You don’t have to be a caveman to enjoy the award-winning food blog Nom Nom Paleo. From cauliflower fried “rice” to sausage egg “mcmuffins,” there are plenty of delicious and inventive recipes to please everyone, no matter which diet you ascribe to. Michelle Tam, the muscle behind the website and author of the New York Times best-selling cookbook of the same name, wasn’t always a culinary all-star, but has always considered herself a foodie, ranking dining out as No. 1 on her list of hobbies.
She discovered the paleo diet in 2010, and while it contradicted nearly everything she learned from her degree in nutrition and food science, she never turned back. Eating grass-fed meats, fresh fruit and vegetables — and avoiding grains, sugars, and dairy — not only got rid of her muffin-top for good, it fueled her with enough energy to wrangle two young boys, hold down a full-time graveyard shift, cook for her family, and sneak in muscle-ups at her CrossFit box — all while maintaining a daily blog.
While Tam was in New York City to accept a Webby award for her iPad app, we caught up with her to talk about all things paleo — including the diet’s unfortunate name — and how she balances her action-packed life.
What is your food philosophy in a nutshell?
The food has to be insanely delicious and make me feel good afterward. Before I went paleo, I had a lot of gastrointestinal issues and I was always bloated and tired. After a couple months on paleo, it all went away.
“I never buy new clothes and we drive cheapo Hondas, but I will pay for better food.”
What made you want to try paleo?
My husband Henry started it first and I thought he was crazy. I would always try to sabotage him, but then one day we were on a cruise and I was waiting in line at the buffet behind this guy sitting on a scooter with an oxygen tank attached to him. He was piling all kinds of low-sugar, 100-calorie pastries onto his plate and a light bulb went off in my head. I didn’t want to end up like that. I decided at that moment to try the paleo diet and I became an evangelist. I’m turning 40 this year and feel better than I did in my early 30s.
What were the biggest challenges when you started out?
Cutting out bread and grains. I loved those things. I used to go to restaurants and get pasta tasting menus!
Do you still crave those things?
No, but I do have a sweet tooth, so I need my dark chocolate. Plus, I have severe gluten intolerance, so I just felt so much better cutting out grains altogether.
Do you think that the paleo diet benefits some people, such as those with celiac disease, better than others?
Yes, and people with autoimmune diseases would also do really well on it. But it’s an improvement for anyone on a standard American diet because if anything, paleo is about eating real food and cooking your own meals from real ingredients. No matter if you’re paleo, vegan or omnivorous, cooking your own food and knowing where it comes from is just better for everybody.
Have you customized the diet for yourself and your family?
When I first started I was really low-carb but then I realized that I could allow myself a little bit. I eat root vegetables and some white rice and white potatoes, too, which for some people is an absolute no. I just like how they taste and they don’t have any adverse effects on me. I’m Asian so it’s probably genetically coded in me that I can eat white rice. Of course I’m more mindful of my portions now.
“I’m blogging and making action figures, so clearly I’m not trying to do as the cavemen did.”
When, if ever, would you make an exception and go off paleo for a meal?
If it’s worth it, we’ll indulge, like dinner at The French Laundry. I also don’t believe in making your grandmother feel bad for making you something like a beautiful cake, because I also know that I ate this way for 35 years and survived. Eating one bite is not going to kill me and it’s not worth being a pain about it.
Do you still have to defend yourself against naysayers?
I do get some comments on Facebook, but what’s cool about Facebook is other people will jump in and fight for me. I’m so grateful for them because I hate confrontation. But yes, food choices are very polarizing, just like politics or religion. It’s very personal and people can feel threatened. I believe people should do what makes them feel good. I provide information for anyone interested, but I won’t try to convert anybody.
A major criticism of paleo is that it’s expensive. How much is your grocery bill?
I spend a lot, and yes, an argument against paleo is that it’s elitist and not everyone can afford it. But at the same time there’s a lot of organic meat and vegetables at places like Walmart and Costco now, and you can save by buying certain cuts of meat, like oxtail, shanks, brisket and chicken thighs. You can also prioritize what you spend money on. What’s more important than what you put in your mouth? I never buy new clothes and we drive cheapo Hondas, but I will pay for better food.
Paleo started out as a more intense caveman lifestyle kind of movement, giving critics so many easy targets. It’s much more practical now but still has some stigma attached. If it were up to you, would you have chosen a different name?
I don’t think of paleo as a historical reenactment at all. I’m blogging and making action figures, so clearly I’m not trying to do as the cavemen did. I was introduced to it as “going back to basics” but I now consider it more as how my great grandmother ate. I’m not eating bugs and hunks of rotting meat. As for the name, yes, of course I would have chosen something different. I mean, I love the name Nom Nom Paleo, but now “nom nom” is a totally hated phrase in the foodie community and “paleo” is also super polarizing. Putting them together was just not a smart choice, but I have to embrace it now.
“I never imagined I could deadlift my body weight, but it makes me think I’m a better mom.”
Any paleo myths you want to debunk?
That all we eat is bacon and meat. It’s just not true. My plate is half vegetables, one-third meat (around six to eight ounces), and the rest is healthy fats and carbs. But I’m never just eating a giant cowboy steak or piles of bacon.
CrossFit and paleo often seem to go hand in hand. Do you do CrossFit?
I’m an intermittent CrossFitter and we have all sorts of equipment in our garage, but I don’t do it as often these days. I was totally scared to try it at first but I ended up feeling so much stronger than I thought I could ever be. I never imagined I could deadlift my body weight, but it makes me think I’m a better mom, like I can protect them better.
Tell me a little about your day job, or I guess, your night job.
I work nightshifts at a teaching hospital as a pharmacist. I work seven 10-hour shifts in a row and then have the next seven nights off, which is when I’m a full-time mom. It works because I have family close by and my husband is super supportive. Even the blog is a joint effort between Henry and I.
With the success of your blog and now your cookbook and recent Webby win, what responsibility do you feel to your readers at this point?
I just want to continue making people laugh and provide great recipes and show them that it’s doable. It doesn’t need to be so strict, and in my book I talk about how to tackle some of the challenges.
One of those challenges was whether to feed your kids a paleo diet, right?
Yeah, for a long time they weren’t one hundred percent paleo and I was resistant to talk about it on my blog because it wasn’t about them; it was about me. But then we began to slowly transition them and I started writing about the process because my readers were very interested.
How do you even approach that topic with the kids?
They’re six and nine years old, so we just talk about how we try to make healthy choices but you’re your own person and you can make your own decisions. My youngest has some issues with gluten like I do, and I’ll explain to him how he’ll feel after he eats that cupcake. He’ll think it over and decide for himself if it’s worth it. He was very resistant to eat the same meals Henry and I ate, but I’m not a short-order cook and eventually refused to make him his scrambled eggs and roasted broccoli. We all had to learn and compromise. As a result, 90 percent of the recipes in my cookbook are dishes my entire family enjoys.
What are the kids’ favorite dishes?
Owen, my older son, has a recipe in the cookbook called “Big-O Burgers,” which are made with sautéed mushrooms and bacon. When you grill them, the bacon in the patties crisp up. Ollie loves Cracklin’ Chicken, which is boneless, skin-on chicken thighs fried up really crispy.
Give the Big-O Bacon Burgers a try and get Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans for more great-tasting paleo recipes.
Big-O Bacon Burger Recipe
Total time: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons lard or fat of choice, divided
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, minced
4 ounces bacon, frozen and cross-cut into small pieces
1 pound ground beef
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ripe heirloom tomato, sliced
4 butter lettuce leaves
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the lard in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Sauté the cremini mushrooms until the liquid they release has cooked off; set aside.
- Pulse the frozen bacon pieces in a food processor to the consistency of ground meat.
- In a large bowl, combine ground beef, bacon and cremini mushrooms; season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, gently combine the ingredients, being careful not to overwork the meat. Divide the mixture into 4 portions and flatten each into ¾-inch-thick patties.
- Melt the remaining lard in a cast iron skillet over medium heat and fry up the patties, about 3 minutes per side. The insides should be pink all the way through and studded with crisp pieces of smoky bacon and mushrooms.
- Transfer the patties to a wire rack to drain any excess cooking fat. Wrap each patty in sturdy lettuce leaves and serve with tomato slices. Or, if you’re looking for an alternative to hamburger buns, put your patty in between two roasted Portobello mushrooms instead (pictured above).