Kerry Howley’s latest is unsurprisingly great, detailing the history behind a trendy LA health food store that somehow, as a middle-aged dad on the east coast, I had never heard of. I think you should go read it!


If you remembered this tab, great. Here’s what I want to add: this brought back a lot of memories, and not just fond ones of being (what I hope was) gently mean toward Californians.

My family’s own nutritional choices were idiosyncratic by the standards of my peers, but not wildly so. At my mother’s urging we avoided red meat and favored brown rice. Though come to think of it, how were we supposed to count wild rice mix count? Hard to say. I imagine it harvested in dugout canoes by elders with lined faces and rough-woven shawls, who beat the grains free of their stalks with sticks bearing cultural significances that I am not entitled to contemplate. It seems implausible that this could have a high glycemic index.

My mom’s dietary hunches were absorbed from her friend B. B was a character, and I am delighted and a little surprised to see that she is still alive. I’ll avoid linking to it, but she keeps her yoga instructor resume up to date even now.

My mother would take us to visit B at her house on Lake Barcroft, where she lived semi-tempestuously with occasional deadbeat boyfriends and her parents, two friendly but deteriorating 1950s paragons who seemed like they probably once knew their way around a cocktail shaker. We would sit on the dock, or take a little sailboat out on the algae-choked lake (chemical lawn fertilizers’ fault, we were assured). One time I got bitten by a goose.

B would explain how it was wrong to smack mosquitoes (just relax and let them bite you), why we must never eat onions or garlic, how being deliberate about which nostril we breathed through could help us regulate our body temperature. When she babysat, Bonnie made us chant Om. She undertook idealistic projects: canvassing for SANE/FREEZE, doing volunteer work at American Indian reservations, removing the gutters from her house to improve the aesthetics. These ended with approximately similar results. Once or twice she convinced my mother to bring us to a weekend at an ashram, where I ate bland food, ignored the yoga classes, and briefly swam in a pool filled with green water that was shockingly cold and opaque. I spent these weekends devouring sci-fi novels from my bunk in a rapidly blackening mood.

In retrospect, I’m grateful to have been exposed to ideas this intense and silly at such a young age, because it prepared me to begin noticing when people besides B had them. Including myself.

Surely we have all declared our exasperation with diet fads, but this just means we’re tired of hearing them, not that we intend to stop producing them ourselves. I have relatives who count their renunciation of gluten as a turning point in their lives. Others who swear by the health benefits of drinking only red wine, not white. My immediate family’s dietary limits are a labyrinth of genuine anaphylactic response and intense personal preferences, from which I mostly abstain.

But I do occasionally indulge my own weeks-long dietary impulses. I am currently taking enormous amounts of Taurine, for instance, a non-essential amino acid, though if you ask me this categorization badly undersells it. This idea arrived with just the sort of trappings I enjoy: blogged(!) by an impeccably-credentialed author whose soberminded scientific musings I’ve read for over a decade. There are studies! Who would have thought! A perfectly nondescript white powder, packed into tidy capsules, allegedly already present in your body. You just need more of it, much more, and of course it’s Prime eligible. A perfect supplement for the supplement skeptic. It even comes with a fun anecdote about starving cats and the global chemical industry that you can use, if you find that sort of thing fun, which I do. I have been eating grams of it every day.

I had a hard time relating to B. I never understood why this white lady from Alexandria had framed pictures of of blue-skinned Indian gods all over her shag-carpeted basement. But I suspect that my pill-eating might be motivated by something we have in common. When considering whether onions are bad, or whether eating almonds can be justified on the basis of her vata dosha, B’s aesthetics pushed her toward explanations full of ancient divine warriors and quests to rebalance the cosmos. These rationales never appealed to me (unless you count the snack food ads in Marvel Comics, which I suppose you probably should). But that doesn’t mean they were any less post-hoc than my own.

Eating is pretty weird. At the risk of stating the obvious: we are very complicated chemical reactions that bubble along for the better part of a century, sustained by shoveling gunk inside of ourselves to rot. Horrifying. And a microgram of the wrong thing can bring it all to a stop! Figuring out what gunk to shovel and when is an overwhelmingly urgent biological question, but also such a constant one that it can be guaranteed scarcely more conscious thought than whether or not to take another breath. Consider the quantity of art, institutions, and baroque cultural plumbing we have invented to modulate the process of mating. Is there any reason to think that the natural world has allocated less evolutionary complexity to the problem of eating? It’s practically in the basement of our hierarchy of needs. It is the first deliberate act we must perform, and often the last pleasure we are able to enjoy. Solipsistically, there is almost nothing more important. Yet we can’t stop to build a Taj Mahal every time we feel snacky. We have to get on with things. The significance and complexity of the act are ignored, concealed. Subterranean.

If you don’t give the immune system enough to do it will come up with ways to stay busy, and I think this is approximately true for our other wildly complicated subsystems. If you tallied them all up, which do you think would have more rules and ideas: diet books, or the Protestant Reformation?

Exposure to ideas doesn’t always help you pick the right ones, but it can teach you what extremism looks like. Besides, at some point in my life I realized that being a picky eater was boring, and that I didn’t dislike any food as much as I disliked making the person offering it feel unappreciated. Put a dish in front of me and I will eat it. I can pretty much promise you that. I can’t promise not to have ideas about it–sometimes wild ones. But I will at least endeavor to remind myself that those ideas are probably ridiculous.

This is the equilibrium I’ve arrived at. It might be unreasonable to expect everyone to make the same set of commitments. I suppose I’ll have to leave it at that. I’m already quite behind on today’s Taurine allotment.

About the author

Tom Lee
By Tom Lee