Earlier this year, I did this thing called the BluePrint Cleanse, meaning that I took three days out of my spring break to live off very expensive juice. I did this for two reasons:
1. To lose a modest amount of weight in an efficient way. (I didn’t go around advertising this, because everyone I did advertise it to pointed out that I didn’t, strictly speaking, need to. My feeling is that snug pants are snug pants, whatever the size of the pants, and everyone is entitled to want those pants to go back to not being snug without having to swat away missionaries from the Church of Healthy Body Image.)
2. To know. I really wanted to know. I had spent years debunking detox and thumbing my nose at detox, but never actually experiencing detox for myself. I’d read about the inner glow and I’d read–with considerably more interest–about the outer glow; if it existed, I wanted a piece of it, and if it didn’t, I wanted the empirical proof to say so. So when my grocery delivery service started not only retailing BluePrint juices (previously available only through their own website) but retailing them at a bit of a discount, I took the convergence of snug pants and introductory savings as a cosmic omen to go forth and spend in three days on myself what I would typically spend on two weeks of home-cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners for me and my husband.
And what did I get for my money? (I paid about $170, which would have been $195 if I had ordered directly from the company.) Again, two things:
1. Hypoglycemic shock: three days drifting in and out of it. I’m not exaggerating. I’m convinced that’s the accurate medical term for the debilitating lightheadedness I experienced for most of the 72 hours I subsisted on juice. I spent most of that time on the couch willing it to be 8:30pm, when it would be socially acceptable to repair to my bed and pray for a merciful sleep that, however fitful, however fragmented, would hasten the end of my self-inflicted torment. On the third and final day, a hare-brained scheme (oh, what I wouldn’t have given then for a morsel of hare, or even the brains of a hare) saw me get on the subway and head for Century 21, the designer discount store down by Wall Street. Only my Chinese blood sustained me there, a sort of genetic adrenaline that kicks in whenever there are bargains within a 50-foot radius (I’m still rocking the navy blue cross-body bag I sniffed out that day), and once I was back on mass transit, it was over: black spots ricocheted across my field of vision, and I clung to the pole for dear life whether the train was moving or not. Once home, I fell upon a Persian cucumber like a madwoman–a special kind of madwoman, it must be said, who takes a break from foaming at the mouth to season with Maldon salt. You are officially allowed to cheat with cucumbers and low-sodium vegetable broth, but only in an emergency. Just leaving the house on this regimen felt like one.
2. Sticker shock: possibly even more paralyzing than the hypoglycemic kind. The logic being that I had paid for it, so I had to see it through. It makes more sense when you are already insensate from seeing it through.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not going to talk about how the juices tasted. Judith Newman, writing in the New York Times, describes the green juice in particular as “like drinking everything bad that ever happened to me in high school,” and what could I possibly have to add to that? Anyway, how the hell do you think they tasted? I’d rather focus on how I felt between feeding times. Now, I’m not saying that everyone is going to experience this the same way I did. I don’t know if there’s a diagnosis for my “condition,” but I’ve always been hit hard by low blood sugar, which means I’m usually very careful (unless I have a $170 reason not to be) to eat proper meals at reasonable times. I do know from observing the people around me that plenty of them can postpone meals without blacking out, and maybe these are the people who will do OK with BluePrint: they might not find it terribly fun, but they’re not going to find their legs trembling or their vision narrowing into pinholes, either. But if they do (and this is the one aspect of the scheme that truly strikes me as not right, everything else being more or less fair play and my own damn fault for being so vain), they will read in the accompanying literature that they are not to worry, that these are “detox symptoms.” Bad tastes I can, and did, deal with; bad faith is something else.
I don’t think that’s overstating it. Later, I googled the term “detox symptoms” and found this remarkable forum exhorting participants in the Master Cleanse–a DIY juice fast in which you consume only spicy lemonade for anywhere from 10 to 40 days–to embrace nausea and insomnia as “milestones.” When a forum user checks in to say that her hand has gone numb (a feeling I recognize from my most severe bouts with low blood sugar), one of her peers reminds her that detox symptoms vary between individuals, but that proper laxative use should resolve most of them. Over the next 69 pages of the thread, everything from back pain to, incredibly, food cravings is attributed to the detox process. It’s a remarkable narrative that’s been constructed here, one in which every red flag of physical distress has been reimagined as a sign of progress. BluePrint’s juice program may be less extreme than the all-lemonade Master Cleanse, but the underlying mythologies are disturbingly similar.
In the end, I think I did lose the weight. I don’t own a set of scales, so I can’t be precise about it, but I’m pretty sure my clothes started fitting better. My face also spent a few days looking splotchy and irritated–another thing BluePrint characterizes as a symptom of detox, but which my research suggests was a symptom of good old-fashioned dehydration. There was no lasting damage, as far as I could tell: I felt fine the moment I started eating food again, which, contrary to the recommended practice of easing back into solids over a period of several days, happened at about 5 o’clock the next morning when I spread half a jar of Skippy on a piece of toast. What’s been harder to shake has been the lingering sense of shame, which is much less about being perceived as vain or frivolous than about realizing that I blithely took part in something dark and disordered. I won’t be doing this again.
(Sorry, this is a terrible photo. I took it with my iPad.)
I bet you think I’m about to complain about the pictured meal. Far from it. (Don’t worry, I’ll have complained plenty before this post is over. I won’t let you down.) While it’s not the most photogenic thing I’ve eaten in my lifetime, the entree I was served one week ago somewhere over the Pacific Ocean may have been the best I’ve ever had on an economy-class flight. The less said about the chicken salad appetizer the better, though.
The airline was Hong Kong’s own Cathay Pacific, and the dish, highlighted on the menu as one of their signature creations, was a homestyle Chinese classic: eggplant with minced pork in a highly seasoned gravy, served over rice. I finished it–something I haven’t done with any inflight main since 2005, the last time (sigh) I flew long-haul in business class.
Why does this dish succeed where so many others have failed? Well, for a start, there’s the scallions, the ginger, the chili bean sauce: all bold, aromatic flavors that easily stand up to the smell loss we experience in a high-altitude, filtered-air environment. But it’s relatively easy to cook tasty food, even in large quantities; the hard part is cooking food that stays tasty–food that can sit around for ten or fifteen hours and withstand pitiless reheating. The key, then, is in the texture. Eggplant is mushy; it’s always going to be mushy, and it can’t get any mushier than it already is. So when you encounter reheated eggplant on board an airplane, there is never a sense that the ingredient has degraded over time. It’s the same with ground pork, which retains its textural integrity in a way that a larger slab of meat cannot. Finally, rice is just rice: it’s very hard to mess with it, and steam is its natural habitat.
In airplane food, as in all things, it is best to work with reality and not against it. Cathay Pacific has done exactly that with their eggplant dish, but it’s a rare airline that does. One example of the culinary denial that goes on in inflight catering is the frequency with which broccoli appears on meal trays. The inescapable reality of the crucifer family of vegetables–of which broccoli, along with our friends cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprout, is a member–is that they are rich in sulfurous compounds. Overcook them, and you release those compounds, which is why–and there is no elegant way to put this–there are times when you peel back that foil lid and it smells like everyone in the cabin just farted. It seems very basic to me that broccoli, which I otherwise love, has no business being on an airplane, but not all airlines see it that way.
I have flown a lot in my life, almost always on economy. My family moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles and back again when I was quite young, so I was making the 16-hour trans-Pacific journey as an “Unaccompanied Minor” from the age of seven; then there were the countless end-of-semester shuffles between London and Hong Kong after I went off to university. I almost never sleep on airplanes, and the inflight entertainment options haven’t always been what they are today, so I’ve clocked literally hundreds of hours in the sky thinking about why the food is so awful.
The conclusion I have come to is that the catering decisions of most airlines aren’t based, as I have argued they ought to be, on the physical realities of foodstuffs, but on the airlines’ perception of passengers’ expectations. There is some idea that people at 35,000 feet still want solid-ground food, even if the laws of chemistry don’t permit it. They want their meat-and-two-veg formula, even if, after half a day in a combi oven, it’s meat and veg you can cut with a spoon; they want the thought of an omelet, even if the reality of that omelet is a puck of sponge you could buff a car with. There is probably also some notion that a hot if crappy omelet represents a higher level of service and of value for money than, say, an objectively superior but cold Danish. It’s complicated.
If it were up to me, I would make it very simple. I’d hand out Hong Kong-style polystyrene rice boxes with char siu and ginger-scallion sauce. Those things were made for airplanes. Of course, recognizing that not everybody eats meat, and pork in particular, I’d have to diversify to some extent. In that case, I’d go with chili, meaty or meatless, with bags of tortilla chips on the side. Pulled pork with rice and beans. Fried rice with chicken and salted fish. The common theme: moist, highly flavored foods with textures that don’t “go south,” which I have enclosed in quotation marks because it’s probably not ideal imagery for anything flight-related. (Understand that I am still very jet-lagged.) My handful of examples skew Asian, I’ll admit, but every cuisine has dishes that meet these criteria. Almost anything in, say, American BBQ would work beautifully, minus any prohibitive bones.
Aviation industry: you’re welcome. You’ll never pay me for this advice, but it’s more important to me that you take it. Right now, you’re obviously shelling out far too much money for advice from people like Marcus Samuelsson, whose other work I would never dream of disparaging, but who, let’s be real, leaves something to be desired as an airline meal consultant. I encountered the following bit of poetry last week on an American Airlines inflight menu; I am sure it is perfectly factual, but am less sure how well it functions as commentary on Mr. Samuelsson’s “New American Table” range of shrink-wrapped sandwiches–all three of them.
And I think I’ll stop there, as we already know how I feel about sandwiches.
You know when you read something that you immediately recognize as fantastic, but can’t fully enjoy it because at the back of your mind–and not so far back, at that–you are thinking, goddamnit, why did I not articulate the whirling thoughts I’ve had in the vicinity of this topic in just this way myself?
Reading the recent blockbuster novel Gone Girl was a bit like that, in a self-deluding sort of way; reading this post, “Some notes on the grammar of curry,” was exactly that. Rishidev Chaudhuri writes about the “grammar” of Indian restaurants in the U.S. both in a straightforward sense, i.e. the linguistic conventions of their menus, and in the broader, conceptual sense that the rules of a cuisine themselves amount to a sort of grammar.
This is such an incisive way of looking at things. If you tweak the particulars of Chaudhuri’s argument, it could just as easily be applied to my own special preoccupation, Chinese restaurants in America.