A friend gave my husband Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday cookbook for Christmas this year. We’ve both been big fans of the man since I first caught Mexico – One Plate at a Time on WTTW shortly after moving to Chicago. For my first birthday in Chicago, my husband and another friend took me to Frontera Grill, which was immeasurably delicious. Unfortunately, given the popularity of the restaurant and their no reservations policy, we’ve not been able to go back since but we eat at Frontera Fresca on the seventh floor of Macy’s once every couple of weeks. And sometimes if we’re lucky, as we were on the night we ate at Frontera Grill, we’ll see the man himself, smiling and just as weird and lovable in person as he appears on TV.
In the introduction to Mexican Everyday, Bayless talks a little bit about his philosophy of eating and health. Apparently a chubby kid who grew into a chubby adult, Bayless took up yoga as “a nice antidote to [his] fast-paced, late-night restaurant life.” Eventually he began to feel that the size of his body was interfering with the progress of his practice:
Which led me, in an uncharacteristically weak moment, to fleetingly consider the question, Is it possible for a person to sensibly get rid of extra weight without going on a diet?
Diets are something I’ve loudly railed against having seen too much hype, too many unrealistic expectations, too many failures. I oppose them on (as least) two grounds–one nutritional, the other social. Most diets, after all, restrict what the dieter eats in quantity or variety, or both. Unrealistic quantity restriction frequently provokes the fear-of-starvation backlash (aka gorging), and narrowed variety not only becomes unsustainably boring, but it can be nutritionally unbalanced, even dangerous–unless you’re treating a serious medical condition, which I’m not. Our species developed as omnivores, after all.
From a social perspective, diets can be isolating. I’d venture a guess that we’ve all known people who’ve used their diets as an excuse for not eating with family, no going out with friends and, in extreme but sadly frequent cases, not partaking in holiday feasts. Food may be the fuel for the body, but it’s also glue for the family, for the community.”
Amen, Rick Bayless. Amen.
As anyone who has seen the episode of Mexico – One Plate at a Time that opens with a shirtless Bayless repelling into an underground cave, he has certainly met his fitness goals (also demonstrated with a photo of him in the forearm balance pose, which I am here to tell my non-yogically inclined friends, is no freaking joke). His approach was to cut out what he called “empty calories” found in beverages, and listen to his body to determine exactly how much he needed to eat to stay at the weight that felt comfortable to him. He then took up weight training because that way he could eat more (no surprises, the man loves to eat) and also get up into that forearm balance.
My favorite part of his philosophy of food, though, is his celebration of feasting as concept and practice. After criticizing “bleak” diets “that lead us to judge everything we put in our mouths as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ that cause us to say that a break with their dietary prescriptions is ‘cheating,’” Bayless questions our “blind faith in the wisdom of the relatively young field of modern nutrition” that has led us to discard the concept of feasting “into the same dustbin as malnutrition and poor sanitation.” As a result, “many of us just eat defiantly. Willy-nilly and all the time.” Basically:
[C]uisines that have healthily nourished generation after generation have a pretty brilliant–but basic–way of putting essential foods together in the right proportions for everyday eating. Call it their foundation dishes. Yet those same cultures also realize that feating is essential for a culture’s aesthetic development, encouraging cooks to reach for new culinary heights. And that feasting is essential for cultural unity, brining groups of people together around the table to share sustenance, culinary art, related history. And that feasting is essential for the health of our bodies, allowing us the satisfaction of feeling thoroughly, completely full–with no need for midnight Häagen-Dazs raids.
A feast can make our spirits soar for days, while our bodies are regenerating themselves on everyday fare. In other words, no one ever got fat on a weekly feast, but missing that feast can leave you with strong cravings (both physical and spiritual) all week long.
Who can resist a strong craving?
I am absolutely delighted with this concept: eating simply and healthily, listening to and responding to what your body wants and needs, and then regularly gathering together with your community, whether that’s family, friends, neighbors, or a combination thereof, to tear the roof off this sucker with a feast.
It’s resolution time. The gym is about to get wicked crowded. I’ll see a whole host of new faces at my yoga studio next week. Weight Watchers and its ilk are about to increase their membership numbers. I usually don’t bother with resolutions; even when I was in the thrall of all those bleak diets I would usually count among my resolutions a firm commitment to start smoking again, or to read less and watch more TV. But I feel a sense of joy and liberation in the idea of everyday food and feasting that I honestly haven’t felt about eating in years, maybe ever, or at least not since the first time I connected eating with guilt and shame. So this year, I resolve to relearn the joy of eating, to embrace the concept of feasting.
And while the odds of my getting up into a forearm balance are about level with the odds of my waking up one morning with a complete understanding of differential calculus, I might strive toward executing a decent upward-facing dog with minimal grunting and squeaking.