It’s a bright spring day in Brooklyn, and author Peter Kaminsky is climbing the tightly wound spiral staircase to his roofdeck. A few years back, it would have been a tough squeeze, but on this day, having just returned from a bike ride across the river to Eataly, the veteran writer is looking lean and fit—he has no problem navigating a turn that nearly requires contortion.
Today, Kaminsky’s latest book, Culinary Intelligence, hits bookshelves, and in it, he describes how his job as a professional eater led to a battle of the bulge and a stern warning from doctors about the threat of diabetes and even death.
For years, he’d written columns and cookbooks celebrating food (his co-authors included everyone from Daniel Boulud to John Madden), along the way eating and drinking and indulging in the bounty put before him. Then, faced with the choice to continue his hedonistic ways or get in shape, he chose the latter, drawing on his knowledge and his contact list of food experts to devise a way to continue to eat well while eating smarter—which he calls Culinary Intelligence.
Culinary Intelligence: The Art Of Eating Healthy (And Really Well) (Knopf, $24.95, amazon.com) comes at a prescient time, as the conversation about obesity reaches a fever pitch. Later this month, HBO premieres a multi-part series about the obesity epidemic, The Weight of the Nation—tagged with the factoid that two-thirds of U.S. adults over age 20 are overweight or obese—while First Lady Michelle Obama continues to push her Let’s Move! initiative to encourage Americans to do, as Kaminsky did, and lose the fat. How’d he do it? Read on for Kaminsky’s story and his thoughts on everything from eating meat to why this is not a diet book.
At what point did you come up with the term Culinary Intelligence, and did you ever doubt that this was a book idea?
Well, I had to do it for health and insurance reasons, but it worked so well, my agent said you’ve gotta do a book about this because everybody’s got this problem. I came up with the term Culinary Intelligence in conversation.
It’s a fairly common-sense approach to eating better, isn’t it?
There are three pillars to CI: They’re not commandments from Mount Sinai [but] you should try and live this way. One is don’t eat processed food or ingredients. Stay away from white flour, stay away from sugar, stay away from white rice, stay away from potatoes. Second is buy the most full-flavored, best ingredients you can afford. A lot of things follow from that: Seasonal, local, sustainable. And then: Cook, or live with someone who does. Cook with a plan, but cook.
Why are so many people not eating well?
It’s very easy to eat, um, not well. There’s fast food all around. There’s white flour all around. There’s sugar in everything. There’s no question it’s a quick fix and if all you wanna do is get something in your gullet right away it’s easy to do. We live in an eat out/take out culture. The emotional inertia of just starting to cook is a threshold that many people can’t cross. Cooking is easy. The basic rule of cooking with good ingredients is don’t fuck them up.
Is this a diet book?
[Winces.] I don’t know. The term diet book makes me cringe. On the other hand it’s a way to eat. A diet book to me connotes that you eat this dry toast on day one and four ounces of salmon on day three—
It gets repetitive.
I think food and sex are both better when they’re spontaneous. But Peter Meehan said [of my book], “Who knew? A diet book masquerading as good stories.”
Ha, that’s true! What about exercise? You don’t get too much into it in the book.
Not really. I think it’s critical, but unfortunately, too many people think of it as a way to put calories in the bank. I talk about “jog a mile, drink a beer.” The caloric math never works out. You gotta run like Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans to eat that way.
So when you were biking to Eataly today you weren’t calculating how much pasta you can eat there?
No. I used to. Exercise is good in a lot of ways. It makes you un-depressed so you don’t go home and eat a quart of ice cream because you’re depressed. It builds up muscles, especially if you work the large muscle groups, which consume more calories even at rest than fat does. It’s good for your heart. It’s good in a lot of ways but it’s not a diet.
What do you think about food politics being in the news so much? Is it reaching people who don’t inherently care about this stuff?
Well, it’s like turning an aircraft carrier. We have a culture of snacking, grazing, food available 24/7 that shouts at you whenever you’re watching TV. I once kept count of how many calories [you’d consume] during an NFL game if you bought everything in all those commericals. It’s like Super-Size Me.
There are some frightening statistics in the book.
In the past 15 years, Americans have added 300 calories per day on average to their daily intake. Another thing I read was that if you asked people today what their ideal weight is, it’s 15 pounds more than 15 or 20 years ago. The thing you need to realize that if you want a more healthful diet you have to be proactive. Despite the despairingly depressing statistics about obesity and diabetes in this country, everyone who has kept a healthy weight or got to a healthy weight in the last 20 years did it in spite of the statistics. Each person can do it. That’s an important lesson. One is moving society; the other is moving yourself. Take care of yourself.
One of the most controversial things in Culinary Intelligence is how much you embrace eating meat. A lot of people, even guys, are avoiding meat to go vegan or do juice fasts to lose weight—
Juice fasts, you’re drinking sugar. It goes straight in your bloodstream, spikes the insulin. It’s just a less industrial way of drinking a Pepsi. The meat thing is absolute nonsense. Let’s divorce meat from portions. Nobody needs a lot of meat all the time. You don’t need a pound of steak—you just don’t need it. Nature just doesn’t waste your time developing useless DNA. I’ve studied a lot about the evolution of teeth. We are omnivores. We’re designed to eat and process all this stuff.
Some people argue the opposite.
It’s hogwash. Factually, scientifically, evolutionary, biologically wrong. Meat is good for you. Fat is good for you. Protein is good for you. You just don’t need it in the trencherman proportions in which it’s sold.
What are some of the things you honestly miss?
Not a lot. I gave up pastry. I used to like to have some pastry, and bagels and lox on Sunday morning. I don’t miss it now but I did.
You’re a New Yorker who doesn’t eat bagels?
No, it’s all white flour. I eat smoked salmon for breakfast sometimes, but I eat it on whole grain bread with a little bit of butter. You don’t need all that white flour.
So after all this, do you think there’s hope that people will start eating better?
It wasn’t an option 25 years ago. It is an option now. If you’re aware and you’re tuned in—and you can dial out the marketing buzz. Will the culture at large change? I don’t know. I think human beings are like gypsy moths: I think we’ll consume the whole food supply someday and we’ll all drop dead two days later. The rest of the world is adopting our way of eating. They’re abandoning traditional diets…. More people are aware, more people can make choices now. They have options to buy things and those people can lead healthy lives. The rest will drop dead early.