I’m sorry, I don’t eat that.

One evening in Romania, I ate so much I thought I would pop.

I was in Bucharest with a group of students and a professor who was hosting the trip. For the purposes of this story, I will call my professor Dr. Popa. His parents ran an orphanage ministry, and we had come to serve as volunteers. One night, our group was invited over to the home of Dr. Popa’s family friends for dinner. We arrived, the hosts greeted us warmly, and we all sat around the table. The lovely housewife had cooked up an abundance of delicious dishes: beef-stuffed cabbage, fresh tomatoes and cheese, sausages, and other things. We ate our fill and were content. Then, Dr. Popa did us the favor of informing us that those were the appetizers. Yes, those were the appetizers, and we should duly prepare ourselves for the main course and dessert! In the main course came, some sort of hearty beef roast and potatoes if I remember correctly. We did our duty by that roast. May I now mention, our student group was 85% female, none of us big eaters, and one of the guys was vegetarian! Then, in came a giant chocolate cake. We looked at it with trepidation, but our fearless professor reminded us that we must partake in the cake, as it was polite to accept the host’s hospitality to us. We passed around that cake, and we took slices of it.

That’s when I noticed that Dr. Popa did not take any. Waaaaait a minute! I graciously pointed out this detail. Dr. Popa must eat the cake with us. How could you decline such generosity, Dr. Popa? (NO FAIR!)

We made a game of urging Dr. Popa to eat cake. He bashfully tried to avoid doing so, and so we pulled out the video camera. Eat cake, eat cake! Eventually, he ate a bite of cake.

(A note: the chef was not present for this silly banter, nor did she speak English; we of course meant no discourtesy to her!)

Dr. Popa was a fit fellow, and wanted to stay that way. He was watching his diet carefully so he could do a few more pull-ups and run miles a little faster. That’s an admirable goal! I always try to be that way, too.

But eating is a team sport, isn’t it? It’s good to share food with others, and to enjoy it together — to appreciate its flavors and sustenance, talk about it, and give compliments to the chef. When you are hosting a gathering, you attempt to provide food everyone will like. When you are the guest, you try to eat an acceptable amount of most of the offerings. Following a special diet in this circumstance — healthier in some way or otherwise limited — runs the risk of becoming an unintended conversation piece, a disappointment to the host, or just no fun if there isn’t any suitable food available. It’s easier to conform to a diet at home, where you don’t have to explain to anybody what exactly goes awry if you eat this or that.

onions and garlic

Onions and garlic. Widely-loved flavors, fun to grow, members of nearly every hot sauce, and make me hurt.

From years of being that weirdo who is not eating this or that, and is eating some other odd thing instead, here are my suggestions on how to have a good time and to allow others to do the same at a gathering.

1. First and foremost, the goal of graciously eating differently than others is to avoid seeming like you think you are better than they are. If you are vegetarian, honor the decision of those who eat meat. If you avoid certain types of food, try not to look disgusted or put off by it. This is more applicable than some would think; in my experience, a good strategy in avoiding sweets, chips, fries, and such is to mentally insult those foods. I try to meditate on how bad they are for me and how they won’t satisfy me but cause me to crave more. But how upsetting for a host to provide food most people like, and then have one person sitting there deriding it, albeit silently? Therefore, I really try to avoid using this method.

2. The second goal is to make others feel that you are sufficiently satisfied with the options within your diet, and that you do not feel deprived by the situation. If you can fill your plate with foods your diet allows and eat them with a smile, you’re pretty much good to go. However, there’s always a chance  your options may be severely limited. If you’re allergic to wheat and it’s a pasta dinner, you have a problem. In these cases, you should try to plan ahead. You might want to talk to the host beforehand to let them know your restrictions. As a guest at a meal, I’ve often gone without telling anyone about my dietary restrictions beforehand because I don’t want to feel demanding on the host. It didn’t bother me to have limited options at a meal; it’s actually a great way to control your portions if you’re a food lover like me. However, it can make hosts feel guilty if they didn’t provide for all of their guests equally, and you don’t want to make them feel like they need to scramble to provide something else for you specifically. If you have a diet-related health concern, you are just going to be a little picky, and that’s how it is. The best way to deal with that is by telling people beforehand, rather than trying not to let them notice. Hopefully, the host will be glad to accommodate you.

3. If it’s a casual gathering and you are not expected to eat any specific thing, just be prepared. Bring a snack if it wouldn’t be awkward, or eat beforehand if you need to. Take care of yourself and you’ll be rewarded.

Those things being said, it’s still difficult to go against the grain. Food is a huge part of culture, and it’s often not strategic to be different in that regard. I don’t like seeming picky or strange when it comes to food, even though it’s important for my health.

 

I would welcome thoughts and advice on this matter! Readers, have you experienced an awkward situation because of what you needed to eat? Like the time my nut-allergic husband’s friends planned a short camping trip on which everyone was supposed to subsist on PB&J’s? Or for anybody else, what do you think of people who are picky about their food? Do you have any tips for how to be as polite (or just innocuous) as possible about it?

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Eat weirder stuff.

charming sardines

Charming sardines. Tried as I have, I still have not come across fresh ones. They’re always available canned, but I imagine the flavor is better when they are not. I do know you can get about 25 tons of them frozen on Alibaba.com, but I just don’t think I should do that.

Some of my friends know me as a sardine advocate. (And I’m not alone!)

Many more people are aware that sardines are weird. In high school, a couple of my friends gave me jalapeño-spiked canned sardines as a wacky birthday present, and we made a game out of eating at least a tiny bite of one for the camera. (Later, my dad casually ate the rest of the sardines, which we had been quite prepared to waste.)

However, in the last couple of years I became aware that salmon and tuna in particular are not faring well in the wild. Further, tuna carries relatively high mercury content, meaning it’s best to consume it in moderation (especially for pregnant women and small children).

Sardines, however, have a lot going for them. They are not endangered. They are a great source of omega-3 fats, vitamin D, calcium, and protein, and they are low in mercury. If prepared appropriately, I think they taste great! I will share a recipe once I have tweaked it to perfection 🙂

However, if sardines aren’t your thing, there are many other options of fish that are not endangered and that are nutritious. If we diversified our demand for types of fish, we might see a healthier ocean and healthier people. Commonly, miscellaneous fish are caught, killed and discarded as “bycatch” of trawling for the more popular shrimp (particularly in tropical regions, but it happens in American trawling too). This is wasteful.Give me those fish too!!!

So in general, a good way to honor ocean ecosystems is to choose a variety of foods, not just the ones we eat habitually. Think beyond shrimp, tuna and salmon. After all, there are plenty more fish in the sea.

Joel Salatin, the opinionated grass farmer I wrote about in my previous post, asks us to diversify when it comes to land animals too. He raises excellent chickens, cows, and pigs and is well-known for it in his region. Chipotle Mexican Grill approached Salatin as a potential supplier of organic meat for their restaurants, as they make an effort to source naturally raised and organic ingredients. After analyzing the opportunity, Salatin had to decline because even though his farm is extremely productive, he could not provide enough chicken and beef of the specific cuts of meat they serve. Particularly in fast food and restaurant food, consumers are looking for chicken breasts, wings and drumsticks. What about the rest of the bird? The same is true for cows, pigs, ducks, sheep and rabbits — some cuts of meat are much more popular than others, and we often ignore highly nutritious parts of the animal. (I’ll go into greater detail in a later post!)

Americans in particular are often uncomfortable with any meat that reminds them it was once an actual animal. We don’t want to see whole fish, organs, skin, or even bones really. But I would argue that we risk being both wasteful and ignorant if we limit our potential ingredients this way. A well-known chef whose book I neglected to mention in my earlier post, Fergus Henderson, is a leader in this line of thought.  The chef of a renowned restaurant in the UK, St. John, Henderson is best known for his masterful preparation of the “odd bits.” These are the bits that make most of us uneasy — marrow, liver, offal, pigs ears, and onward — but from his reputation, I believe Henderson’s dishes would put our anxieties to rest. He draws on English tradition, from a day when cooks used the entire animal out of economic necessity and a greater knowledge of cooking in general. His book, The Whole Beast, offers recipes which honor the animal by wasting nothing that has the potential to shine.

This has been quite the carnivorous post so far, but there’s a vegetable-focused angle to this issue as well. Dan Barber, a prominent chef who advocates local, organic food sourcing, recently wrote an article about the importance of eating diverse vegetables, grains and legumes. It was published in the New York Times over the past weekend: What Farm-To-Table Got Wrong.

Some fava beans I grew in my first garden. These legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, or so I am told. This was nearly my whole crop... When I started out I scored A++ on enthusiasm for gardening but probably around a D- for actual knowledge of it.

Some fava beans I grew in my first garden. These legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, or so I am told. This was nearly my whole crop… When I started out I scored A++ on enthusiasm for gardening but around a D- on actual knowledge.

In summary, as consumers we tend to buy certain foods far out of proportion to their healthy occurrence in nature. Trained by industrial monoculture, we take for granted our ability to pick a few favorite foods (jasmine rice, wheat, baby carrots, romaine, etc.) and stop there. Organic, biodynamic farmers work with an ecosystem to produce healthy crops without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and this means their land hosts a wide variety of species (a common characteristic of a healthy natural place). In this article, Barber describes the careful process necessary to grow excellent wheat of a traditional variety. The farmer featured in the article, Klaas, appears very knowledgeable and committed to this task, planting a wide variety of crops to nourish the soil so that he can grow a good crop of wheat. As there is less demand for the perfectly enjoyable but less popular crops he grows to support his wheat production — mustard, cowpeas, millet, barley, kidney beans, and brassicas — Klaas must sell most of these less preferred legumes and grains as animal feed for little profit.

Barber points out that, for all our commitments to support local, organic farms by buying their produce, we withhold valuable help by limiting our palates to the best-known foods. Even though we’re choosing to be more adventurous by looking for heirloom, organic, local varieties of the foods we love, we don’t make dietary staples of the mustard greens, cowpeas, barley and other key prerequisites for the bread we love so much. But if we can open ourselves up to those possibilities, we will see more organic and local food available at a lower price and in greater quantities, all while supporting the artisans of the field who made it possible.

And that’s why I say, eat weirder stuff.

books I’ve eaten

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I grew up thinking the food pyramid was right. I started wondering if it could be right sometime in high school. Do we really need that much bread? Does the “Nutrition Facts” label say it all? Since then, my thinking has been influenced by the following books and sources. A common theme among them is support of “real food” in some way — unprocessed ingredients that weren’t developed in a lab. I’ve organized them into groups based on the foods they advocate and those they restrict.

 

All Real Foods 

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan — A celebrity author on the subject of modern food, Pollan makes the argument that our industrial agricultural system produces a lot of garbage, particularly in the form of petroleum-grown corn processed into bulk components (high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, cornstarch, etc.). He shows how this method reduces nutritional quality of the produce, damages the environmental health of the region, and produces other problems. He shows how most organic food is not that different from conventional food, and then contrasts this with the “beyond organic” approach of farmer Joel Salatin and others who produce less conventionally. The third section of Pollan’s book describes his highly unsustainable attempt to forage his own meal, leading us to conclude that perhaps we shouldn’t try to be hunter-gatherers again (in case you were considering it!)

Real Food by Nina Planck — Planck is a very successful advocate of local, high-quality, whole, “real” food. By this she means meat, whole raw dairy, lots of fresh vegetables, abundant natural fats (fish oil, olive oil, coconut, pastured butter and lard especially) and whole grains (in moderation). She’s organized quite a few farmer’s markets and generally wants people to understand that healthy food comes straight from the source of the food, not processed into fifty ingredients and then put into a protein bar.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver — A fiction author best known for her book The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver essentially took her family back to the farm and lived a year on local food. They either grew their food or bought it close by, with a few key exceptions. They succeeded and demonstrated the beauty, fun, health, and hard work of such a lifestyle. However, this book does not at all prove the idea that this life is possible for everyone. The main problem for most aspiring “gentleman farmers” is that they don’t already have land or a nice ongoing income from another career. I’m not saying it’s a bad lifestyle because everyone can’t do it; however, it was a bit too ideal of a situation to be widely relevant.

The Weston A. Price Foundation, primarily through their website — This organization is a major source of inspiration for “real food” advocates today (like Nina Planck). Along with promoting fresh, pastured, beyond-organic ingredients, they also advocate the belief that traditional methods of preparing food make them more nutritious and digestible, and that in forgetting these traditions, we make ourselves sick. These methods especially include sprouted grains and legumes (reducing some of the “anti-nutrients” specified in the paleo diet and boosting nutrient content overall), raw dairy (not pasteurized, which preserves important enzymes such as lactase and other important components that don’t show up on a nutrition label), bone broth (boiled bones as a soup base) and fermented foods (for increased digestibility and probiotic benefit). I think supporters of these techniques are on to something; however, I also consider them the most countercultural. The food preparations they advocate are the most time-consuming and can hold the highest risk of food contamination if not done correctly. In our mass-produced, fast-paced food era, I am not sure we will ever get back to these home-spun ways as a society.

 

No Meat

101 Cookbooks by Heidi Swanson — a prolific vegetarian cook who shows how much amazing food you can make in a plant-based diet. She uses an amazing variety of ingredients, combines them terrifically, and photographs them beautifully. She does all of this without seeming overly sentimental or egotistical about it (a very important trait, in my opinion!). Her work definitely inspired my own cooking from the beginning.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer — Mostly known as a fiction author, Foer is a strong advocate of vegetarianism. He has struggled not to eat meat for long stretches of his life, but believes it is morally wrong to eat animals. He considers it needless killing because to him, we eat meat for no other reason than that we prefer its taste to other alternatives. His book is shocking and it was so painful for me to read that I didn’t finish it. He describes in gory detail the realities of factory farming, shrimp trawling and other awful meat production practices. He does not emphasize that alternative methods exist, but he makes a valid point that these practices are intolerable.

 

More Meat

Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin — If you want to hear someone’s strong opinions, this book is for you. Salatin is passionate about farming “beyond organic,” which means doing everything possible to create the perfect conditions for beef, chicken, pork and other creatures to live in symbiosis with each other and with the overall ecology of his land. His main focus is improving the soil and the grasses, which nourishes his cows, and they return the favor through their manure. Chickens feast on worms from the manure, pigs happily root through it when it’s time to turn the compost from winter, along with a lot of other healthy biodynamic interactions, and Salatin is thus enabled to produce abundant pastured meat and eggs in an idyllic Eden. He argues that this method of farming is better for the environment than any other method; it replenishes the soil, promotes biodiversity, and allows living things to live as they were meant to live. It sounds too good to be true, but from what I can tell he isn’t lying. I haven’t visited the farm in Virginia, but lots of people do. Salatin also rants about how our society is overly disconnected from nature, decadent, wasteful and lazy. For the most part I simultaneously agree with him and find him annoying because he seems to know better than everybody else without help from anybody else. If you read this book, expect a lot of information about raising animals ALONG WITH opinions about how to raise your children.

Digestive Health with Real Food by Aglaée Jacob — This book is specifically for those who suffer from IBS/IBD, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other digestive problems. Jacob is heavily influenced by both “real food” and paleo advocates, and even though her website looks a little kooky, her book is very well-written and gives wonderful detail that I haven’t found elsewhere. I relate to her background on the subject as well: she was trained as a nutritionist in conventional medicine, but through years in practice she didn’t see results from her patients through her standard advice. She’s turned to a paleo approach for most people, and a more specific and restrictive diet for those who have a digestive disease, and has seen much better results. I am currently following her recommendations to find out if it works for me. People like me don’t have a lot to lose from following a strict (but still healthy and sufficiently varied) diet if there’s a chance it will actually solve our problems.

A TED Talk by Allan Savory — Savory’s lifelong work has been to improve the ecology of grassland and reduce desertification. Desertification is possibly a huge contributor to climate change, and climate change can contribute to further desertification — a vicious cycle. Early in his career, he believed this required the reduction of grazing animals, and he directed the widespread killing of elephants in Southern Africa to improve ecological health. He now regrets this more than anything else he’s ever done. His research has shown that moderate grazing drastically improves plant life in many ecosystems, and mankind can play a role in optimizing that effect. In essence, we can herd animals, eat them, and benefit the environment at large. (Meanwhile, growing grain and vegetables is more costly than some advocates of vegetarianism say!) Together with Joel Salatin’s work (and dependence on the principle of managed grazing), this provides the best argument I’ve seen for environmentally sound dependence on meat as a central part of our diet. It suggests that humans do have a place in the ecosystem, after all.

The Paleo Diet as taught by my coach in Crossfit Fundamentals — This diet teaches that grains, legumes and dairy have a detrimental effect on many our health. They aren’t downright dangerous, but they contribute to common health problems over the long term and limit our ability to function ideally. They point to excessive carbohydrates, phytates, lectins, lactose and gluten as the most critical sources of damage to the digestive system through these groups of foods. I continue to do research on these claims and will report my findings. The primary two critiques of the Paleo diet have to do with its anthropological claims (and I agree, these are fishy), and that there is no standard scientific backing to its nutritional claims (here I believe there may be confounding factors at work, and paleo may deserve credit for improving health despite them). I’ve been watching the paleo diet very closely, and there are an abundance of websites and blogs out now with paleo recipes, testimonials about how the diet has worked for them, and how IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE! Haha. And whenever someone tells me that, I feel the need to be extremely careful. But as even critics admit, paleo is not the worst way to eat!

 

On a side note, I find this New York Times article, and the drove of comments it received on Facebook, pretty interesting. Is the no-processed-food idea going mainstream?

Always Hungry?

 

Why I think about food so much

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Steak, eggs, guacamole and chopped jalapeño. A successful creation with my boo that I actually bothered to document!

After years of learning about food in a mildly obsessive manner, I decided to finally do the cliché thing and start a blog about food. I hope it’s entertaining.

Why do I care so much about food?

First, I love eating…. I love the variety and creativity and surprise that comes with the amazing diversity of foods that people can eat. I love cooking, too. I view it as a creative opportunity and a way to please other people with my work.

I came to care about the health effects of food in high school when I first wanted to lose weight and become a better runner. I succeeded, but was still perplexed by the quickly-changing and often contradictory nutrition advice spewed out by the government, doctors, fitness experts, and others. I read a lot of articles in the newspaper and in Shape Magazine about what food is “good for you,” but I still felt like I only had a foggy idea that included lots of vegetables, whole grains and little fat. Outside those mainstream sources of information, more diet and lifestyle plans abound. Those I find the most convincing all emphasize food “without a trademark” — we’re talking fresh meat, fresh vegetables, whole milk with no added sugar, etc. — but there is so much more diversity within those lines of thought. We’ll get into that!

Another reason I pay attention to food is that over my teen years I developed persistent IBS symptoms, a health limitation I hope to live without one day. From doctors I have not gotten much more help than an anti-constipation drug (as if the only problem I have is “I poop  bad”) and advice to be less stressed (important, but not the cause either).  I want to believe I can figure out a way to be healthier. We’ll see how that goes!

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Do you see him? A baby praying mantid on my baby chard!

Finally, I’ve developed an interest in food production itself out of a concern for animal welfare and ecological health. I don’t take nature for granted. I’m obsessed with goats. Discovering baby ducklings, a strange new flower, or a radiant sky is often the highlight of my day. Food production depends entirely natural resources, so we must protect them for our survival; however, it’s even better to treat nature with honor. As with every other public issue, there is lots of disagreement about what is the best way to care for the environment while producing plenty of nutritious food. Veganism and vegetarianism, pastured animal husbandry, and organic agriculture are examples of diets that promise both health and environmental protection. I would like to explore those claims.

Questions I have for those interested: How should we make decisions about food? And who should we trust for the correct information? How can we become a healthier society?

In the next post I will summarize the sources of information that have influenced my thinking on food the most. Feel free to share your favorite books as well! I’m always looking for good ones.