Eating Gruel and Loving It
Strange celebrity diets, explained.
If you were a celebrity, and could therefore indulge in whatever cuisine took your fancy—Lobster Thermidor? Clams casino? Beef Wellington?—would you ever, in 100 million years, order a large piping hot platter of organic fermented bean cake, aka tempeh? Would you, of your own volition, tuck into a bowl of rubbery gluten cutlets, aka seitan?
Illogical though it may seem, a whole new generation of pampered young A-listers is choosing ascetic gruel over steak frites. I observe them with my own eyes, in ever increasing numbers. Every time I pop into Angelica Kitchen in the East Village or Souen macrobiotic restaurant on 13th Street, I clock a famous face chowing down on pickled burdock or walnut-lentil pâté: sightings include Parker Posey, Kate Hudson, Penn Badgley and a Gyllenhaal or two. Why are these boldfacers eschewing fancy foodie fare in favor of bowel-scraping, Oliver Twist-ian health food? Let’s go back—way back.
Those of you d’un certain age will be well aware that this is not the first time celebs have embraced nutritional fanaticism. For every epicurean Elvis—the King ate a legendarily unhealthy diet that included colon-clogging deep-fried banana sandwiches, and, supposedly, pan-seared squirrel—there has invariably been a wheat-germ worshipping Gloria Swanson or two. The ageless taut-skinned star of Sunset Boulevard first became a vegetarian back in the 1920s. Swanson—along with Garbo, Paulette Goddard and Marlene Dietrich—was a devotee of a handsome charismatic bloke named Gayelord Hauser.
Gayelord, the glamorous guru of gruel, was, for a sizeable chunk of the last century, the ne plus ultra of celeb nutritionists. He is said to have discovered the potential power of food after ingesting 36 lemons per day, miraculously curing his tubercular hip in the process. He and his rejuvenated joint emigrated to prewar Hollywood where he counseled movie stars, publicly inveighed against processed foods, and set about raising the consciousness of glamour-aspirants around the globe.
A Ryan Seacrest of sorts, Gayelord Hauser was media-omnipresent, spewing his autocratic-but-folksy pronouncements via books—Look Younger, Live Longer, Gayelord Hauser’s New Guide to Intelligent Reducing, and countless others—broadcasting, and syndicated columns. Hauserisms include the following:"Lack of calcium produces fear of the dark, nail biting and gossiping"; "Worry turns the hair grey by destroying the adrenal glands"; "Blackstrap molasses will add five years to your life and re-grow hair on bald spots."
His influence was far-reaching, as evidenced by the fact that in the 1950s my mother and my blind Aunt Phyllis both joined his cult, albeit trans-Atlantically. Following his advice, they rejected white sugar and white flour and began ladling Brewer’s Yeast and molasses down their throats, and mine. They also favored a rock-hard Hauser-approved breakfast cereal called Fru-Grains which resembled lumps of charred bark and played havoc with their dentures.
Did it work? Hard to say, but mother Betty lived to a ripe old age despite a life-long commitment to smoking fags. Ditto Phyllis whose hair was restored to its former glory after she committed to the Hauser diet. (Phyllis went through a rough patch in her middle years when she became addicted to what were then called “purple hearts,” but are now called “speed,” and lost much of her hair.)
In retrospect, I think Herr Hauser was onto something important and that today’s nutrition crusaders—Mrs. Obama and Jamie Oliver, for example—could learn something from his philosophy. Last year, when Mr. Oliver was earnestly struggling to communicate the importance of healthy nutrition to belligerent-but-hard-working-school-lunch-ladies on his show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, I could almost hear the ghost of old Gayelord trying to intervene. Here’s why: Jamie forgot to play the vanity card. Gayelord successfully recruited regular gals like Betty Doonan and blind aunt Phyllis by connecting the whole notion of food consciousness with physical beauty and glamour. Therein lay his secret ingredient. He understood the role of narcissistic fabulosity.
So let’s get back to the new generation of glamour pusses and try to answer that dangling question: Why, in an age where they can achieve physical beauty through Botox and frantic Soul-Cycling, are they opting for natto—which really does look and smell exactly like cat-shit—instead of nachos? Why are they eating crunchy lesbian health food instead of more conventionally desirable fare?
Here’s my theory: They are looking for ways to feel more gritty and more grounded. The austere, folksy vibe of the average health-food restaurant—chunky, splintery community tables and rough-hewn bowls of brown rice—provides a bracing antidote to the poofy, szhooshy, pampered superficiality of their celebrity lives.
But what about me? What am I doing at these restaurants? Why am I, an un-pampered D-lister, opting to chow down on all that lesbian-rusticity? The truth of the matter is that I am frantically seeking healthy alternatives to a terrifying and overwhelming trend in contemporary cuisine. I am talking about lard.
Trendy restaurant food has never been fattier than it is now. The nouvelle cuisine of the ’80s with its fresh veggies and spa simplicity is a thing of the past. The advent of cholesterol-lowering drugs has given the foodie world carte blanche to overlook those dreary cardiac concerns of yore, and to indulge in Kobe beef, wild boar, and snout-to-tail platters swimming in gravy. No foodie fare arrives at your table these days without a drizzle of duck fat or a strewing of bacon rinds. Order a side of Brussels sprouts and the likelihood of them arriving steamed and bright green is a zero. They will almost certainly be blackened and mixed with gelatinous knobs of pork fat. Every time I dine out I cannot escape the feeling of having mistakenly wandered onto the set of a remake of Fellini Satyricon. Remember the scene where the muscle dude slices open the giant roasted pig and all the greasy cooked giblets, sausages, gerbils, pheasants, and snails come pouring out?
Bon appetit to you! I am off to suck on an umeboshi salt plum, while making goo-goo eyes at celebs.
Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.(Photo by Roxanne Lowit.)