My stomach lives a cushy life.
He has pizza shoveled in from a hole-in-the-wall down the street. Beef au jus sandwiches delivered from door-to-mouth. Chicken taquitos superheated with electromagnetic radiation and gobbled with gobs of sour cream. He is, needless to say, perpetually pleased. But if I ignore him for more than a few hours, he throws a fit like a petulant puppy, hissing and growling until I eat and ease him back into tranquility.
Earlier this year, two questions began to obsess me: What if eating wasn’t this easy? What if food was hard to get? The questions inspired ideas; the ideas coalesced into an experiment.
For the entire month of April, I would treat food—from acquisition to preparation to consumption—as prehistoric humans did (with a few modern twists). I deemed this The Literal Paleo Diet. I’d like to introduce it under the formidable pretense that it is the most masochistic diet I know of, stopping just short of starvation (although we’ll get there too). Behold:
- I could only eat food that could be reasonably hunted or gathered (e.g. vegetables, fruits, nuts, raw meat) and prepared using Paleolithic means
- No refrigerators
- No microwaves
- No ovens
- I had to “forage” (read: walk to the grocery store) for all 3 meals
- I had to “hunt” (read: walk a mile to the store) once a day for meat
The month profoundly changed my relationship with food, eating, and living. Pineapple and almonds became a frequent dinner option. I crushed garlic with my fists. Peeled avocados with my fingernails. Chomped heads of broccoli at my desk. I eventually lost 18 pounds in 30 days. I developed an intense loathing for an inanimate object. I went to bed starving. I even turned to religion.
I’ll explain more in due time. But first, let’s go back to that fateful April Fool’s Day…
Day 1: Tuesday, April 1st
Did cavemen eat smokehouse almonds?
I deliberated, feet planted on the cold tile, eyes transfixed on the charcoal-red nuts. Well… no, probably not. But I mean, almonds are almonds, right?
A new record. Sleep still drooped from my eyes while I munched factory-flavored food.
It was the morning of April 1st, 2014, and I was in denial. After 15 blissful months of normalcy, the swirling emotions from my year of personal experiments—a dollop of anxiety, a dash of dread, a pinch of excitement—were back.
My new life was nuts.
A few hours after losing the rhetorical battle with smokehouse seasoning, I faced my first forage. I knew from month-long bouts with vegetarianism and extreme cheapness that the first grocery trip on a new diet is eye-opening. In this case, however, it was primarily aisle-closing.
The group of allowed foods was restricted to one area: the produce section. The Rules forbid dairy, grains, gluten, legumes, and refined sugars, and since my office had no stove, I had no permitted method to cook meat. I effectively regressed into a diurnal raw vegan.
Lunch was a spinach salad, topped with avocado, almonds, dried cranberries, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. The first few mouthfuls were delicious; mouthfuls #30 onward were a chore. My stomach grumbled in gastrointestinal protest.
I need to begrudgingly admit that I still waded in shadowy territory. My almonds were roasted, the dried cranberries were infused with sugar, and it seems implausible that any plant naturally secretes vinegar. My friend Todd summarized it best: “I gotta say, this whole idea seems pretty half-baked.” I hadn’t yet fully crossed over (because how can one live without balsamic vinegar?!) although ties to my previous life of comfortable options would vanish soon enough.
Even still, Day One was about as much fun as Kim Jong-un. My energy lagged. I had trouble focusing. My stomach was picketing up and down neural pathways, screaming for détente.
But if there was any solace, it was my new favorite time of day: dinner. Goddamnit dinner was goddamn amazing. I devoured a mountain of ground beef—sautéed with garlic, onions, and spinach—complemented by a savory sweet potato. I spent the next hour blissfully melted into my couch watching 60 Minutes.
Day 3: Thursday, April 3rd
Usually in the presence of co-workers, it’s best to leave your quirks at home. In my case, I had judiciously strewn them across my desk.
With no refrigerator and minimal dignity, I had stored three days worth of food—bags of nuts, boxes of berries, and containers of wilted spinach—adjacent to my co-workers’ computer monitors.
Since I was just 6 weeks into my new job at a 60-person company, for many, I successfully cemented a first impression of “that weird guy with chia seeds on his desk.” To make matters worse, I was not particularly discreet—for three days straight, I had shunned the healthy and delicious company-catered food while I chopped carrots and sliced avocados in the nearby kitchen. Questions quickly came, and the answers were met with skeptical bewilderment.
My close teammates were rooting for me though, which was nice. After each afternoon forage, they would hopefully inquire, “How’d it go?” (I rolled a 4 today, so great.) Although I concede that it was difficult to determine whether they genuinely wanted me to succeed or if they just preferred to appease any additional grumpiness.
And let’s be honest: although I was trying to be upbeat, I was grumpier than Bill Belichick at a Skrillex concert. Even when I could eat freely, food still dictated my mood ruthlessly (my mom’s crabbiness catch-all: “Have you eaten sweetie?”). Now, cantankerous fog clouded my head, and I sulked through a measly 2 out of 8 items on my daily to-do list.
Beyond just emotions, the Literal Paleo Diet heavily altered the physical structure of my day. I woke up 45 minutes early in order to squeeze in a morning forage and a breakfast fry-up. I skipped catered lunch to embark on an hour-long afternoon forage. And then there was the two-hour ordeal that qualified as dinner (which, to be fair, was still as magnificent as ever). In my old life, eating encompassed one hour of my day. Now, it occupied four.
Fortunately, I know from previous personal experiments that the shock from a new monthly trial was usually fleeting. I saw it time and time again: the summit lies beyond Day 3. After that, the new habit became routine. With a stomach full of food, I slept, hopeful that enlightened adjustment was on the horizon.
Day 4: Friday, April 4th
He laid face up on the pavement.
Following a triumphant head-over-heels flip, the dot was now staring at me square in the eyes. My first meeting with One.
Ah. One. I forgot to mention him didn’t I?
Here’s the background: food in the paleolithic era was no guarantee. Unsuccessful hunts and fruitless forages abounded. And since this month was a simulation of food and eating as a paleolithic man, the Urban Forager Diet contained one more rule—the coup de grâce, if you will:
For every hunt or forage, I rolled a die upon arriving at the store’s sliding doors. If the result was a 1, I could not enter and had to leave empty-handed. Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? No.
It’s hard to express the disappointment that One brings. He’s indifferent to hectic workdays. Oblivious to prayers and pleas. I could bargain. I could try ignoring him altogether. But he would always prevail. And with 70 more rolls ahead of me, and a 16% chance of encounter, I knew it would be just the first of many times that we would cross paths.
The Rules prevented me from going into the Safeway that Friday afternoon, my second forage of the day. But I had dutifully stored food in case a situation like this were to arrive.
Unfortunately, the food—a banana, two carrots, and cashews—were not necessarily my first lunch choice.
While my co-workers filled their plates with catered Indian food, I threw a fistful of cashews into my mouth and chomped a carrot in malevolent dissatisfaction, like some sort of Bizarro Bugs Bunny.
Later that night, I eagerly made the mile-long trek to Trader Joe’s. The walk is primarily uphill, and my anxiety rose proportionally with the elevation, peaking when the red store letters crested into view. I twiddled the die nervously for the last 50 steps. As I approached the grocery carts, I gave it a flick.
A friend! The beneficent four!
I snuck into TJ’s, speared a ferocious grass-fed ground beef, trekked home and ravenously inhaled every spoonful of steamy meat, tangy onion, and savory beef fat.
I also desired a successful hunt for another reason. It was Friday, and I wanted to celebrate conquering the first four days of what was quickly becoming my most foreboding challenge to date.
One of the benefits of inventing your own psychotic diet is that you get to make the rules, and I, as head gamemaker, declared that red wine was permitted. To be fair, I had to jump forward a few thousand metaphorical years—from prehistoric and pre-alcoholic Africa to 7000 BC and very-alcoholic China—to scoop a bottle of Malbec from present-day Argentina, but I didn’t let the numerous logical fallacies impede my path to drunkenness. I sipped red wine with revelry.
Like a responsible primitive humanoid, I limited the red wine to two glasses. I resisted my friends’ attempts to feed me other types of alcohol (even while they literally waved beer under my nose), and went to bed early.
Day 5: Saturday, April 5th
A quick note on my health.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for some ancillary benefits from eating so goddamn healthily. And five days in, things started to fall into place.
With a full night’s sleep and a successful early morning forage, I consumed a breakfast of four eggs, an avocado, and a couple handfuls spinach before 9am. I hate to sound like a dietician, but the impact was clear: consuming protein and healthy fats instead of white carbohydrates in the morning is like fueling a fire with a wood log instead of newspaper. My new breakfast boosted my energy and focus, which were sustained well into the afternoon.
I had also already lost 5 pounds, although I’d attribute that mostly to water weight and a pre-month overindulgence of bowling-alley appetizers. I was clearly in better shape; whereas a long walk used to kill my calves and wreck my glutes, I could now clip through a two-mile walk uninhibited.
If you compared my meals to family members, Dinner is clearly the handsome breadwinner, Breakfast is Dinner’s smart and industrious little brother, and Lunch is the ugly middle sister with headgear.
Today in particular, Lunch was a real bitch. I ate on the couch with my roommates, and munched a cilantro-mango-spinach-avocado-lime salad, which sat in between Panda Express and a deli platter with crackers, pepperoni, and cheese—all of which looked delicious, and none of which I could eat. The mangos and avocados were underripe, and I overpowered the spinach with far too many cilantro shreds and lime squeezes. Instead of a tropical, citrusy delight, the salad just tasted like acid and plants.
I should mention here that yes, I was aware that my salad consisted of mangos from southeast Asia, cilantro from southern Europe, and cashews from northern Brazil. Either I was a paleolithic superhuman with incredible ocean-leaping abilities, or I was a modern man that wanted a little breathing room. We’ll go with the former.
Fortunately, my nighttime hunt was successful. Dinner lived up to expectations, as always, and I gobbled close to a pound of salmon, a hearty sweet potato, and a sautéed cucumber. I also foraged a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from TJ’s, which I drank liberally later that night.
As much as I enjoyed the drunkenness, I have to admit that as a mid-twenties male in a bar, narrowing my alcohol choice to red wine was not a sound mating strategy. My teeth were stained a dull purple, and it’s tough to impress girls while loudly and repeatedly requesting “one house red please” from the surly and apparently deaf bartender.
As if it’s any surprise, I did not go home with anyone that night.
Day 6: Sunday, April 6th
This section is less an entry and more a quick tidbit of advice.
Unless you enjoy misery and hangovers, housing a bottle of red wine and then some under any circumstances—especially as an escape from extreme healthiness—is just generally a very bad idea.
Day 9: Wednesday, April 9th
On Wednesday morning, I awoke the same way as I had for the past three workdays: groggily and at 7:15am. I crawled out of bed, slipped on running shoes, grabbed the die, and headed out the door.
I was relieved to meet a friend—the agreeable five—at Safeway. One had ambushed me the night before at Trader Joe’s, scaring off the salmon I planned to net for dinner. My consolation prize was finishing off the last of my eggs, sweet potatoes, and avocados.
I excitedly restocked, swiping each item at the self-checkout. When it came time to pay, I patted my pockets.
Does Safeway self-checkout accept an iPhone as payment? No? Well I’ll just double back for my wallet and re-roll. That’s allowed right? It’s not like the machine will remember me… Goddamnit how the fuck do you forget a wallet on a goddamn grocery run? But after fifteen seconds of deliberation, my inner stickler won: Go home dumbass.
Let’s extend the paleolithic metaphor, for a minute. Say I was hunting boar. Also say that in my supreme paleolithic negligence, I forgot to bring a spear. Later, with the beast berserking towards me, do you think he’d allow me to saunter back and snag a weapon? No. He’d rotisserie me with his tusks and turn my ass into bacon.
I moped home, chopped up an apple, slammed back a handful of almonds, and left for work.
Lunch’s forage was more favorable, although I eagerly awaited the night’s hunt after 24 hours of veganism.
On the twenty-three minute walk to Trader Joe’s, I often passed the time by calling my parents. For a majority of the call, I dissected the various woes of this ridiculous experiment with my mom. As my mom is both a retired doctor, and, well, a mother, she was simultaneously supportive but concerned about me being well-fed.
Before I hung up, my mom reminded me (several times) to stock up. I had to remind her (again, several times), that I would if I could, but that food was no guarantee. The fates needed to smile upon me first.
Shortly thereafter, I arrived at the sliding doors and rolled the die.
Unbelievable. Just unbelievable! I hated that single-eyed shithead. I scooped up the die, punched a wall, and stormed back home.
In quick succession, I passed by a woman munching a sandwich, walked underneath a giant, neon-red ‘BURGERS’ sign, and overhead a German man ask his girlfriend “Vat are ve having for dinner?” I called back my mom and told her the grim news. She was more distraught than the time I told her that I lost my job.
For me, food was more than a guarantee; it was a God-given right. For 25 years, I didn’t question that. I had taken quick and convenient eating for granted. Taken fridges, ovens, and microwaves for granted. Even just taken food—delicious, plentiful, healthy food—for granted. I’ll try not to wax poetic, but until very recently, that’s not how things were. It’s still not for some.
But in that moment, I didn’t consider that I was lucky to eat pineapple and almonds for dinner. I was just pissed off.
I went to bed hungry. Determined for revenge.
Day 10: Thursday, April 10th
Now he was just laughing at me, like a guffawing cyclops.
That son of a bitch. The fucker! I had hoped for a morning reprieve. Instead, I received a morning middle finger.
In the last five attempts, I had successfully foraged just once. My apartment food stash was dwindling dangerously, down to just fruit and nuts, which I ate for my second fruitarian meal in a row. The novelty had officially worn off.
For lunch, I decided to trade up watering holes and venture to Whole Foods. I flicked the die.
Six! Fuck yes.
I craved meat, but I had no stove at work, and thus, no way to cook it. I didn’t particularly wish to contract salmonella or mad cow disease, so land animals were out. That left one option:
Fortuitously, I had an oyster shucker at work (long story), and unsurprisingly, I gave zero fucks about wafting a fish-market stench throughout the company halls. I shucked and slurped a dozen slimy oysters with glee.
I was still hungry for something meatier, so I anxiously awaited the evening hunt.
I was working late and had to have dinner at the office, so it was raw meat again. A few hours previously, I had spied a juicy cut of sushi-grade salmon at Whole Foods. I desired to return. The salmon would be mine.
One had interceded two evening hunts in a row (a not-implausible 1-in-36 chance). He wouldn’t stoop to three in a row (a very implausible 1-in-216 chance). Would he?
A couple minutes later, I had my answer.
Yes. Yes he would.
The anger had faded and in its place was depression. I morosely munched dinner, which was an orange and almonds.
I reminded myself that things although things were bad, they weren’t that bad—fruitarian diets have been practiced by many, including Steve Jobs and Ashton Kutcher, who emulated Steve Jobs for a movie role. Fun fact: Steve Jobs died from pancreatic cancer and Ashton Kutcher was hospitalized a few days before shooting for—get this—intense abdominal pain.
Day 11: Friday, April 11th
Broken. Defeated. Friday morning marked the fifth time (sixth if you count the failed attempt) One had vanquished me in eight potential encounters. Six out of eight! I hadn’t had a successful apartment forage in four days.
I did the math: the odds of this occurring were less than 1 in 1000. Of course I expected a few unlucky rolls, a little bit of hardship. But not this.
I ate my last slice of leathery, three-day-old pineapple and finished the last of the almonds. From there on out, the options were bleak: one onion, a few cloves of garlic, wilted grapes, and half-a-bag of cashews. Literal starvation was an actual possibility.
I no longer controlled the die; it controlled me. One had the upper hand. When it came to matters of the stomach, I was powerless.
I will preface this next part by stating that I am one of the least superstitious people I know. I think gambling is for suckers, loathe horoscopes, and don’t believe in God. I majored in applied mathematics for fuck’s sake: I knew that this month was precisely that.
But I had never faced anything as visceral as food deprivation.
First, I swapped the die. It could be loaded for all I knew. That little shit had to go. But I went one step further and turned to something higher.
I worked from home on Friday, and before the lunch forage, I searched my apartment for divine inspiration. And I found it on my balcony, in the form of a weather-worn, sun-bleached, marble Buddha statue. His smile beckoned.
I grabbed a few grapes and walnuts from my stash and sacrificed them to Balcony Buddha. I mumbled what I guess qualified as a prayer, and gave his tummy a quick rub with my index finger.
I felt ridiculous. Up until 30 seconds ago, I couldn’t even correctly spell Buddha (thank you spell check). But things couldn’t get much worse—why not turn to religion?
With Buddha on my side, I made the afternoon trek to Safeway. This was big—the make-or-break moment. An onion-grape-cashew stir-fry was a legitimate lunch possibility. I gave the (new) die a roll.
Four! FUCK YES! ALL PRAISE BE TO BUDDHA!
I stocked up—eggs, sweet potatoes, avocados, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies galore. It was good to have food. Holla at sh’boy Buddha!
It feels weird to admit this, but the praise to Buddha was genuine, not ironic. This was just the beginning of my grandiose armchair-theory on food, chance, and religion. If you’ll indulge me for a minute, it goes something like this:
The beginnings of religion can be traced to the Paleolithic Era. In my view, early religion was developed not to explain life’s mysteries nor to give prehistoric humans morals. Paleolithic religion was practiced because food was uncertain. Because self-control spirals in the face of hunger. When food is a product of random chance, its acquisition seems dictated by some unknown magnet. So one succumbs to something higher. Why do you think all the early religious idols are animals?
I realize that I effectively condensed a complicated, sacred, 100,000-year-old concept down to a paragraph through speculation and brief Wikipedia research (so I’m not completely full of shit). But sounds pretty convincing, eh?
Several hours later, I made the evening journey to Trader Joe’s with a divine wind at my back. I could feel it: the tide had turned. I actually rhythmically clapped my hands over my head like a JV cheerleader so as to remain properly pumped up.
The pearly gates of Trader Joe’s came into sight. I rolled the die.
Sweet relief! For the first time in four days, I would taste meat. I passed through the sliding doors, and watched urbanites filter through the aisles, blissfully unaware of their good fortune. They go to the store, they walk inside, and they buy food. What a novel concept.
My mouth watered as I checked out, ground beef in tow. The month was just barely a third over, but I had trudged through a year’s worth of suffering. I found light in the tunnel when there was only darkness.
This required celebration. I foraged another bottle of red wine—this time, a Bordeaux—ready to drunkenly bask in the victory I had so rightly earned.
It would take another nine hours to realize what a terrible mistake I had just made.
To be continued…