Last week, in a lull between watching men slide through water like it was air, women run faster than a speeding bullet and muscular little girls defy the laws of gravity, I found myself with a few minutes when the Star-Spangled Banner wasn’t playing.
I took advantage of the relative quiet to Google “Olympics food.” I was hoping to find that the secret to the athletes’ zero body fat is something applicable to us mere mortals. (In other words, that it has nothing to do with extreme exercise and youth.)
First, I came across an official, 38-page document that laid out all the principles that the Rio Olympic food offerings intended to follow. I think the consultants who wrote it must have spent time in Northern California. The aspirations were in line with the language of our local restaurant menus, with a lot of emphasis on fresh, local and sustainable items grown responsibly, with no rainforest destruction.
It looked like the athletes would be eating pretty well in Rio. The manifesto talked knowledgeably about the need to meet the nutritional and hydration needs, as well as the varied dietary restrictions and tastes, of the multinational population they were serving. And, of course, it expressed the desire to incorporate Brazilian ingredients and warm Carioca hospitality.
It was an impressive plan, and looked great on paper. But given its other struggles with Olympic readiness, I wondered how successfully Brazil had carried it out.
The next stories I found answered the question in part.
Apparently, you can lead athletes to a salad bar replete with local produce, but you can’t make them want to eat there, at least not after their events are over. They voted with their feet. I’m not sure what the crowds (if any) were like in the athletes’ dining hall, but apparently the McDonald’s was mobbed.
In fact, McD’s was so wildly popular among the athletes that it had to restrict its policy of offering them free food. The Olympians were held to ordering just 20 items at a time.
Yes, 20 items was a limitation. Athletes were totally pigging out on massive quantities of Big Macs, fries, shakes and chicken McNuggets. Several posted photos of themselves baring their soon-to-disappear six-pack abs next to the massive quantities of questionable calories with which they planned to obliterate them.
So much for diet secrets of the incredibly slim. I doubt any of the rest of us will get there by emulating the habits of these world-class athletes.
Besides making me slightly ill, the articles got me wondering, about what had happened to all the healthy, local and sustainable food the competitors were apparently shunning.
The next story I found answered that, and was far more heartening.
Massimo Bottura, a celebrated Italian chef — whose restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is considered one of the best in the world — had the same question I did. But fortunately, it occurred to him to ask it several months before the Olympics started, and to do something about it.
With no help from the Olympics folks, he conceived, created and quickly built a high-end “soup kitchen” called Refettorio Gastromotiva on a sliver of land in a downtrodden neighborhood of Rio. Then, throughout the Olympics, he and fellow volunteer chefs gleaned truckloads of food that would otherwise have been wasted, and turned it into elegant, three-course meals for 70 served nightly to the homeless and hungry.
His goal was social, not political, intended to give hope and respect to these neglected members of the underclass. But the Refettorio is more than a short-term gesture. After the Olympics, the restaurant will remain in operation, offering paid lunches that, together with donations, will offset the cost of the free dinners it will continue to provide to the destitute.
And it has an additional purpose. For the project, Bottura collaborated with another visionary chef, David Hertz of Brazil, who has devoted the past decade to training disadvantaged Brazilians to move into the work force as kitchen assistants. The restaurant will be staffed by students and serve as a training facility to aid him in his efforts.
May we hear the Italian national anthem, please?
McDonald’s might have been “the official restaurant of the Olympic Games,” but to my mind, the Refettorio is the clear gold medal winner.
Whipped Feta with Lemon and Oregano
From “Whole World Vegetarian” by Marie Simmons
I took a break from obsessive Olympics watching last week to attend a meeting of the cookbook book club, which featured “Whole World Vegetarian,” a brilliant new cookbook from my friend Marie Simmons.
With its fresh take on traditional recipes from around the world, the book is perfectly in keeping with the positive international spirit generated by the Olympic Games. As is this recipe, with its nod to Greece.
This simple dip relies on the quality of its ingredients, so in making it, look for 100 percent sheep milk feta and full-fat Greek yogurt (both of which are usually available at Trader Joe’s), and for best results, use a regular (Eureka) lemon, not a Meyer lemon.
1 package (8 ounces) creamy sheep’s milk feta
1/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp. fruity Greek olive oil, plus 1 Tbsp. for garnish
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano
Combine the feta, yogurt, olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice in a food processor. Process until the mixture is creamy, scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once.
Use a rubber spatula to transfer the mixture to a shallow serving bowl or dish, making ridges in the surface. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil on top so that it makes rivulets on the rough surface. Sprinkle with the chopped oregano
Serve with pita chips (homemade or store bought), crostini or vegetables.