What I Probably Won’t Learn From Paula Deen

Health concerns won't drive my eating decisions until they have to, but there are many cooks other than Deen leading the way

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Peter Kramer / NBC / AP

Paula Deen appears on the "Today" show on Jan. 17.

Amid all the tumult and blowback from Paula Deen’s diabetes fiasco last week, an obvious question went unanswered. If her foods are debilitatingly unhealthy (which they are), and she has no good answers for how we should eat (she doesn’t, at least so far), then who does? It’s a multi-million dollar question, and one that gets bigger every year, as we get fatter and wheezier.

I first became aware of just how big the return-to-health cooking movement was last week, when writing my story on Paula Deen. One of the people I quoted was a diabetic New York chef, Franklin Becker, who wrote a cookbook for people with diabetes with the rather unwieldy title Eat and Beat Diabetes With Picture Perfect Weight Loss. That is obviously a hard name to remember, so I searched on Amazon for “diabetes cookbooks,” and this is what I found. There are 28 different diabetes cookbooks, and that was just on the “most popular” page! But why was I surprised? There are a lot of diabetics out there, and they need cookbooks too.

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The fact is that Americans are not, as a whole, an especially healthy people. We are far and away the fattest country in the world, and the less said about our global ranking in circulatory-disease deaths, life expectancy, etc., the better. But we do love our meals. So it seems inevitable that as we get older and sicker, we will have to find a way not just to eat for health but another way to eat for pleasure, too.

I am still coming to terms with this, frankly.

Because — and I hate to be the one to say it — you’re not going to get the best tasting food if you’re aiming for a healthy diet. I know, I know, it’s all subjective. Except it isn’t. When a person, whether a chef in a tall white hat or a college student in a bathrobe, decides to cook a meal whose only purpose is to taste good, it will likely taste better than a meal with some other, conflicting priority. No doubt goodness will be the second or third factor, after carblessness, fiber, rawness, localness or even something as prosaic as cost. But as long as there is some kind of limit to what you can use, you will give up something in sheer gratification.

Maybe we just expect too much from food. It’s not our fault; it’s just history. The 1968 Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt would be blown off the road by the Camry my aunt drives. Food has evolved the same way. Chickens a few decades ago were as lean as quail; hamburgers were the size of canapés. Vegetables were mush; fish were routinely cooked until not a drop of moisture remained in them (which was why they also came covered with sauce, crabmeat, butter and other junk). Every year market pressures have amped up the horsepower on all the most pleasurable elements of food.

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And yet it doesn’t have to be that way. A few chefs have embraced a cuisine of limitations. Some have done it for aesthetic or philosophical reasons; others because it was forced upon them. My friend Seamus Mullen was as sybaritic a cook as you could ask for, until he woke up one day, paralyzed with pain from an attack of rheumatoid arthritis. He eventually found a diet that worked to help him stay pain-free and even on his feet all day and has written a cookbook about it. Seamus’s method, which he found through his own research, involves using 18 key ingredients including olive oil, stone fruits and sardines that act as natural anti-inflammatories and avoiding nightshades like tomatoes and eggplant. “I can’t eat corn,” Mullen says, “but the tiny amount I do eat is at the very peak in summer, and the feeling of happiness it gives me is itself a gain for my immune system.” For Mullen, there’s nothing he can’t eat a little of; the trick is to capture it at the perfect moment, when you want it most.

Sadly, that’s the kind of mindfulness that probably won’t drive my lifestyle until it has to. I’m just being honest here. I like corn in summer, but I like it now, too. I like tiny amounts of steak, but I like bigger amounts more. What gives me hope against the inevitable upshot of my pleasures, my own Paula moment, is the possibility that there are ways of eating that aren’t grim and hideous; that the false dichotomy between Krispy Kreme bread pudding and a raw food diet is as misleading as the promise of endless nachos. There’s a way out there for me; I just hope it doesn’t take diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis to find it.