The F-Word

Today's special: Diet-guru crash course—with a side of celeb-chef comfort food

"It's only dinner," writes Ray, "but the rewards will last a lifetime." Just follow the short and simple recipes in 30-Minute Meals 2, like "You-Won't-Be-Single-for-Long Cream Pasta," and you too will be ending every other sentence with an exclamation point. Her special section on "Healthy Hunger Busters" only calls attention to her indulgent habits everywhere else. Along similar lines, U.K. imports Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver hardly ever talk about health, calories, or fat. Lawson's Nigella Bites (named after her show on the Style Network) offers instructions for deep-frying candy bars, while a two-page afterword in Oliver's Happy Days With the Naked Chef can't help but seem like an afterthought.The central deception of all these books is that you can eat everything inside while looking as good as the people on the cover. Never has the connection between sex and food been more explicit than with this crop of celebrity chefs. Lawson may be 43, but she had no problem posing for GQ with sultry wet hair and bared shoulders. In the October issue of "lad magazine" FHM, Rachael Ray appeared in a three-page spread, sucking a strawberry in one photo, licking a chocolate-covered spoon in another. Then there's the tongue-in-cheek title of Happy Days With the Naked Chef. "Sorry to disappoint you," says Oliver's page on foodnetwork.com, "it's not the chef that's naked, it's the food!"

In the end, however, people are turning to cookbooks for the same reason they are turning to weight-loss manifestos—therapy. Ray's earlier book was called Comfort Food, while Lawson has virtually made comfort food her specialty. Happy Days, too, includes a chapter on "Comfort Grub." Where else can dieters turn when the promises of Dr. Atkins fail them, when the tough love of Dr. Phil leaves them sore? Food not only offers happiness, it offers emotional support. As Lawson writes, "We all get tired, stressed, sad or lonely, and this is food that soothes." It is, after all, no accident that The South Beach Diet, like New Diet Revolution before it, includes 183 pages of healthy recipes, many from trendy-sounding Miami restaurants. Like Dr. Atkins, Dr. Agatston wants to make dieting as quick, easy, and painless as possible, so you can salivate over Armand salad and spicy tuna and still lose eight to 13 pounds in the first 14 days. 30-Minute Meals, meet Two-Week Weight Loss.

Whatever the recipe, weight-loss guides and cookbooks cannot hold all the answers. Sure, watching your waistline may enable a healthy, happier life, but it cannot guarantee it any more than Rachael Ray's pasta can guarantee a marriage proposal. Lawson told the Times (shortly before becoming a regular columnist), "The interesting thing about food is that it's both about reality and escape. After those planes bashed into the World Trade Center, I just wanted to chop something." Maybe that's true for a domestic goddess, but I still think there's more to life than just the joy of cooking.


Stephen Vider shared an apartment last summer with a pastry student at the Cordon Bleu in London.

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