Forks Over Knives, too.I’m with Tea on this one; I actually get pretty mad at this sort of thing. Just the latest iteration of a type of diet conceptualization that I really don’t agree with.

But sad to hear about all your little blips and anomalies. Hope you’re feeling okay. xx

12 Elissa August 23, 2012 at 9:46 am

Sarah, send me what you’ve found (off line)….I’m guessing that somehow, we all have little blips. They’re just blippier with some than with others. x

13 Arlene August 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I hope that whatever road you take keeps you healthy (healthier) for a long time to come. The world would be missing a lot without your fine writing. Be well.

14 Elissa August 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Thank you Arlene.

15 Eileen August 23, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Here’s the to the willingness to experiment and expand our horizons in all ways, for health, knowledge and play. Have fun with this experiment and know that you will indeed find tricks that will add flavor to your food. There’s a whole internet community there to help you. You know what would be fun? After doing this 28-day experiment, follow it with a 30-day Paleo Diet immersion & compare the results. My understanding is that fats aren’t the problem (at last not the real food kind, like olive oil and organic meats). Sugar & processed foods are the problem. Since both diets eliminate those, I think your medical tests would show improvement on both diets. Bonus: you could surely get another article out of it! Here’s one Paleo 30-day program to consider: http://whole9life.com/start/ . And here’s my favorite book on the opposite nutrition perspective from Forks Over Knives: http://www.amazon.com/Nourishing-Traditions-Challenges-Politically-Dictocrats/dp/0967089735 . My intention is not to criticize at all, but just to broaden the conversation.

16 Hannah August 24, 2012 at 12:11 am

I’m glad to hear that it’s temporary – all things in moderation, even (especially?) good olive oil! Eventually at least. I’m more wary of refined sugars/flours/etcs than of fat (and a lot of research is now linking sugar with heart disease diabetes etc, even more so than fat – Lustig etc) … Anyway, I will be very curious to see how it goes for you. We work a kind of Bitman-esque “sane eating” approach around here (as read in Food Matters) – vegan breakfasts and lunches, but not at dinner. Some days are harder than others. Oatmeal helps. On weekends we sometimes have meat at breakfast, since some among us do not think Saturdays can actually exist without breakfast meat. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts and insights as the process continues!

17 Katie August 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Your posts are always well written which I really appreciate. I wanted to chime in with others who suggest that it mat be sugar/refined carbohydrates and not fat that causes heart disease. I recommend reading The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes. It’s very well researched and filled with data.
Wishing you good health.

18 Elissa August 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Hi Katie, and thank you for your good wishes. The results of this experiment are very telling….stay tuned for the article! Thanks again.

19 Katie August 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Thanks so much for all of your wonderful writing. I love reading your posts! I did this experiment earlier in the year after reading the Engine 2 Diet (by Rip Esselstyn). I did it at the same time as some friends who called it our Food Adventure, which sounds a lot better than diet and which put me in a good frame of mind about it. My husband and kids were game but not thrilled. In the end I learned a lot and kept many good things in my regular eating life. The part I had the most trouble with was baking – I love to bake and to eat baked goods and discovered that, in spite of promises otherwise, fat-free vegan baking is disgusting. I wish you the very best with this experiment, whatever “the best” turns out to be for you!

20 Cathleen Collett August 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm

One could argue that humans are adapted for radical changes in eating patterns across the year. In fall, hunt down a deer or kill a pig. At that time of year they are usually fat. So, animal protien, animal fat. Put on some “energy reserves” yourself. Winter: every thing is out of season. Live on stored grains. High complex carbohydrates, low calories as the stores must be used sparingly to outlast the winter. Spring, gather greens. Ward off scurvey, high vitamin minerals, still low calory. Midspring, birds lay eggs, cows, sheep, and goats start to give milk. Animal protien and fat, but no red meat. Later spring, berries and vegtables. Most grain has already been eaten (or planted for fall crops) so low carbohydrates.

What I am saying is that we are not designed to eat the same thing every day, or even every week. Swinging from one dietary extreme to another may actually be a good way to go.

21 Tracy August 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm

We’ll be waiting for you on the other side with the nicest piece of crusty bread, toasted and, drizzled with the finest olive oil.

22 Elissa September 1, 2012 at 11:01 am

I so agree with you, Cathleen.

23 Carol September 3, 2012 at 5:15 am

Cathleen’s view makes so much sense.

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