I recently did a 30-day extreme version of the Paleo diet. If you’re not familiar with this diet, it’s basically eating what our pre-agricultural, hunter-gather ancestors would have eaten: meat and vegetables. I also wasn’t allowed to eat “non-compliant” foods: grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol, seed/vegetable oils and sugar. One of the diet’s biggest goals was to avoid eating foods with chemicals and preservatives. And just to sour the pot, the creators of the diet decreed that if you slipped up, you’d have to start all over again. This awesome rule actually had me pressing reset after two days in—not because I couldn’t control my urges—it was because I stupidly bought organic bacon thinking that there wouldn’t be any chemical stew added to it. I even read the Nutrition Facts to look for added sugar, which said “Sugars 0.” Great. After two mornings of indulging, I read some Paleo blogs for entertainment and everyone was talking about how hard it was to find bacon without sugar. I was like, “What’s wrong with these people? That wasn’t hard at all.” But then I got a little worried and reread the label: Sugars 0, Ingredients: pork, salt, organic cane sugar…” What the?! Reset. So I became an avid label reader, inquisitive customer, nightmare diner, and culinary do-it-yourselfer. In other words, I became extremely paranoid about what I was eating.
My husband was supportive…at first. He’s used to my “special” diets. We went to Aspen for a little get-away during my first week of the diet. I was leery of dining out. I told him I wasn’t about to tell a chef what oils he was allowed to use. So he made me a gourmet Paleo meal at the condo: steak, lobster, and sweet potato. We went “out to dinner” at Whole Foods so that I could eat at the salad bar and read the labels posted on the sneeze shield. About three weeks into the diet, and too many dinners at grocery stores, my family begged me to go to a pizza place. I agreed, thinking I could just get a salad, while they stuffed their gobs with a deep dish “Chicago Seven.” I ordered a grilled, unseasoned chicken spinach salad with avocado and sundried tomatoes sans delicious feta and salad dressing. I told my server I was on a “stupid diet,” and I needed just some lemon slices and olive oil for dressing. He was very accommodating, but the kitchen was not. I got a bowl full of spinach and sundried tomatoes with cremated chicken and a heavenly golden wedge of garlic bread. I sent the chicken back, and asked for the oil, lemons, and avocado and slid the bread bullion to my son. As I waited an additional fifteen minutes for the new chicken, I started to fear my sundried tomatoes. I shuttered at the thought of putting my server on a label-reading errand, so I started pulling out the slivers of dried tomato one by one. My husband tried to contain his disgust. When I was done, I had a mound on the table that was probably a cup’s worth. “We’re never doing this again,” my significant other mumbled. “Fine by me,” I proclaimed as I watched mozzarella stretch from my boys’ mouths and beer leave its foam on my husband’s mustache. When all the trappings of my salad finally appeared (it took them an additional two trips). I thoughtfully ate my salad making sure to savor every bite—not because it was good because it surely wasn’t—but because I needed something to distract me from temptation. I was like a monk in a brothel. Because they took so long to get my special diet salad out, I got free dessert. Oh, irony.
Another perk of the diet was a general distrust of condiments and food companies that I’ve depended on for years. This drove me to make my own mustard, mayonnaise, and almond milk. I looked at the label of one of my favorite mustards and decided to make my own. It’s basically mustard powder, mustard seed (if you want country style), salt, vinegar, and sugar, which would stay in the sugar bowl. How hard could that be? It tasted like that acrid hot mustard sauce you get at Chinese restaurants to “complement” eggrolls. Not a fan of that sauce and not a fan of my own hellfire concoction.
My mayonnaise was interesting. I actually followed directions for that. Word on the street: the secret to making mayonnaise is you have to get your eggs and lemons at room temperature before you mix them, and you have to very, very slowly add the light olive oil. Thin. Stream. Of. Oil. You do this so that you don’t “break” the emulsion. The directions said it would take about 6 minutes. I was doing a double batch, so I assumed it would take 12 minutes. I think it took more like 20 minutes of me stuck in the same position. I felt like I was doing a Survivor “Immunity Challenge.” I was hunched over the mixing bowl with my arms in a perpendicular configuration to hold up the jumbo glass measuring cup at just the right angle to get that constant yarn’s width stream into the mixture. Of course the doorbell rang halfway into it. “Mom, someone wants to talk to you!”
There was no way I was going to break the stream. With desperation I yelled, “I’m making mayonnaise!” Miraculously, the caller disappeared. (Whoever it was must have known how much a pain making mayo is.) My son walked up to me and said, “Um, Mom, you’re pouring that really slow.” Excellent observation, Sherlock. When I was done, my mayo was the right color (success), the right flavor (yippee) and the wrong texture (boo). I made salad dressing. But it’s the best salad dressing I’ve ever eaten—the flavor of hard labor.
My almond milk was perfection and so easy to make. And you get to use this thing called a nut bag. Hee, hee. My son, put it on his head when he found it thinking it was a hairnet. Of course I yelled at him—not wanting extra protein in my milk. All you have to do is soak the almonds overnight (12 hours), rinse, fill up your blender with the nuts and water, then blend until milky. Then you strain it through the nut sack…er…bag and squeeze the milk out. (Ahem.) I put it in my tea and sipped with a smile. I exuberantly offered a taste to my curious, albeit, pro-dairy husband. He tasted it. “What d’ya think?” He smiled like a father does at his daughter when he doesn’t really like her artwork. No matter. I didn’t make it for him.
Apart from my husband’s confusion (rebellion?) towards the end—he bought carrot cake for “the family” on the weekend of week 3 (he ate my portion)—I think the diet was a success. My jeans fit better. I learned how to scrutinize labels. I learned how to make salad dressing and almond milk. One thing bothers me, though: how did cavemen make mayo and almond milk without a blender, a mixer, and a nut bag?