Well, it worked for Beyoncé

After consuming countless restaurant meals in the line of duty, one of our intrepid reviewers submits to the famous, fearsome Master Cleanse.

Illustration: Hal Mayforth

Reviewing restaurants is not exactly digging ditches, but it does require focus and stamina. You need to try everything at the table before it’s cold and picked over, take discrete but detailed notes, and be careful not to drink too much. For the past year I’ve been eating four or more courses a few of times a week, most of them cooked in butter and paired with wine. Every time I lapsed into a food coma after dinner, I had what I came to think of as reviewer’s regret—a comedown that left me dulled and exhausted. But then someone (alright, my mom) told me about something called The Master Cleanse, designed to rid your body of toxins and give your vital organs a break. It seemed like the perfect cure for an occupational hazard. 

The recipe calls for 8 oz. of filtered water, 2 oz. of both lemon juice and grade B maple syrup, and a dash of cayenne pepper. You can drink as much as you can stand in that proportion which, in my case, was about a gallon a day. And that’s all you’re allowed except for a laxative tea that you take at night and in the morning, a crucial step in clearing the digestive tract. It feels more like an interrogation technique than a cleansing ritual and the optional daily cup of unsweetened peppermint tea was the least comforting cup of tea I’ve ever had.   

    I had a moment of panic the night before I started, staring at the lifeless lemon rinds in the kitchen sink. I was out of practice– my last non-alcoholic liquid diet was 25 years ago, when I was born. After a last-ditch, late-night bowl of pasta, I gathered my resolve and went to bed.

    The Master Cleanse has been criticized as a starvation diet, and after three or four skipped meals, it’s easy to see why. It was as if people could sense that I was hungry. It’s the only way to explain the expense-account lunches, glazed doughnuts, and even sticks of gum that I was offered that first day. I suffered mostly in silence; voluntary starvation in the middle of a global food crisis is something you should file under “First-World” Problems” and keep to yourself. The few people I confided in remembered not to offer food, about ten seconds too late. “There’s a whole flourless chocolate cake leftover in the conference room. Wait, are you still fasting?” Yes. Yes, I am.

    The hours after work were worse. I’ve sipped club soda in bars before, but not being able to eat or drink unravels the fabric of social interaction completely. My girlfriend stayed away from my apartment, terrified of the mood she would find me in, and my only company was my roommate who was fasting with me in solidarity, and because he had put on a few pounds after a year of eating out with me.
But the “lemonade” grows on you. Organic grade B maple syrup is good enough to drink straight, and cuts nicely through the tartness of the lemon juice. The powered cayenne pepper has a tendency to float on the surface of the cocktail, something I discovered by taking a gulp while checking email. The worst part was the sideways glances on the subway as people tried to figure out why someone in a suit and tie was drinking muddy-looking water from a mason jar.

And after a few skipped meals, there’s this moment when your body understands that no food is forthcoming, and lets it go. On my second breakfast-less morning, I felt a little light-headed, but also light on my feet. There were remnants of my morning routine all around me as I walked to the subway- a woman sipping an iced latte, a kid in a stroller gnawing on a muffin- but I realized that I wasn’t hungry. My energy level was higher and sustained, and I certainly didn’t miss the post-lunch lag, which is as routine for me as breathing on most days. I worked through lunch that day without a second thought, and by 5:30 I was finished with my days work, in time to skip an early dinner.

One thing I would not recommend: a trip to Whole Foods. I was shopping food shopping for a party at my apartment that had been planned months in advance. The sight and smell of the stocked aisles triggered something primal in me: I was a man deprived of food for days who found it suddenly in abundance. Yes, the meat was already dead, and the fish were on ice, but adrenaline shot through my veins and my pupils dilated, ready for the hunt. Murphy’s Law applied to the Master Cleanse would read like this: There will never be as many free samples, or unattended bins of feta stuffed olives bathing in rich oil under gentle lights, as when you’ve taken a vow to abstain from eating.

On day five I came across a picture of a burger served at lunch at a haute-Greek restaurant near my office in midtown. It was a beautiful thing: ground pork and lamb wrapped in calu fat and char-grilled, served on a fresh biroche and smothered in a spicy feta cheese sauce. I emailed the picture to my roommate and we decided it was time to throw in the towel. All the literature on The Master Cleanse warns you to come off it slowly, but on our fifth day without food, we sat down to a three course prix-fixe lunch. I was so overwhelmed by the rich flavors of the meat that I thought about fasting before reviews, review written after a five day fast would read more like an ode on Grecian burger than an objective evaluation of a restaurant. I walked out of the restaurant full and elated.

    Real hunger sharpens your senses, and you I felt strangely alive when I was starving. I had been going to bed early and sober, getting to work before anyone in the office, and two inches had disappeared from my waistline. But enough was enough. The way was eating before the cleanse made as much sense for my health as maple syrup and lemonade makes for someone who loves eating. I’d like to say that I’ve become more modest in my appetites, that I’m drinking less now, but none of that is true. I actually enjoyed the fast, but I’m back to reviewing restaurants now, which brings me to the real lesson here: moderation is boring. 

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