Imagine, if you will, the moment when Ludwig van Beethoven realized his passion for music was being threatened by his growing deafness. Or when Magic Johnson saw his professional basketball career coming to a premature end because he was HIV positive. Or when it dawned on Franklin Roosevelt that his polio might hamper his ability to connect with the American people.
Something similar has happened to me. One of the things I enjoy about my job is the opportunity to write about food and drink. The one tiny obstacle, to which I’ve alluded in the past, is my high blood pressure. But thanks to the wonders of science, I can take a pill that keeps things under control without my having to drastically alter my diet.
Then last spring on a trip to New York with my wife, something else transpired. I began to feel a slight pressure at the base of the big toe on my right foot, which worsened with each step. When my father, a retired surgeon, examined it a few days later, it took him only a second to conclude I had the condition known as gout—the result of a buildup of sodium urate that crystallizes around a joint, occasionally the knee, usually the big toe, inflaming it. One cause is heredity—my father has had it on and off for years. Another cause is diet.
As Dr. Bryan Emmerson writes in Getting Rid of Gout (a book with a lovely cover photo of a grandfather fishing with his grandson), the disease has been around since ancient times. It seems Hippocrates noted a few characteristics of gout, such as that “eunuchs do not take the gout nor become bald; a woman does not take the gout unless her menses be stopped; a youth does not get gout before sexual intercourse”—all of which may or may not be true. And according to the findings of Roy Porter and G.S. Rousseau in their medical history Gout: The Patrician Malady, I happen to be in good company: “Historically seen as a disease afflicting upper-class males of superior wit, genius, and creativity, gout has included among its sufferers Erasmus, the Medici, Samuel Johnson, Immanuel Kant, and Robert Browning.” (I’m afraid to ask how many of them were in their 30s when it first struck.)
In any event, my father assured me all would be fine so long as I curtailed my eating of lobster, shrimp, liver, anchovies, sardines, and red meat. Not to mention my consumption of alcohol, particularly beer. But why stop there? I don’t really have to write about food and drink. Instead, I could cover such scintillating issues as Social Security reform or the D.C. mayoral race, while eating a turkey sandwich with low-fat mayo on oat-nut toast with a glass of soy milk in my office.
I’m kidding. Beethoven certainly didn’t stop composing symphonies. Magic Johnson, though retired from the game, is a successful businessman. And FDR, when told by his military advisers that a raid on Tokyo to avenge Pearl Harbor would be impossible, defiantly stood up on his own and said, “Do not tell me it can’t be done!” (Okay, that last bit was actually Jon Voight playing FDR in the movie Pearl Harbor.)
Nevertheless, inspired by these gentlemen, I have decided to accept my fate as a gout-afflicted chronicler of food and drink. Luckily there are pills that fight gout—some sufferers who fit certain criteria can even take one daily as a preventative measure. My own acute attack subsided after a few days of medication, though it returned with a vengeance a month later. But as quickly as it struck, it vanished. No one really knows when gout will strike. It is a disease, as Dr. Emmerson puts it, “of remissions and exacerbations.” Meaning every culinary journey is now fraught with peril.
A few days after my last gout attack, I was invited by the good folks at the Distilled Spirits Council to attend a “Spirits of France” cognac tasting at the French ambassador’s residence, a chance to sip a glass or three of Richard Hennessy, which runs about $4,500 per bottle, and the $3,000 per bottle Courvoisier L’Essence proved irresistible. Two weeks later, I was tailing a French chef for a freelance profile that led to his feeding me practically to death. Mysteriously, the gout has not made its presence felt. One day it will.
In the meantime, I will continue to report fearlessly from the frontlines of restaurant kitchens and hillside vineyards. Truffle season is already upon us. And in December, a publicist tells me, the Japanese will be serving shirako. “Bring it on!” I say, before asking her what it is. “Cod sperm,” she replies.
On second thought, I’ll have to pass, what with my gout and all.