What the Heart Wants

Healthy eating isn't always happy eating

What the Heart Wants
Illustration by Leah Lovise

After the second day of sprinkling Mrs. Dash on forlorn chicken, I imperiously announced that I would rather die than continue to eat like this. It probably was not the sort of thing my family wanted to hear. They were, after all, gathered on the occasion of my first heart attack. I'm fairly certain none of them gave a damn if I wanted a pat of butter, but they let me get away with the bit of fatalism.

What they didn't know was that, for a moment, I meant it. I had IVs sticking out of both arms, my calves were growing increasingly sweaty under the squeeze of compression boots, and a seemingly constant flow of strangers were poking around at my groin. I desperately wanted the comfort of food, not the studied calories arranged on my plate. Since no one at St. David's seemed willing to build a post-cardiac arrest charcuterie board, I was going to have to accept my lot. But I wasn't about to do it nicely.

When your body wages a coup d'état on your life, it's not all that easy to keep a poker face. I could deal with giving up smoking, having long since tired of its pleasures. But when forced into cold turkey, I at least expected to be able to eat the skin. I knew my lack of restraint was partially why I found myself wearing a backless robe. Still, I was nowhere near ready to forsake the alchemy of sodium and fat. They weren't just agents of flavor; they were an expression of love – from my mom's simple tomato pasta (made pointillist with heavy shakes of salt and freshly cracked black pepper) to the mac and cheese (topped with a crumble of Panko and more cheese, natch) I learned to make from an ex. There was no way I could view food with anything close to clinical detachment.

To make matters worse, there are few things I loathe more than health food. Health is the enemy of flavor, a gaunt old uncle peering disapprovingly over wire rims. The cognitive dissonance between what our body wants and needs is as good an argument as any for the existence of evil. You can still indulge, health says, before cruelly bamboozling with liquid egg substitute. Enjoy all the paella you want; that parched poultry sausage will make you forget about chorizo entirely.

It's all trickery and substitution – like Parfums de Coeur and Christian hip-hop and the second Becky on Roseanne. It's not that dehydrated kale chips are not perfectly fine; it's that they should never pretend they are an acceptable surrogate for potatoes fried in duck fat. Crushed flax does not a breadcrumb make, but still a thousand recipes were built on the lie that we'll never taste the difference.

I was ready to give the whole project the finger. An hour after my hospital release, I made short work of an excessively loaded baked potato. By then, the memory of the actual heart attack and the resulting stent was growing fuzzy, the more evocative details having been blurred by the morphine drip. The fact that it happened, however, grew more deeply etched. With no hyperbole, I can say that I almost died. That I was lucky only reminded me how little was under my control.

I might have spoken about "the incident" with practiced indifference, but the truth was I was terrified. My body became like a creaky old house in a horror movie; every "noise" potentially leading to another jump cut. Normal sensations, like losing circulation or needing to burp, suddenly felt odd enough to raise alarm. Driving home from dinner could produce cold sweats. Diet was one of the only ways I could regain some foothold.

So after a bit of denial (I told anyone who would listen about my sexy low triglycerides), I experimented with heart-healthy eating. The first order of business was cholesterol, if only because of the gentle tsk tsks of a rehab nurse. Those blithe bastards unaffected by cardiovascular disease can practically spread the stuff on toast, but doctors recommend that heart patients keep their LDL (low-density lipoprotein, the bad kind) lower than 70.

That's no easy task for a food editor. If a food increases bad cholesterol, it's probably the most enticing selection on a prix fixe. There it is, folded into a freshly whipped chantilly or tossed into a salad as a lardon. It's sometimes sneaky, popping up in a shellfish crudo or an otherwise lean venison heart. It was in the first course of the first chef-prepared meal I enjoyed after my hospital stay: oysters with watermelon mignonette from Jack Allen's. I gratefully slurped them up.

There I decided on the first of a few simple eating rules. When reviewing a restaurant or dining at a special event, it was nonsense to follow the dictates of gastronomically challenged dieticians. Otherwise, I would try my best to only eat small amounts of animal protein. Invariably, I would find myself at P. Terry's once a week for lunch, but my second rule was to ease myself into it. I knew that I wouldn't keep to better eating with too drastic of a change.

My rules may sound closer to "excuses" than "guidelines," but I did make a rule to work in more plant-based meals – helped by my close proximity to some of Austin's best vegan/vegetarian joints (the Juice Well, Nice N Ful, Counter Culture, and Shhmaltz are all but a short drive). And I spent more time lurking around my neighbor's porch, hoping he would share a plate of his miraculous sauerkraut. Maybe this health thing wasn't so difficult after all.

That is until I remembered that other kind of cholesterol. My high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the good kind) is woefully low. To correct that, doctors recommend eating a ton of dietary fiber. Trouble is, more than eating is involved. My current housing situation is what some would describe as environmentally responsible microliving and what others would describe as semi-homelessness. Whether one chooses to use euphemism or dysphemism, restrooms still aren't always convenient. Rule four: Work on HDL during the morning.

And then there was salt. Due to my high blood pressure, doctors have been telling me for years that I don't need to make every dish look like the inside of a snowglobe. For years, I have ignored that suggestion like a petulant child, keeping no less than 10 salt varieties in my kitchen (what else would you use on hanger steak besides smoked porcini Himalayan?). Granted, there is considerable scientific debate whether there is a link between salt and heart disease, but it probably wouldn't hurt to hedge my bets.

Begrudgingly, I put all but a small Mason jar of sea salt back in storage. That helped me refrain from excess at home, but I was still eating most of my meals out. And since I couldn't ask Salt & Time to cut its name in half, I was going to have to be more cognizant. That meant less pickles, less olives, less salumi and feta. Oh, and less levity and joy.

Happiness has to count for something. While I no longer feel that bland eating should be punishable by death, I do still feel it is a crime not to take part in life's celebration. I'm more than willing to eat healthy, but that should never be at the expense of eating well. Food matters to both the literal and figurative hearts. And besides, I could always use a little more motivation for exercise.

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Nice N Ful, The Juice Well, Salt & Time, Jack Allen's Kitchen, Counter Culture, Shhmaltz, St. David's Hospital

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