A number of years ago on a visit to New York City we spent an autumn weekend at the stodgy Carlyle Hotel at 35 East 76th Street.
As is our custom when visiting a specific hotel or resort for a short period of time we made a point of staying in situ for the most part not only for the entertainment in Café Carlyle (where Steve Tyrell was then performing) but also for our meals in the main dining room or The Gallery. At Friday luncheon our attention was drawn to a tall, thin man dressed in a tailored blue suit standing impatiently at the entrance of the restaurant. He looked to be an Upper East Side local who had come for a quick bite at what he clearly esteemed a neighbourhood restaurant. He took a table for two, his back to the wall, facing into the restaurant. As the place was busy it was a while before a waiter finally came for the man’s order, though – as the patron needled the waiter quite audibly and unabashedly – several of the staff had repeatedly and superfluously enquired after his health. The man’s order – delivered in an unmistakeable New York accent – was simple: “I want a l-a-r-g-e salad“, he commanded. When the obsequious waiter ventured a recitation of the salad dressings available, the gentleman bluntly interrupted him and told him to bring oil, vinegar and Dijon mustard. “I’ll make my own!“, he clipped.
Although we have since relived that comic moment many times, it was only this evening at table that the import of the expression “I want a l-a-r-g-e salad!” fully hit home with me. The sylph-like New Yorker clearly knew the value of a green salad and raw vegetables. Specifically I have recently been obliged to embrace a weight reduction diet which while it includes ample though strictly measured portions of fruit and protein is primarily a vegetarian diet. Of singular importance in the regime is that there is no limit on the portion size of salad or vegetables; and unlimited raw vegetables can be consumed throughout the day not just at breakfast, lunch or dinner. As a result there is technically no fear of going hungry on this diet even if one can but drool over the vision of a Nanaimo Bar or – what we discovered yesterday in the grocery store aisles – donuts filled with Nutella! Imagine!
No diet is of course complete without its subterfuge. The diet only specifies “use a salad dressing with two grams of sugar or less per serving”. Significantly for me there is no mention of the quantity of oil. I adore fat of almost any description and I dignify the indulgence and dilute its possible harmfulness through the adoption of the fashionable Mediterranean medium of extra virgin olive oil. I am naturally alive to the unspoken discrimination of olive oil as the diet strictly limits cheese, butter and nut butters though I can discover nothing in either the main text of the diet or in the additional “Forbidden Foods” which even a Philadelphia lawyer might extrapolate as circumscribing the use of olive oil. Because it is so tasty (and because I can deviously insinuate salt into its production) I have adopted the traditional Caesar salad as my salad of choice. Garlic is of course a vegetable so that alone is good. I am a notorious garlic glutton and am frequently admonished for my offensive exuding odour (a recurring social faux pas which I have never succeeded to acquit). The definition of a caper admits to some ambiguity though I have concluded that its closet violation of the fruit prohibition (or restriction) is that it is a flower of sorts which to my thinking puts it closer to a vegetable than a fruit. Coincidentally a similar abstruseness persists for olives (the same way some people describe tomatoes as a fruit). The other ingredients of a Caesar salad (Tabasco, Worcestershire, vinegar, mustard and possibly mayonnaise as a replacement for an egg yolk) figure in such small quantities as to survive the “de minimis” rule whatever prohibition may exist. Parmigiano Reggiano on the other hand is an unmitigated casualty of the diet which mandates a virtually negligible half ounce. The compensating ingredient is anchovies. The standard flat can of anchovies (package, tin and contents) weighs 2¼ ounces though the package describes the contents as being 50 grams (or 1.7637 ounces). Applying that measure of protein to the overall serving limitation of 4-6 ounces, I reckon I can in addition to the anchovies get away with about three chicken drumsticks or a sizeable portion of salmon.
It is impossible to ignore the psychological impact of this diet. It represents an undeniable shift in the way one approaches the pleasures of the table and even the very meaning of life! There is naturally the concomitant risk of contaminating the foundation of “reward” as many people understand the term. Consider for example the feast of Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you but I find it hard to discern anything lavish about a meal without butter, potatoes, gravy and homemade pie. This diet tends to put in high relief the disjunctive meanings of “living to eat” and “eating to live”. Having said that, there is considerable benefit to be derived from not feeling constantly stuffed. And it certainly corresponds to the latest trend to address the burgeoning problem of obesity. If you want a wake-up call, just calculate your BMI (Body Mass Index). It is an unforgiving analysis.