Epicurus and I make the right trades


Let’s deal with an interesting concept that arises as one lives a life of abundance and ease: that you have a measure of control over how long you will live, and that what you eat is a major factor in the situation.

If this is true, you make an important choice several times each day, every day.

What type of choice is it?

Simple. It has two elements: How long do you want to live? What’s for dinner?

But, is it this simple?

The idea we can extend our life with diet has become a hot topic in recent years, and there is a growing community of people who believe the situation is simple indeed.

I realized this after reading one of my wife’s many magazines that dwell on the subject of health, and after I glanced at the books she orders that detail the oh-so-many ways you can, “eat to live longer.”

The idea is everywhere, and plenty of folks have jumped on the bandwagon. This is easily as popular as Pilates, colonic hydrotherapy and Chinese medicine.

Go to a big city bookstore. The periodicals section is jammed with magazines full of information on the newest “life-saving” diets. There are shelves of books, paperbacks and hardbound, each outlining the ways you can alter your diet in order to live longer.

Read the titles of the magazine articles.

“From Fat to Firm” — Change your Diet, Change your Life.”

“Miracle Foods Produce Years of Healthy Life.”

“Eat Right, Live Longer.”

“Age Slower, Slash Fat and Calories.”

Below each of the headlines are too many column inches preaching the same dreary sermon: your diet is killing you, stripping away years of potential life. If you change your toxic ways, you can look forward to an extra decade during which, as a sweatsuit-clad oldster, you can power walk with your friends and return lit by a rosy glow to your room at the assisted living facility to change your diaper, and enjoy a cup of low sodium chicken broth and an alfalfa cracker before Bingo begins.

The strategy proposed by the champions of longevity is clear-cut.

And I don’t like it.


Because the situation is not simple. Far from it.

First, because most advocates of the “eat for long life” theory fail to unpack and examine a presupposition — that there is value in just living longer.

Second, and more important, there’s the fact that most of the foods they identify as staples of a life-lengthening diet taste awful. If they don’t taste outright terrible, they are bland, unexciting.

The truth is that sprouts and tofu and tempeh and raw kale, uncooked vegetables and hearty, whole grains are, in most forms, dull and depressing if one judges food by taste and texture.

The health mongers’ formula is paradoxical: a lifeless cuisine promotes a longer life. I like paradox as much as the next guy, but not this one.

When confronted with the life-prolonging food regimen, I ask: Who wants to live like this?

Now, before you health food fanatics get hot and bothered, allow me to establish some balance here.

There is irrefutable evidence that most of the truly scrumptious goodies in the culinary universe do things like stop your heart and send clots of waxy gunk hurtling through your carotid smack dab into the old coconut. Sad, but true. If you mix and match a genetic predisposition for diet-related problems with foie gras, you are a goner. C’est domage.

But, remember, this deal is more complex than it appears at first.

At first glance, we are confronted with the horns of a dilemma: go totally “healthy,” indulge a hedonistically bankrupt diet, and die very old and totally bored, worn out from attending the funerals of friends who ate, drank and made merry.

Go the other direction, eat only things that taste incredibly good, that have superb mouth feel and you end up in the ICU at age 55, blabbering, unable to do simple math, a clump of plaque wedged next to your amygdala.

On the one hand we succumb to the attitude of the puritan — a fascistic, constricted consciousness that regards pleasure as evil and that attempts, from a platform of abject misery, to ensure that misery is universal. At the other end of the spectrum, we engineer a Cyrenaic soul, bound to overdo everything, convinced excess is the key to enlightenment.

The only way to avoid the nastiness of the extremes is to grab the horns and strike between them. In this complex situation, my friends, we must strive to be Epicurean.

The Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus urged we travel a path that leads to pleasure, but he understood that denial is not the only creator of misery; he knew that too much of a pleasurable thing produces pain. The trick, said Epicurus, is to locate the appropriate level of indulgence, one that maximizes pleasure and contentment without producing a disastrous consequence.

This point is clear if we ponder the difference between the gourmet who has a martini in order to lubricate the social engine and the college kid who chugs a quart of cheap gin and wakes up the next day 500 miles from the campus, splayed out on the bathroom floor of a single-wide, being licked on his bare groin by a Rottweiler and kicked in the head by an angry divorcee. One has located the appropriate level, one has not.

In other words, we should make choices recognizing that we can enhance our health with our intake of foods, but not at the sacrifice of the utter joy food can bring us. Balance requires sophistication. We need a hedonistic calculus to help us find our way.

To help us locate the Epicurean mean when we choose our food, our calculus involves three elements: the quality of foods, considered in terms of “healthy” and “pleasurable” attributes; the effect of the attributes of a food on the potential lifespan of the consumer; and the consumer’s willingness to trade time for pleasure.

For example: oatmeal is high on the health chart but produces very little pleasure in anyone with even the slightest bit of character. Oatmeal, eaten five times per week, will add approximately five years to the life of a person genetically programmed to remain animated for 75 to 85 years.

Tournedos with bernaise sauce, on the other hand, are low on the health index but can produce intense pleasure (especially when consumed with a whopping portion of gratinee Lyonnaise, accompanied by several glasses of a primo Chateauneuf and followed by a precious raspberry tart). The tournedos, eaten once a week, will shorten that same life span by approximately four years.

Okay, you’ve got nine years to play with. Consider the characteristics of each food, how you feel when you consume them, and figure out how much you will give up for the tournedos. I would eat the tournedos once per month, and cut the oatmeal to four servings per month. I would temper my sacrifice by including a few clods of steamed broccoli with the tournedos. In the end, I’ll gladly surrender a month of the 15 additional years my genes might allow me to live. If I include some raw cruciferous veggies with the balsamic-dressed greens that accompany the meals, I can buy back a week.

Not a bad trade.

Let’s try this again. Let’s look at a sample “healthy” diet, designed to add five years to the life of an average 50 year-old.

In the morning, mmmm, you have some raisin bran, half a whole wheat bagel with some low fat cream cheese and a cup of 1 percent milk. What a neato way to start the day!

Lunch consists of a veggie burger on half of a wholewheat roll, with some strips of green pepper and lettuce. Plop cheap mustard on that beauty, and you are still a picture of health.

A mid-afternoon pick-me-up involves a package of instant lentil soup. Don’t forget to use bottled water.

At dinner, hold on to your hat, you tie into a pile of bulgur mixed with steamed veggies and graced with a low fat vinaigrette

Don’t despair if you’re a bit hungry right before bed, your life-prolonging diet allows for a bit of reduced fat cheese with a hunk o’ rye crisp.

Just think, with a similar diet each day, you could live to be 85 instead of 80.

Five extra years of rye crisp and reduced fat cheese. And 500 extra sessions of Bingo.

I ask you: given that you have other options, is this any way to live?

If you are willing to end it all at 75 instead of 80, here is a sample daily diet.

For breakfast, how about some toasted sourdough bread, a bit of savory chicken hash and two eggs over easy? This calls for three or four cups of strong French Roast, don’t you think?

At lunch, nothing says “come and get it” like a grilled Italian sausage on a fresh-baked roll, topped with grilled onions and peppers, and a slab of provolone.

No need for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up after this meal.


Because, after you lose consciousness and take a long nap, dinner will top off the tank, and then some.

As tempting as that bulgur might be, why not have escalopes of veal Holstein instead? If there is any such thing as an evil dish — one designed to insult nature and please the palate—— this is it.

Kill a defenseless calf, or contribute with your store purchase of veal to the industrial slaughter of an immature innocent bovine. One way or the other, procure veal cutlets, about a half pound per person. Imagine the calf had a name and was raised as a 4-H project by a freckled, wide-eyed tot from Iowa.

Put a cutlet between sheets of plastic wrap and beat the tar out of it with a rolling pin or a wine bottle. Smash the daylights out of the meat until it is the thickness of a half-used pad of sticky notes. (Here, I pay tribute to the jargon of one of my favorite English food writers: Elizabeth David. In her out-of-print classic “French Country Cooking,” she uses measurements like “a lump of butter,” “a claret glass of Armagnac,” a “suggestion of tarragon,” and a “tentative scraping of nutmeg.” She also includes a lengthy, untranslated passage in which Anatole France extols the virtues of Cassoulet de Castlenaudary.)

Apply a moderate amount of salt and pepper to each side of an escalope then dredge in flour. Holding the cutlet in the air with tongs, discipline it lightly with a butter knife to rid it of excess flour. Dip the escalope in an egg wash then dredge in breadcrumbs. Put the cutlet on a plate and spank the crumbs lightly with the side of a knife to secure them to the meat, then refrigerate the breaded cutlet for a half hour or so.

Sauté the escalope in butter until golden brown. Serve with a fried egg on top (runny yolk, please, to give the salmonella a chance to flower), a garnish of an anchovy or two rolled around some capers, and a wedge of lemon.

Eat this beauty with some regularity and you’ll be waving bye bye a few years early.

But, it will be worth it.

What are some other trades you can use as you manipulate the culinary calculus to ensure you live a while longer, but happily?

Eight ounces of pork confit, made with the shoulder, is equal to seven tons of fresh spinach and worth the sacrifice of a half day of extra life per portion.

One serving of pasta putanesca equals six pounds of steamed winter squash and is worth six hours.

A half pound of lobster thermidor is worth surrendering a day of extra time and is the equivalent of all the quinoa produced on the planet in a decade.

Let’s get proletarian: A hefty slab of quality meat loaf, made with equal amounts of ground beef, pork and veal and bound together with beaten egg can be traded for 17,000 pounds of rye crisp. A serious hit of outstanding meat loaf can be exchanged for at least four hours of time. And, after all, what is time when everything is here, now — as it is when one consumes meatloaf?

What’s a three-egg cheese and sausage omelet worth, one with sauteed onions and mushrooms? How about 4,000 “healthy peach smoothies” made with soy milk and artificial sweetener, and one day?

I will gladly take a major league serving of carnitas or carne asada, or three tacos al carbon with guacamole, in trade for a boxcar full of trail mix and six hours.

Special occasions benefit from use of the calculus.

My friend Russell and I long ago planned a millennium feast, a meal to counter the effects of Y2K with its errant Russian ballistic missiles, its massive failures of communication and power systems and the resulting chaos that would overtake and destroy civilization. We ordered provisions from fancy catalogs offering grossly overpriced, but high quality foodstuffs. Russell did most of the cooking, and he is a superb hand in the kitchen. He was excited.

If the bombs fell, we would have watched the Big Curtain drop in fine style. Since the millennium dawned without disaster, we traded away 31 days on the tail end of our earthly existences. An excellent choice.

We settled on a trio of hand-rolled saucisson with a sheep’s milk camembert for starters. With the appetizers, we sipped a nice sauvignon blanc a relatively dry chardonnay and a pinot noir. Oh, and we dove into a paté maison prior to the meal, the fat-blessed goodie aflitter with peppercorns.

For the main course, a seven-rib roast, rubbed with garlic, crusted with salt, roasted to a prim medium rare in the center, served with parslied new potatoes and petit pois ( I use the French for Russell’s sake). A sturdy peasant loaf with plenty of butter, a high-end cabernet. My oh my.

Cheese? You bet, including a real roquefort, a cave dweller with a classical pedigree, eaten with hunks of baguette and loads of butter, washed sweetly away with a mini-flood of sauterne.

Sherry, anyone? Port? Cognac?

I happily traded this century-ending extravaganza for the entire first month of the year 2032.

Get the picture?

Don’t be swayed by the simple equation of food and time. If we consider food, we must entertain the notion of quality when we make our choices. We must factor in the sublime.

Take this suggestion for a system and add your favorite foods as elements in the calculus. Make your choices carefully: If you must sprinkle a tablespoon of flax seed on your mixed greens, for heaven’s sake don’t avoid the 80-year-old balsamic vinegar!

If you really believe a peanut butter and strawberry sandwich on whole grain bread or a cup of low-fat cottage cheese will serve you well, balance it off later in the week with Yorkshire pudding.

Get serious about your choices, about quality; use the calculus, make some viable trades. Take advantage of abundance.

Remember, nothing — and no one — lasts forever.