Something is happening in the food world when Frank Bruni is a hijiki frond away from going full vegan. In his Friday New York Times column, the paper’s former restaurant critic declared that due to a recent diagnosis of gout, he has completely reformed his diet. Gone are the beef filets larded with foie gras, the multiple bottles of red wine and the cold-and-colder running martinis. Now Bruni drinks seltzer and eats mostly vegetables. He still allows himself eggs and cheese and the occasional glass of wine— but clearly the days of 40 ounce porterhouses are behind him.
It’s happening everywhere. At our Shabbat table over the past month, our friend Helene announced she had gone vegan. This, from the daughter from a Boro Park butcher for whom heaven was brisket and roast chicken. She lost 30 pounds and just completed a 100 mile bike ride. My brother, an investment banker whose celebratory meals in Manhattan usually meant steaks, announced he was no longer eating meat or chicken. He’s doing Cross Fit and at 53 looks like he’s on a high school track team. Mind you these are the people we know. Celebrities like Zooey Deschanel are high profile public vegans, as out as Ellen.
The same is happening in restaurants. In Santa Monica, there’s a 40 minute wait AT LUNCH, for True Food, the restaurant partly owned by the health guru Dr. Andrew Weil. You can order meat at True Food (sustainable, local, mostly lean, and a lot of fish), but the menu is focused on vegetables. The same with Mendocino Farms, whose location in Marina Del Rey always has a line out the door. There you can get Vegan Tortas with seitan in BBQ chipotle sauce. Yes there’s pulled organic pork and grass fed beef banh mi, but most of the menu is about pushing vegetables. Mendocino Farms is expanding, Tender Greens is growing.
If anything, Bruni is a bit late to the party-pooping.
Of course, he didn’t choose his new diet as much as beg for it. Gout is painful. The build up of uric acid inflames the joints to the point where simply standing up feels like childbirth. “All I know is that when gout pays a visit to one of my feet,” he writes, “I can’t stand on it or put a sock on it or even place a thin sheet over it; pretty much all I can do is stare at it, swear at it and bang my fist on the nearest hard surface while waiting for the industrial-strength anti-inflammatories my doctor has prescribed to kick in.” Bruni would have started eating nothing but lawn clippings and sawdust to stop it.
What happened to him is a neat summary of what happened to the generation of Boomers and yuppies departing middle age. The food pendulum has swung. They have indulged enough. They let Emeril convince them that the more bacon they ate, the better. They followed the trends to upscale steakhouses. They explored cigars and cocktails and lardo and foie gras. Bruni did it better and to greater excess and with a fatter expense account and far greater eloquence than the rest. When they dared not stuff themselves with one more marrow bone, they could read his accounts of Mario’s salumi. When they couldn’t possibly take another bite, he did it for them.
So now, the kale-colored writing on the wall. First for Bruni, but really for all of us. It’s time to pull back, to try to eek out a few more years of disease-free living by tossing the meat and booze overboard.
I wonder why we always, as a culture, seemed condemned to swing between the extremes. We overdo it, then we overreact. Instead of knowing from the start what seems obvious—enjoy a little of the rich foods, a little of the alcohol, but balance it with lots of the green stuff, and plenty of exercise. Instead, we go all out, then pull all the way back.
It’s not unlike the debate over atheism: the first wave of modern atheists, the Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins/ Christopher Hitchens z”l volley, tried to completely dispose of God and religion. But that didn’t appear to move the needle on faith and belief. Now come people like Alain de Botton, with his new book, Religion for Atheists, presenting a kind of Athiesim 2.0, that acknowledges the important things that faith and religion bring into one’s life, while still leaving room to question it.
That’s not a bad rule of thumb for looking at our food choices. You don’t need to go full carnivore to enjoy meat, or full vegan to live healthfully.
Meanwhile, I hope Frank Bruni feels better. I’m one of those people who has avoided indulging (well, maybe except for the red wine part) partly because I could live vicariously through his descriptions. Writers like him and Jonathan Gold do such a good, Liebling-esque job relaying the far excesses of consumption, I’m full by the time I’ve turned the page.
That way I can go about eating, well, sensibly.
For example, this Gnocchi with Italian dandelion and parmesan I made last night for my daughter and myself. You can go semi-vegan and serve without the parmesan—sprinkle on porcini mushroom powder instead. Or you can live what now seems positivey dangerously and have a bit of cheese.
Mr. Bruni, this one’s for you: thanks for the memories.
[RECIPE] Gnocchi alla Bruni
1 ½ pound Russet potatoes
1 large egg
1 cup all purpose flour, approximately
salt and pepper
Parmesan or Porcini Mushroom powder
2 bunches Italian dandelion (6-8 cups chopped raw)
3 cloves Garlic
¼ t. red Chili flakes
½ cup Olive oil
Place a large pot of salted water on high heat and bring to boil.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust with flour.
Boil the potatoes until very soft. Drain water then cook potatoes in hot pan until they appear dry, just a minute or two. As soon as you possibly can, peel the potatoes.
Mash potatoes in food mill or with a hand masher, or in mixer with whisk attachment. Add egg, salt and pepper. Blend well then add flour, about a cup to start. When dough comes together into a rollable but still soft mass, roll into ropes about 3/4 inch thick. Cut ropes into ¾ inch pieces.
Transfer to the baking sheet lined with parchment paper an dusted with flour.
When the water boils, add dandelion. Boil until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a cutting board and chop fine.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet. Add olive oil and, when hot, add garlic. Fry a couple minutes until fragrant, then add red pepper and greens. Saute for several minutes, then reduce heat to low.
When the dandelion water returns to a boil, add gnocchi and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon into skillet with greens. Gently stir until the gnocchi are coated with the greens. Add parmesan or mushroom powder.
Spoon into shallow bowls and serve with additional parmesan or porcini mushroom powder.