Diets: Blessing or curse for the culinary world?
This is an article of personal opinion. The opinions expressed here are fully my own and not necessarily those of Tasty Tufts.
When I wrote my article on the Paleo diet, I sought to be as impartial as possible. I kept to the essentials—what it was, what Tufts students should know about trying it, and whether I thought it was feasible at Tufts. That being said, for me nutrition and the sheer variety of popular diets is an issue about which I have no shortage of opinions. These diets represent a critical influence on the food world; alternative cooking techniques, swap-ins and novel ingredients are part and parcel of taking certain aspects of the culinary world out of your diet. Whether you’re swearing off animal products, vegetable oils, agricultural products, or gluten, you’re eventually going to seek a diet-friendly alternative to your favorite foods. That’s where the innovation really happens.
What does this mean for the future of the industry? We can see it already with veganism and I predict it’ll come even more to the front as the food world moves to meet the gluten-free and Paleo/Primal diets. Veganism demanded even greater development than vegetarianism, especially in terms of replacing milk products and eggs and supplying sufficient nutrition in their absence. As a result the culinary world was immeasurably strengthened. As someone who loves his greens just as much as his red meat, a world without the creative approach of vegetarians and vegans is one I don’t want to live in. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats really identified what I see as the key benefit provided by these diets to the wider food world, what he calls “diversity through restriction”. When you can’t do something one way, you have to try it another way; the result in some cases (as in his experience with Mapo Tofu and vegan mayonnaise) can be even better than the original. I’ve seen this personally in experimenting with low-fat milk products like kefir, skim ricotta, cottage cheese and Greek Yogurt. One of my favorite sandwiches is the reuben, but to be honest I won’t be ordering it at restaurants very often – I was surprised to find that a yogurt-based Russian dressing tastes a lot better than the standard mayonnaise Thousand Island (it’s also more authentic, as it’s actually what’s supposed to be on a real reuben).
On the other hand, I also have a bit of a problem with these diets as well. My problem really is that they are fundamentally inimical to a polite dining experience. Part of eating out is appreciation of the talent of the chef and trusting that he or she has an active interest in your having a good experience. Accommodation on his or her part should be a matter of respect—expecting or even demanding that he or she devalue their product to suit your needs is an insult to him or her. It’s fortunate for us all that many restaurants have begun to make their own accommodations for dietary restrictions, and as I discussed above, the idea of diversity through restriction could apply wonderfully in a setting where a skilled chef is present—I’d provide the example of Tony Maws of Craigie On Main serving up a full vegan selection for Kenji and his father. Also, at Chef Amanda Cohen’s critically acclaimed Manhattan restaurant, Dirt Candy, the vegetable takes center-stage in all appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
The other problem I have with restrictive diets is the limitations they create for others. Case in point: vegetable oils. Quite frankly, I don’t like them. For me, the evidence is pretty strong in Paleo’s court on most vegetable oils: in their industrially-produced form, they’re not really the best things we could be cooking with. As such, the adoption of vegetable oil and promotion of vegetable oil-only cooking scares me. When I did my analysis of the dining halls for the Paleo article, I couldn’t help but feel that the choice to use vegetable oil in cooking the meat was wrong. That’s not to say I feel that everything should be in butter or bacon fat, but in accommodating vegetarians and vegans you’ve hit everyone else as well. I personally would have chosen coconut or avocado oil as a safe cooking fat for all sides.
( (Swiss) Paleo’s take on Pizza, it’s Meatza. From Stuff I Make My Husband)
To finish up this piece I’d like to conclude with a point about health. In writing my article I tried to avoid the issue of whether switching to Paleo would help lose weight. This really is for me a huge fallacy in the whole idea of adopting a diet—health is about so much more than numbers on a scale. Not to mention the fact that intrinsically no restrictive diet is healthier than any other. It’s all an issue of calories in and calories out. That being said, I like that people have become interested in these diets because (in most cases) it means they cut out the crap. People on a restrictive diet cook more, eat less processed food, and in most cases care more about what they put into themselves. For me, those three components are more important than what you restrict yourself to. If you care about what you’re putting into yourself, you will be a healthier person. If you already love food, I can’t imagine that you don’t care, and that’s why I think food lovers have the potential to be the healthiest people on the planet.
If you want to read more about Kenji Lopez-Alt’s vegan experience, here’s the link.