It is time for some late summer lighthearted fun, except our household is dieting. We have gone low carb, paleo, eggplant. Yes, I know, eggplant doesn’t belong to a paleo diet. It’s cultivated. Fruits, berries, nuts, and wild roots are paleo. But with only four or so carbohydrates to a cup, eggplant has been commandeered.

We are doing this because of five people living in this house, three of them are diabetic: two Type Two's, one Type One. I won’t recount the whole story on the origins of diabetes and its dramatic increase except to say that the causes are murkier than the simple explanation of obesity. Diet, however, will help control a Type Two case, provided you surrender everything you once enjoyed eating. I avoided insulin injections for better than a year by sticking to Atkins, until I got bored. As the doctor predicted, “Would you like another steak?” is crushingly depressive after a while.

The symptoms of diabetes include irritability, mood changes, and malaise. My guess is that they are a post-diagnostic occurrence, unquestionably related to any diet that features eggplant. Eggplant does not have a Greek or Latin name, indicating it was probably introduced to Europe by invading Arabian chefs during the middle ages. There is a twelfth century cookbook by one Ibn Al-Awwam, a Spanish Muslim. His may be the first mention of eggplant anywhere in Europe, making it an invasive species.

I have tried eggplant. For grilled eggplant, cut it into one-inch thick medallions, coat with olive oil, add salt and pepper, place on a hot grill, baste with a honey-mustard concoction, and let it char a bit. You will swear—I certainly did—that it does not taste like beef or pork or chicken or anything at all really worth eating. Inch-and-a-half medallions hold up better on the grill, but that will only add to your unhappiness.

Yet it was a valuable experience. For starters I learned one should always keep a frozen pizza on hand. And speaking of pizza, eggplant medallions can be used as a base for small personal pizzas with all the usual toppings. Notice I said “can,” not “should.”

Of course, I am wrong to single out eggplant, except to note that China is the world’s largest producer, giving us another market to fret about. In truth, the entire array of low-starch vegetables annoys me.

Did you know cauliflower can be used as a substitute for mashed potatoes? You didn’t? You’re right, it can’t. It is best to think of mashed cauliflower as cauliflower that has been mashed. But by adding everything you put into mashed potatoes, including egg, milk, butter, sour cream and chives, it will taste like mashed cauliflower.

There are also nine kinds of cauliflower “rice”—Greek, fried, cheesy, sweet (cinnamon and cauliflower, sure), Spanish (to go with beet leaf taco wraps, I’d suppose), to name some. Yet this is the point to remember, rice is rice and cauliflower isn’t.

Cauliflower pizza crust? Yep, there’s one of those. It is said to be very simple. There are only fifteen or so steps performed in exact sequence, and only the final six or seven of them involve making the “dough,” requiring a clean towel. I cannot say why anyone might think a different sort of towel would do.

Diets like this keep trying to fool us. Pasta and chili, Chicago style, isn’t pasta nor is it Chicago. Oh, the chili is chili, but the “pasta” is cabbage. Two hours prep time, tops (that’s for the chili). But the best part comes when we’re told the cabbage is virtually tasteless.

I’ve also run into recipes claiming to be paleo snacks. One of them is called “popcorn” —but in fact we’re back to, yes, cauliflower. Figure an hour start to finish, which for the very fortunate means the snack attack ought to have passed after that amount of time.

If my house is eating anything near a real Paleolithic diet, it’s a wonder our ancestors ever bothered to eat a meal together. But they did and, in one popular view, the shift humanized us. Cooking and eating together made us a social, intelligent, family species.

If that is the case, we may be losing it, eggplants and cabbages aside. American families are eating fewer meals together. The schedules at my house are impossible; there is always one or two of us missing from the family meal because of work or class. The loss of the family meal has a generational dimension. The older one is (50-68+), the more likely it is to find he or she at table; the younger (18-36), the less likely.

Children who eat meals with their families five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents. Here, at least, what you eat is less important than whom you eat it with.

I don’t know why it wouldn’t be so. Supper time calls us together; we know where we have to be and who we must see; we speak of plans, events, and share histories. Meals become emblematic of whom, and whose, we are, and why. Cauliflower or corn, steak or eggplant—it doesn’t matter. Shared together, the meals we make become our small Eucharist, a thanksgiving, if you will, of time, energy, love, effort, skill, and warm companionship.

Russell E. Saltzman is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

More on: Community, Food, family

Show 0 comments