I'm not sure how to respond. The irony isn't lost on me that she's thrust this accusation on me at a fried chicken fest mere seconds after I've finished devouring my second truffle honey glazed fried chicken thigh. At the moment, I'm not feeling particularly healthy at all.
I take a long slow sip of my beer, savoring the burn the carbonation imparts on my grease-slicked lips, and shrug my shoulders.
"Well, not today!" I say brightly, bearing my teeth into a good-natured smile that feels disingenuous even to me.
We part ways soon after, but her words keep ribboning through my head.
"You're so healthy."
It doesn't strike me until later why I feel so disarmed by her statement. While it's no secret that I like quinoa, kale and (gasp!) soy proteins, I frequently find myself at the receiving end of similar remarks that are usually delivered in a way that makes them feel more like an insult than a compliment -- particularly when I'm in the company of what I shall dare call "foodies."
"I could never be full from just eating salad for lunch," says the well-meaning coworker when I lug out my (rather large, mind you) container of quinoa salad from the fridge.
"You're so good," says the friend with a slight patronizing edge when I turn down a cupcake.
Within the microcosm of the food community, eating healthy has become somewhat taboo -- something we are fine to spout about in theory (the importance of eating local and seasonal ingredients, the need for healthier options in schools, how hot "freekeh" is right now), but are less willing to showcase in a review, or talk about when it extends into our personal dietary behavior.
We go on hunts to find the best tacos in Los Angeles, we author top ten lists about French fries and donuts, we wax poetic about the intensity of the pork broth in a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, we devote an entire Facebook page to bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits, but rarely do we elucidate on the exquisitely dressed kale salad at the vegan cafe down the street. At least not without it being embedded in a grander supposition about its trendiness or popularity among local "hipsters" to somehow take the onus off ourselves.
"I wouldn't personally choose to eat here, but it's a good salad -- for, you know, those... healthy people."
The obvious conclusion is that it's cooler and more fun to talk and read about burgers than it is about quinoa. But there's more to it than that. For the serious "foodie," eating healthy is almost an admission of defeat, a chink in the armor that unmasks a certain vulnerability. Not just to weight gain and the commiserate health problems that come along with it, but a humanness, and, perhaps most concerning, a diminishment of street cred.
While "health" food has come a long way since the days of skinless boneless chicken breasts and steamed broccoli as evidenced by forward-thinking restaurants like M Cafe de Chaya, a critical darling in Los Angeles, it still carries with it certain negative associations. Bland. Boring. Uninspired. Unsatisfying. Dry.
In essence, the opposite of all those cheeseburgers oozing housemade remoulade, al dente ropes of bucatini slick with ragu, and crisp legs of duck confit.
Admitting an affection for tofu, for brussels sprouts that haven't been fried beyond recognition, for lentils that aren't dressed with bacon grease, is akin to admitting an affection for bland and boring food. It says, "I have bad taste." Or worse, an unrefined palate.
Missing the point of course that healthy food isn't necessarily synonymous with tastelessness. Prepared in the right manner, with the same affection and care that is used to tend to that duck leg, that 24-hour ragu, that well-seasoned cheeseburger; kale, quinoa and, yes, even tofu, can be delicious in their own right.
At that point it should become just "good food." Not prescribed a label or qualification like, "That quinoa salad is pretty good... for, you know, quinoa."
After becoming involved in the food industry, first through my blog and now through my career, I started eating a more plant-based, vegetable-heavy diet to balance out all the five-course tasting menus, bowls of ramen, and all too frequent trips to the Mozzarella Bar at Mozza. While I still love all those things, still lust after the Rustic Canyon burger like it's a shirtless Ryan Gosling, I also lust after bibimbab quinoa. Not because I'm being "good." Not because I'm punishing myself for overindulging, and not even because it's "healthy."
I crave bibimbap quinoa, get excited for a big bowl of braised kale and chickpeas, and perk up at the sight of a honeycrisp apple, because, quite simply, they taste good.
And because sometimes the thing I want most in the world is a big tub of quinoa salad flecked with fresh corn, zucchini, carrots, sun-dried tomatoes, and edamame.
Particularly the day after eating nine pieces of fried chicken at a fried chicken fest.
Notes: This salad is an explosion of summer -- fresh sweet corn, zucchini squash, sun-dried tomatoes... everything you want to be eating before winter squash and root vegetables take over the farmers market. I like to infuse the dressing with the sundried tomatoes to add a bit of sweetness to counterbalance the tang of the vinegar, but feel free to skip that step if you are short on time. Either way, this salad will convert even the staunchest of "health food" opponents -- particularly if you top it off with a flourish of feta cheese, or a few strips of steak for the carnivore in the house.
3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well
1 ear of corn
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
1 large zucchini, grated
1 1/2 cups shelled edamame
3 green onions, sliced
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 cups of arugula
Handful of toasted slivered almonds or sunflower seeds (optional)
In a medium-sized pot, bring just shy of 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Add the quinoa, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for approximately 20 minutes until the seed has separated from the shell. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and set aside.
Once the quinoa has had 5-10 minutes to "dry out," transfer to a large bowl. Rinse out the pot used to cook the quinoa, and fill with just enough water to cover the corn. Bring the water to a boil, add the husked ear of corn, and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Drain immediately, and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Once cool enough to handle, shuck the kernels from the cob and add to the bowl with the quinoa. Add the carrot, zucchini, green onions, and shelled edamame.
Place the sundried tomatoes in a small bowl. In a small saucepan heat the balsamic vinegar over low heat until just starting to boil. Pour over the sundried tomatoes to let "infuse" for 10-15 minutes. Remove the tomatoes and toss in with the salad.
Add the honey, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and lemon juice, to the balsamic vinegar and whisk well to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss together until all the ingredients are well-combined. Cover with saran wrap and place in the refrigerator until chilled through.
Just before serving, toss with the arugula and top with the toasted almonds or sunflower seeds if using.