Thanks for the Mashed Cauliflower

Being thankful isn't enough. We -- every one of us fortunate enough to be alive during this scary, exciting time -- want dessert besides. We want this Thanksgiving to be about pie, not about gratitude for our diminished waistlines. It's been more than a year since low-carb guru Robert Atkins died, and the starch-deprived among us are restless. We know that it's no coincidence that the turkeys pardoned by President Bush at this year's National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation were named Biscuits and Gravy.

America wants its buns back.

We're willing to admit defeat. We got 57 million people to vote for a baboon, but we couldn't get one person to invent a Raspberry Zinger with fewer than 50 grams of carbs. And so we, after months, even years of eating ricotta and pretending it was Häagen-Dazs, have officially caved.

We tried, really we did. We tried to think of meat as the new bread. We forced our bodies into ketosis. We distracted ourselves with more and better toys. Who needs cobbler, we kidded ourselves, when we have iPods and Hummers and vacuum cleaners that think for themselves?

We do. All of us who've gone without Twizzlers and bagels and, God help us, Little Debbies. All of us, that is, except Dr. Elizabeth Harris, a brave soldier in the fight against high-carb eating, and one of the last left standing. Harris owns the Tempe-based Low Carb Mall chain, and she's not giving up her pound of bacon without a fight. You can eat candied yams 'til you go into insulin shock, but Harris won't touch your potato. For her, Thanksgiving is still about mashed cauliflower.

New Times: So, you're a doctor. Of carbohydrates?

Elizabeth Harris: Of physiatric medicine, or integrative medicine. It was actually a program that Dr. Atkins himself recommended. In addition to being a devout Dr. Atkins fan, my previous experience was working with Atkins on the supplements he designed.

NT: You knew this guy personally?

Harris: Right. I didn't work directly for him, I worked for the supplement companies that [designed all the food].

NT: So you're more than just a groupie. You're an insider. Hey, didn't Atkins himself die of a heart attack or something?

Harris: No. He slipped on an icy sidewalk and hit his head. The stories that came out in the media were from the vegetarian groups who said he was clinically obese when he died and had cardiovascular disease. He did have cardiomyopathy, an infection of the heart muscle he picked up in India.

NT: Is there really that kind of fighting among the different factions of health-food fanatics?

Harris: Definitely. It's equivalent to [the relationship between] PETA and the fur industry.

NT: What happened to us? Why did Americans stop eating carbs for so long?

Harris: What happened is people found it was successful. We have clients who've lost a hundred pounds, and they keep it off if they adhere to the plan. Being a disciple of Atkins, you listen to him and pick up pointers as you go. We start people on sugar too early. Even infant formula has sugar in it.

NT: No way.

Harris: Yep. We're starting kids so young on sugar that they evolve into carbohydrate addicts. I just read an article in Parade that the top concern among parents is reducing their children's sugar intake.

NT: Don't read Parade!

Harris: Okay. But really, I just had a baby, and I'm breast-feeding, and I would like to do it until she's 3 years old. But there's so much social criticism of breast-feeding beyond one year. Okay, so we're doing low-carb breast milk all the way --

NT: Low-carb breast milk?

Harris: By that I mean that breast milk has natural sugars in it, but it's not a high-carb food. And we're feeding her foods that are right for her blood type --

NT: Well, but wait. Doesn't it seem like this whole carb thing is getting kind of culty and weird?

Harris: I don't like the word "culty," but I'll agree that -- well, Atkins had these low-carb cruises --

NT: Like on a boat? You're making that up.

Harris: No. And I was on seven out of 10 of them, and on one of them, I felt like I was at a revival. There were 200 people, and there was an open mike, and they were just going up and saying, "Hallelujah, hallelujah!" Their stories gave you goose bumps. These were people who were morbidly obese, and Atkins gave them a new life. So if you want to use the word "culty," you're talking about these people who had tremendous success.

NT: Right. I went on Atkins, and I lost a bunch of weight, and it was great. But then, sometime during the third month, I sniffed a cookie, and bang -- 20 pounds overweight again!

Harris: I guess that's why they have low-carb cookies now. But you have to stay away from the cookies. It's like alcohol for alcoholics.

NT: One thing I could never get a handle on was that whole "net carbs" and "complex carbs" thing -- I was never sure what the hell I was supposed to be counting. And I got really, really sick of all that damn food prep -- all that salad chopping.

Harris: But you did well with it.

NT: Well, I'm in shape. As long as you count "round" as a shape. But really, what's next? Sugar-free sugar? Atkins-friendly gin? Sugar-free doughnuts sound like the Apocalypse.

Harris: I don't know when it's going to happen, but the only diet that I think will supersede low carb is when people return to eating live foods. But people aren't going to like the taste. What it comes down to is you really don't need white bread to survive.

NT: Maybe you don't.

Harris: But when you make white bread, you're mixing flour and water -- you're making papier-mâché. Can you imagine trying to digest that?

NT: No. But a lot of this low-carb stuff contains cellulose, which is indigestible by humans. Is that the trick? Give us food made of materials that we can't digest so they pass through our system?

Harris: No. The idea is to eat the food that's most nutrient-dense.

NT: It's sort of hard to do that on Thanksgiving. What should I do, stuff my turkey with a meat loaf?

Harris: The best is the mashed potato. You use cauliflower, and you mash it, and --

NT: Wait. You're not going to give me a recipe with the word "mock" in the title, are you? Because my dinner guests aren't going to be fooled by mashed cauliflower. And neither am I.

Harris: Well, if it's prepared right, it's extremely good. It has the consistency of mashed potatoes.

NT: And tastes like cauliflower. It's all lethal -- mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pie.

Harris: We sell a low-carb cranberry sauce made with Splenda.

NT: And what does that taste like? Because some of that low-carb stuff tastes like paint thinner.

Harris: It tastes good, just different. You just throw on a little whipped cream, you know what I mean? If you're complaining about the taste, you can just doctor it a little. It's a good product. It's so popular, we're out of it.

NT: The holidays are a food conspiracy. The day after Thanksgiving there's all the leftovers, and then there's potato pancakes and, God, Christmas cookies.

Harris: And the national average weight gain between Thanksgiving and Christmas is eight pounds. You need to stay focused, and keep low-carb candies around to keep you from the real thing.

NT: Yes. Pretend chocolate always makes me forget about that box of Ho-Ho's in the pantry. So what happens to your store now that Atkins is crashing?

Harris: We think that low-carb is going to have a comeback. Now there are a lot of people out there who think it's unhealthy, and for anyone who thinks that, I say, "Analyze your diet." The more people take control of what they eat, not what feels good when they're eating, will be best. Low carbing is as healthy as you make it.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela