While traveling with fellow journalists recently in Israel, one thing became apparent to me: most of the writers on the trip had food issues.
One writer claimed she could only eat gluten free food; another writer ate only kosher foods while a third was a strict Vegan. The food issues surfaced from our very first meal when the gluten free scribe began bombarding the waiter with questions. Would he list all the menu items that were gluten free? When the waiter rattled off a number of dishes, the scribe then had him go to the appetizer and salad items until much of the menu was analyzed. Although this particular writer was one of the most delightful people on the trip, when it came to food she became the culinary version of Joseph Stalin.
The Vegan scribe also had a compelling personality but the moment we would place an order in a restaurant she turned into a private investigator. "Is this really Vegan or is it Pescetarian, Pollotarian or is it Lacto-ovo-vegetarian?
"Let me see," the server would say, reaching for a Lacto Vegetarian graph chart hidden in his/her serving apron. Okay, actually there was no chart, although there should have been one because often what the server had to do was run into the kitchen and check with one of the chefs. The interminable process kept the whole table waiting so that by the time the server took orders from the rest of the journalists there was a feeling of real relief. "Well, that was nice and easy," more than one server would remark after taking the "normal" food orders.
Sometimes special calls had to be placed to restaurants in advance to make sure that Vegan and gluten free dishes were ready and available when our group walked in the door. Our press tour guide was not prepared for these elaborate food issue rituals, and in fact she very nearly had a mild meltdown when the ritual became especially taxing at a tiny sandwich shop in a small town outside Tel Aviv. All expectations of grabbing a quick bite on the patio of a charming restaurant before our tour bus headed to Masada ended when the server began taking orders. Once again, the excruciating menu analysis among the mega-foodies became an ordeal comparable to dental surgery. The server, who did not understand what gluten-free was, had to be given an on-the-spot lesson, and even then she struggled to understand the concept. "Let me check with the kitchen," she finally said, taking a deep breath.
As it turned out, she wound up checking with the kitchen several times during the 25 minute ordering process even as the foodies kept changing their minds the moment they spotted something better or "purer" on the menu. The exasperated server was patient, but when the foodie scribes cancelled their orders because they decided they really weren't hungry after all, our tour guide had had it.
"We spent twenty five minutes driving that poor server crazy, and in the end we walked out," she said, shaking her head. Perhaps if this had been the only restaurant debacle it wouldn't have been so bad, but as the tour progressed, things concerning food got worse instead of better.
The quest for culinary purity became so intense for these foodies that we couldn't even stop for a water ice or a bagel without the recitation of the gluten-vegan drill. Thank God the bottled water supply on the tour bus was not a problem. There was some relief from hearing the gluten-vegan drill when we ate at restaurants that offered a buffet. I would watch as the foodies would go down the buffet line and quiz each cook or server about ingredients. During one of our last big meals, our tour guide exploded when the gluten-vegan drill seemed to slip into overdrive.
"You Americans and your food issues," she said, her voice rising two octaves. "I've never seen anything like it. No matter where we go to eat, it takes a half hour just to order. In Europe where I grew up we were trained as children to eat a little of everything. Europeans do not have these issues! You just eat a little of everything and you stay healthy."
Our guide was a healthy, vibrant woman and in many ways she looked healthier than the picky eaters.
I know people who are lactose intolerant, and people who hate mayo, peas, brussel sprouts, lima beans, liver and onions and sour cream. I met my first strict vegetarian in Boston at age 20. He was a tall thin man with a very pallid complexion and for the longest time I thought he was battling a serious illness. After he told me he was a vegetarian, I proceeded to ask him a hundred questions. Is he a vegetarian for religious reasons? Is it about killing animals? What about fish? Then I asked him what he would do if it were discovered that vegetables had some kind of consciousness. Would killing a carrot be like killing a pig? Don't mushrooms feel pain when they picked? I didn't have the courage to ask him why the so called "healthier vegetarian diet" made him so unhealthy looking. Of course, there weren't many vegetarians in the United States in 1974. Vegetarians at that time were associated with Indians in India, Hinduism, and the food in American Hare Krishna temples.
Let me say upfront that while I enjoy vegetarian food and salads, I would not want to turn this diet into an obsessive culinary orthodoxy. That's idolatry.
After my trip to Israel, I thought a lot about the tour guide's assertion that Europeans are much more sensible about food than picky Americans. I decided to check up on European food consumption and discovered an article in The Independent that made the claim that French children are happy eaters because they are expected to eat like adults. In France, where vending machines and junk food are banned in schools, picky eating kids are stripped of their bizarre habits and turned into mini gourmets whereas in England the opposite is true. The Daily Mail reports that British kids are the fussiest eaters in Europe, and that "parents have to bribe them with unhealthy snacks to make them finish meals."
I came across a TIME magazine article that weighed in on the gluten-free craze. "Avoiding certain ingredients goes in cycles: Back in the 70s, it was sugar. Then it was fat, then saturated fat. Then fat was in but carbs were out. Gluten is the pariah ingredient du jour, and there are a lot of healthy people shelling out big bucks for gluten-free food they probably don't need. "
The last time I was in Whole Foods I saw quite a lot of people ringing up 40 and 50 dollar orders for mere handfuls of food products. Since the people in the check-out line didn't look anything like America's infamous 1 per cent, I wondered where they got their limitless supply of money.
Then I read something from a writer who nailed the current gluten-free craze. "Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance," Roger Mason writes, "is a widely promoted myth, a mania. The truth of the matter is that this is a very rare condition- if it exists at all. Dr. Peter Gibson, the 'inventor' of gluten intolerance, now says this condition is really IBS, is rarely due to gluten, and only exists possibly in 1 in 200 people. Wheat allergies are probably non-existent. Almost no one in America eats rye and barley. All this talk about 'gluten intolerance' and 'gluten free foods' is ridiculous. Another scam to sell over-priced 'gluten free' junk foods."
Another food disorder haunting America is called Selective Eating Disorder.
SED people feel there are very few foods that they can eat. Nancy Zucker of Duke University says that most people with SED avoid social events where there are food and drinks and that they even tell lies about an upset stomach to get out of attending them.
SED is different from other kinds of eating disorders because it's not yet clear whether this sort of extreme pickiness with food is biological or psychological. It has even been suggested that extreme fussy eating habits may be a sign of mental illness.
In an even more startling article in Pediatrics, researchers concluded that even moderate picky eating habits in kids indicate trouble down the line. More than 900 children between the ages of two and six were interviewed regarding their eating habits. These same kids were followed for two years and researchers found that the kids who were the pickiest eaters were more than twice more likely to develop serious mental depression than the kids who were normal eaters.
While I realize that studies and surveys can be padded to fit any bias, generally speaking when it comes to food the golden rule is best: "Everything in moderation." Unless you have a serious health condition and cannot eat certain foods, there's no need to make a religion out of food consumption.
My great aunt lived to be 96 years old and was basically healthy throughout her long life, eating vegetables, fruit, salads, meat and even sausage and Spam on occasion. When she drank alcohol it was usually Rum and Coke although she rarely exceeded two drinks at any given party. For most of her life she smoked one cigarette a day, usually after the evening meal. This kind of steely discipline might not be everyone's cup of tea, but her lifelong eating patterns certainly exemplified what the Israeli tour guide was getting at when she put her hand down on that restaurant table and gave the Selective eating disorder journalists a piece of her mind.