The Decadence Of Orthorexia

The Hemsley sisters are well-meaning but their food treats people like fragile invalids

Food Health

Hemsley + Hemsley: Lovely, but peddlers of guff (photo: Hemsley + Hemsley)

While being driven figuratively mad by the misuse of “literally”, I was thinking of other words which it is now impossible to employ correctly. “Iconic”, obviously, along with “stunning” and “vibrant”, though I’d also vote for “implement” and “challenge”. And then “decadent”. As an adjective, decadent does not mean luxuriously self-indulgent; this is its correct use as a noun. A person can be a decadent, but it is not a word to describe pudding, nor is it a synonym for purple velvet, despite what fashion editors appear to think every time someone revives the 1970s — the decade in which, incidentally, American advertising agencies began using it to tempt consumers into buying frozen whipped cream desserts. In a sense, they were right, as decadent properly means the reflection of a state of moral decline, from which you are clearly suffering if you think that eating a cake made of E numbers and hydrogenated vegetable fat is a good idea. Yet decadence might be more surprisingly, and accurately, used to describe the oeuvre of the Hemsley sisters, whose online and publishing success epitomises the spinelessly self-regarding approach to food which characterises fashionable modern eating. I bought their book, The Art of Eating Well (Ebury Press, £25), as part of a television research project on orthorexia, the obsession with “healthy” eating which while not yet classified as an eating disorder is nonetheless gaining currency as a potentially damaging obsession. Grazia magazine has even devoted an article to orthorexia, describing the psychological anguish that can result from fanatical juicing, which might be funny if it weren’t also true.

It seems mean to criticise the Hemsleys. They look like lovely people and are undoubtedly well-meaning, not to mention very glossy and healthy. They have a hugely popular website and have sold gazillions of recipe books which encourage people to cook from scratch, consume plenty of vegetables and be mindful of their health, all of which would be fine if so much of what they preach weren’t unutterable guff. They are evangelical about “bone broth”, which last time I looked was known as stock and has been a staple of most decent cooking across most cultures for millennia, and they are very frightened of gluten and dairy. They are also worried about whole grains, but blithely unconcerned about the ecological impact of quinoa and almond milk. The Hemsleys play fast and loose with definitions, which can be a wonderful thing in the kitchen, but not when you are instructed to julienne a courgette and pretend to your guests it is spaghetti.

Their food is decadent because it suggests that our organisms are too delicate and fragile to digest perfectly healthy foods which have been dietary staples forever. It is decadent because it suggests that instead of rejoicing in the abundance of wonderful food available in the West and perhaps being bloody grateful for it, we ought to consider ourselves as invalids, whose “wellness” depends on substituting rice for cauliflower, and whose moral state is conditioned not by what we do but by the efficiency of our intestinal tracts. It is decadent to refuse joy and curiosity to the extent of travelling with home-baked quinoa porridge, as recommended by the Hemsleys, lest you accidentally encounter a croissant. One wonders, speculatively, how the Italians managed to get round to the Renaissance, what with the gastric agonies they must have been suffering from all that bread and pasta, or how the Chinese constructed their civilisation when they were simultaneously contending with the gripes produced by Evil Rice and her cousin Wily Noodle. We are sick, sick beings, and we must nurture our delicate souls by ribboning our greens with the help of the Hemsley spiralizer (yours on Amazon for £29.95).

Many people have apparently found salvation in eating the Hemsley way, and sure, an excess of carbohydrates and too much sugar isn’t a great idea for anyone’s waistline, but I suggest that eating Proper Food might also be a radical solution to the stresses of modern existence. You could, for example, try Richard Corrigan’s perfectly delightful Mayfair seafood restaurant, Bentley’s, and have some chewy, sweet soda bread with lots of butter (Vogue recently announced that butter is actually good for you, so it’s really, really OK), and then you could try some Carlingford rock oysters — raw, plenty of zinc and protein, followed by some vibrant, zingy crisp squid and a crab cake or two. I would then suggest the lobster and chips, with plenty more garlic butter (implements are provided to tackle those pesky claws), and then, if you are really concerned about your five a day, you could hop in a cab up to Marylebone High Street and have a macchiato and a slice of Black Forest Gateau at Fischer’s, which does MittelEuropean food better than anywhere I have ever eaten in MittelEuropa. I tried this recently and I have to say, I felt perfectly marvellous.

Or you could try for a table at the newly-reopened Ivy, the famous Covent Garden restaurant, which feels very much like the old Ivy, with the addition of some blameless modern art and an onyx central bar, and the subtraction of the gawking hordes. At lunch, cod with coco beans, chorizo and smoked paprika emulsion was harmonious and subtle, and plaice with brown shrimps and samphire was saline perfection. Shepherd’s pie, turned out of the customary dish, came poised and quivering, with a gravy so good that we wanted to lick the plate. Sticky toffee pudding, accompanied by a cheerful little jug of crème anglaise, was not quite sticky enough, but it was still sufficiently delicious to be the stuff of the Hemsleys’ nightmares. The Ivy classic of frozen berries in white chocolate sauce no longer features on the menu, but is apparently available to those who ask — a secret reward for the brave.

Just round the corner is another theatreland stalwart, Mon Plaisir, which has been offering classic French dishes to publishers and actors since Lord Weidenfeld was a hungry young intern. The food here can be uneven, but asparagus with lashings of just-set hollandaise followed by steak tartare, the raw meat beaten creamy with mustard and capers, and lightly dressed leaves make an excellent carb-free treat.

Nutritionists suggest that the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, can lead to the accumulation of dangerous fat around the abdomen. Orthorexic eating, with its promise of optimum health, if not immortality, when the right alchemy of dawn-picked kale and fermented chia seeds can be achieved, seems nothing more than a recipe for anxiety-induced obesity. Taking pleasure in Proper Food will not make you fat, but it will provide a more robust and sprauncy approach to life in general. To think otherwise is, literally, decadent.