Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Some Thoughts on Food

I recently read Michael Pollan's books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. The first book is about where our food comes from. He discusses where the ingredients that make up four different meals came from. It's an interesting background to the second book, in which he discusses what he thinks we ought to eat. On the cover is a picture of red Romaine lettuce and it has a yellow band around it with his concise conclusion: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Defining this phrase and discussing how to implement it is the major goal of the book. In discussing the part: "Eat food" he makes a comment about how to decide if what you're eating actually IS food. One rule of thumb he talks about is whether your great grandmother would recognize it. A trip to the local grocery store, part of one of the major national chains was an interesting experience in light of what I'd been reading.

One thing you often read is to "stick to the perimeter of the store". You'd think this is good advice. That's where the produce, dairy, and meat is. But is pre-marinated, ready-to-cook meat still real food? How should I know? I have no idea what they put in their marinade. What about "fat free half and half", a product found in the dairy section? Or the "Grapple"--apples somehow flavored with "real and artificial grape flavorings"? Would my great-grandmother recognize any of these? And, if I stick to the perimeter of one of my favorite stores, I'd have to eliminate a lot of food from my diet--beans, rice, pasta, baking ingredients and breads. Then there's the vegetables. Some canned and frozen vegetables are well worth eating, and are pretty nutritious, too. Canned tomatoes, pumpkin puree, canned beans and frozen baby onions are good examples.

That trip to the store, along with what I'd been reading, got me thinking--a lot.
I started to wonder what my great-grandmothers would have fed their families. I know nothing about my great-grandparents on my dad's side of the family, so that leaves my Calabrian great-grandparent's food to use as a guage. I googled.

I discovered that my great-grandparents ate a variation on the much-touted Mediterranean diet. However, they ate a lot of pork, something we don't think of as being a part of that diet. They ate lots of fish, since Calabria is the toe of the boot--right on the Mediterranean Sea. The region produces 25% of Itailan olive oil, so olive oil and olives would have been a big part of their diet. They ate a lot of pasta and polenta. Vegetables were a major part of their diet, too, particularly eggplants and tomatoes. Their food was spicy, using lots of peppers. Butter and cheese were also a part of their diet. Desserts were mainly fresh fruit, particularly citrus and figs. Today they grow a lot of clementines, a variety of orange. They made fancy desserts mainly for special occasions such as weddings and Christmas holidays. Breakfast was often biscotti and coffee. Cappuccino is a breakfast beverage. I didn't see any references to alcoholic beverages except for wine, which is another thing this region produces.

Family meals consisted of a first course--mainly soups, pasta or a rice dish. The second course is either a small meat or fish dish, accompanied by a side dish, usually vegetables. Here, the Italians veer away from what we Americans are familiar with--they eat their salad after the main course, to cleanse the palate before dessert. I remember that from my childhood. My grandfather always ate his salad at the end of the meal. The last course is usually fruit, fresh and cold, or dried fruits with nuts. Celebratory meals would add a starter course of antipasti and a final course of a fancier small dessert. Meals end with coffee, usually espresso.

That's what my great-grandmothers were feeding their families. It's a pretty healthy way to eat, according to current nutritional wisdom. The nutritionists might think it's a bit high in fat, what with all that pork and full-fat dairy. But they didn't eat large portions of those foods. They mostly ate vegetables, which is exactly what Michael Pollan (and our nutrition experts) recommends, after he finished the research and writing of his books.

The question then becomes, how do I do that? How do I find that kind of food? It's getting harder and harder to do so in our supermarkets. I was shopping with my husband the day he found the Grapple and I said to him, "Do you realize how little actual food is in this store?" I've noticed over the three decades in which I've been responsible for the food purchases for a family that there is less and less real food. It's getting harder and harder to find plain ingredients to cook with because even the simplest thing now has a chemical soup along with the simple ingredient. Take tomato paste--one brand had tomatoes and a bunch of other stuff. The other had one ingredient-tomatoes. My question is--if one company can figure out how to make a product without the chemicals, why do other companies think they have to put them in? Anyway, I read the ingredient lists. If I don't know what the ingredients are and what they're made from, I don't buy it.

The other hard part is figuring out what are the best things to eat. It seems like every time you read an article about healthy eating, they have new information that contradicts what the current wisdom is. When you dig into the research, you come up with studies that seem to have been ignored because they don't fit in with the current way of thinking. I found this gem today about high fat dairy and fertility: Eating Ice Cream may Help Women to Concieve. I see stuff like this all the time. Chocolate is good for you. So is coffee. And alcohol, particularly wine, especially red. Reminds me of Woody Allen's film, "Sleeper", where he wakes up in the future and steak and hot fudge sundaes are health food. Yet a different study will be reported saying exactly the opposite. Do I want to be a guinea pig in the unscientific cultural research that's taking place by default as we try to follow expert nutritional advice that may or may not be correct and eat food designed by people who want to maximize our consumption so we'll maximize their corporate profits?

The conclusion I've been coming to is that maybe it's not as simple as the nutrion "experts" would like to believe. You can't isolate one nutrient, making it the "magic pill of good health". Everything works together and what may seem like a bad thing can be a good thing in combination with the right other things. One example is a diet based on corn tortillas. You'd miss out on essential amino acids, if that were your main food. But the Mexicans have been eating that way healthfully for a very long time. How? They fill those tortillas with beans, which has the amino acids corn lacks. This is why I think the glycemic index thing is baloney. You don't eat high glycemic index foods in isolation. Who munches on raw onions, for Pete's sake? When you eat those foods with a little fat, it slows down the absorption of the glucose and that solves the problem with those foods. So, you're better off to put a bit of butter on that baked potato than to eat it plain.

That's probably why we've ended up with the patterns of eating we've developed over the course of human history. The problem with our current eating pattern is that it's not based on anything we've evolved to eat. Our caveman ancestor didn't hang out at the local fast-food joint, nor did he nuke a complete meal and eat it standing over the sink. That's why the current wisdom to eat lots of fruits and veggies, a little meat (Or not, if you choose. Apparently, we can do just fine without it.), and whole grains makes sense. That's what humans have been eating forever. So the challenge is finding those foods, at a price I can afford, and arranging my schedule to allow time to cook them. We've started to build a "food now" culture, so our lives get swamped and we don't take the time to cook or make the time to eat with our family and friends. But that's another post, one I think I already wrote.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Slow Movement

The New York Times has an article about "The Slow Movement". (Note: you have to register with them to read the article, but if I remember correctly, they don't ask for your whole life history.) Essentially, it's about slowing things down in opposition to our fast food culture. I think it's interesting that they likened our life to fast food more than to any other measure of speed they could have used, such as the computer industry's never-ending quest for faster, particularly when it comes to the Internet.

There's a woman in the article who knits rugs from the wool of sheep she's met. She uses three-foot long knitting needles. I admit I want to try that one, even if I don't get to meet the sheep or make my own yarn. The rug is absolutely gorgeous. There's a picture on the left sidebar of the article.

But I digress from my original thought. It occurred to me that food is really the ultimate speeded up part of life, and I often wonder if that's not to our detriment. I think we'd all be better off if we took the traditional Italian way of eating to heart. Fresh, real food, made from fresh ingredients cooked properly, which rarely can be done super fast, microwave ovens notwithstanding. Take time to eat the meal with family and friends, focusing on the meal and the company, not on the gazillion things we think are so important that we must forego soul-satisfying meals to do them. Or, if you're eating alone, still setting a pretty table and enjoying good music and your own company.

A lot of people have posited the theory that our large food industry with its faster to prepare, ready-to-eat, chemical stews that pass for food are behind the rampant obesity in our country. I'm pretty sure that's a factor because it was with the rise in prepared foods and fast food restaurants and cake from a box being called "from scratch", and a true cake from scratch, made with eggs, flour, sugar, milk, vanilla, etc. being considered old-fashioned, too difficult to do well, and too time-consuming to make. People cook for fun, not as a routine part of life to feed themselves and their families.

I can't help but wonder if there's another factor in the obesity thing that's directly related to the whole fast eating. I don't eat in fast food restaurants because I always eat way too much because the food doesn't satisfy me. If I'm out with other people and we go to a fast food place, we eat fast and get out--no lingering over conversation. That's the whole point of fast food-the whole experience is fast. Ditto for microwaved frozen dinners. They don't satisfy, either. And they mostly are eaten alone because it's when the family is all scattered doing their own things.

All of this lack of strong social structure to our meals could be one reason people overeat or eat to fill the gap left by unsatisfying meals eaten quickly so you can get on with other things. I wonder if we made an effort to make time to cook good food, make the dining room or kitchen table or wherever we eat a pleasant place to be, put on some quiet music, and gather family and friends for that Italian-style focus on the food and the people we love whether some of those emotional needs we eat to fill might not be filled. I also wonder if filling ourselves with freshly cooked food wouldn't satisfy us before we'd overeaten.

I don't know if that's true, generally. I do know that I tend to eat less when I'm eating really well-prepared food. I know that I eat less when I'm not feeling rushed. Although I talked about family and friends, this is true for me if I'm alone, too. If I prepare a nice meal and eat it without rushing, I still eat less and enjoy it more.

In a more general sense, I admit that part of what appeals to me about this whole idea of slowing down, as opposed to just slowing down with regards to food, is that I've always hated being forced to rush through things. I like being busy, but not to the point where I can't take time to "stop and smell the roses". I want to enjoy what I'm doing, not rush through to get to the next thing that I rush through to get to the next thing and before you know it, I have no idea where the time went and I hated every minute that's now gone.

I think that's why I'm working on being more thoughtful about how I spend my time. I've been doing too little cooking and too much eating out and quick pickup meals. Part of the problem is other people demanding things from me without advance notice. I know the answer is to say no, but sometimes I can't because they're things that have a time limit.

I'm hoping that by being more thoughtful about how I spend my time will help me focus my attention on the things that matter the most. We'll see if that turns out to be true as I take steps that will allow me to do that, mainly using my calendar more to keep track of the things that matter to me and doing those before the rest of the stuff that often just fills up the time.