Collectively, the work that he and Willett and others in nutrition and epidemiology have done has built a large body of knowledge, Gardner says, but they’re hitting a ceiling. “We know about 90 percent of what we’ll ever know,” he says. “And it’s not enough.”
WILLETT STANDS AT THE STOVE in his kitchen, stirring a tomato-and-red pepper sauce. “Let me turn this up just a little bit here,” he says, bending to adjust the gas dial.
I had heard him boast so often about his wife’s alternative cooking that I felt entitled to invite myself over for a taste test. Gail Willett had prepared her version of meat loaf, the one her husband had raved about. It had lentils and walnuts standing in for the beef. She had sauteed a red pepper-and-tomato sauce to go on top, leaving Willett to give it a few final stirs while she stepped out to run an errand.
A former nurse and bookstore owner, Gail now teaches private cooking classes in their handsome but unpretentious Cambridge Victorian. She helps home cooks with the task she’s been handling for a couple of decades now: revamping meals to match the knowledge coming out of Willett’s studies.
As soon as she returns, Gail says, “Walter does not cook — did he tell you that?”
I assure her he had been completely honest with me about his limits in the kitchen, but there’s no denying that the man eats what he preaches.
Over the years, Gail has adjusted her cooking fully, if not always enthusiastically, to match her husband’s findings. “I don’t put any salt in my cooking anymore, which has been very hard for me,” she says. “I used to put salt on my cantaloupe when I was a kid.” She’s also cleared her pantry of potatoes, white rice, white bread, and white pasta. “Basically, we don’t eat much of anything that’s white in this house.”
When I ask her what she misses most, she pauses and then releases a slow, guilty smile. “Desserts.”
Incredibly, Willett insists he doesn’t long for anything from his old diet — including his wife’s homemade desserts. They “are now too sweet for my taste,” he says.
Despite Gail’s general embrace of her husband’s food philosophy, she allows herself a few points of departure. “I miss red meat. I’ll have it a couple of times a year,” she says. “We’ll go out and I’ll prepare Walter, saying, ‘I’m in the mood for some lamb.’ He’ll say, ‘There are so many other options.’ But I’ll have it.”
And her husband really can’t complain too much. Even he might agree that if you’re generally mindful about what you eat and how active you are, a few indulgences won’t hurt you, especially if they help keep you on the right path.
As for Gail’s lentil-and-nut loaf, here are the results of my non-randomized, noncontrolled trial of one: Walter Willett knows what he’s talking about. It’s damn good.