Whenever I divulge my career, I’m asked the same two questions: “What’s your favorite Chicago restaurant?” (easy enough—West Town Tavern) and “How do you stay in shape?” This second one stumps me. Nearly a year into my gig with Chicago’s dining department, I still wonder if it’s possible to stay healthy while eating like a frat boy with a trust fund.
Although I dodged the “food writer 15,” a steady diet of crème-fraîche-topped this and duck-fat-fried that wreaked havoc on my insides, leaving me feeling sluggish. Exercise seemed the obvious antidote, but when my boyfriend informed me that it was him or the treadmill, I began hunting for a slightly less time-consuming alternative.
Deep in the throes of yuletide gluttony, I became fixated on the ultratrendy juice cleanse and narrowed down the field of local purveyors to Peeled (1571 N. Sheffield St.; 312-266-7335), a juice bar next door to my gym. Three days sans meals, snacks, and—heaven forbid—coffee sounded dreadful, but I’d seen friends emerge unscathed from far more radical diets. After reading on Peeled’s website that its cleanses are “designed to detox your body and make you feel amazing,” I was sold. With some gentle prodding, Chicago’s chief dining critic, Jeff Ruby—who reported a precleanse diet of such things as a one-pound hamburger (“to make my kids laugh and get my picture on the wall at the restaurant”) and Little Debbie snack cakes—agreed to join me.
On Day 1, I tore into the cardboard box that housed $195 worth of juices in unlabeled 16-ounce plastic bottles. An insert promised these murky potions—featuring healthful goodies such as cucumber, parsley, beets, and cashew milk—would boost immunity, alkalize the system, and comfort the senses. (How about canceling out those cheese curds I’d demolished over New Year’s?) The drill: Drink six bottles a day—in the specified order—at two-hour intervals.
Jeff cleansed at home, a plate of brownies taunting him from the kitchen, and I in my cubicle, ignoring the popcorn scent wafting from the break room. As we waged war with our ingested sins, we exchanged e-mails, a correspondence that began lightheartedly: “My mouth is still angry from the cayenne lemonade,” Jeff mused on the first day. “By comparison, this beet stuff is a 1990 Château Montrose.” But as the novelty of these juices—which ranged from tolerable (a refreshing green veggie blend) to despicable (the aforementioned lemonade)—wore off, our enthusiasm waned. “Starting to resent you greatly” greeted me from my in-box on Day 2. Physically, I flitted between starving, stuffed, energized, and lethargic. The Night 2 headache paid us both a visit. On Day 3, Jeff decreed that the best thing he’d tasted was his toothpaste.
The juices sucked the joy out of life along with the toxins. My noon hour, typically spent chasing down a food truck or lunching with friends, became 60 minutes of aimless ambling through the Loop. Evenings, which previously revolved around dinner, lacked purpose. Peeled’s website never mentioned anything about existential angst. I tried to convince myself that there was more to life than food until Jeff’s check-in echoed my sentiments: “Without meals, I have been disconnected from people who usually bond to me through food. It’s been lonely.”
In the end, we shed a combined nine pounds (all of which quickly found its way back), and my insides did, in fact, feel baptized. Whether the cleanse actually made me healthier is another matter. Melinda Ring, a doctor and the medical director of Northwestern Integrative Medicine, told me via e-mail: “I did one of these cleanses and thought it was great, though the scientific evidence for benefit is questionable.”
When I reverted to my decadent ways with a carnivorous bacchanal at Butcher & the Burger, I did so with a renewed zest for dining out. Nothing like a juicy burger for clarity: A life without meals, even for a mere 72 hours, is a desolate one. And so I return to the drawing board. And the treadmill.
Illustration: Katy Lemay