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Go to any new-age retreat in California, and you will find young people preparing their breakfasts, not with spatulas and skillets, but with blenders. If you are eating your meal instead of drinking it, you are in danger of dating yourself. If you are eating bread or any other wheat products, you are at risk of being ostracized.
Why is it better to blend your meal rather than use your teeth to break it down? Because, when you have a blender in front of you, you can put anything into it, like kale, frozen blueberries, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and carrots, just to name a few items. Never mind what the resulting concoction might taste like. The advantage of a liquid diet is that it goes directly from a straw into your throat, bypassing your tongue altogether, which is just as well because you wouldn’t want to taste something that combines kale with blueberries and sweet potatoes, even if they are all “super-foods.” Let’s face it, kale has no taste and possesses the texture of sawdust, even though it is the latest fad. If you go to a potluck, chances are you will run into a kale dish or two, steamed and garnished with olive oil, feta cheese, pine nuts, and spices. What wouldn’t taste good with these ingredients?
Then there is the list of no-nos, which has gotten longer and longer over the years. Take eggs, rice, potatoes, butter, sugar, and meat, for example. Even olive oil is now bad for us because it turns out that if you heat it at high temperature like I do (to prepare Indian food), it oxidizes.
To some extent, I understand the taboos. I myself have marginal blood sugar levels and can no longer eat too much of white rice or potatoes and have to avoid most desserts. But what gets to me is the “gluten free” label. Admitted, some people have intolerance, not allergy, to gluten. But statistics indicate that such intolerance occurs only in the developed world, and only among less than one percent of the population. Why then is everyone gluten-free? I suppose it is because gluten has suddenly become a bad food. Unfortunately, what most people don’t realize is that gluten is in that part of wheat that also contains proteins. So when you eliminate gluten, you are eliminating all the nutrition out of the grain, leaving only fiber and starch. Imagine an Indian laborer living off bhakri—hand-rolled bread—and mirchi (chili), his only source of protein, without gluten in it. For me, the last straw came when my favorite Indian restaurant suddenly began to carry a banner declaring “gluten free.” I tried to imagine “gluten free” naan and chapattis but then decided not to even think about it.
When you research the facts about gluten you realize that the gluten content of dough is enhanced or reduced depending on the variety of wheat used, as well as the method of preparation. I suspect that it is not gluten itself that is at fault but corporate food production in America which increases the gluten content of bread with the use of yeast and industrial baking methods. When you hold a loaf of hardy French bread in your hand, you do not find it soft and mushy, unlike American sliced bread, which is elastic and crumbly, indicating high gluten content. American consumers, I am afraid, have come to associate that elastic, rubbery sensation with bread that I myself detest so.
No gluten, no transfats, no carbs, no GMOs , no butter, no eggs, no bread and no vegetables (with pesticides), that is today’s mantra. In fact, so many things are bad for you that it is hard to find a food that is good for you. The only things left to consume, I suppose, are Chia seeds, Psyllium husk and Stevia. And I am not kidding. I recently stayed in the house of a woman who daily prepared a milkshake of frozen blueberries, chia seeds, psyllium husk and stevia, declaring that the angels had told her to eat this meal after her recent bout with lupus! I was not surprised that she had lupus, only that she was still alive!
For some people with weight problems, psyllium, the main ingredient in Metamucil, might be helpful, but one should never forget that psyllium is pure fiber, with no nutritional value whatsoever, unlike vegetables like celery or carrots, which contain minerals and vitamins.
The popular misconception is that just because certain products are made from natural ingredients, they are good for you. Take green tea for example. A man nearly died of liver failure recently from consuming green tea extract. MSG too is natural but causes severe allergies and headaches in many people, including myself. Stevia is made from a plant but it is not clear that consuming it daily is good for you.
When I see people preparing delicate shakes and salads at a California spa, I wonder if they go home, and in the privacy of their own television, pig out on burgers and fries. And I am tempted to ask, “Why don’t you just eat normal, balanced food for a change?”
When my sons were babies, I asked their doctor about giving them daily vitamins. I had never taken any vitamins or supplements myself and wondered if they were necessary for people who ate healthy foods. The doctor encouraged me to give them supplements regardless. Luckily or unluckily, neither one of them got the hang of popping pills, with the result that the bottles simply sat on kitchen counters. Now, a quarter century later, researchers have finally concluded that vitamin supplements provide no health benefits whatsoever and are simply a waste of money.
I told you so!
The new focus on chia seeds and probiotic pills—the latter, for many, have replaced a daily intake of plain yogurt, which my Maharashtrian diet at home always included, and which aided digestion —might indicate a new health-consciousness. On the other hand, it might also signal a move away from actually cooking food. A family meal is becoming a rarer and rarer phenomenon in America, perhaps occurring only on Christmas and Thanksgiving.
For me, the substitution of a blender for a saucepan suggests something tragic about modern life, namely, the death of the culinary experience as a sensory, aromatic, and visual delight.
My father, though not religious, often recited a Marathi prayer before meals. It contained the following words: Anna he purna-brahma; udar-bharan nohe janije yadnya-karma. Food was Brahma himself, the verse said, and eating amounted, not to filling your stomach, but to conducting a yagna, a holy fire.
In today’s hip culture, we have sadly lost the sacred ritual that used to be eating.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.