C.J., the Star Tribune's legendary gossip columnist and contributor to Fox 9's "Dish with C.J." segments, known for her dogged pursuit of scandals and scuttlebutt, has recently met her match: sodium. After an inner ear problem left her with rigid dietary restrictions when it comes to salt, C.J. has experienced a major menu overhaul--a painful process for someone who loves to eat out. Nowadays, when she isn't calling Sven Sundgaard a "weatherMuppet", C.J. can be found reworking her favorite recipes to make them salt-free or threatening chefs (through her television) for overusing the seasoning.
1. An inner ear problem is requiring you to severely restrict your sodium intake--how has that affected your diet? I'm cooking my own food more--even lunch. When friends invite me over I warn them that I'm a bigger pain in the butt about what I'll eat (nothing cute--no rabbit, deer, duck, kangaroo, lamb, or goat--pigs remain a weak exception; no green peas, no to most legumes unless they are well disguised) than I was before. After my last bout with vertigo five months ago, my ENT specialists knocked me down from a 2,000-mg-a-day sodium diet to a 1,500-mg max daily sodium intake. The new government dietary guidelines suggest all of us should limit sodium consumption to 1,500 mg a day. Welcome to my world, America!
Limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg is very difficult. Most processed food is full of sodium. Start reading the ingredient labels and you will see. When it comes to dining out, that's dangerous because salt is considered a flavor enhancer. So chefs, as you can see on Food TV, are constantly sprinkling on the salt. They make me wish I could reach into the TV and slap their hands.
In the months before I pretended I didn't have this deformity in my ear where fluids collect (probably caused by an ear infection not getting treated) I was eating at restaurants like a champ. I remember a gnocchi with my initials on it (figuratively speaking) at Bar La Grassa. I spend a lot of time talking food with Star Tribune restaurant reviewer Rick Nelson and food editor Lee Dean. About the gnocchi Rick said, "I'm guessing there's a little sodium in there. No restaurants for you, CJ."
2. When you discuss this issue with chefs when you're dining out, are they accommodating, or is it hard to have a dietary issue taken seriously? So far so good. I look them in the eye and tell them that there will be no way to hide the fact that I have consumed more sodium than they claimed was in a dish. Recently at Bubba Gump's in the Mall of America, while spending time with a teenage friend, I asked the waitron to ask the cook to come tell me about the sodium content in a couple of menu items I was considering. I knew I couldn't have the delicious coconut shrimp, which should be on the dessert menu. At the end of our conversation he said, "You can have this salad." So I had the salad and let my young dining companion have the real Bubba Gump fun.
Market Bar-B-Que owner Steve Polski developed a rub without sodium for me. His chef Michael Hammond grills up the great ribs, and so far I have not had a problem. When I'm in Alabama my mother now makes me ribs to bring back to Minnesota without any salt, and they taste great. I keep them in the freezer and eat them a little at a time. You pop those ribs into the microwave and they smell just like they came off the grill.
3. What salty foods do you miss the most? Mexican. In the derisive words of a girlfriend, who's Italian, "You like Mexican food better than Mexicans do."
During my first bout with this ear problem, I mused to an ex-boyfriend how this low-sodium lifestyle was growing incompatible, the better I felt, with my desire for the enchiladas at Tacos Morelos. He told me I definitely could not have any more Mexican food on this new diet. Easy for him to say, he didn't like Mexican food that much. So one day I left the Star Tribune and slipped over to Tacos Morelos for my enchiladas all by myself. I couldn't even eat the whole order because it was too salty; my palette had already adjusted to the decreased sodium diet.
I also have a Taco Bell habit, but I know that if I eat more than one item on the menu, I'm messing with going over the sodium limit on that day. (Taco Bell is my favorite fast food place because a) it's Mexican and b) the food looks in real life the way it looks in print and TV ads). I also love Chinese food, and when I'm in a mood for that I hit Shuang Cheng in Dinkytown. But I don't know what I can eat there under these current sodium restrictions.
4. Have you found alternatives to stem cravings? I cooked at home in spurts; I'm no slouch in the kitchen. I can cook anything from breads to fancy desserts. The only thing I like and have not attempted is my mother's seafood gumbo recipe, which came with a list of ingredients but no measurements. She wasn't withholding information from me; she doesn't need the measurements. My mother is a terrific cook and all three of her children are too.
For the fourth or fifth years in a row, I'm making pizza at the Home and Garden Show March 3 at 1 p.m. No less an authority than WCCO-TV anchor Frank Vascellaro has said that I make pizza as though I was a little old Italian woman in another life. Frank is talking about the pizzas I used to make, from the dough up. I'm trying to make healthier pizza, and let me tell you this: Pizza made with whole wheat flour is not as tasty.
5. Plenty of restaurants consider a mention in your column to be a helpful P.R. move. Are you a regular anywhere in town, and do you have a favorite local dish? First off, let me tell you how terrible local restaurants are about telling me when a celebrity has been there. This is a disadvantage to being a gossip columnist in Minnesota. If I happen into a restaurant, they tell me who has been there. But seldom do they remember at the time. In this economy that's a stupid mind-set, but I think it's very Minnesotan, rather small time and not at all big city. Usually other diners tell me about celebrity sightings. And I appreciate that!
My palette is ruled by what ethnicity of food I am in the mood to eat. I've been so good about not eating out since I got sick last time that I have not indulged my passion for the food at Tandoor in Bloomington.
There are a few ethnic restaurants where I go unrecognized by servers, although being on FOX 9 has made it a little more difficult for me to fly as much under the radar as I once did, especially if I speak. People usually are not sure it's me until I talk. I don't think I'll mention any names of restaurants where I can go unrecognized because if someone at those establishments reads your column they might start looking for me. Although all this whining I have to do over salt these days calls attention to me.
Now this falls under mischief but here goes: I am well known at Sawatdee, whose owner Supenn Harrison has been a repeat victim of one of my favorite pranks. Sometimes when she invites me to lunch, I make her go to a competing Thai restaurant. Sawatdee has been a training ground for a lot of people who have left and started competition with Supenn in the world of Thai cuisine. Usually the server gets so freaked out by the sight of Supenn they pay no attention to me. I get a kick out the confused, shocked look in the eyes of servers on whom I've played my Supenn prank.
6. The Ivy restaurant in Los Angeles is a notorious celebrity haunt. What's the Minnesota equivalent? Where are you most likely to spot celebrities dining out? Manny's, Ruth's Chris, Bar La Grassa, 112 Eatery, and many others place. Celebrities are only limited by what they want to eat in the Twin Cities, just like the rest of us.