In the early days of my relationship with my husband – back when he was still trying to figure out how best to deal with my bad moods when I had high blood sugar – he used to call me a “lucky duck.”
Me: “My blood sugar is 257 and won’t come down.”
Him: “Who’s a lucky duck?”
His logic, he later explained, was that by being sarcastic he was being supportive. I wasted no time – or expletives – telling him this was unhelpful, and he’s since switched to empathetic hugs. After that, I never really connected lucky ducks to diabetes until I heard about One Lucky Duck, an online boutique founded by Sarma Melngailis, author of the raw, vegan cookbook Living Raw Food. Melngailis, a French Culinary Institute and Wharton School of Business grad, has a singular goal for her restaurant, books and business: “to present raw food to the public in a fun, sexy and accessible way.” Her logo for this endeavor is a duck.
In case you haven’t spent much time in Berkeley, CA, here’s the idea behind raw food: it’s made from plant-based ingredients that are never heated above 118 degrees F. This, says its advocates, preserves the food’s enzymes, vitamins and minerals – making it healthier and more digestible than traditional cooked food. As if the whole “unheated” concept weren’t enough, many raw food establishments also are vegan, meaning they don’t use any animal products at all. Spend any time at all reading raw, vegan menus, and you will be impressed by the many ways nuts can be forced to masquerade as cheese.
If you write much about diabetes, it’s only a matter of time before someone’s going to mention raw food to you. Occasionally these comments are idiotic – I have to refrain from delivering a lecture on immunology each time someone suggests that if I just stopped eating chicken soup, my Type 1 diabetes would be cured. But still, I’ve become curious as to whether raw food – vegan or not – might be a useful eating style for all types of diabetes. Most people’s diets could be improved by adding broccoli; the question is whether it’s possible to make raw vegetables taste like anything more than a crudite platter. So when I got the chance to sample the tasting menu at Melngailis’s restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, I snapped it up.
To my delight, Pure Food and Wine is not a gathering spot for granola-eaters. (Or, at least not granola-eaters who wear Birkenstocks and are morally opposed to bathing.) Instead, Melngailis has created a candle-lit, plush dining room tucked into Manhattan’s tony Gramercy Park. A quietly attentive staff bustles around in black-and-white-striped aprons, serving food and happily educating patrons on the details of biodynamic wine. That’s right: in contrast to the stereotype of yerba-matte-swigging purists, there’s a cocktail menu and wine list.
My meal began with a crispy papaya salad, topped with a sesame lime dressing, tomatoes and micro cilantro – young, tiny shoots that pack more of a punch than the full-grown herb. The papaya was shredded into thin noodles and, like the traditional Thai papaya salads on which it was based, the dressing carried a kick. My second course, a curried celeriac bisque, packed similar heat – though the spiciness was tempered by the celeriac’s sweetness and a sprinkling of ruby-red pomegranate seeds on top. As I took my first sip, I realized something that should have been obvious, but surprised me nonetheless: not heating your food above 118 degrees means that it’s never really served hot. My soup, while not cold, hovered somewhere around the temperature of a cup of coffee left on your desk for a half hour.
Since I’m not a fan of spicy foods, I was more impressed by the third course, a sweet corn enchilada served with a shredded carrot and jicama salad on top of tomatillo sauce, accompanied by a half an avocado and the evening’s first nut cheese, made from ground up cashews. The enchilada, served slightly warm, was delicious – beautifully plated and rich in flavor. I could tell by the sweetness that it was far from a diabetic “free-food,” but compared to a normal enchilada’s tortilla (not to mention the accompanying rice and beans), it was a big step up. My final savory course was even better: a succulent Portobello mushroom served with pine nuts, spinach, cherry tomatoes, black olives and a smoked paprika aioli, its ingredients artfully layered into a three-level tower. From a diabetic standpoint, this dish was possibly the best –the blend of flavors created a multi-textured taste so satisfying that there was no need for sweetness or starch. Even if I were able to make my own insulin, I would order this again.
Allow me to pause before dessert – an important line in the sand for anyone with a dysfunctional pancreas. At this point in the evening, I was beginning to believe the hype: from what I’d eaten, it seemed that gourmet raw food did indeed hold promise for people with diabetes. This had nothing to do with enzymes – a claim that I have not fully investigated – but rather with one simple fact: most carbohydrate-laden vegetables need to be cooked. Who’s going to eat a raw butternut squash? When does your stomach crave an uncooked potato? Serving only foods that can be rendered edible by low heat cut out most of the starchy vegetables that wreak havoc on blood sugar. In that sense, a dinner at Pure Food and Wine makes a great diabetic choice. But I would have to order a la carte, because the tasting menu includes dessert.
Say what you will about agave syrup and its low glycemic index: eat enough sweet stuff, and eventually, my friends, you pay the price. So you can imagine what happened when, probably because of a miscommunication between me and the waiter, I ended up with not just the “Trio of Dark Chocolate Coated Indian-Spiced Treats” (a chocolate cardamom coconut ice cream cone, pistachio gelato ice cream sandwich, and a chai tea creamiscle) but also the Chocolate Passion Fruit Tart (passion fruit curd with fresh raspberries, framboise pearls, vanilla cream and chocolate cacao nib ice cream).
Whoops. Making things worse was the fact that, while some people might not have great things to say about lukewarm soup, the desserts were objectively delicious (an especially impressive feat given the lack of dairy). I particularly loved the passion fruit tart – simultaneously tangy and sweet, with a wonderful blend between vanilla, fruit and chocolate. It had a mixture of flavors and textures that is actually making my mouth water as I type.
After the meal, I decided to walk back home – about 70 blocks – in hopes that some physical activity might counteract the effects of my passion fruit indiscretions. And indeed, when I arrived home nearly an hour later, I was shocked to find that, despite some very conservative bolusing on my part, my blood sugar was hovering below 100. Could it be true? Was raw food actually the holy grail of blood sugar control?
Unfortunately, it is not. I woke up later that night to find that my blood sugar, after staying steady for an impressive amount of time, skyrocketed to the low 300s and took several hours more to get back under control. This situation would no doubt have been better if I’d said no to the chocolate trio – an approach that, should I return to Pure Food and Wine, I’ll be sure to try. But that night, I’d gone for broke. My desserts might have had low glycemic indexes, but that didn’t change the fact that they were sweet.
For those who can’t visit Pure Food and Wine firsthand, you can order some of One Lucky Duck’s snacks on their website.
Catherine Price is a regular contributor to ASweetLife, she writes the blog The Reluctant Diabetic