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“That’s Not Food!”: Reflections on Restaurant Eating

Most of what gets served in restaurants isn’t food—it’s a nice-smelling, well-presented simulation.

Caution! Contains diabetes.

I’m certainly no paleo diet purist, but I eat far more meat, eggs, and vegetables, and far less grains and starches, than most. Over time this has caused me to prepare more and more of my own food, as what is served at restaurants becomes less and less appealing. A mountain of bread and pasta I can buy myself for two bucks if I wanted to, which I don’t? $22 + tax and tip for a steak I can pick out myself for $7 and guarantee it’ll actually be cooked blue rare? Meh.

Anyway: I had just finished a book signing, someone had recommended a local restaurant to me, and it had been several years since I’d eaten actual Szechuan cuisine—so I decided to check it out.

It was indeed excellent…but now that I’ve been eating paleo for some time, I realized that I had an entire multi-course meal before me, made almost entirely of non-food. And despite cleaning my very large plate, I found I was still very hungry…because what I was eating wasn’t food at all, just something that looked pretty and smelled nice.

  • Hot and sour soup? Probably the best part. It has a little food value from the mushrooms and dissolved fat in the stock, but it’s barely enough calories to power my walk back to the car.
  • Vegetarian egg roll? That’s not food at all…it’s gluten saturated with grain oil, surrounding a few lonely scraps of oil-soaked carrot and cabbage.
  • Won ton? Same thing, but without the carrot and cabbage. A completely food-free substance.
  • ‘Szechuan beef’? OK, beef is food, and some of the vegetables with it are food…but all the beef on my plate would fit in a shot glass, it’s swimming in a lake of industrial lubricant (grain oil) and corn syrup, and it sits atop a mountain of…
  • White rice—which has the nutritional value of Coca-Cola and an even higher glycemic index. [Though no fructose, as Walter points out…indeed, since I wrote this article, I have added occasional white rice to my diet. -JS]

Essentially, I have before me a very pretty, well-spiced, and carefully presented food simulation. It’s tasty, in the same way candy is tasty—but it’s not satisfying, for the same reasons candy isn’t satisfying, which is that candy is not food. It’s empty calories…

…and so is this beautiful “dinner” I’ve just eaten.

I drive home and fix myself some real food.* And, as if to underscore the point, I spend the next day farting like a cow until all the pretty but nutritionally useless non-food has left my system.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


(* That night “real food” meant grass-fed hamburger, eggs, onions, bell peppers, garlic, and a small potato, fried in butter.)

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  • Bodhi

    I have to agree, once you start eating Paleo, restaurant food just doesn’t cut. You can have real food at home for less money. It is a little effort to plan, shop, and prepare, but well worth it. It also helps burn calories and work your muscles, including the one between your ears.

  • Cornelius

    Well, while I agree, if you were not exaggerating too much, sounds like that was just not a very good Szechuan restaurant. I love good Szechuan food, although, granted, the rice doesn’t do much for me, and one thing I have noticed is that at least a lot of the Americanized Chinese food tends to use a lot of sugar in the sauces. But, everything in moderation. If you don’t eat it once a week, it’s probably not a big deal.

    However, your eggroll was oil-soaked? Then their oil was not hot enough. And such a tiny portion of beef? My favorite local restaurant serves American portions of beef. If they only served enough to fill a shot glass, people would stop coming.

    The thing is, I think we Americans have only ourselves to blame if our Chinese restaurants use grain oil. I think back home most of them would use lard, at least for deep-frying.

    I do get your point, by the way. I just like to splurge every once in awhile. Next time, maybe a different restaurant? And it helps to know what to order. Kind of sounds like you just ordered a combo dinner. There are many Chinese dishes that are wonderful combinations of meat, veggies, mushrooms, nuts… Filling and very flavorful. And to truly appreciate Szechuan, you gotta like hot. :)

    And I would never order fried won ton, by the way. If it came down to it, I’d rather eat potato chips. Fried pasta you dip in a sugary, syrupy sauce? No thanks. I don’t much like the places that serve shiny, brightly colored sauces, anyway.

    I am sure I am preaching to the choir, but beware restaurant recommendations from people you don’t know well, too. :) I remember going to a “Chinese” restaurant in a small town that several acquaintances in a neighboring small town had raved about. I took a gal there, and when we were seated I looked around. Not only were all the customers white, so was the staff. Never a good sign in an Asian restaurant. When the first course came, I noticed something odd about the soup when I tasted it. It tasted just like something out of a Campbell’s can. And it probably was. So I couldn’t help but bait the waitress a bit. The next time she came by, I asked her what sort of soup it was. She looked at me as if I were from Mars, and replied “Beef with Barley.”
    I fear I didn’t make any points with her when I wondered if I could have had split pea if I had just thought to ask.

    But again, I do get your point. I love to cook, and when I do I know exactly what goes into my food. My motto is “As it comes out of the ground, or off the critter.” But occasionally I like to go out and get some flavors I haven’t yet learned to make.

  • Alice

    I’ve become a darned good cook since switching to a primal lifestyle. I was a good cook before, but making a change in our eating habits really required me to kick it up a notch. I was recently telling my hubby after we went out for dinner that I felt pretty disappointed by our meal because I could have made something better (& healthier) at home. He sadly agreed. We will still eat in restaurants, but we’re getting much pickier about where we go and how/what we order. And sometimes I would rather go buy a really nice steak from my local butcher and just cook it at home!

  • links for 2011-05-21

    […] “That’s Not Food!”: Reflections on Restaurant Eating – GNOLLS.ORG Agree, restaurant food doesn't give me anything more than a "beautiful" plate with stuff there. Besides it is very very expensive. (tags: food paleo restaurant funny) […]

  • Summer has landed &l

    […] Thats not food! […]

  • Tomislav

    You either must be a hell of a good cook or you need to find friends that share the same love of certain foods. I’m sure they’ll be able to recommend you a good restaurant.

  • Walter

    But the white rice does not contain fructose, so is much less unhealthy.

  • This is why I like curry – meat and vegetables cooked in ghee!
    Ignore the breads and rice and enjoy the main meal.

  • Tomislav:

    I've spent much of my life eating at restaurants.  Now, the only thing I go out for regularly is sushi.  It's possible to find other things I enjoy — but I usually have to spend a lot of money and cheat rampantly.  Just about everything is based on gluten these days.


    You're right.  Today I sometimes eat white rice as a source of mostly-safe starch, which has changed since I wrote this article.


    I love Thai curry, too — but I can make it at home with curry paste, coconut milk, and fish sauce.  Indian, I'm still working on, and I do occasionally hit an Indian buffet where I can load up on Chicken Tikka Masala and saffron rice.


  • Nina

    I NEVER repeat NEVER eat out any more. For the cost of a restaurant meal, I can buy high quality meat, some luxuriant spices, and maybe the finest grass fed butter. Lucky I’m retired because I spend hours in the kitchen fermenting, soaking, chopping, roasting, sizzling and stewing and love every minute of it.

    Dr. wanted to put me on a statin. I optimized my lipids without it and lost 35 lbs without trying. Just started eating real food, properly raised, and got off the sugar. Now, my Dr. is the internet. Tests, I get from a screening outfit that comes around and offers some testing. Wish I could find a source for more blood work.

  • Nina:

    Congratulations on your success! I always enjoy hearing from my readers.

    If you’re in California, Wellness Mart (www.wellnessmart.com) offers bloodwork at a very reasonable price – and they have doctors on staff to authorize whatever tests you order, so you don’t need to add the hidden cost of convincing someone to order the work for you. (If any of my readers know of similar places elsewhere in the USA, please let me know!)


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