As I stood in the checkout line at Whole Foods, listening to the rhythmic beep of the checkout scanner tallying up my groceries, my mind raced with existential questions.
What among these all-natural, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free food stuffs can I actually combine to create a meal? Am I ready for this lifestyle? Do I really want to live forever?? Why is the cashier looking at me like I'm crazy???
You may think I was overreacting a bit, but the way I see it, people fall into one of two categories of grocery shoppers: those who are looking for milk and those who are looking for the fruit from the tree of eternal life. On this particular day I was looking for the milk—or at least, it started out that way.
You would be mistaken in thinking I was looking for any old half-fat gallon of cow's milk. I was on the hunt for almond milk, organic and unsweetened. See, I had recently “gone Paleo,” joining the ranks of those who refuse to eat anything readily available. So I knew a thing or two about what not to eat and hunger. Neither of which, I learned, is enough to gird you when venturing into a health foods store.
For most of my life, food was about taste and calories. Growing up we never had soda in the house and any snacking between meals was contraband—which meant that any “snacking” that went on consisted of sneaking olives or pickles from a jar in the refrigerator when my mom’s back was turned. But we enjoyed a sugary treat from time to time, and bread, dairy, and meat were sustenance, even if in moderation.
So it was quite a switch for me when I decided to ascribe to the Paleo lifestyle, but that decision was lightyears away from jumping on the trend. Choosing to cut out over half of the food groups found in the food pyramid was a last-ditch alternative to a lifetime of anti-inflammatory drugs after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. It went against my carefree attitude about food and was never considered something I would recommend to a friend.
The thing is, it worked. So I stuck with it, but I was no cult follower.
My stomach growled as I made my way through the crowded parking lot, shimmying between the shiny black SUVs. I finally arrived at the entrance of the green Mecca and a gust of cool air blasted a few strands of loose hair into my face. I gripped my cart with two hands and slipped through the open doors flanked by other expectant pilgrims.
Upon entering, it became clear to me that my mission for milk would prove to be a challenge. I had heard what happened to people who ventured down a Whole Foods aisle and never came back. But I had a mission and mentally assured myself I would not be distracted by the siren call of mysterious foods. My eyes frantically scanned each aisle for the dairy section as I zipped past without any real direction—I had to keep moving.
Where the hell is the milk? Of course I could see the wall of refrigerated dairy products glowing from the very back of the store. But there had to be another way to get there.
I circled back to pick up a carton of fresh guac with added kale; I could allow myself this one deviation from my shopping list.
I finally started down what I thought would be a harmless aisle: packaged goods. At first I stared straight ahead, my eyes fixed on the back wall. But the aisle seemed to stretch on forever and I began to feel the pull of those tiny plastic bags. I allowed my eyes to rove over the neat rows of what looked like essential ingredients for a witch’s brew: arrow root, dried Goji berries, raw cacao beans, wheatberries, eye of newt…wait, what?
While altogether unappetizing at first glance, my eyes began to catch words like “power,” “longevity,” “energy,” and “youth.” My running internal dialog, ever painfully honest, acknowledged that I did, in fact, desire all these things.
My stomach growled impatiently, as I stopped in front of a particularly small bag of arrow root starch. I looked down at my shopping list to discover that “arrow root,” a gluten-free thickener with a spotty success rate, was actually on mission. I grabbed the tiny $10.00 package and dropped it in my basket.
Still, I couldn’t tear myself away from these shriveled delicacies, their labels proclaiming power, energy, youth. The allure was too strong. I seized a bag of raw cacoa and placed it in my basket. I could almost feel the vitality it promised oozing into my pores and the years being added on to my limited life span.
I pulled myself away and continued onward, emboldened by that special kind of pride that comes when making healthful choices.
I thought back to who I was when I walked into this store, how I prided myself on my irreverant attitude toward food. But as I rolled through row upon row of organic, sugar-free, gluten-free, soy, and coconut substitutes, I found myself disillusioned with my former life. There seemed to be a new hierarchy of goods when it came to food. On a basic level there was food to nourish and on another higher level there was food to flourish, and like any faith, it was a secret that couldn’t be uncovered without the will to believe.
I looked around, thinking of how much more enlightened I felt in this new way of thinking. I passed a row of tiny glass bottles of Kombucha, containing what looked like pond water. And I’ll take one of those… This new enlightenment taught me that the more tiny micro-organisms and algae found in a food, the better. I did manage to pass on the cold-pressed juices—another little potion that falls into this category. Generally an enticing puce green color, these $10/quart bottles make you feel like you are drinking liquid gold.
By now my empty stomach was snarling. But I approached the check-out counter with poise and regarded the man at the register as "one of us." He, however, looked at me dubiously.
The ever-increasing total on the register began to make me wonder if I had in fact deposited my paycheck from last week. I looked down at the remaining packages of gluten-free bread and almond flour edging up the conveyor belt and wondered, do I really want to live forever? Perhaps it was being confronted with the price of my newfound faith, or the questioning look on the cashier’s face, or the combination of the two, that tested me.
Do I really believe that food is only valuable in so far that it provides some life-giving property beyond that of basic sustenance? The food that was being bagged was void of pleasure, not because it was distasteful, but because I treated it as purely medicinal—a tonic to stave off death.
Allergies, intolerance, and autoimmune diseases aside, why have foods like white bread and sugar become so vilified? They may not fight cancer or cleanse you of impurities, but these foods are delicious. These foods can be combined to make a meal that brings people together to savor the life they have. Isn’t there value in that?
Like a puff of coconut flour, the allure of perpetual youth vanished and was replaced with regret and, more immediately, intense hunger. While I knew I would never abandon eating healthy foods, I saw how easy it is to be seduced into the world of health food and special diets and juice cleanses—and caught up in a losing obsession to remain young forever.
I made my way back through the parking lot in a daze and slid into my car, dumping my treasured health foods into the backseat. I ripped open the tiny bag of raw cacao and dropped a few beans into my mouth, chewed, and promptly spat it out into my grocery receipt. Of course it tastes like dirt.
Hungry and disillusioned, I felt the loss of the foods I once enjoyed: the semi-sweet chocolate chips my mom would sprinkle on my desk while I was studying for exams, the beer I would drink with my friends on hot summer days, and the warm bread shared with friends at our favorite Italian restaurant. I was reminded that all these foods are good, to be enjoyed in moderation. My Paleo diet is a good thing for me as long as it keeps me healthy. But I would rather forget about living forever next time and just stick with the milk. After all, who wants to spend an eternity without the little things that keep it sweet?