Wednesday, September 30, 2009
HOW SHOULD WE THEN EAT??
A low-fat diet versus natural food?
Before whoppers with cheese and Big Gulps, and also before most people had ever encountered a vegetarian, people used to eat smaller portions but more fried food and saturated fat. I was 19 when I tasted my first reduced-fat milk. I was in ninth grade when McDonald's came to town. So, for at least the first 14 years of my life I was fed whole foods. Even the junk foods of the 50's: Crisco, margarine, potato chips, Chef Boyardee and soda were not staples in our house. We didn't know these were really bad things, but we were cultivated to like more traditional food by our blue-collar, ethnic parents.
My mother, God rest her soul, was a wonderful cook and baker who considered working in the kitchen as therapeutic and calming. She expressed herself through cooking, and benefited by being raised in two very helpful cultural contexts. Her parents were straight-off-the-boat Italians, and she grew up in a town in Vermont, which until 1965 had more cows than people. So her papa had a grape arbor and grew phenomenal organic vegetables (even transferring Savoy cabbages to the dirt-floor cellar of the house in the Fall), her mama cooked and baked everything from scratch (even making her own cheese), and they were surrounded by a countryside abounding with wild berries and other edibles. As children, Mom, her siblings and friends would often rise before dawn in the summer and walk the five miles or so into the mountains and meadows to pick red and black raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. They would sell some door to door in town and keep the rest for the family. Nearby farms would deliver fresh, raw milk and eggs, and live chickens could be bought at the store around the corner.
As we were growing up, this way of living also continued to a large extent in our household. The main fats in my childhood home were butter and olive oil, with the addition of lard for pie crusts when the occasion arose for pie. We drank water from the vast artesian wells just outside of town (the city of Schenectady had what was considered the best municipal drinking water in the world), and milk delivered from the local dairy. Orange juice and the occasional bottle of ginger ale pretty much rounded things out for us. Dad had his red wine, often mixed with water at suppertime and they made coffee in the morning and late afternoon.
We also had our eggs delivered from a farm, and even had baked goods brought to the door once a week by the Freihofer man. Freihofer was a huge bakery in town that made all kinds of bread and sweets, and get this, had guys come around to the homes once a week in horse-drawn buggies. They switched over to regular trucks somewhere around 1960, but still showed up with their huge, unfolding case of baked goods every week. And their stuff was natural and delicious. Wow.
We had homemade tomato sauce (usually twice a week), and soups, stews, big green salads with pure olive oil and wine vinegar, local honey, seafood on Fridays, baked eggplant, roasted meats, pancakes with real maple syrup (always), beans and greens, nuts, omelets, old-fashioned oatmeal and cream of wheat, and all manner of fresh, home made food. We always ate fresh fruit every day at lunch, and often in the morning cut up on cereal or as grapefruit. We ate apples as a snack at night or mom would sit down in the living room and cut up pears or other fruit and hand them out to us, piece by piece.
For his part, Dad was a forager, and loved to walk out to the woods or fields and gather berries, nuts, mushrooms, apples and fiddle ferns. I particularly enjoyed accompanying him on these missions. My brother loved to fish, and he and Dad brought home a fair amount of trout, bass, perch and bullheads. They occasionally went hunting for small game and deer. Between what they got and what my uncles would give us, I remember eating rabbit, game birds and venison as a child.
I can honestly say that I do not know anyone in our extended family or among my parents' friends, who died young. A couple of the heavy smokers and/or drinkers died between their mid-sixties and seventies, but nobody died before that or was debilitated in any discernible way for the most part up until their 80's. And so many of them were pretty hale and hearty until within a week, and often a day, of their getting pneumonia or having a cardiovascular event which caused them to pass.
Another striking difference is that they took very little, and mostly not any, prescription drugs. These are the kind of people who just kept puttering around the house and garden, going to Sunday mass (on foot mostly), laughing, cussing, and going to parties until the end. They really lived until they died.
How could they have eaten all this saturated fat, not had the statin drugs or many other meds, and not been obese or chronically ill? Many of them were born during the first world war, and/or the Spanish flu epidemic (Dad was born in the middle of one of the first waves, in November 1918), lived through the Depression and World War II, and seemed curiously to not be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by all of that.
When I think of all of the improvements made in health care, technology and supposed advanced knowledge in nutrition and biochemistry, all the food choices and advocacy of low-fat diets, I have to wonder:
Why is everybody so sick? And with ADHD? And fat? And bi-polar, and diabetic, and addicted, and filled with arterial plaque in their 40's and 50's, and infertile, and stressed, and depressed, autistic, and chronically ill and dying young?
What has changed, and what has to be changed back, or at least thought-through a bit more wholistically? Not only do I ask, how should we then eat, but to borrow the late Francis Shaeffer's book title, How Should We Then Live?????????????????????
More to come............