Thursday, June 9, 2011

Distracted Dining (And Other Confessions of an Incompetent Foodie)


One evening in late September 2001, some friends and I went out to eat at Balthazar in New York City. It was a weeknight. We sat in a booth near the bar. Balthazar is the kind of buzzing Keith McNally joint that’s always been good for a celebration. As it turns out, it’s also a good place for people who are trying to distract themselves from the world. And drown their sorrows in food. That night, I ordered a plate of fries and a steak, cooked rare. I was too busy giving the world the Bronx salute to have a healthy salad or side of vegetables. But really, what was the point? It was just after 9/11. Everyday life was chaotic and depressing. I needed to do some Carpe Diem eating. In the Roman lyricist sense of the term: Imbibe, because the future is brief and uncertain. So I scarfed down my giant juicy steak. I gulped down several glasses of earthy, red wine. And since I was already using food as an emotional weapon, I chain smoked through the entire meal.

I doubt we were the only people in Manhattan in those days – or anywhere else, for that matter -- eating out of impulsive fury. But that was unusual for me. Even back then, I was never a stress eater. I didn’t face emotional crises with a package of sandwich cookies, or a tub of potato salad. In fact, I’ve always been much more likely to be distracted away from food than by it. That’s the kind of statement that may annoy people who have food issues, in the same way that people who “don’t need much sleep” make me feel enraged. But when I was younger, my eating habits mimicked those of a boa constrictor. When I was really under stress, I barely ate at all. Looking back, neither stress starvation nor eating like an ambush predator were healthy ways to live. But both were probably better than eating like an angry French existentialist, living on booze, nicotine, and barely-cooked beef.

Now that I’m middle aged, I rarely forget to eat. I can’t handle the dramatic metabolic swings. Raising kids has also forced me to keep the refrigerator stocked and prepare regular meals. I learned a lot about good cooking when I was growing up, from my mother. But I tend to think (and so does she) that cooking doesn’t really get easier until you spend more time on the line, in your own kitchen. Being head domestic chef and nutritionist for almost ten years has forced me to massively expand my culinary repertoire. At a certain point – maybe when I could make a dozen dishes off the top of my head that I knew my kids would eat -- cooking became more fun again (moving to a place large enough that I could access the refrigerator and the oven at the same time helped too). Over time, I started to think of cooking as a hobby. One where people sometimes scream at you while you’re doing it, but a hobby nonetheless. As I learned to make a wider variety of food, I became more interested in the work that chefs put into the preparation of dishes, as well. I always loved going out to eat, but understanding a meal’s context and construction has given me an even stronger appreciation for the ingredients, taste combinations, and preparations of my food.

Nowadays, of course, people who use words like “preparations” and “taste combinations” are often thought of as “foodies.” Foodies talk like that because they are disciples of the increasingly vast and fêted world of food and cookery. In the last two decades, food awareness movements have sprouted up along with a vast bounty of food-related shows, journals, websites, blogs, restaurant empires, and celebrity superchefs. Unlike chefs -- or superchefs -- foodies are not generally people who work “in the industry.” In fact, unless you count signing up for a few cooking classes, remodeling your kitchen, or watching every episode of Top Chef, most self-declared foodies don’t even have formal training. Yet they are some of the food world’s most avid followers. And so, they’ve become a social force to reckon with. Sure, you can still turn to the person standing next to you at the water cooler at work, and tell them that you had a “great dinner” last night. But don’t say that unless you can explain what that means (Did you shuck some fresh Maine oysters? Did you make locally-sourced maple syrup bourbon macadamia ice cream parfaits?) Foodies don’t just talk about food; they live it.

While there are many people out there who like to talk about what they eat, foodies actually deconstruct food. They have a knack for making even the most frivolous of topics sound like serious discourse (“that papaya chutney was a disaster,” or “I’m very interested in radicchio right now”). In demonstration of their special relationship with food – some might call it, their refined palettes -- they often use cult jargon that other people can’t understand. Like “flavor essence.” Or in reference to molecular gastronomy: “gimmicky.” Or the phrase, “molecular gastronomy.” They also bring gravitas to the world of food through the use of religious metaphors, like “celestial,” “divine,” and “mecca.” For the most part, foodies do not spearhead cooking movements (like Alice Waters), and aren’t among its most heralded preachers (like Ruth Reichl). But they are some of the cooking world’s most devout apostles. The Saint Pauls of the amuse bouche, if you will.

The most voracious among them enjoy reading about food as much as they like consuming it. While normal people may spend their discretionary time each week reading the New Yorker, for example, foodies spend it paging through cookbooks (who can read both? and besides, you never know when you may need to call upon one of the five mother sauces, or improvise on a recipe for Asian-fusion jambalaya). If you put a high premium on food and you want others to know it, you also have to be able to convey your passion for it in precise, technical terms. These days, some people may go slightly overboard in confessional oversharing, a trend which food review sites like yelp have encouraged (“OMG, the Shake Shack? Danny Meyer’s mini-chain is maxi-brilliant. I don’t know if it’s the condiment ratio or the incredibly perfect buns, but shhh, I eat there every day!!”) Yet if they are also able to provide dispassionate, well-informed analysis, the fervor is usually justified (“You’ll notice when you eat it, that nothing ever slides out the back of the burger. That’s because the starches in the potato bread seal everything together so beautifully.”) I did embellish those comments slightly, based upon my own visits to the Shake Shack on two separate (and virtually irrepressible) occasions. But foodies do bring lots of fervent enthusiasm to a topic that – as my friend Jordan has observed –is as popular to write about now as parenting and rock music.

As I said earlier, I cook and eat out a lot. And I enjoy artisanal bread, return-to-casual rustic tables, and gratis biscotti as much as the next person. In the past year alone, I’ve eaten at two different restaurants where I got food in hand-forged dishes misted with flavor essences. At Moto, I had to tell the server that I thought my risotto sandwich tasted too much like real food (“if I wanted to eat an actual Reuben, I’d go to a cheap New York deli”). Of course, I also sent back a pisco sour at Bouchon in Beverly Hills, because I found it too flat (“I'm certain that real Peruvians make them frothier”). In the same calendar year, I made a food pilgrimage to the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver just to try a foie gras burger with truffle cheese and balsamic fries. It took me the next 24 hours to digest (but what a hamburger mecca that place is). Saying things like “food pilgrimage” makes me sound pretty foodie (despite the fact that I was actually in town for a family wedding anyway). Boasting about eating organ-meat-filled meat is extremely foodie, full stop.

But since we are living in the age of food confessionals, I may as well confess something: I’m not really a foodie. Or at least, not a good one. Some of my friends hold leadership roles in the industry, and otherwise participate in cooking collectives, political awareness groups, and food-related media. But increasingly these days, I can’t keep up with them, almost as if I’ve been trying to get a reservation at the foodie table, and the only time they have available is 10:30pm (next month). Some of my food challenges are small, but emblematic. Take the Vitamix. My friends who are great cooks (as well as many great chefs who are not my friends) say they can’t live without theirs. I sort of want one. But, if you’re not sure you will make your own nut butters, do you really deserve a 700-dollar blender? And I have concerns about my palette. For instance, I’ve never liked gnocchi. I find it too dense and chewy (like eating a sponge soaked in sage butter or wild boar ragu). Don’t even get me started on fennel. I will never understand how an aromatic perennial with such a poisonous aftertaste has stayed so trendy for so long. Clearly, the problem must be me. And fennel is just the beginning.

First of all, I can’t really keep up with all the eating. More and more these days, it seems like going out for a nice dinner is more like a food-based reality show than a meal. Some special food events feel like food marathons, for which I invariably needed more training. In retrospect, my friend Katie and I probably shouldn’t have tried to consume all 26 courses at Alinea when we were both suffering from severe respiratory illnesses. After five hours at the table, it was all I could do to stop myself from laying my head down on the chocolate-coconut smeared silicone tablecloth and going to sleep. But what would we have told our foodie friends later? That we didn’t go, and let Grant Achatz tweet our reservation out to the world?

Even when I’m in good health, though, I sometimes crash into that food wall. This seems to happen especially in Madison, which has an astonishingly high number of foodies per capita compared to bigger cities, and possibly also larger portions. Last year, we were invited to a special restaurant event, hosted by two well-known local chefs. It was billed as a “pig-themed” dinner. It turned out it wasn’t so much a theme, as it was an entire pig. Every dish contained one or several different parts from the pig. They were all creatively prepared, down to the marrow in the soup, and the crispy rind garnishes. And the dinner was wonderful -- until I realized that there is, in fact, a point beyond which I’ve eaten too much pig. It was that night --as I lay awake trying to metabolize the excess lard -- that I started to wonder if the foodie lifestyle might be out of my league.

In fact, my biggest dilemma as an omnivore may be that I’m not one. When I go out, I want to be a good foodie and dive daringly into some tender sweetbreads. But other than some forms of foie gras, organ meat is really not for me. For one thing, the texture reminds me of an organ. Or a gnocchi. I also have a hard time getting past the words “bile,” and “lymphocyte graveyard.” I’ll happily try a carpaccio of anything: thin slices of regular meat almost always appeal to me. And I can be pretty game when it comes to game, or new preparations of meat in general. I recently ate a fourth course at Girl and the Goat called “pig face,” served with fried eggs on top. After eating that, I wanted to post a mouth-watering description on facebook. I wanted to show my fellow enthusiasts how I’d martyred myself for the cause once again. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Uploading the pictures would only have reminded me how full I was. I regretted the overindulgence. Perhaps, I thought, I’d make for a better foodie in Spain, where tapas are not only delicious but also small, eaten standing up, and served at bars. Because I’m starting to think that in the presence of large quantities of rich food, I’m just kind of useless.

I could try to argue that I’m more the great-at-cooking kind of foodie, than the into-eating kind of foodie. But I fear my cooking doesn’t cut the gourmet mustard either. I’m not getting up every day, throwing on a string of pearls, and declaring myself the “queen of the baking mix” (really Sandra Lee? Semi-homemade? Is that even a word?) I’ve moved beyond that. In fact, my mother taught me how to separate egg yolks at a very early age. I can handle myself around phyllo dough. I recently made some ravioli with a handheld cutter, while my four-year-old “helped.” But really, the mushroom filling wasn’t thick enough. Several of the ravioli deflated in the pot. Not long after, I botched a lemon tart. I had no excuse other than that I don’t possess a double boiler. But does that excuse it really, or just further illustrate my point?

I wonder sometimes if cooking is really enough anymore. So many people I know are about creating food experiences. It gives me a complex if I make a meal, and later realize that nothing in it is drizzled with balsamic. When I take a roast out of the oven, I can’t help but wonder: is this meat buttery enough that Rahm Fama would want to stick his finger in it? I try to make sure all my desserts have an infused liqueur component. As a rough guideline, in fact, I try to use recipes that include at least one item in a foreign language (and who would serve summer artichokes without a grand aioli, anyway?) At the same time, I can’t deny that I’ve prepared several batches of homemade broth in the last few years without using a boquet garni. I used to feel it was okay just to toss in some herbs, loose and untethered. But that was before chefs had become celebrities, food enthusiasts cooked like chefs, and oysters were smoked over tea leaves, and served in tiny handheld crystal balls.

Some of my inadequate cooking stems from the fact that I have to feed two ungrateful but always-starving children. When I said this to my friend Kamille, she remarked that real foodies can’t have kids. I don’t know if that’s always true. Maybe there are some kids who’d rather eat polenta and crab hash than chicken fingers and peas. But I do know that several evenings in the past year, I’ve opened Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc At Home, only to decide I couldn’t make a single thing in it. I even gave up on mashed potatoes. They were too demanding (the potatoes). His are called “smashed,” and require that you first spend 40 minutes making a confit of garlic with a diffuser. Of course, he would’ve made the garlic confit two weeks earlier, while he cured lemon slices and clarified butter. But I’m not that inspired, and I don’t plan well enough in advance. I’ve never pickled anything but a zucchini (and that was only because I had a bumper crop and I ran out of places to put it). I don’t own a diffuser. So I just closed the cookbook and made some potato soup, with some homemade broth and fresh chives from my garden. (I did not use the chive blossoms, because I didn’t even think of making a heavenly radish salad with them until it was too late). Point is, when your homemade broth just ends up as part of a simple dish based around rice or pasta, your standards are going to slip. First you’re throwing in loose herbs. The next thing you know, you’re making gravy with store-bought beef broth, serving it out of a pedestal bowl, and calling yourself the “queen of the premixed spice pack.”

On good days, I can manage a quick, scaled back version of something a real foodie might eat. Like Mark Bittman, but without the how-to-cook-everything-sounds-like-the-joy-of-cooking stigma. Keller’s meatballs recipe, for example, is made with four different freshly-ground meats, and then stuffed with fresh mozzarella. I used beef that was ground a few days earlier at the store, by a stranger, and my cheese was packed in plastic, instead of balled in brine. They ended up a lot like regular meatballs. Only a few years ago, I might have been pleased with myself for making something with grass-fed beef from a local farmer that tasted so good (and so ad hoc!) I’m a proud adherent of local and natural food movements. I spend an uncomfortable amount of time every week thinking about how to provide my family with food that meets most or all of the following criteria: local, organic, preservative-free, seasonal, nutritionally-balanced, homemade, at various times low on soy and sugar, and rife with antioxidants and probiotics. I do have my limits: I’ll never turn into a fruitarian, and wait for my meals to fall off a tree. But I’m not sure that keeping your family on a Michael Pollan diet plan is even cool in foodie circles anymore. What’s the point of buying fresh, locally grown arugula if you don’t also hunt down some Belgian endive and make a crafty pancetta shallot vinaigrette?

Well, I still value farm to table eating, even if the farm isn’t my own, and the table isn’t always loaded up with homemade ciabatta. But the best foodies do more than just eat and cook. They follow the global restaurant scene with rapt attention. Some follow the tweets of their favorite chefs, while others read online reviews and blogs. What really sets them apart from seasonal grilling enthusiasts and grandmothers who make flaky pie crusts? It is their ability to provide -- at a moment’s notice, and in encyclopedic detail -- a thorough review of the most fabulous meals they’ve eaten. Being able to recall specific menu items from last week, month, or year may not be difficult for someone who is singlemindedly focused on food. But for me, there are just too many distractions.

My attention deficit problem comes and goes. Part of the distraction thing is about aging, and the natural loss of mental acuity. If I could get back every minute I’ve spent standing in the basement trying to remember why I went down there, I’d be a much younger woman. (I’d also waste a lot less time in the basement.) I’ve spent a lot of quality time at home with my children, which has enhanced my ability to multitask at the possible expense of my ability to concentrate. Rapid advances in computer and mobile technology haven’t done me any favors either. More and more nowadays, I fear I have what yoga instructors call “monkey mind.” Apart from enabling you to eat more food with less guilt, the practice of yoga is meant to focus your mind on the spiritual awakening of the present, and quiet your worldly thoughts. If your monkey brain is hyperactively jumping from thought to thought, you can’t concentrate on the main tasks at hand. For me, monkey mind often means I can’t completely focus on – let alone savor, or god forbid, recall -- those fleeting gastronomical moments that occur between the plating of the food and the paying of the check.

So what is it that prevents me from keeping my wits about me in a busy, crowded restaurant, across several courses and pairings of wine? Well, if busy, crowded restaurants had fewer people in them, that would be a good start. On a recent night out in Chicago, for instance, I dined at Balsan in the Elysian hotel. When the waiter came to our table, I was already rather distracted by his full, Tom-Selleck-like moustache (I've seen a lot of those lately, is that a new thing?). But then he said --in a low and discreet tone of voice -- that the hotel hosted lots of “sports and entertainment figures.” Despite the fact that my friend Tara and I had chosen the place because we thought there’d be no scene, I couldn’t help but notice the crowd. Everything else the waiter subsequently said – including his list of specials, which may or may not have included some kind of fruity pork medallions – was lost on me, because I was busy scanning the room for Ricky Gervais. In the end, my inattention didn’t matter that much. I liked the meal. We did enjoy a nice Shenandoah Zinfandel that I particularly wish I remembered. But we were so engrossed in conversation that every time the bottle came by, I forgot to look.

On occasion, it’s not the specter of a famous person but an actual one that has thrown me off my food game. On one of our recent visits to New York, we went to one of our favorite Upper East Side establishment spots, Sette Mezzo. Sette Mezzo is known for serving basic Italian fare to the city’s billionaire elite. So it didn’t really surprise me when our waiter interrupted our drink order to set up a table next to us for Ralph Lauren. But I did find the situation very distracting. I had questions. Will his dog stay in his lap for the whole meal? Can he see the label of my cheap Nine West trench coat hanging off my chair? Will his dinner companion ridicule me for bumping into him on my way out of the men’s bathroom, which I ducked into because the women’s room was occupied? In the midst of all this, I do remember having eaten my appetizer -- a portion of homemade stuffed mozzarella that was so large Ralph Lauren’s entire staff of runway models could surely have feasted on it for days. I can’t remember my main course at all. I think it was the Rigatoni with sausage and artichoke. But I had so many other mindless things to pay attention to, it may as well have been the gnocchi.

Truth is, even at famed hotspots in New York -- like Café Luxembourg and La Grenouille -- I didn’t recognize many of the faces that were pointed out to me. Occasionally, however, I did stumble across people I admired. The night I met Stanley Tucci, we were at the premiere of the film, Lions for Lambs. It was held at the MOMA, with hors d’oeuvres to follow. Beforehand, I’d wondered who would cater the food (Would it be The Modern? Would there be desserts?). But after we all filed into a big reception space, I ended up standing at the food table right next to Stanley Tucci. In retrospect, I have to wonder why I felt compelled to tell him we worked out at the same gym. Celebrities must crave that kind of conversation. (Really?! Do you work out on the stationary bikes all the time? Thanks for letting me know!) He was nice enough about it and in any case, we all ended up talking for a while. We did talk about food (Thanksgiving dinner menus, as I recall, one of which he’d been planning on his stationary bike). However, I did not pay attention to a single thing on my actual plate.

Serious foodies probably never find other people distracting. They carry on background conversation, but only really have eyes for their chocolate ganache. With the rich and famous, at least, there is documented evidence to suggest that I’m not alone in my distraction. In a recent HBO documentary– which I watched because it was made by Adrian Grenier – there was a discussion by human behavior experts about our national celebrity obsession. Many of us, they said, crave parasocial or one-sided relationships, which are very satisfying to people who don’t successfully participate in two-sided ones. Our society also values fame over other accomplishments. Another person suggested we want to live in a representational universe (but I didn’t catch that point because I was checking facebook). The explanation that really spoke to me was that of simple voyeurism. This theory comes not from experts in human behavior, in fact, but those who study monkeys. In the monkey world, it seems, given a choice between eating food and watching the butts of dominant monkeys, regular monkeys will choose the butts almost every time. Suffice to say, they starved.

Well, I’m not starving. But celebrities aren’t my only distractions either. I can forget my food in the presence of random strangers, too. At Moto, the dining room is that kind of space where the tables are lined up next to each other, with very little room in between. The night I went there (again, with Tara) the customers to our left were a group of four young people who appeared to be the jaded offspring of Russian millionaires living in the suburbs of Chicago. They had very little to say, even to each other, and ate almost nothing. On the other side of us were Jack and his daughter, Lauren, from Florida. Lauren got on my bad side initially by telling me I reminded her of Angela from The Office. Lauren was also a precocious teenage foodie, who was very excited to be eating there. And she may have told us even more about that, if her father had been a little more sober. As it turned out, Jack’s favorite topic of conversation was also the menu but specifically, everything we ate -- right before we ate it. I recall a snowman made of lime foam (“just wait until they surprise you with those black pepper eyes!”) and some kind of fusion cannoli (“you’d never guess it tastes just like a pork taco!”) and, of course, there was the somewhat gimmicky reuben. Jack’s attention to my meal had the ironic effect of helping to distract me from it altogether. Given his state of sobriety, though, it was hard to blame him. After the meal was almost over, he ran into Tara in the hallway. He introduced himself to her and told her that – coincidentally -- he had just met two other women from New York, who were sitting right next to his table.

I could probably enhance my foodie mindfulness by trying to record my food experiences. Some people request to take menus home, or snap pictures of the dishes they’ve eaten (all good ideas, if you can remember to do that while sipping your tawny port). But these strategies don’t always help me. The staff at Tru sent us home with menus that had been specially printed for Mike’s birthday. Looking at it now, I can recall my main course in vivid detail. It was lobster with roasted cauliflower and “garden of madras curry.” Unfortunately, I’ve been trying to forget that ever since (curry sauce on lobster: too much, too thick, too strong). But we ordered our appetizers from a different menu, anyway. In such cases, social networking sometimes saves me (Jean-Georges uses it too!). I’ll never forget that foie gras torchon we ate at Balsan that was served with “an amazing little honeycomb from a bee farm in Indiana.” Because it was divine. And because I posted that exact line on facebook. When we went to Bouchon in Beverly Hills, we had a lot of wine and conversation with our meal, and two sleeping children in our laps. But later that night, my friend Amy and I reenacted the meal on facebook. If it were not for her foodiegraphic memory, the mustard beurre blanc on my salmon and the crème anglaise on my meringue might have been lost forever. Not to mention the meringue itself, which I had also completely forgotten.

So maybe I won't ever turn into a serious foodie. Between the kids, the meat grinder, and the fennel, it doesn’t look promising. It’s possible, of course, that the word foodie itself will get old and tired from overuse. It was coined back in the eighties, after all, before food empires and food blogs even existed in mutual perpetuation. Now that food culture is more ubiquitous -- and any amateur writer can post a pointless essay about food on her blog -- true foodies may need to find a new term for themselves. Like “celebrity supereaters.” Or “semi-homemade-chefs.” Whatever they come up with, I know the rest of us will continue to enjoy their impassioned enthusiasm. Not only for composting, and innovative experiments with sweet and savory fondues. But also for their informative, detailed recollections of their latest and greatest meal. (I, for one, will appreciate the reminder).

2 comments:

MmeHuppert said...

Bravo! It's really wonderful that you have finally "out-ed" yourself as a Foodie, Erin, while simultaneously declaring that you are not. Self-hating foodies everywhere can rejoice in this wonderful write up.

Come on, anyone who writes that long and loquaciously about Food and in such loving detail cannot seriously consider herself out of the club just because she doesn't GORGE herself every time she sits down. The simple fact that you champion local and sustainable food and spend hours thinking about what to feed your "ungrateful" offspring makes you a food-maestra!

I agree with you and I, too, think "Foodies" is too general a term. Like our current political parties in America, this term serves too vast and differentiated a group to really adequately function as a collective title.

It could be applied equally to someone who simply buys nice tomatoes at the Farmers Market on Sunday morning or to people who thrill to the sounds of Larousse Gastronomique read aloud at parties. Maybe more of a fetish is made of cooking at home in New York City because it is an act of will to try to enjoy cooking in a room smaller than the bathroom in a modest house in any suburb in 1950's America. The kitchens of New York City are by and large a punishment to women trying to get more of a meal on the table than a single bagel toasted with jam.

I live in Southern California and, despite our being the birthplace of McDonalds, this is really the mecca of "foodies." It's the year-round access to fresh, local produce, I think that encourages folks to express themselves with food. But, the constant on-shore flow of recent immigrants from all corners of the earth has something to do with it, too, I'm sure. Back yard, edible home gardens are the rule in almost all working class suburbs.

I recently held a party which included in the guest list a chef/professor at the local Cordon Bleu School and two recent Graduates of the CIA up in Northern California, one of whom had just begun working at Bouchon - the equivalent in her field of post-graduate work, I think. Foodies are so rampant here it's actually possible where I live to shop at one every day as well as have half a dozen CSA's deliver to your home.

I think it's actually a sad artifact of the post 1950's lifestyle that we middle-class Americans think anyone who "cooks from scratch" as we used to call it is considered a "foodie" or "food elitist."

When, in the 100,000+ year history of humans cooking with fire, did using pre-processed mixes count as "cooking." Why is using pasta and cheeze and making a sauce to bind them being a "foodie" when using a fine Kraft product is "normal." Our country is the leader in this ridiculous trend and, frankly, we are alone. 90% of the rest of the world doesn't use processed food, it "cooks from scratch." Or, as they think of it, they just "cook."

Lady Clune of Food-topia, I think you are fabulous writer but I, also, firmly, believe you shouldn't have to follow any criterion to call yourself a "foodie" anymore than you need to follow a criterion to call yourself a "woman."

I cannot wait to eat at your table again. And I ADORE the neologism "Foodiegraphic memory." Yes, I have a proustian memory for every meal. I remember most events by what I ate there. Whether it was a wild gustatory flight of fancy or a mild hot dog on a stick. What enters my mouth sticks to my velcro brain. Names, faces, events fade but the taste sensation... endures.

Thanks again for the shitty blog. Can't wait for the next. xxx

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