What does someone like Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition and a widely quoted healthy-eating scholar, eat for dinner? The answer is surprisingly easy to learn: It's in Neil Swidey's 2013 profile of Willett for the Boston Globe magazine. In that story, Willett is heard to ask the senior director of nutrition for McDonald's why the chain has yet to make a tasty veggie burger, while bragging about the fact that his wife, Gail, a former nurse turned private cooking instructor, makes a terrific one. Later in the article, Willett extols the virtues of another of Gail's creations, a lentil-and-nut loaf. He goes on to such a degree that, at the end of the piece, Swidey admits that he invited himself over to try the loaf. "It's damn good," he reported.
Flame me if you like, but I have tried many veggie burgers, from the Whole Foods 365-brand soy-based version to Southern Living's black bean burgers with chipotle cream, and I have not encountered a single veggie burger that was "good," let alone delicious. As for nut loaf, Willett's going on about his wife's interpretation reminded me of the way University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill basketball coach Roy Williams will often criticize his players by invoking his own wife: "Paige had a terrible shooting night. He had zero three-pointers, the same number as Wanda!"
But if Swidey was so impressed, well, I had to try Mrs. Willett's nut loaf for myself, and the Globe had obligingly published the recipe. It was very simple: cook lentils, combine with sautéed onions and mushrooms, bread crumbs (I used panko), ground nuts of your choice (I used a combination of roasted almonds and cashews), and mixed herbs of your choice (I used fresh flatleaf parsley because I had some around). After you stir all this around, it does kind of resemble ground beef. But once the mixture was transferred into my loaf pan, it looked like Thanksgiving stuffing tossed with birdseed.
To be fair, real meatloaf is hardly one of the world's most beautiful dishes, so I hoped for the best. The result was a kind of soft, moist, savory bread pudding. It derived a richness in flavor from the nuts, but the lentils let the whole operation down: They were too chewy to be seriously considered a textural equivalent of ground beef. If verisimilitude were not an issue, this is the kind of dish that would be good served warm with a poached egg on top and some really good hot sauce on the side. I couldn't get anyone else in my household to touch it.
Willett could argue that the dish tastes all right, but it's no meatloaf — even if he does believe that eating nuts and lentils instead of beef will lengthen your lifespan. The whole episode made me think of what the great U. S. Marine sergeant Dan Daly said to his company when he led the attack on Belleau Wood in France in June of 1918: "Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?"