Stone-age Dieting

The Paleo diet has gone from a fringe regimen endorsed by experimental seekers of the latest new thing to a relatively mainstream diet trend. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the paleo diet purports that we need to go back to our nutritional roots: the Paleolithic era. Adherents of the diet argue that civilization has encouraged humans to stray from biologically appropriate foods that “cave people” would eat: meat and vegetables, but no grains, no processed foods, few nuts, and no sugar. Early press coverage of the movement featured hipsters eating all-meat diets (often raw) in between extreme workouts involving kettlebells and sprints through the city streets, in an effort to regain the vitality of their hunter-gatherer forebearers. Nom Nom Paleo is a sign of just how far this movement has come. It is written by a husband-and-wife team, creators of a popular food blog with a legion of fans. Michelle Tam presents the Paleo diet as a way for families to eat healthier and reject the over-processed foods crowding supermarket shelves. The cookbook is filled with attractive photographs of finished dishes and stages in cooking, as well as funny, silly cartoons drawn by her husband Henry Fong showing the couple and their two children cooking and eating. Tam describes her own discovery of the Paleo path (“My Name is Michelle and I’m a Foodaholic”) as a working mother trying to improve her fitness level while working full time as a pharmacist and raising two small boys. The book makes the Paleo lifestyle slightly less intimidating and more approachable, and contains enough interesting ideas that even cooks not fully embracing the diet’s strictures – like me! – can find recipes worth trying.

In the beginning of the book, Tam outlines the “red light foods,” including all processed foods, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, and sugars, which are excluded from Paleo cooking. Even fruit is viewed only a “yellow light food,” good occasionally but prone to spike blood sugar levels. Nuts and seeds, which nutritionists and vegetarians routinely praise for their high protein and fibre content, here are said to require soaking, sprouting and dehydrating in order to make them ready for human consumption (Tam claims that nuts and seeds are something “nature didn’t intend for us to eat in large quantities,” which is a hard claim to either prove or disprove). All animal proteins, in contrast, are given the green light, although Tam does state that organic and grass-fed meats are preferable for ethical and environmental reasons. Vegetables, fermented foods, and healthy cooking fats like coconut oil round out the acceptable components of the diet.

I must admit that even after reading Nom Nom Paleo I remain skeptical about some of the nutritional claims of the diet. I have no doubt that Tam and Fong lost weight and improved their health by adopting the Paleo lifestyle. Cutting down on processed foods and sugar and cooking from scratch likely played a huge role in these changes. But this type of cooking requires a high level of commitment, one that is not realistic for many cooks and families. Swearing off not only gluten but all grains, dairy, alcohol, and most sweeteners would completely remake the pantries and daily dishes enjoyed by most North American families. To claim that rice and beans might actually be harmful and not suitable for human consumption, rather than nutritious, strikes me as the ultimate kind of first-world privileged selectivity. Similarly, a diet with so much animal protein is a luxury that most people around the globe could never afford. To be fair, however, Tam is never dogmatic about her approach and instead tries to emphasize the benefits of eating naturally occurring ingredients. And the frequent jokes and asides make Tam a likeable evangelist for this new style of cuisine.

There is no doubt that Tam is earnest about how this diet has transformed her life, but she also maintains that Paleo food can be delicious, so that adherents don’t feel like they are missing out on anything. So to an admitted Paleo skeptic, how were the recipes? On the whole, I found this a creative approach to cooking that provides some interesting new tricks for an old dog like me in the kitchen. The cartoons and clear illustrations accompany direct instructions for everything from searing meat to selecting kitchen tools. Tam is a master of coaxing umami – that elusive fifth, savoury taste alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter – from dishes using mushrooms, fish sauce and miso. She includes a genius recipe for “Magic Mushroom Powder”, a powder of dried porcini mushrooms and spices that can be dusted on dishes for an extra blast of flavour. Other pantry staples including sriracha and mayonnaise get Paleo makeovers, and condiments like pineapple salsa, lemon honey sauce and remoulade further challenge any sense that the diet must be bland or monotonous. Not all of the substitutions are as promising. I understand that processed potato chips are a dietary nightmare (salt, fat and carbs – that’s also why they are irresistible). Tam suggests using kale, Brussel sprouts, apples and mushrooms to make chips, or prosciutto to make baked “porkitos”. While the instructions were clear, I have little reason to believe my kids will be sitting down in front of the t.v. with a big bowl of kale anytime soon. The riceless crab and avocado temaki rolls are rich, but to me would just be so much better with a little sushi rice slipped in.

The section on soups is dynamite, with a delicious and complex broth recipe using assorted beef and pork bones, mushrooms and ginger. The broth forms the basis of a delicious egg drop soup (West Lake Soup) or a spicy Mulligatawny variation. Also creative is a riceless fried “rice” that uses cauliflower in place of the ubiquitous carb. I made the variation with coconut milk and pineapple, which was tasty and quick (full disclosure: my kids, who usually love fried rice, were not fans). Tam’s Chinese background led her to experiment with classic dishes like walnut prawns, but she displays a well-travelled palate with dishes like Peruvian chicken with chili sauce, Korean short ribs and lamb chops with chimichurri. There is a very limited section of so-called “treats” that includes virtuous desserts like a pureed berry “soup” and a thoughtful essay about why Tam has decided not to attempt to recreate traditional baked goods or indulgences with Paleo-friendly ingredients and instead largely eliminated sweets entirely from her family’s diet. Tam and Fong’s self-discipline is admirable, but I must admit to feeling a twinge of sadness in reading that her two sons “literally dance around the house” on weekends when they are finally allotted a grain-free cookie or bowl of berry puree. Tam reassures readers that after a while those embracing this diet find their tastes shift so that they crave the clean, healthy flavours of the Paleo diet. She includes photos of the lunches she sends with her boys to school, including sandwiches where two pieces of roast beef act as the bread for a filling of mushrooms. These are colourful and creative but I still can’t help feeling like I would want to smuggle these kids a brownie once in a while.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare time.

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