At the beginning of every year, hot on the heels of holiday excess, my salad restaurant Vinaigrette fields a flurry of calls and emails about which of our menu items are “Whole 30 friendly.” If every generation has its favorite diet (remember Brandt, Atkins, The Zone, South Beach?), the one that has captured our attention now is the Whole 30.
The Whole 30 is a “clean eating plan” that calls for eliminating dairy, sugar, legumes, alcohol, and grains from your diet for 30 days. I’ve come to think of the Whole 30 as a mythic ideal. Myths can be useful, but this one has highlighted a streak of near-evangelical dietary extremism in our culture.
Many of my customers now seem to believe that entire food groups are basically poisonous and must be vanquished. Whereas people in the past might have wanted to shed five or 10 pounds, going easy on the carbs, we now embark upon holistic-sounding but severe “cleanses” or “fasts.” We’ve scared ourselves about microscopic amounts of phytates in nuts or the insidious trace gluten that lurks in the cloudy veins of Roquefort cheese.
At my restaurants, we have seen this shift reflected in an exponential increase in the number of modifications on diners’ orders. People used to order the salads as they were described on the menu, more or less. But as we make more and more things taboo, more customers order salads devoid of their balance and indulgence.
No almonds, no pecans, no bacon, no cheese, definitely no croutons, no salami, no peas, no chickpeas, no beans, no corn, no dressing with canola or sunflower or safflower or peanut oil or honey or mayonnaise or Worcestershire or soy sauce or miso or vinegar or sour cream — and definitely no tomatoes, bell peppers or eggplant.
Remarkably, that’s the shortlist.
We now regularly see orders for two diners that are so crammed full of modifications they are as long as a ticket for a party of 10. It sometimes takes us longer to figure out what we are making — and what we are leaving out — than it does to prepare the food.
This is not what I intended when I wrote Vinaigrette’s menu.
Pleasure and joy were always a more dependable path to health for me. I wanted people to feel nourished and healthy and light, but still satisfied, thrilled by food’s dappled delights: how triple cream brie makes your tongue sweat; all the different kinds of crunchiness in fruits and vegetables (yes, and seeds!), the potent shock of tartness and the way it snaps a palate awake, the crescendo comfort of honeyed sweetness, the mellow purr of creaminess, the funk of fermentation and the million permutations of all these things as they contrast and harmonize.
Americans want health to be hard, something to strive for, but also something neat and tidy that we can file away like a tax return as we rush through meals — and life. We want rules, prescriptions, black and white. We want some things to be infinitely good for us and others to be forbidden.
And so, many people find themselves living in a sort of dietary purgatory: not eating the way they believe they should and not enjoying the way they are eating right now.
Perhaps what the Whole 30 and other highly prescriptive diets really offer is unattainable aspiration, which makes them the ideal proxy for our problems. They become the perfect screen on which to project our hopes and dreams and — in their absence — our fears and failures.
The good life, then, is always out there, maybe tomorrow, when our willpower can bend the arc of experience and we can finally give up gluten and sugar and dairy and eat the unsullied diet of our dreams.
Perfection is there, waiting for us, surely, just around the corner. And then the next. And the next.
Wade owns the salad bistro Vinaigrette in Austin, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque as well as two sustainable farms in Texas and New Mexico.