Has your picky eating driven you, or others, crazy? My latest column in the Star

Two of my closest friends in town are, respectively, a psychotherapist and a personal trainer which — given my propensity for craziness and rotundity — proves the adage that those who can teach, can’t teach their friends.

And while they’ve both given up on my personal redemption, they are, respectively, founts of late-breaking knowledge concerning mental health and physical fitness — neither of which I have any hope of ever attaining. But I do find it all interesting in an abstract, don’t-take-away-my-mashed-potatoes-or-make-me-discuss-my-dreams, kind of way. And I’m ever-watchful for those occasions when something they say can be misinterpreted, twisted or otherwise hijacked to support my own version of a healthy lifestyle, such as: “ butter is healthier than margarine” or “sugar is healthier than artificial sweetener” or “decking somebody is healthier than turning your anger inward.”

So my ears perked up recently when my therapist friend first mentioned a mental disorder called orthorexia. It’s not every day that new personality disorders or mental diseases come to my attention, although I’ve started worrying that Jesse Duarte, a talented and ubiquitous young reporter for this newspaper, could be suffering from whatever emerging mental malady might cause an otherwise employable person of his iGeneration to pursue a career in print journalism. But I digress . . .

Orthorexia is an unhealthy fixation on healthy food. It can be a serious problem and an all-consuming obsession — sometimes leading to anorexia, malnutrition and other scary things. Since my friend would never condone a frivolous discussion of mental disorders, I did some research on my own, using venerable sources from Wikipedia to those medical websites that sell herbs, supplements and restorative teas. I learned that orthorexia isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, but it is becoming more frequently diagnosed.

Apparently, plain old hyper-healthy eating becomes a disorder when the behavior causes the victim distress and negatively impacts their life. If anyone reading this article suspects they might have the condition, I encourage them to seek out a smart and caring professional who can help. This column, on the other hand, is aimed at obsessive eaters on this side of the orthorexial line — those who are not suffering from a mental disorder, but who cause their friends and relations to suffer their insufferable gastronomic Puritanism. In other words, not orthorexia — let’s call it ortho-obnoxia.

Ortho-obnoxics lecture me about chlorine traces in Splenda and demand my switch to Stevia with the urgency of human rights activists petitioning the United Nations for military intervention. They suggest meeting me for lunch at Mexican or Italian restaurants, then order only a green salad. They concoct their own unsalted butters out of inedible nuts and insist that my crunchy salted peanut butter is laced with salmonella. They disparage the lactobacillus levels in my insufficiently probiotic yoghurt. And they have not a kind word to say about sugar, fat or fries — three of my favorite food groups.

If you ask me, today’s über-fussy parents are causing ortho-obnoxia to reach epidemic proportions among our nation’s youth. Here in the Napa Valley, impressionable school children toil in lush organic schoolyard gardens and learn sustainably-sourced gourmet cooking techniques from a local 3-Star Michelin chef (seriously — if you don’t live here — this is Napa Valley normal). Is it any wonder that I have been admonished by 6-year-olds for polluting the planet with incorrect seafood choices or for poisoning myself by eating meat? I anticipate a Halloween when local tricksters rebuff my high fructose corn syrup treats and demand unsalted endamame pods instead.

But much as I’m tempted to smack these unfortunates upside the head with the nearest foot-long salami, I recognize that it’s not their fault. Their brains simply lack the chemical balance gained through prolonged childhood consumption of Twinkies, Ho Hos, and whatever those bright pink coconut covered marshmallow balls were called. It’s a sad truth that many children in America today grow up without ever learning the proper way to eat an Oreo. And while I’m sure that a bowl full of granola and almond milk is a nutritionally superior breakfast choice, its consumption fails to evoke the sportsmanlike spirit once stirred by fishing stars, moons and clovers from one’s cowmilked bowl of Lucky Charms.

The best way to combat ortho-obnoxia, if you suspect you might have a raging case of it, is to admit your own weakness. While you are spooning Tofutti onto a gluten-free birthday cake before a roomful of disappointed revelers, it’s a good time to confess that you keep a stash of M&M’s in the glove compartment to stave off episodes of road rage. Develop your Peaceful Happy Face of Tolerance to don while watching friends consume cheesy pepperoni pizza, and cease speculating on the sausage’s traumatic origins.

And if you wish to continue to receive social invitations here in the Napa Valley, refrain from detailing the environmental risks of CO2 emissions from wine production, and never question studies extolling the heart-health benefits of steady wine consumption. Such statements will only lead those with ortho-obnoxia to find themselves ortho-ostracized for good.


Can a small, locally-owned coffee house survive a Starbucks across the street? Today’s column in the Star

They say that water seeks its own level. I’ve been wondering whether the saying also holds true for coffee.

A photo recently posted on Facebook featured the downtown Napa location of one of my favorite local spots: the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company. The shot is snapped from inside the coffee house, looking out through the window, where the word “STARBUCKS” looms large on the newly opened business across the street.

It was good to see signs of life in downtown Napa, but also troubling to find another small, locally owned business facing pressure from a national chain — and a behemoth at that.

It took me back to 1996 and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a Barnes & Noble superstore forced the closing of Shakespeare & Co., a beloved 81st Street independent. Of course, B&N was able to drive S&Co out of the neighborhood through diabolical tactics involving wide selection, low prices, comfy couches and — yes — good coffee. And some bookstore closings turned out to be premature mercy-killings, just ahead of an inevitable demise at the hands of Amazon.

We are fortunate in St. Helena to boast a small independent bookstore and a Planning Commission that would sooner permit a tattoo parlor or off-track-betting outpost — so long as they were independently owned — than an upvalley Starbucks. Still, the coffee colossus has a super-competitive secret ingredient it may add to the brew at any moment: alcohol.

While Starbucks has not applied for permission in Napa — yet — the chain has been selling wine and beer in Seattle since 2010, and plans to add 25 more wine bars by year’s end. To do so in Napa would apparently require no additional city permit — just a license from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Coffee-and-booze bars sound like a bad combination to me. Customers at the St. Helena Roastery are already a lively bunch; I shudder to think what would happen if the baristas started slipping rum into their morning lattes. The place has always had a mellow, college-bookstore feel, with a brainy clientele and staffers resembling chatty coeds and indie IT guys. They would seem much more likely to peddle marijuana brownies than brandy-laced mocha cappuccinos.

Nancy Haynes and Doug Dunlap, the Roastery’s president and general manager respectively, sit back-to-back in a shared office, clicking incessantly at their computers while multitasking on the phone. I have no idea what they are doing, but I suspect it has something to do with speculating in coffee futures or manipulating the market for Guatemalan decaf dark roast. Nearby, burlap bags with coffee beans from exotic places are stacked up, shortly to be fed into the giant coffee grinder. The smell of roasting coffee beans, and a slightly singed scent, fills the air, adding some aromatic fresh-ground gravitas to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, on the other end of town at Sogni di Dolce, the mood is less Nirvana and more La Dolce Vita. The kinetic and super-efficient baristas all seem to resemble one another, in a skinny blond supermodel kind of way — stepping into the cafe is like entering a Robert Palmer video. The lead singer in this act is owner John Lockwood, who is always on the go, improving, expanding and moving faster than a double-shot-espresso-fueled Vespa. John seems destined to be surrounded by beautiful women, including his two young daughters.

An alcoholic aperitivo would fit right in here, or could lace the exotic gelato flavors like salted caramel and coconut tropicale that have led some locals to resemble spoon-carrying addicts from the ’80s. I frequented Dolce when I worked nearby, always coveting the classic donut with sprinkles. A devoted following prefers the freshly-prepared panini, along with the cool modern décor, televised international sporting events and cosmopolitan vibe.

Coffee can be a controversial topic because people have such strong tastes and opinions. I remember neighbors who would only drink Illy coffee at Keller’s before it closed; others drink Peet’s with scones at the Model Bakery. And for those who want preposterous pretension with their morning percolation, Dean & DeLuca sells coffee filtered through a civet cat’s anus, at $60 for 50 grams.

But the point, if I can just put down my doughnut for a moment and make it, is: Coffee cliques will choose their spot, and there are more than enough caf-and-decaf customers to go around. Deciding which coffee house you frequent may not be as momentous a choice as, say, Slytherin versus Gryffindor, yet people will tend to self-sort and consort with like-minded connoisseurs.

And while going up against Starbucks may not be competing on a level playing field, surely there are enough stubbornly loyal chain-hating locals to ensure the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company’s survival. At least, that is, until Amazon figures out how to deliver hot lattes through the mail.