My Dark, Healthy Secret

Ever tried spirulina? You may know it as a hippy-dippy dietary supplement sold in capsule form and packed with “whole food nutrients.” But as Salon writer Ann Bauer describes it, the food-grade version (a moist green powder) sounds more like the best thing you’ll ever eat. Also, it’s basically pond scum—an algal cyanobacterium native to tropical bodies of water.

As Bauer describes her first unknowing encounter with two bags of spirulina-coated popcorn (which led to a lasting addiction to the green algae):

[I]t was like nothing I’d ever tasted before: crackling, nutty, oystery and wild. The way a deep-water fish might taste if it were stuffed with sweet corn and fire. I ate until only the dregs remained.

Bauer felt definite positive health effects the next day; later, when she began eating spirulina regularly, her lifelong allergies cleared up, her skin became radiant. These and other results are in fact backed up by some fairly credible scientific research, yet to Bauer, “Something about this habit seemed shameful and weird.” Chalk it up to her inner foodie:

A restaurant critic, I’d spent much of my career talking to chefs and gourmands about good food. No one I knew was eating spirulina. This isn’t a delicacy you can bring out to share with your friends, slice up, and enjoy with a nice bottle of wine. Eating algae went counter to all my epicurean instincts.

After briefly kicking the habit, she’s back on the algae, and she’s now an out-and-proud addict. But for me, Bauer’s story raises a larger issue about what it means to see oneself as a food lover these days: It seems like many people embrace the identity of foodies or chowhounds at the expense of their health. I’ve seen epicures of both persuasions go on quests for a particular type of food—say, NYC pizza—and stuff down more of it than they probably ever wanted, all in the name of finding their favorite, or perhaps of writing about the experience on their personal blogs. Paid food writers have it worse, of course; as Bauer explains, if she were working on a cover story about desserts in her area, “I might eat five varieties of crème brûlée, when what I really needed was steamed tofu and broccoli.” Why do we do this to ourselves?

And I have a confession of my own to make: I mostly avoid gluten. Earlier this year I wrote articles for two magazines about the gluten-free phenomenon; when I tried cutting out gluten-containing grains (and the endless list of hidden gluteny additives) myself, many of my longterm health issues seemed to get better. Blood tests don’t indicate that I have celiac disease, but it was so nice to feel an improvement that I didn’t mind tabling my personal quest to find the perfect black-and-white cookie. Of course I make exceptions for special restaurants and can’t-miss dishes, but when I’m cooking for myself and dining with people I’m close to, I either opt for gluten-free breads, cookies, and cakes (sometimes making them myself, except when I can find suitably delicious versions on the market) or skip them altogether (potatoes, quinoa, rice, and ice cream also fill in the dietary gaps just fine).

I don’t tend to reveal that information when I’m at chowhoundy or food-writerly events, unless I’m with people whom I know and trust. And I know other food writers who have similarly dark secrets: covert mostly-vegetarianism, suspected lactose intolerance. But maybe it’s time we came out of the closet—writers and amateur chowhounds alike. Do feel your health is compromised by your chowish mandate to seek yumminess above all? Do you have a secret like Bauer’s spirulina obsession or my gluten avoidance?

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