Monday, December 10, 2007


We just received our first regular delivery of farm foods yesterday. After months of organizing and much work from Steve, and with some help from others, it was absolutely heartening to see everyone's enthusiasm and support flowing as freely as the pet milk! (By the way, my kitty just adores this milk. Spoiled Rotten, I'd say!) Thanks to all of the early comers who helped unload the truck. Thanks to Sarah for your help in getting the Joash milk. And thanks to all of the farmers who are supplying us with such incredible REAL food! The milk fairly flew out of the coolers, including the extra that Steve was able to bring.

We are all so fortunate, considering how far one has to go in this big state to get this "local" food, that Steve is willing to bring it here for us. He drove to several different farms on Saturday, ending up in the Panhandle at 2am to get the Joash milk. Then he made it here around 1pm on Sunday, after picking up his mom, Josephine (I love seeing her every trip. She makes the kombucha--come try some!). This is a labor of love, and Miami thanks you!

I sealed my fate as a bad (or maybe just very tacky) Jewish Mama by serving my family pastured pork blade steaks from Full Circle Farm for dinner. Thanks to Dennis and his yummy meat, I only had to add a bit of garlic and rosemary (from my friend DeAnna in the Redlands) before they hit the grill. I added a salad from Bee Heaven greens. Are we lucky or what?

At our house we celebrated the conjunction of Hannukah and the arrival of the milk with a chocolate tasting. I had found the incredible Vosges chocolates which we paired with rich milk, also from Dennis (Meow!) Some of the flavors: sea salt/almond, pasilla chili/cinnamon, cardamom/walnut/dried plum, chicory coffee/cocoa nibs, bacon/sea salt . . . Yes, BACON. And wow was that interesting! Not kosher--so sue me--but very cool!

So we are on our way. We are now able to access real food, sourced locally. Most of the food we get is either produced in Florida or sold by small local businesses, like Delicious Organics, that put a lot of care and thought into what they bring from other places (someone has called this shopping "LoCo"). Come join this movement. We sure are eating well!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

What I Learned over Thanksgiving Vacation . . .

O.K. Maybe I didn't exactly learn these things from scratch, but I put into use some lessons over these last crazy weeks that I though might be useful to us all. I/we have been away from home under varying circumstances and have been able to eat well and stay healthy throughout. How? Maybe some of my recent experiences will help:

About three weeks ago I went to the Weston A. Price Foundation International conference--which was as incredibly full of information, new tastes, new people, new ideas as I remembered from last year. There was, of course, really wonderful food, provided by small farmers and prepared according to traditional principles. But there were also close to two days of travel--on airplanes and through airports known for lack of anything decent to eat, even for folks less picky about what they put into their bodies than I am. I should add that there is one very good restaurant at Dulles, the airport in Washington that I was using, that has local food and cooks it with more care than anyone has a right to expect in that setting. I did not need to eat there, though, because I take a bit of time to plan my food for such trips.

What I carry on planes: crispy nuts, dried fruit (I think I had persimmons and figs), cubed cheese, sliced salami, an apple (one for each person, if in a group), "baby" carrots, hard boiled eggs, homemade crackers. These are usually things I have on hand at all times at home. If I have them, I might add tangerines or other easy to manage fruit, and any travel-friendly leftovers, such as sliced meat or chicken wings. I don't shy away from a few small containers, because I have found them to be useful for the return trip, to transport things I can gather during my stay. I also pack a few extra zipper storage bags for the return trip, a napkin and an empty water bottle. I have found that I prefer to fill my bottle from a fountain, after going through security, to drinking from commercial plastic bottles. I can't speak to the science of whether plastic particles are worse than chlorine for us, but the plastic tastes much worse to me.

The same week I was in DC, my husband and kids went to a regatta in Naples. They had a kitchen in the hotel, which is a basic necessity for us, though some folks I know travel with a hotplate or other small indoor heat source--some even use hotpots to reheat food cooked at home. I had planned every meal and organized it so that my 13 year old could easily take charge of both packing and cooking the food. I find that's important whether I will be there or not. When we go camping I do the same thing, because I really don't want a lot of leftovers and some meals are easier to make then others when you are without the luxury of a well-equipped kitchen. As a matter of fact, if I am not sure of the motel's equipment, I pack some basics from my camping gear--who wants to get stuck without a corkscrew when you are staring at a nice bottle of wine?

Car trips are a bit different than plane travel, because I can take coolers. I have been known to pack a roast chicken and salad fixings to feed us at a lovely wooded rest area (there are a few of those!) I have taken pate (the recipe I previously posted) and gravlax (I use the recipe from Nourishing Traditions, replacing the Rapadura with honey) that I had on hand, both of which make great lunch and snack foods. I pack more fruit, and I can include things that might have gotten squished in a carry-on under the seat in front of me, like plums, grapes, pears. I plan on more fruit when we travel because the disruption in routines can cause constipation. When I pack a cooler, I use water bottles filled with frozen filtered water for most of the "ice packs," rounding out with gel packs. In a pinch--when we didn't have a freezer to refreeze the gel packs and water bottles, I have filled the water bottles with ice at a motel ice machine, adding water to make packs that will last pretty long and not make a mess of the food. If we are headed to a place where I will be cooking (like a regatta or camping) I will pack the meat frozen, and may even precook some things and freeze them--everything travels better that way, and I don't have to fret about any delays.

The other recent "travel" experience was actually two trips to the emergency room with two different kids. One turned into an overnight stay, so I really did need good food. I think hospital food rivals airplane food for being gross and devoid of nutrition. I am not sure how people are supposed to heal eating such processed, sugary junk, but I didn't have to find out! As soon as I decided to take my son to the ER the day before Thanksgiving (he had signs of appendicitis), I quickly packed a bag with a change of clothes, a book, a sketchbook, my phone charger, and some food. Since I was not sure how long I would be without refrigeration, I used a small insulated lunch box with a gel pack and included hard cheese, crackers, nuts, dried fruit and a jar of frozen chicken stock. I added a china cup (for microwaving, so I don't have to use styrofoam--microwaving is bad enough!) and some tea bags, herb for Ian and black for me. Once he was admitted, he was allowed to order what food he wanted from the hospital's food service. This is an improvement over other systems, and allowed us to chose the most "real" food available: bacon and eggs, a hard boiled egg for me, fresh fruit, grits. Yes, some of these are compromises--I would not normally use commercial bacon or degermed grits, and the grits would be soaked. But, under the circumstances, these were pretty good choices.

Pretty good choices. That's what Rick and I have worked to refine for travel. He travels a lot for business and used to come home with digestive upsets, some of which can last longer than the original trip! He takes nuts and dried fruit, sometimes a piece of fresh fruit, sometimes a can of sardines. Eating out, he has learned to order fish or meat grilled or cooked in butter (if real, he always asks) or olive oil. He gets salad and vegetables without dressings and sauces, unless he can be really sure what is in them. Instead, he asks for olive oil, melted butter, lemon or lime, to season them. Bacon and eggs (boiled, poached or fried, to avoid liquid egg products) and fruit are pretty reliable for breakfast. Using these tactics, he has been able to stay healthy and have some pretty good meals.

Travel is fun for us all, and we love tasting new foods. Still, because of our commitment to eating real foods, and owing to a few sensitivities in some family members, it serves us better to take much of our food and to experience local ingredients from farmers and markets, rather than eat our meals out. This ends up being more economical, healthier, and often has given us connections in a community that we would have otherwise missed. I know it might sound like I do a lot of work, but really the work is in the planning--on the trip itself it is usually stress-free and enjoyable, perhaps even more so than it would be eating icky food in crowded restaurants with a bunch of finicky kids.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Chicken Harvest

Last Saturday I learned how to harvest a chicken.

I not only learned how, I actually did it, and it wasn't as hard as I imagined it might be--that was all in my head. In reality, even the slaughtering part was very matter-of-fact and simple. Very real. It reminded me of being at a birth. It's not a novel comparison, to equate birth and death, but some might be shocked or offended at my throwing killing an animal into the mix. But when you stop to think about it, killing for food is elemental for humans and animals, it is a part of our DNA, our natural lives. We watch lizards catch insects with no twinges of sadness. We are fascinated with lions eating their prey, looking like our own cats with backyard birds (this is one reason why we watched National Geographic specials, is it not?).

We were a group of ten, gathered at our local CSA on a cool (Miami-style) and glittery Fall day in South Florida. The roosters--noisy boys that they are--needed culling and we lucky ones were about to learn the process of turning bird into dinner. After a few false starts while we discovered just how hard it is to catch a rooster, even in a chicken tractor, we rounded them up into a holding cage. We only needed one demonstration, then we took turns performing each step: slaughter, scald, pluck, butcher, eviscerate. The birds were then washed and iced down. In the end, we had eleven dressed roosters (the extra was raffled off) and a bunch of heads, feet and giblets. I'll do a post on offal another day, but suffice it to say, I ended up with the heads and feet for my stock pot. Though the whole group was very game about the entire project, some things are just very new ideas to us all.

We sat down at a long table out of the sun and shared a light farm lunch. All the while, we traded recipes and stories, enjoying the company and the day. This is the essence of community in the New Millenium: Sharing skills and joys almost lost to the commodification of our food and our whole lives. To do this we have had to create all sorts of intentional groups, such as CSA's and support groups, schools of herbcraft and so on. I am sure that my great-grandmother learned to make gefilte fish from her mother or grandmother, starting with a live carp (for a wonderful children's story about this, see The Carp in the Bathtub,.) We now have to seek out the mentors and fellow travelers that would have been a part of our natural surroundings in our great-grandparents' time.

I do see that we are starting to value anew the richness of the food of the past. And I think that we really do yearn for the family dinners, the holiday gatherings, the kids who follow ours home, drawn by the warmth and the delicious smells coming from our kitchens. We love the ambiance; this is what Martha Stewart has been marketing with a vengeance for years. And we say we want real, that we
want whole foods--we even shop at a store of that name.

So why do we have suc
h a hard time owning up to the death inherent in our dinner? This connection may be as important for us to see as the one between the garden and the broccoli. The only folks attempting to educate our kids on this issue are vegan activists, and they see all killing of animals as bad (maybe we need to let them know how many bunnies died during the harvest of their carrots and kale.) Somehow we have lost the respect, the honor, that native peoples had toward their food animals. In refusing to acknowledge the death, we have allowed factory animal operations to take over and do horrible things--to treat the animals without respect. The vegans are right about that part: we should not be eating animals treated as CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) animals are--for the sake of the animals, and for our own health, physical and mental.

Going to a small farm for a chicken-harvesting workshop is not my answer to daily food choices--it was only one bird, after all. Instead, it is a way to respect the animal that would become our dinner, to restore that connection for every chicken going forward. It is a way to see the chicken on the plate as the culmination of a process that is real and tangible. It reaffirms my choice to eat humanely-raised pastured animals, always aware of how they lived.

And slaughtering my own rooster taught that its death is equally full of purpose and integrity.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Old Salt

People have been asking me about salt. Not about my husband, The Old Salt. But they need to know about salt. Old, traditional salt. Real salt.

Salt. We can't live without it. Yet we have been taught to fear it. Without it, food tastes bland, somehow wrong. With it, food has heightened flavors, and it can be used to make many foods last longer.

People want to know which kind to use, how much to use, and so on. I really don't intend to write a dissertation on salt--the definitive book, Salt: A World History, has been written. But perhaps I can quickly give an orientation to salt and some resources.

Let's start with background: naturally occurring salt is not just sodium chloride. It contains a complex of many trace minerals, which vary depending on the source of the salt. Refined salt is pure sodium chloride, but usually has additives, including dextrose, synthetic iodine, flow agents, even fluoride. These differences, between the natural and the refined, may explain why for many years "experts" have told us that salt consumption is hazardous to our health. The reason we think that salt is unsafe is that studies have been done with refined salt, not the real, complex substance.

Anytime we consume a refined product that is missing key elements, the body has to compensate by drawing on it's stores of those elements--in this case, the missing minerals. This creates an imbalance, and the body--always attempting to reach homeostasis or equilibrium--will do it's best to cope. Eventually, symptoms of deficiency, and then illness, arise. Since salt functions to help regulate fluid in the body, one of the effects of using refined salt can be swelling or edema (showing an imbalance of the fluids between circulation and tissues), and the well-known effect of high blood pressure. For some interesting information on the health issues of salt, see this site.

So we need salt biologically. But really I want to talk about taste, about food. That's why we are here, after all. What salt do I use? Well, I was introduced to the real thing by my daughter who went to France--Brittany, specifically--last year. She lugged home pounds of huge, damp, grey crystals she had seen workers rake out of the salt beds at the edge of the sea. She had lived with a family who kept 25 lb sacks of The Real Thing in the pantry, and large open salt jars on the counter. She told me how this salt went liberally into most every dish, so I learned how to use this strange new substance that bears no resemblance to the stuff that pours when it rains. And I was hooked. It changes the food and it subtlety changes my relationship to the food. I taste, I add a pinch. I wait for it to dissolve, to disperse. I taste again. I am more responsive, more flexible. Measuring means nothing and the taste means everything.

I have used other real salts, and continue to do so. Here, we can buy Celtic Salt, Himalayan Salt and Real Salt. I am sure there are other great brands. The commonality is that these are unrefined salts, as found in nature--either from the sea or mined from the earth. These salts all have color and texture. They are varied and fascinating. Each has a nuanced flavor, a different use. Delicious Organics has a wonderful page exploring different aspects of salt, and they carry many types--a wonderland of choice! Find your favorite everyday salt and put it in a lovely jar on your counter top, to use liberally, to taste. Find some special salts--I noticed two smoked salts I want to try for unusual dishes. You can do the same. Explore and experiment.

As always, what the Hunter-Gatherer in me is looking for is something real, something that resonates with what I hear from the voices of the Grandmothers deep down. Those of my ancestry, of yours, sought out real and delicious foods. And they went to great lengths to get salt, because somehow they knew they could not survive without it. And neither can we.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Love and Liver

Today I am going to invite you into my kitchen for a cup of tea or kombucha, or whatever your pleasure . . . I just don't have any soda on hand, having not made any in a while--more on that another day. By the way, that photo at the top of the page is from my kitchen: local mangos, much used mortar and pestle handed down from my dad and all. Anyway, I wanted to talk about my recent workshop, and to give you a recipe for pate that all of the participants requested. I have been meaning to do this for a while but life intervened (my son's first regatta, which will give rise to a post about eating while we travel--but here I am distracting myself . . .)

For the workshop, I wanted a lunch that would demonstrate some of the principles of traditional diets I would be discussing during the day. I also wanted a sort of seasonal meal that would not be difficult to prepare. We ended up with an Autumn soup, crackers, chicken liver pate and a salad. We also had a variety of saurkrauts and kimchi that I had brought to show the final result of some ferments, as our hands-on project that day was sauerkraut making.

So now, do as my sweetheart does when I am cooking, pull up a chair to the doorway of my small kitchen while we talk and I start cooking.

A soaked grain cracker: Two or three days before I need crackers, I soak grain flour (in this case it was rice and cornmeal) with whey and water to cover. After 24 hours, I add eggs, coconut oil, baking soda to get a sort of cornbread batter, which I bake in a 9 x 12 pan. No, I can't tell you exactly how much of anything--that's not the recipe I promised you! (If pressed by my loyal readers, I will come up with one later . . .) When the bread is done baking, usually in 40-60 minutes, I let it cool, then slice it thinly into cracker-sized pieces which I arrange on sheet pans and place in a warm oven (about 150-200 degrees, depending on whether I can watch them). The simplest timing is to let them stay in the warm oven (lowest temp) overnight. That's it. Kind of like biscotti, they take a while, but each step that involves actual labor is short and easy. The longest step is the slicing--no big deal, really, just go slowly. I save all of the crumbs (there are always lots in gluten-free baking) in a bag in the freezer--very handy for whatever uses breadcrumbs. I also do a quicker version with coconut flour and some nutmeal instead of the soaked grain.

A basic soup (incorporating bone broth): I make all simple soups with the same general structure--saute veggies starting with onions, add softer veg, add broth, simmer. Puree, if desired. Season and accent with herbs or yoghurt, etc. This is great for leftovers and even quick stews. So the Autumn soup goes something like this: Saute onion and garlic. Add some quartered and cored apples (no need to peel). Add some winter squash chunks or even precooked (I used some pumpkin-like squash that had been baked with the bread--cut in half, seed, place face down on a sheet pan with a bit of water and bake til you can poke it with a fork easily. Then just scoop out the flesh. This is great as a side dish with lots of good grass-fed butter.) Add some broth--chicken usually, but experiment! If I have some leftover white wine, that might go in. I like to throw in some thyme if it's around. I sometimes add curry spices, like garam masala or whatever I am in the mood for. This simmers for a few minutes--until the veggies are tender, or longer if I am tied up with another project. I puree with a stick/immersion blender--a tool I find invaluable for soups. Then I add salt and pepper or whatever is missing. How do I know? I taste! Over and over. It drives one of my kids nuts that I do that, but you really can't cook well without tasting. Period. You learn over time what you like, what's missing, what would help round out the flavors. Sometimes it's a bit of lemon juice or a dribble of honey. Sometimes it's a bit of tamari or miso, or even fish sauce, each of which adds something very different from salt alone. Sometimes I can't tell, and I go looking for tasters, asking opinions (which I generally take, but I reserve the right to make the final decision). Really, recipes are just a skeleton, a framework on which to build a dish. The process might appear so loose, but it's really just flexible--if you lack an ingredient, find a substitute or leave it out. Play with your food!

My basic green salad (Live enzymes and micronutrients galore): Cut or tear the washed greens into a nice salad bowl. Add any vegetables and/or fruits. Add any cheese and/or crispy nuts or seeds. I almost always add chopped garlic. The simplest dressing I make is to drizzle everything with olive oil, add a squirt of flax oil (to add omega 3's and a nutty flavor), add the juice of a lime or lemon and a big pinch of good sea salt. Toss the whole thing well and serve. I did this whole process in five minutes at the workshop, at our worktable so everyone could watch. Sometimes I make a simplified version of Sally Fallon's Creamy Dressing (from Nourishing Traditions): in a small jar I put olive oil and wine vinegar, mustard if I think of it, salt and a bit of cream (raw and/or cultured if I have it). Shake. Herbs are nice, so's pepper if you feel like it. Add crumbled blue cheese for, you know, Blue Cheese Dressing.

The pate (about as nutrient dense and full of good fat as it gets): First off, this may be the simplest thing you ever make that ends up being so elegant. It's pretty cheap too. It can be frozen in small containers--double wrap and defrost in the fridge. Oh, and it's full of the good stuff: minerals, vitamins, fat-soluble activators. And taste--even liver haters have been known to eat this. It may rank next to bacon as the gateway meat. So try a batch! Stop throwing out those livers that come with the great pastured chickens you are buying; save them up for this pate . . . Full honors for this recipe go to a wonderful and quite traditionally focused book, Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin, which teaches how to cook basic French family fare--the foods Pepin's mother used to make.

Chicken Liver Pate a la Jacques Pepin (with a few notes of my own)
1 pound chicken livers (preferably pastured and/or organic)
2/3 cup sliced onions
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
2 bay leaves, crushed
1/4 tsp. thyme leaves
1 cup water
2 tsp good sea salt
1 1/2 cups (3/4 lb) butter, softened (preferable organic, grassfed and/or raw)
freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp Cognac or Scotch (optional, but it does add something that takes this beyond my grandma's chopped liver)

Put the livers, onions, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, water and one tsp. of salt in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover and cook at a bare simmer for 7-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit for five minutes. Place the solids in the food processor with a metal blade (I have done this in a blender, but it's a bit trickier--you have stir it often until there is enough puree at the bottom, and maybe add some of the butter earlier to help the liquifying). As you process, you add the butter piece by piece, letting each incorporate. If the mass looks like it is breaking (like when mayonnaise breaks--it looks curdled), chill for about an hour before finishing. Add the rest of the salt (taste first, add what you need, keeping in mind that once it chills it will taste less salty), the pepper and the Cognac. Process until creamy and totally smooth. Pour into a mold or individual ramekins. This can be decorated with bits of vegetable matter (tomato skin, blanched scallions) and sealed with an aspic, but that part is maybe more trouble than it's worth for everyday. If you want to know how to do that, get the book (or email me).

In the spirit of never letting anything go to waste (that traditional or hunter-gatherer value) I often take the poaching broth and add some chopped greens and bits of whatever veg is on hand, maybe poach an egg in it and call it soup. A nice filling lunch for the cook!

At the end of the workshop one lovely woman came up to me and confided that the most important thing she had learned was that we must share food, eating together with others, and that we put love into the food--that is ultimately what makes it nourishing. And I thought I was just teaching them how to choose and cook healthy food.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Eggs' Essential Dilemma

Each morning as I study or write, I listen for the sound of my breakfast sizzling in the kitchen. When Rick and I sit down to the breakfast he has made me, I wait for his assessment of the newest of my HG (hunter-gatherer) egg finds-- Were the shells hard? Are the yolks deeply colored? How do they taste? Did they run out of the shell or hold together (the latter a sign of freshness)?

Eggs are a staple at our house. We eat them for breakfast, we add them to soups, we bake with them--especially useful to make up for the baking properties of the gluten we don't eat. So, of course, the quality of these eggs is incredibly important. I always strive to find the best sources of each food that we eat, but deciding what is actually best is not so simple. For a while in the U.S. we accepted that "organic" meant "best" as far as food went. But recently we have been asking more questions: is it more responsible to choose locally produced food? What if that local food is pesticide laden? What if my local farmer grows food organically but chooses not to become certified? What does organic mean now, with watered-down standards in place? And animals can be fed organic feed and still be confined in barns and/or cages. Does free-range trump organic? Does free-range mean anything that we can actually pin down? Some of the labels we see have amounted to greenwashing, the use of a "green" term that has no teeth enforcing it--it sounds good, but means little.

So, as far as the eggs go, we are confronted with a confusing array of choices: free-roaming or cage free (they are not in cages but may be confined to a barn without any sunlight, despite claims of "access to the outdoors"--that's a small open door somewhere that the chickens don't know to use), organic (given feed without pesticide, no hormones or antibiotics), vegetarian (exclusively grain-fed), high omega 3 (fed a supplement, usually flax, to boost omega 3 fatty acids). Some of these eggs come in cartons decorated with folk motifs or have brand names that sound like they are from a small farm. But most of this hype is just that, worthless marketing. Because chickens are omnivores. Left to their own devices, they will happily roam around outdoors, scratching for bugs and worms, nibbling plants, eating seeds, absorbing sunlight. The eggs from truly pastured chickens have substantial shells, unlike the frail ones from the battery eggs in the supermarket--this reflects the higher mineral content of their diet. The yolks of the eggs are a deep yellow, sometimes orange, showing the fat soluble vitamins (such as A, D, E, K) that the chickens synthesize from their diverse diet and from the sun. (See this article for more on the nutrient content of pastured eggs.) And the eggs taste eggy, real.

You may not really know what I mean by that until you have the chance to try a real egg. We have eaten many eggs over the last few years, but the best were from S's farm this summer. They were lovely to look at and absolutely delicious. The chickens have the run of the farm, and have new digs for laying, built by the apprentices this summer. They pay for their keep by keeping the bug population down--and of course, by giving the prized eggs. Here in Miami we have a few choices: good organic/high omega eggs from Delicious Organics which are in good supply; eggs raised locally using a "chicken tractor" from Bee Heaven Farm-- sold by shares ,which go fast; and our newest option, delivery of pastured eggs from farms from further north in Florida. Some of these eggs come close to S's eggs--orangey/yellow yolks, deep eggy flavor, shells that don't crumble when they are cracked.

Now that I have great eggs, I have to work on finding the best pastured pork belly, because I sure do miss the smell of our home-cured bacon in the mornings . . .

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dirty Work?

Last week, I ended a post with a sense of gratitude for those who are willing to do the difficult work of farming, of feeding us all. I have been thinking a lot about that recently. Actually, I have been thinking about it for years.

My grandparents, having lived through the Depression, always grew some vegetables. Whenever my younger brother and I went to spend time on their gentleman's farm (they were both New York City attorneys, but always had a country home, to which they retired) my grandmother reminded us that it would be a "working vacation." This meant helping with weeding and harvesting, with handpicking insects, with apple picking at neighboring farms. We made applesauce, pickles and bread. I don't remember minding the work at all.

In the mid-70's, when I was in junior high school, my father was convinced there would be a worldwide food shortage. As a result of that belief, he and some other families created a plan: we would build a communal food-storage bunker and we would raise the food we needed ourselves. We did build that bunker. Every weekend we gathered on a property in the more "rural" area of this big city. We leveled the earth, poured a foundation and put up walls. We plastered and painted. I learned a lot about physical work--about what my body was capable of doing, and enjoyed the long shower and the matzoh brei that always followed (this was in our pre-Macrobiotic days, which were decades before I found my inner Hunter-Gatherer.) We had a goat--yes, in the City. And we put in some gardens.

Eventually, though, the whole effort just faded. My dad may still have the 50 lb. sacks of soy and other commodities he was putting by. He continues to buy in large quantities, but the goal of self-sufficiency somehow went by the wayside. Maybe it was just too much of a stretch to think that this over educated bunch of suburbanites could raise our own food. Maybe it had been founded on a passing fear, like anthrax after 9/11. Or maybe there was a deeper sense that we were just not supposed to have our hands in the dirt, that we were raised for professional, intellectual work. Something seems to have changed as the impulse moved through the generations.

The last time my younger brother was visiting we had conversation that went something like this (my apologies, JP, if I really mangle your words):

Me: (talking about my kids' futures) Whatever they want to be--artists, doctors, farmers--is fine with me.
Him: Farmer??!! Are you kidding? That's like being a garbageman! You wouldn't want your any of your kids to be a garbageman, would you?
Me: Is that what you think of farmers? Who exactly do you want raising the food you put into your body?

So maybe this is true, that many of us have come by the odd sense that growing food is somehow beneath us, somehow dirtying. That this is work we want to outsource. If this is true, then we have lost something enormous. We have somehow glorified empty cube-bound occupations (because that's what they do--occupy--instead of produce) over the absolutely real actions of putting our hands in the earth to help the Earth produce our food. And in doing that, we have lost Connection on all levels.

I am not saying we should all sell our SUVs and become post-Slacker Born-Again Hippies. What I am most concerned with is that we re-institute a sense of respect and even awe toward those who chose to farm. I am also saying that we, as a culture, need to reclaim our food production from dirt to table. There are still children who have no idea that food comes from the ground. Still. In 2007. They never have seen a fresh vegetable. Ever. And somehow our culture isn't absolutely appalled. Some people even brag that they never cook, that they don't know how.

There are glimmers of hope, though. There are people fighting to remove this particular set of cultural blinders we are sporting. Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project shows children where food comes from and how they can be a part of producing it themselves. As I have mentioned before, CSA's connect us more closely to our food. The Weston A. Price Foundation educates about the role of small farms in our ability to eat the most nutrient dense food possible. Farmer's markets allow urbanites to meet our farmers. There is a move, perhaps fueled by taste, perhaps by nutrition, toward more real cooking at home. People do still stare in amazement when I mention my homemade kimchi or lacto-fermented soda ("you can make that yourself?"), but once in a while someone shares a lovely story about their mother's "pickled coleslaw" (a quick 'kraut) or an adventure in cheese-making.

In India, where the disconnect is more recent, but has been just as damaging, Vandana Shiva has instituted Grandmother's University. Shiva, PhD. scientist and food activist, conceived of this project in order to reconnect the production of food with India's traditional food culture, the cooking that is passed from generation to generation. This is so well described in Barbara Kingsolver's recent ode to"The Blessings of Dirty Work" in the Washington Post. Evidently, according to Shiva, we have been mistaken in the belief that concentrating agriculture into the hands of a few has somehow freed the rest of us for more meaningful work. What has actually happened is that people have moved from the farms into different jobs that are also part of the overall food delivery system. And, says Shiva,
many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land. The analyses we have done show that no matter what, whether the system is highly technological or much more simple, about 50 to 60 percent of a population has to be involved in the work of feeding that population. Industrial agriculture did not 'save' anyone from that work, it only shifted people into other forms of food service.
I would love to see a Grandmother's University here. In fact, in my small way, I feel that I am moving in that direction. The workshop I am teaching tomorrow, on how to incorporate "traditional" diets into a modern life, owes as much to what I learned from my grandparents as it does to the teachings of Weston Price and Sally Fallon. We will dirty our hands pounding sauerkraut, instead of harvesting our salad, but we will be connecting with the Grandmothers nonetheless . . .

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Groupthink and Fat

Yesterday, the New York Times Science section ran a piece titled "Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus". It is really about social cascades, how we end up believing what we believe in a culture of "groupthink." But that's not a very sexy subject, so the author, John Tierney, uses a controversial example to show us a cascade, and along the way makes a very good case for why our culture mistakenly believes that dietary fat is evil. It is a case of perfect timing, as Gary Taubes (also a NYT science writer, most well known for the article "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?") has just published Good Calories, Bad Calories. It appears to be as damning an indictment of our twisted understanding of food as has hit the shelves in recent years, with an explanation of how we got to this belief. Below is an excerpt from the book--maybe it will inspire us all to jump out of the cascade and make up our own minds.

The 11 Critical Conclusions of Good Calories, Bad Calories:

1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, does not cause heart disease.
2. Carbohydrates do, because of their effect on the hormone insulin. The more easily-digestible and refined the carbohydrates and the more fructose they contain, the greater the effect on our health, weight, and well-being.
3. Sugars—sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup specifically—are particularly harmful. The glucose in these sugars raises insulin levels; the fructose they contain overloads the liver.
4. Refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are also the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, and the other common chronic diseases of modern times.
5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior.
6. Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter any more than it causes a child to grow taller.
7. Exercise does not make us lose excess fat; it makes us hungry.
8. We get fat because of an imbalance—a disequilibrium—in the hormonal regulation of fat tissue and fat metabolism. More fat is stored in the fat tissue than is mobilized and used for fuel. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this imbalance.
9. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated, we stockpile calories as fat. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and burn it for fuel.
10. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.
11. The fewer carbohydrates we eat, the leaner we will be.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Secret Handshake

For some time it's been a joke around our house that you need the "secret handshake" to get real food. You have to know someone and know what to say in order to be let into the club. This most prominently applies to obtaining real, raw milk, which is either illegal, or legal with onerous conditions, in most states in the US. In Florida, we are allowed the "pet food" exemption--raw dairy can be sold for pet consumption only (are they allowed to check to see whether we are feeding that precious milk to the cat?). In other states, cow or herd share agreements are legal. That's an arrangement where you may purchase a partial ownership in a cow, then regularly pick up some of the milk that your cow produces. What you are paying for, after the initial purchase of part of a cow, is the care of your cow--room and board, if you want to see it that way. This has been tested, and has been verified to be a legally supportable type of contract. This strikes me as the same arrangement our daughter has for the care of her horse: she owns the horse, it lives at a stable where they care for it, she gets to ride it when she wants to. I suppose if the horse gave milk, she'd be entitled to that too (by the way, mare's milk has been traditionally drunk in the Asian Steppes, usually fermented into a kefir-like drink called koumiss).

Some states allow direct sales of raw dairy to consumers--the Holy Grail of Raw Milk Drinking--either from the farm or in some wonderful lands (California and Washington come to mind) in stores. I have participated in this very act of commerce, and what a freeing feeling it is. I can go to Washington state, walk into a store, and actually buy raw, grassfed milk from a local dairy. It took a while for me to stop looking around furtively, and then longer to curb the secret giggle that goes with doing something that has formerly been suppressed. When we visit Washington we don't have to spend much time thinking about that--suppression--but I don't ever want to take that availability for granted. While we don't have to jump through any hoops to get the milk, the farmers had to fight a very balky bureaurocracy to win approval to legally sell in stores. Even though Washington state law allows these sales, the functionaries in charge are always threatening to make things more difficult than they have to be. No matter where you live, you have to keep fighting just to retain the right to produce, sell, acquire real food.

There is an underground of food production and acquistion that, like any speakeasy, is only apparent if you do Know Someone, who can tell you the secret handshake. I have been reading Sandor Katz' The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and am truly impressed by how creative and varied are the ways in which we, the consumers, will pursue real food. These efforts go far beyond obtaining raw dairy, which has become the cause celebre of the Food Freedom Fighters (I made that name up, but someone needs to jump on it--don't let the Health Freedom people be the only ones in this fight against the suppression of all that is natural by the interests of big business!) There are people in this country making food on an intimate scale and selling or trading it--all without commercial kitchens, inspections and Sysco deliveries (the horror!). This is the underbelly of the romantic farm tale I told the other day. This is the part where eating real food becomes an everyday act of rebellion against laws that make no sense and business that exists just to grow and profit, instead of serving the needs of its customers.

What I see happening is a confluence of viewpoints that will be very powerful as soon as we all realize we want the same thing and start working together. Some of us are approaching the desire for real food from a nutritional perspective, as manifested by the teachings of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and as explained so clearly by Nina Planck in Real Food. Some are seeking to reclaim the taste, the pleasure, of real food--these are the Slow Food people, who famously protested the invasion of a McDonald's into one of Rome's most prominent piazzas. Some, Locavores, are concerned about the environmental impact of modern agribusiness, and seek to encourage us to eat food from small local farms (see Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable and Miracle for an eloquent and entertaining description of a year of eating locally.) There are activists trying to change our deplorable National School Lunch Program such as Two Angry Moms. Those Food Freedom Fighters I mentioned above have gathered under the banner of Food Justice, seeking to ensure equal access to healthy food, no matter the individual's or community's economic circumstances. And, far from last, there is the movement to support small farmers, both through structures like community supported agriculture (CSA) and through legal advocacy (see the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund for an example). I am certain there are other worthy examples; I just wanted to make the point that no matter what door we use to enter this world, there are many of us trying to recapture some sanity in food. This is a birthright that we humans cannot give up without a fight.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Gathering on the Farm

We had the enormous privilege this summer of eating food right off of a farm not far from Rick's parents in New England. Everything was fresher and more alive, more delicious, than food from any market can be; we made most of our meals during the trip from the farm's offerings. The farmer, Suzanne, sells very little of what she produces; she gives most everything away. Instead, she relies on the support of the community, which does seem to recognize what a gift she is giving. Not only do people donate to the farm, they help subsidize the work of several apprentices who live and work there, learning to care for the animals, to make cheese, to grow vegetables.

The day that Suzanne was baking 200 loaves of bread in her outdoor oven there was an unrelenting stream of visitors. They were alerted to baking day by a small sandwich board at the edge of the village green--and that was enough to bring out what seemed like the whole town. They stood expectantly, chatting, holding paper bags to receive the warm loaves as soon as they were allowed off of the cooling racks. The starter for these loaves came from Belgium, where Suzanne learned to bake in the traditional Flemish manner, with a long, slow fermentation--a true sourdough.

Once upon a time I baked for a living, but what I did was isolated, sheltered from those who would eventually consume what I made. What Suzanne is doing is so intimate--standing in her farmyard, surrounded by neighbors and friends, sharing tea and greetings. Every visit was like that--like going home to see family. We chose greens and and eggs and raspberries (those from S.'s mother's property) and homemade maple syrup off the farm stand. We drank fresh buttermilk with floating gobs of deep yellow butter, we met the (working) draft horse. Rick especially liked scratching the pregnant orchard pigs, causing them to swoon into their milk trough in ecstasy. Abby was fascinated by the chickens and the arrogant rooster. Sammy met a calf and fell in love. Mind you, this was not one of those farms set up with a quaint petting area for the kids. This is a working farm. It just happens to welcome the connection that comes with all of these folks looking for real milk, real bread, real tomatoes, Real Food.

These farms may be hidden, but they do exist. They exist all over this country. They are in real communities, not in nostalgic movies. Many of the farmers I have been hearing about recently did not grow up in farm families and have not inherited land. They have come to this because they believe in it and because it feeds them (I didn't intend the pun, but I will let it stand--it is true). It is absolutely a difficult path--one of hard physical work, few luxuries, little free time. I am among those who are deeply grateful that some dedicated people have chosen to do this work, despite the hardship. I may have been raised in the Big City, but this city girl recognizes that we are all richer for the the work that the Suzannes of the world are doing.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

We, the consumers, are having an effect

In this morning's inbox was an article from the British eJournal, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, in which the author, an Italian doctor, attempted to make sense of the "social demand for a medicine focused on the person." He sees a "trend reversal," where consumers are shifting demand from a symptom-based paradigm to "an idea of more general and comprehensive well-being of the person." It was a very short piece, ending with his fear that we will see "the citizens start pretending to be accurately informed in order to choose freely their own health program."

My first instinct is to laugh at that. I know quite a few "citizens" with better information than most doctors. But this comment shows we are on the right path--the power structures of allopathic medicine/research, Big Pharma, Agribusiness, and so on, have noticed that consumers are "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." They are starting to do things that show they are scared, such make small concessions in their existing models (CAM initiatives and "greenwashing" of products are examples). As long as we keep pushing, demanding the real thing, eventually the whole system will have to change.

This is why we are bringing raw grass-fed dairy in from the northern part of the state, so that we don't have to put up with the mimic that is store-brand or Horizon "Organic" milk. And it is why we need to support our few local businesses that provide Real Food, such as Delicious Organics (tell Annie I sent you) and our one CSA, Bee Heaven Farm. By patronizing these businesses, indeed by oversubscribing them (Bee Heaven has sold all of it's available shares for this season, but they do keep a waitlist--contact Margie) we create continued demand. And there will be new farms, new sources, as we keep asking for them. If you live in other parts of the country, call a local Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader to find well-raised food locally.

This is also why some of us do what we can to learn about herbs, homeopathy, and other modalities that were around long before "conventional" medicine was in existence. Just think, what most people think is "the way it is, the way it has always been done" (allopathic medicine, childbirth in hospitals, food "products") is really less than 150 years old. Younger than that, in most cases. In fact, in the early 2oth century, there were 100 homeopathic hospitals and 22 homeopathic medical schools! It was the rise of the American Medical Association that spelled the end for institutional homeopathy at that time--the same group that regularly tries to squash any "alternative" healing, and probably coined that marginalizing label (alternative to what? Forever taking toxic substances to "treat" but never cure? I'll take the alternative to that.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Why "the new hunter-gatherer"?

I have been asked what I mean by, or why it matters to be, a new hunter-gatherer. I used the phrase casually one day to describe what I had been doing, going all over the place in this big city, trying to assemble what I might feel good about feeding to my family. Rick and I knew immediately. "That's it, that's what you do," he said. "You are The New Hunter Gatherer." And, in this very confusing commercialized foodway that is America, we all have to be hunter-gatherers. We cannot just go to the closest grocery store and passively accept the junk-pretending-to-be-food lining the shelves and filling the cases. We have to be in charge, be mindful, and start choosing what we eat. Yes, it's more work, and yes, it's more expensive. And, yes, sadly, there are some who cannot afford to do this--yet. But if we who can abdicate our responsibility to seek out the best that is available, the choices will evaporate and we will be left with food mimics forever.

So I hunt, from store to farm, backyard garden to fishing friends. I gather the bits that will form wonderfully rich and nourishing meals, reminiscent of what our great-grandmothers might have made. Saturday's meal of locally/sustainably raised tilapia will also provide stock from it's bones for another meal, a seafood stew or curry, with herbs and vegetables from our CSA. For that's another hallmark of the hunter-gatherer (HG, as I can see I'll be writing it alot) approach: Don't waste what you have. Fergus Henderson has popularized "nose-to tail" eating, but this has been around forever. In the South, some say we eat everything but the "oink." We do this because it is thrifty, and because the inventions using "the nasty bits" are delectable (thanks, Anthony Bourdain, for making this delicously visual). And, it turns out, we do it (unconsciously for most) because these parts, the offal and bones and shells, are the most nutritionally dense foods we could be eating. How crazy is it that "civilized" people have grown away from using everything, every part? It's no wonder that diseases of civilization have followed . . .

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Dietary Maze

Oh goodness---the dietary maze is enough to make my head crack open some days! I have gone down many nutritional paths over the years, but I am thrilled to find one that makes sense. What I have learned is that a healthy traditional diet really can be different from place to place, person to person, but that there are principles common to every traditional foodway, principles that make sense. The Experts care about The Science. But what is logical? What feels right? It takes a lot of experimenting, hands-on, with a lot of observation of the results to get to this point (the more intellectual I become about it, the less sure I am--and I am very prone to intellectualizing things.) I can point people in the right direction, but I can't do that work for anyone else (very Zen, that, what with the finger pointing at the Moon and all . . .)

Honestly, this just gets murkier, if it's about finding Science or Experts to clarify it. Everyone has an interest in a particular belief (and this leads to Agendas.) I just want to feel well and have my family feel well, and then maybe to help some others do the same. What I love about Weston Price's info is that it is what real people experienced in a whole way--no isolated result from a study about one nutrient in an extracted form. It is old info that can't really be repeated because those groups that were protected by geographical isolation are now eating junk forced on them from outside (what Weston Price called "the displacing foods of modern commerce".) And now they are just as sick as we are. There are other nutritional anthropologists from around his time who said the same thing. You can investigate the archives of the Weston A. Price Foundation and Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation (and there are sites such as this where you can find references and links to the work of many others)

Modern "science" is going to damn this "old" stuff however it can, by saying it's not repeatable (that's true by definition) or "unscientific" (not if you have really looked into it--Weston Price was the head of research for the ADA in his day!) But Price described accurately what humans need to live healthfully and we stopped listening. Human needs haven't changed in eighty years (or maybe we have gotten NEEDIER!) so why wouldn't his teachings be applicable? I don't see how nutritional science of this sort could be outdated in ten years. That applies to the faddish studies, but not to this sort of true epidemiology.
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