Browsing on the New York Times website recently, I saw a notice that Julia Reed, a food writer, had died. By all accounts she was a delightful person—irreverent, witty and kind—and a marvelous writer. She had a cancer diagnosis but at the time of her death was visiting friends on a holiday trip. Given that she was possibly quite ill, some people would say this was a good way to depart life, although much too soon at the age of 59.
Intrigued by this woman, I read on, wondering if I would resonate with her food writing. Ms. Reed was born in Mississippi and celebrated Southern cooking, a cuisine with some notable health pitfalls. The Times offered links to 5 of her recipes: Hot Cheese Olives, Roman Steak, Summer Squash Casserole, Milk Punch, and Pralines. I guessed that none of these recipes would be whole-food plant-based, but I couldn’t check, because the Times saw fit to put them behind a paywall.
Fortunately, this move on the part of the Times elicited a barrage of complaints from commenters, one of whom incorporated the recipe for Summer Squash Casserole—the one recipe that had a prayer of being healthy— into her remarks. Here are the ingredients.
Caution: DO NOT MAKE THIS RECIPE—For educational purposes only!
2 pounds yellow summer squash
7 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, chopped
½ red bell pepper, chopped
½ green bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
4 slices plain white bread, toasted
24 Ritz crackers, crumbed in food processor
½ pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
I have to admit I was shocked by this recipe. The only healthy ingredients are the vegetables: the squash, peppers, onion and garlic. Ms. Reed has used them as a delivery system for a load of animal foods: butter, eggs, cheddar cheese, and heavy whipping cream. Ms. Reed does not do a nutritional analysis —she wouldn’t have dared—but it doesn’t take that to know that the calories from vegetables are outweighed many times over by calories from high-fat animal products. Even the grain products used are refined and processed: white bread and Ritz crackers.
It seemed a shame to take a detour from appreciating this entertaining and lovable writer who had died too young, to tut-tutting about the recipes that she wrote; but I had no choice.
It made me realize that the world of whole-food plant-based eating isn’t just a counterweight to the world of “non-food” such as what you find on the shelves of a thruway rest stop. (Forgive me, I just went on a road trip.) It’s also a counterweight to a respectable world of gourmet cooks who believe that taking care of yourself and being good to yourself require that you be open to any and all taste experiences, no matter how decadent.
But eating this food is not taking care of yourself or even being good to yourself in the final analysis.
The problem is that foods such as Ms. Reed’s casserole do taste good: we are programmed to have a taste for fat, salt and sugar because for early humans food was scarce, and it was adaptive to eat these things when you could find them. Now they are as close as the corner supermarket. And down the road from eating this way is chronic illness, disability, and just plain not feeling good.
Summer squash lightly steamed or sautéed without oil tastes just as good to an enlightened palate; and eating this way not only doesn’t hurt you, it builds health. That makes all the difference. Rest in peace, Ms. Reed, but alas, I won’t be using your recipes.
Here’s a summer squash casserole that’s “a Southern favorite made healthy.”
And here is a stovetop summer squash sauté that is plant-based and also Esselstyn- and RLMI Jumpstart compliant. Read about Jumpstart here: https://www.rochesterlifestylemedicine.com/about-community-jumpstart/
SUMMER SQUASH SAUTÉ
1/4 cup braising liquid, more as needed (IE: veggie broth, dry vermouth, etc)
2 or 3 medium-size summer squash or zucchini, or a mix for a pretty result
1 small onion or 1/2 medium onion, chopped (save the rest for another dish)
2-3 cloves garlic. minced
Bell pepper, diced (optional)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp dried oregano or thyme or fresh herbs if you have them
In a medium saucepan, pour in about 1/4 cup of white wine, dry vermouth, dry sherry, or vegetable broth.* “Slice and dice” the squash: cut it into coins the then each coin into wedges depending on their size and the final result you want. Turn on the heat and add the onion and garlic; cook at medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Add the squash/zucchini coins and keep stirring and cooking. Total cooking time should be 5 to 10 minutes. Look for the squash to take on a more translucent look to let you know it’s done. Summer squash and zucchini can be eaten raw so people differ in deciding when it’s done.
And here is a vegetable cooking chart: https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/tools-and-techniques/how-to-cook-vegetables24.htm
*Use salt-free veg broth if available; if you use regular veg broth, leave out the salt in the recipe.