Monday, 31 October 2011

Many Millenia Before the Edwardians: the "Caveman" Diet Trend

I recently read, via a friend in Berlin, news of a new restaurant "Sauvage Berlin," featured in a Daily Mail article on the newest culinary trend: the "Caveman (Paleolithic) Diet."

The restaurant's website, a veritable primordial swamp of amusing "Ger-glish" phrasing, promises:

After six months of hard labour we've transformed a former brothel into a small restaurant with great ambition. Sauvage represents the first Paleolithic - or Prehistoric- restaurant on the Eurasian continent. Rumor has it that Sauvage might in fact be the first restaurant of sorts in the whole World.

From the world's oldest profession to the world's oldest cuisine. No bread, pasta, cheese, or sugar. Diners are offered organic, unprocessed fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and herbs. As the Daily Mail explains: "The menu includes salads with olives, capers and pine nuts; gluten-free bread with nut-based butter or olive tapenades; smoked salmon with herb dressing; and other various meat and fish dishes. Gluten- and sugar-free cakes, like a spicy pumpkin pie, are available for those Stone Age diners who don't want to skip dessert." Some critics have called the exclusionary food trend "socially disruptive" (read: you will exasperate absolutely everyone).

The health benefits touted regarding the paleolithic diet are impressive indeed (again, Ger-glish fabricated compound words run rife on the restaurant's website):

Higher and steady energy levels thoughout the whole day; bodyrecomposition- effortless fatburning and musclegrowth; Clear skin, softer hair and stronger teeth; Better immunesystem (Hence no more colds or flus. Major savings on doctorvisits and pharmaceutical purchases!); Higher sexdrive; Mental balance and general wellbeing.

Yes, all very hemp-sandals health-food wholesale brochure printed in sepia tones circa 1984. But do the health and, perhaps mostly importantly, weightless benefits of the Paleolithic diet stand up to scrutiny? Nutrition experts discount the potential of the paleolithic diet to attain significant weight loss. One of my knowledgeable "tweeps" has informed me that the diet has been effectively demolished in the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. Humans cannot, and in fact never did, live without carbohydrates. It is essential fuel for life, though this may do little to dissuade the significant numbers of individuals who claim that the diet has worked for them.

Perhaps their weight loss is due to all the running to and fro in bearskins, hunting and gathering. Or it may be that, like the placebo effect of imagining a pure pre-historical and noble human race, it is all in the mind. At the very least, however, food trends can be fun and diverting, provided that one does not go "ape" for them.

[NB: Yes, the Idle Historian does realize that the primordial swamp and Neanderthal man far pre-date Stone Age man in the evolutionary timeline. Sometimes one simply cannot help oneself when puns offer themselves up.]

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Jeffrey Steingarten in Vogue Magazine: "Jell-O" for Grown-Ups, the New Appeal of Gelatin

Jeffrey Steingarten, the highly inventive food writer for Vogue Magazine, can always been counted upon to unearth an extremely intriguing subject on the contemporary food scene, whether some obscure ingredient, a dubious culinary trend, or a newly exotic food locale (he recently had an intriguing piece on the long-overdue resurgence of Scandinavian cuisine).

From the August 2011 issue of Vogue, he has an interesting piece on the modern tale on gelatin or, as many people might conceive of it, Jell-0. He ruminates on the history of gelatin and its current resurgence as an element in contemporary cuisine. As he notes, for at least five centuries gelatin was laboriously boiled down from animal skins, feet, and connective tissue. It was a dish for the wealthy who employed servants for this rather stomach-churning task; that is, until the invention of commercial powders and preparations in the late nineteenth century.

[Image from the Vogue story]

The "Golden Age" of gelatin certainly encompasses the Edwardian period, as has been explored in a post about aspics. As Steingarten explains, it was: " epoch of jellies and aspics, of gums and hydrocolloids, of gels and gelations and stabilized gelati..." Such concoctions, he believes, may be making a resurgence, used in experimental cuisines -- of the type one might imagine at (the now closed) restaurant El Bulli. He states that "at the heart of the supermodern style of cooking called molecular gastronomy is the dramatic use of novel gels, of which there is now an unending profusion." They go by strange and clinical names: "methyl cellulose" and "transglutaminase," otherwise known as "meat glue."

He also alights on the whimsical nature of gelatin which, even as adults, appeals to our child-like side. For example, a woman named Liz Hickok who sculpts "astounding Jell-O models of San Francisco; their wobble, she feels, reflects the instability of the city." Gelatin can be used for a multitude of culinary purposes, such as clarifying soups, sauces and stocks.The author recalls a sublimely layered dish in a shallow bowl of multiple flavours, created by Joël Robuchon.

Steingarten even posits the nobility of that most ignoble of recent trends: the "Jell-O shot." Now associated with "fraternity parties and trailer parks" the concept has a rather grander pedigree, being the brainchild of the famous Antonin Carême, the French chef who revolutionized upper-class cuisine in Britain.It is difficult to imagine the rehabilitation of the maligned Jell-O shot, but in the world of culinary creativity, one never can tell.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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