The Strange Evolution of Health Food

A look at the health food trends that have come and gone and have come again.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

There aren’t too many advantages of ageing, but at least you have a perspective on trends. The danger, of course, is in thinking an idea will not work because it did not work before, when, in fact, times may have changed enough to give an old idea new relevancy.

That said, I have been thinking a lot about trends in health food and responsible eating, which I have witnessed through the years. Clearly, I’m not the only one. The New York Time’s recently published an intriguing article, titled “The Hippies Have Won”.

The preponderance of evidence that the author, Christine Muhlke, cites is the fact that so many new restaurants and cookbooks tout vegan and vegetarian menus featuring whole and ancient grains, kale, fermented ingredients (aka pickling) and products that are local, sustainable, organic and fair-trade. Many of these things, were, of course, touted by the counter-culture twenty or so years ago. (Never mind that at the same time we are being happily inundated with barbecue pits, steak and chop houses, delicatessens with new riffs on pastrami, nose-to-tail menus and a recent surge of French restaurants offering the long-cooked meats of the cuisine bourgeoise.)

In my gastronomic coming of age from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, the best-known health food guru was Adelle Davis who in her various writings advocated a diet of whole yogurt and milk, brewers’ yeast, blackstrap molasses, wheat germ, carrot juice, raw beef liver, beans and a blender concoction called Tiger’s Milk (the first smoothie?) that combined some of those ingredients, but thankfully neither the liver nor the beans. In addition, she recommended a vitamin-pill regime with her own devised combination sold as Balanced-B in many health food stores.

Many no doubt benefitted from some of those recommendations but there were also reports of the whites of peoples’ eyes turning orange because of an overload of carrot juice, while others suffered deep gum-line cavities in their teeth caused by sticky, sugary blackstrap molasses. Generally, most experienced uncomfortable flatulence from the diet.

Yogurt aside, I ignored most of the above recommendations and my attempts at healthful eating were relegated to what then passed for health food restaurants. The best and most famous of these, Vim & Vigor, just across the street from Carnegie Hall, was my regular weekday lunch stop, primarily because it was close to the Hearst building where I began my career at Good Housekeeping magazine.

As with most such places found in Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, Vim & Vigor was a sort of café/restaurant with counter and tables and also a retail shop selling vitamins, boxes of pasta made of artichoke flour, various whole grain crackers, herbal teas, canned beans and soups and so on. Everything was strictly vegetarian and supposedly “natural,” whatever that meant then—and whatever it means now.

What hit one upon entering these otherwise sunny and casual shops was the aroma: a slightly fetid, acrid enveloping blend of yeast, kale and other overcooked brassicas, and the salt-substitute, bacon-yeast that was in shakers on every table. Looking back, I can’t imagine why we all felt so virtuous for eating low-calorie meals. Choices included huge bowls of beautifully fresh cut fruit heaped with alpine peaks of sour cream blended with strawberries. A hot entrée was generally vegetables, singly or in combinations always including kale and one or two other overcooked members of the cabbage family, carrots, beets and sweet potatoes and acorn squash. Feeling noble in our choices we rewarded ourselves with the house dessert: a large slab of dried prune and apple or apricot pie in a thick whole wheat crust, again, crowned with the much-loved strawberry sour cream. We all left marveling at how satisfied one can be after such a light meal. How times have changed.

In these days of advanced scientific knowledge, mass communications and alerted social consciousness, food trends and ideologies travel faster and attract many more acolytes. But for me, the magic word is still moderation, taking it all with a grain of salt, if not of bacon-yeast.