This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things. I originally started eating this way to heal from chronic health problems and...it worked!
It describes a farmer who loves his dairy cattle "like children." Then it dances around the issue about what happens to them when their dairy production wanes:
This isn’t to say that Bob’s farm is a charity hostel. When cows age and their milk production drops, farmers slaughter them. Bob has always found that part of dairying tough, so, increasingly, he uses the older cows to suckle steers. That way the geriatric cows bring in revenue to cover their expenses and their day of reckoning can be postponed — indefinitely, in the case of his favorite cows.
So they are like his children, except he sends them to slaughter when they aren't useful, unless they are his favorites?
It's almost enough for me to want to start a startup where you purchase milk with a percentage of profits going to a cow retirement home.
And what happens to male offspring? Surely he isn't feeding them for charity. Don't get me wrong, I think this farmer has some admirable ideas, but it takes a Pollyanna view of animal production to portray that system the way that Kristof does.
And ultimately it reminds me that I have mixed feelings about dairy. When humans started dairying, it created a strangely intimate relationship between humans and the animals they utilized as food. Hunter-gatherers and foragers generally don't kill the animals they raise themselves. It reminds me of this Richard K. Nelson story about how Koyoukon hunters found it so difficult to adopt animal husbandry.
After watching the chickens grow, many couldn't bring themselves to eat the eggs, and it was even worse to think of dining on the birds or pigs. "People felt like they'd be eating their own children," a Koyukon woman told me. "A lot of them said, from now on they would only eat wild game they got by hunting. It felt a lot better that way.
I wonder how many pastoral cultures even slaughter their animals very often? The Maasai, for example, view cattle as too valuable as signs of wealth to slaughter. When meat is eaten, it is often in the context of a ceremony. Perhaps religion is not just for humans to understand their own lives and deaths, but the lives and deaths of animals as well.
Now that my family raises some cows, I reflect on what they mean to me. I do not consider them children or friends. They are essentially wild animals to me. We left their horns on and they haven't socialized with humans much. I'm not arrogant enough to think a cow that hasn't been conditioned towards being fed (usually grain or formula) by humans when they are young will have any interest in consorting to me. They aren't my children or my friends. They are part of the ecosystem. We steward their land, fix them up if they are sick, but largely we leave them alone to do what they want as long as its in the realm of our fenced pastures until their slaughter day comes.
I want to explore the evolution of the evolutionary nutrition concept and how evolution was lost from it.
An early variant, The Stone Age Diet, by Walter L. Voegtlin, shows up in the record in 1975, but whether this carnivorous book is an ancestor of later variants is questionable, so it's hard to consider it an ancestor. A more likely candidate would be the paper written in 1985 by Dr. Boyd Eaton and Dr. Melvin Konner, Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. While elements of the paper seem dated today, it was a pioneering collaboration between a medical doctor and a medical anthropologist.
This paper explored how evolutionary concepts could shed light on modern health problems. It was not just a paper about eating well, it was about eating well in the context of human beings having a long evolutionary history, one shared by many other species. And that the selection pressures faced during the long evolution of primitive species to humans could tell us things about diseases, particularly chronic degenerative diseases, humans face today. It was unapologetically a Darwinian paper. It has been cited 964 times.
Around this same time, in 1980, Paul Ewald, a zoologist, published Evolutionary biology and the treatment of signs and symptoms of infectious disease, which explored the implications of host-pathogen adaptations and the "potential importance of determining whether signs and symptoms are adaptations of the host, of the disease organism, both, or neither." The main focus was on acute disease. This paper is considered one of the first in Evolutionary Medicine.
In 1991, evolutionary biologist George C. Williams and psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse published a paper titled The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine, another pioneering work in Evolutionary Medicine that outlined methods for applying evolutionary biology to modern medicine, such as understanding "iron deficiency" as one of many potentially costly adaptations to a war between ancestral vertebrates and pathogens that has gone on for millions of years.
Many people seem to think that an adaptationist approach is based on the assumption that organisms are perfect. This is a misconception. It is true that the adaptionist holds the power of selection in high regard and is skeptical of explanations that take quick refuge in proposed defects in the organism. Paradoxically, however, the adaptationist is also particularly able to appreciate the adaptive compromises that are responsible for much disease. Walking upright has a price in back problems. The capacity for tissue repair has a price of cancer. The immune response has a price of immune disorders. The price of anxiety is panic disorder. In each case, natural selection has done the best it can, weighing benefits against costs. Wherever the balance point, however, there will be disease. The adaptationist does not view the body as a perfect creation, but as a bundle of compromises. By understanding them, we will better understand disease
Eaton and Konner started collaborating with exercise physiologist Loren Cordain and medical doctor Staffan Lindeberg. Cordain became particularly prolific on the subject, publishing a wide variety of academic papers and inspiring a Ray Audette's Neanderthin in 1998, which mentioned the word evolution 14 times. His own diet book, The Paleo Diet, was published in 2001 and mentions the word evolution roughly 11 times. Around this time you start to see intersection between the work originating from the Eaton/Konner paper and Evolutionary Medicine, with the original 1999 compilation Evolutionary Medicine edited by Wenda Trevathan containing Paleolithic nutrition Revisited by Konner, Eaton, and Boyd Eaton's son S. Boyd Eaton III. Nutrition was always part of both approaches and bringing them together influenced many later books and papers on the subject of evolutionary nutrition.
As you can see, the whole foundation of this was always Darwinian Evolution, the idea that humans share a common ancestor with all life forms.
Unfortunately, many Americans reject this. A recent survey found that only 39% of Americans accept evolution as fact. One of the reasons for this is in America, evolution has become politicized due to forms of powerful Evangelical Christianity that started promoting a reactionary anti-science form of Biblical Literalist Creationism (when I refer to Creationism, I refer to this) in the 1920s. Welding significant political power, they have managed to suppress the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools.
I have pointed out that Creationism and Creationists are harmful and incompatible with evolutionary nutrition. On Paleohacks, Karen from Paleo Periodical referred to this when she said: "I'm seeing the accusation that someone doesn't "believe" in evolution more and more, which strikes me as intolerably elitist (I say "believe" because I don't think evolution cares what you think about it)."
It's only elitist because Creationists have succeeding in making sure that most Americans are ignorant of evolution. There is no "believing" in evolution, there is accepting scientific evidence. And while you don't need to accept evolution to eat real food, evolution is the foundation of the paleolithic diet concept. So it is disturbing to see Creationists like Jimmy Moore framing debates within the paleo diet community. Over the past few years, he has moderated panels on paleolithic diet debates, published "state of the paleosphere" articles, and generally positioned himself as a person with clout in the "paleosphere." At some point he stopped just putting out podcasts with various paleo voices and instead stepped over a line into shepherding the paleo movement, which alienated many science-based paleo writers like Dr. Kurt Harris and many others, some who simply stopped describing themselves as "paleo" in lieu of a being part of a movement gutted of all meaning.
I do get hatemail for saying this and expect to get more. The latest letter said "Who cares if Jimmy Moore doesn’t believe in evolution? Truth is, there is not much to this Paleo “thing”. Exercise, eat like a caveman and reap incredible benefits." If you need a story about cavemen to tell you not to eat crap and that sprints are good exercise, I think we have a problem. There is already a "real food" movement among Christians. Go to Wise Traditions and you'll meet many of them, though a paleo dieter might have trouble convincing them of their common quasi-religious precept that grains are the devil. I think it's great when people start to eat real, whole foods. And there are many reasons to do so that have nothing to do with human evolution (even if a lot of the science behind them is based on evolutionary models).
But I also think that evolutionary models are important in biology and are the future of understanding what makes our bodies tick. It is more than about eating meat, fruit, and vegetables, it's can help us develop sophisticated treatment protocols for all kinds of diseases. It is sad for me to see that suppressed and stifled for marketing purposes. As Staffan Lindeberg said:
Why does the same thing happen to a piece of food after it has been swallowed by humans of different ethnicity? Why is the anatomy and physiology of the gut virtually identical in a Chinese and an African? Why do all human have the same endocrine system and metabolism? You know the answer: because we share an ancestor from way back when. The experts estimate that our latest shared ancestors lived around 200,000 years ago in Africa.
Before that, during millions of years of evolution, the digestion and metabolism of our primate ancestors had been fine-tuning how it uses the available food substances in the most beneficial manner possible. Nobody would doubt that the best food for the human species would be the kind of food that was available in those days, rather than those that were introduced long after the construction of our physiology. Funny that nutrition authorities never say it loud.
Our primate ancestors have been consuming fruit, vegetables, nuts and insects for 50 million years or more. Meat was successively added, with a probable increase around 2 million years ago. Underground storage organs (roots, tubers, bulbs, corms) possibly become staple foods 1-2 million years ago. The variability was large: single plant foods were rarely available in excess, which reduced the risk of adverse reactions to bioactive substances in plant foods.
I think loss of this is one of the reasons why more and more books are published on paleo that either contain nothing about evolution at all or have evolutionary narratives that seem pulled out of thin air. If the caveman stories are just stories, I suppose it doesn't matter to people much whether or not they resemble the Flintstones more than they do science. Paleo Diet guided by those who don't care about evolution is low-carb dressed up in a sexy leopard skin coat. By far, it's not Creationists who are wholly responsible for this, there is also a secular anti-intellectual slant that overemphasizes self-experimentation and scoffs at reading about science or at those who point out certain "facts" about evolution peddled by gurus are not based on anything but fiction.
The loss is ours, as the difference between caveman stories that tell us not to eat garbage and the adaptationist evolutionary approach is enormous. The former does rely on reenactment of some golden age in which humans lived according to our design. Is it any coincidence that this resembles the story of Adam and Eve? In contrast, the adaptationist approach is one in which species are constantly under pressure and must adapt. Some of these adaptations are imperfect and even costly. It is possible we can do even better by thwarting some of these adaptations through modern technology. Evolutionary medicine isn't just about eating like your ancestors, it's possibly about outrunning some of the adaptations that cause things like aging through pharmaceutical or even cybernetic augmentation. It's not regressive like some calls by various authors like Lierre Keith to give up our technology and return to the Stone Age, it's cutting edge, even daringly post-human.
We have the opportunity to be on the front lines to show that evolution is important to humans now, that evolution, by enhancing our understanding of ourselves, can improve the way we live.
Some have also accused me of discriminating against Christians. As far as I'm concerned, Jimmy is welcome to learn more about biology and join the millions of Christians who are not anti-science. I made that journey myself, having been educated in Creationism as a child, with such anti-science absurd books like It Couldn't Just Happen. I was reading the reviews for that book on Amazon and it's interesting how many other people grew up with that book, but later learned more about evolutionary biology. Some became disillusioned atheists, others realized you don't have to be a Creationist to be Christian. Christians have been fighting Creationism for a long time. A notable example is Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote the essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution in 1973 response to anti-evolution Creationists:
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ...the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.
It's funny awhile back someone recommended that I just attend some less extreme churches than the ones I grew up in, just to see what it's like to go to a church that doesn't spend time preaching against homosexuality or evolution. Because at that point, that was really the only Christianity I knew. I really enjoyed going to those churches and met a lot of wonderful people, people who generally do not take Genesis literally, people who do not reject evolutionary biology and in fact some who work as evolutionary biologists! I also have learned much about the history of Early Christianity through attending Orthodox churches and it was stunning to me to realize how divorced modern Evangelical Christianity is from those roots or understanding how the Bible was put together by humans. I also came to question many things "paleo" dieters accept almost religiously as facts. Did you know that the monks on Mount Athos live long lives free from modern disease thanks on a diet that is pretty much vegan and high in grains? It is possibly partially due to ancient Christian fasting traditions.
I think American Creationists (and people who think Christianity requires such nonsense) could use some history lessons on their religion, the Bible, and on life itself. As priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said "Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems much henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of though must follow this is what evolution is."
In academia, Evolutionary Medicine continues to thrive. It has a society and many different conferences. It is also too bad that so many interesting and relevant evolutionary medicine/nutrition resources are so expensive. Many books on the subject cost upwards of $100 each. Two extensive papers were just published on the subject. One is $45, thank goodness the other is free, which is very unusual. But why aren't these folks publishing writings for laymen like the original pioneers of evolutionary medicine and nutrition did? As we discover more and more about how humans evolved, books become outdated quickly, so perhaps they should consider blogging rather than books.
I'd love to see more writings for laymen by them and more writings not afraid to mention evolution and even to educate readers about it. I think such interactions would not only be beneficial for us, but for them, since I feel the online community in particular can generate hypotheses faster than in academic publishing. You can see some academic researchers, like anthropologist Miki Ben Dor, drawing on hypotheses that have primarily been pushed by the online community like the idea that larger amounts of fat might have been more important in hominid evolution than previously thought.
Edit: here is a great editorial written by Randolph Nesse and Detlev Ganten recently:
The human body is a living archive of evolution, written in our genes, cells, and organs. The line is continuous to the beginning of life on this planet, so nature is inherently conservative. Sequences that are ancient parts of our genomic heritage tend to persist. Those important for survival and reproduction change less over the eons, so genes important for basic functions are generally “old” genes. The basic mechanisms that regulate cellular metabolism, cell division, and gene duplication are fundamentally the same as those occurring in unicellular organisms at the beginning of life on earth 3.5 billion years ago. Likewise, the molecules, cellular functions, organs, complex organization of muscles, bones, sensory organs, and nerves in vertebrates derive in an unbroken line from ancestors millions of years ago. Much of modern man's biology dates back to the origins of life; a complete understanding of this biology can only be appreciated with an evolutionary perspective .
We are not "designed", we are "adapted," and adaptations can be incomplete and imperfect. It matters less what our ancestors ate, than what selective forces were at play and how we adapted to them. Such a paradigm can help us see the costs and benefits of something like getting large amounts of calories from meat, which humans are definitely not perfectly adapted to, which is possibly responsible for such diseases as hemochromotosis.
Edit: Also worth reading is evolutionary biologist Michael Rose's 55 Theses on using evolutionary biology to improve your health, particularly in understanding (and possibly beating) aging.
I was talking to a local small grocery store owner about why her she can't carry certain products in her ready-made section. Turns out things like local meat-filled cassava pasties and meat pies cannot be sold by a grocery store unless they they are produced in a continuously inspected USDA facility, no easy thing for a small local business to open.
Except sandwiches. If you take that same meat and put it between two (not one) pieces of nice wheaty bread, it magically becomes safe to sell! No, it's not OK to bake the meat in the bread, like a pie, it has to be real American sandwich with two normal pieces of bread.
Or at least the USDA doesn't care about it anymore. It's the FDA's job now (PDF). And they do not require continuous inspection according to the manual (PDF):
Product must contain at least 35 percent cooked meat and no more than 50 percent bread. Sandwiches are not amenable to inspection. If inspection is requested for this product, it may be granted under reimbursable Food Inspection Service. Typical —closed-faced“ sandwiches consisting of two slices of bread or the top and bottom sections of a sliced bun that enclose meat or poultry, are not amenable to the Federal meat and poultry inspection laws. Therefore, they are not required to be inspected nor bear the marks of inspection when distributed in interstate commerce.
What is the mechanism behind two pieces of bread making the meat safer? It must not be working, since many pre-made sandwiches have tested positive for listeria.
A meat pie is also perfectly legal to buy when made in a restaurant. Most restaurants are inspected once a year.
Another one to file under nonsensical food regulations. There should be a middle way that allows small local businesses to market their meat-containing products without investing in a full USDA inspected plant.
In the debate surrounding the NYC ban on large soft drinks earlier this year, the argument came up that we had to regulate them because liquid calories are evolutionarily novel and inappropriate for our species to consume because we cannot consume them moderately and their metabolism is harmful to our bodies. At the time I had already started reading Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past, which looks at human history through the very lens of liquid carbohydrates.
Not soda, something a bit more delicious and perhaps more enticing. I'm talking about alcoholic drinks. It was in the form of such a drink that I first encountered McGovern's work. I was not pulling in very much money at the time and my indulgence in luxury food and drink primarily came from volunteering at ritzy galas. After one long night, I was delighted to find a vendor had left quite a lot of good beer behind. One of them was Dogfish Head's Midas Touch. With a musky wine-like flavor, it was clear this was not a normal beer.
The idea for the beer came from a golden residue found in a tomb where either the real King Midas or his father was buried around 700 B.C. Archeologist Patrick McGovern had analyzed this residue, teasing out the various ingredients using infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Grapes, honey, and barley had were the ingredients of this ancient beverage. Together with the brewers at renowned microbrewery Dogfish Head, McGovern set out to recreate something with these elements for the modern palette. The result was well-received and the first of the Ancient Ales series went to market.
McGovern is the "Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia." He primarily works at analyzing ancient pottery residues to figure out what exactly our ancestors were imbibing in. And for fun he recreates some of these beverages for modern people to enjoy.
Uncorking the Past says "No containers have yet been recovered from the Palaeolithic period, not even one made from stone. Objects made of wood, grass, leather, and gourds have disintegrated and disappeared." Since it came out, several Paleolithic pottery specimens have been described, mainly from China. Earlier this year, one set of shards was dated to 20,000 years ago. It would not be surprising to me if much earlier pottery is discovered in Africa. Evidence for the earliest food grind stones used to process seeds has been dated to 105,000 years ago. It is possible though that humans in that region were using other containers for liquid such as skins or gourds, but pottery would have been a major advance useful for extracting fat from bones, detoxifying and cooking starches, and creating fermented drinks.
Such drinks would have not been terribly novel even then. As McGovern points out, our evolutionary line is frugivorous in origin, having inhabited warm tropical climates where "as the fruit matured, it would have fermented on the tree, bush, and vine. Fruits with broken skins, oozing liquid, would have been attacked by yeast and the sugars converted into alcohol. Such a fruit slurry can reach an alcohol content of 5 percent or more." Many cases of wild animals getting drunk on ripe fruit have been documented.
Malaysian tree shrews, subsist mainly on fermented palm nectar that is up to 3.8% alcohol. The researchers concluded:
The pentailed treeshrew is considered a living model for extinct mammals representing the stock from which all extinct and living treeshrews and primates radiated. Therefore, we hypothesize that moderate to high alcohol intake was present early on in the evolution of these closely related lineages.
Wherever primates live, they seem drawn to sugars. Chimpanzees use tools to gather honey in Africa. Hominids there have been adapt at exploiting honey for a very long time, devising elaborate gathering systems to thwart the aggressiveness of native bees. Surveys of foraging tribal peoples like the Hadza and Pygmies have revealed that honey is the food they most prefer. It can also be used to make alcohol:
Many African peoples have been drinking some variation of a fermented honey beverage for a very long time throughout the continent. The strongest versions have been reported from the Rift Valley, where added fruit (e.g., of the sausage tree, Kigellia africana, and tamarind), with additional yeast to spur an extended fermentation, boosted the alcohol concentration. Sub-Saharan Africa is a honey-eater's and mead-drinker's paradise.
It's not just shrews that enjoy palm wine either. Evidence for human exploitation of palm goes back 18,000 years in Africa:
The most important species for making palm wine are the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), the ron or Palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopum), and the raphia palm (Raphia vinifera), which are concentrated along the humid east and west coasts as well as in the dense jungles of the interior...A healthy tree can produce nine or ten liters a day and about 750 liters over half a year...Within two hours, palm wine ferments to about a 4 percent alcohol content; give it a day, and the alcohol level goes up to 7 or 8 percent
Now back to those food grind stones. The papers that describe them typically talk as if they were used to make the world's crappiest bread out of miserable wild grains. Other grind stones had more obvious uses- they ground pigments for decoration. Why not smear your face with makeup and go out and party? What if the "food" grind stones were really used for making alcoholic drinks? What if people domesticated grains mainly to use in the creation of alcoholic drinks? Seems like more of an incentive than making bitter flat fibrous bread disks.
It would also explain why the wild relatives of so many grains are mystifying. Looking at teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, it's kind of baffling why humans would have bothered with the plant at all:
A series of careful DNA studies identified teosinte (genus Tripsacum) as the wild ancestor of maize. This mountain grass grows in the Rio Balsas drainage of southwestern Mexico. One cannot imagine a less inspiring plant to domesticate. The ears of this primitive corn, which are barely three centimeters long and contain only five to twelve kernels, are trapped in a tough casing. Even if you manage to free up the kernels, their nutrient value is essentially nil.
The mystery might be solved by quids, chewed and spit out fibrous plant material. This might sound gross, but chewing of place materials and spitting it into a container is an alcohol-making process that has been documented around the world. It seems very likely that the stalks of teosinte were used for this purpose.
The human mouth converts the starch to more easily fermentable sugar using amylyse. Some mouths are better at this than others. Starch consuming peoples typically have a greater amylyse copy numbers, though all humans have a greater copy number than primates like chimpanzees and booboos. "Higher AMY copy numbers and protein levels probably improve the digestion of starchy foods and may buffer against the fitness-reducing effects of intestinal disease." Stephan Guyenet and I have discussed how the copy number thing is interesting because salivary amylyse, even at high copy numbers, contributes very little to digestion of starch relative to pancreatic amylase. What is the increased copy number for salivary amylyse for then? Perhaps for chewing starches like rice and corn to make delicious alcoholic beverages.
Chicha made with saliva remains an important part of the diet of many South American tribes, and a woman's ability to make it is important for her husband's social status. It is rude to refuse it, as this account written up in Salon describes
Patton maintains that the bulk of an Achuar’s daily calories do not come from meat. They come from chicha, a mildly alcoholic, vaguely nutritious, watered-down manioc mash. Achuar men drink up to four gallons a day.Isaac’s wife and mother are in constant motion, serving bowls of chicha to the 10 or so guests. Chicha is the backbone of Achuar society. As with the ankle bone and the knee bone, you feel an unalterable pressure to accept. Chicha is the holy communion, the Manischewitz, the kava-kava of Achuar life. It’s present at every ceremony, every visit, every meal. An Achuar woman’s desirability rests in no small part on her skill at chicha brewing and serving.
Given the amount of calories and nutrients such beverages can provide, it amazes me that many ethnographical and anthropological surveys seem to ignore or downplay their presence, as if they were just mere recreation.
Corn chicha, widely consumed in South America, could not only explain the domestication of teosinte, but it could also account for the fact that isotope studies during the time of corn's domestication don't seem to show people got their protein from corn:
Some very interesting results emerged when human bones from sites throughout the New World were examined. Because maize had been domesticated by about 6ooo B.P., one would have expected to see a specific carbon-isotope composition that reflected the increased consumption of maize, but it was strangely missing. Some scientists have proposed an explanation for this anomaly. Because the analyses measured only the collagen in bone, its main proteinaceous connective tissue, they were biased toward detecting high-protein foods. Solid foods made from maize, including gruel or bread (e.g., tortillas), fit this requirement, but not fermented beverages like maize chicha, largely composed of sugar and water. Consequently, if people between 6ooo and 3000 B.P. were consuming their maize as chicha, very little protein would have been incorporated into the collagen of their bones. The researchers speculated that humans began using maize as a solid food only after its ear had been substantially enlarged by selective breeding, around 3000 B.P. After this point, the carbon isotope compositions of bones dramatically changed.
Interestingly, going further north, the Native Americans there didn't seem to have any alcoholic beverages, or if they did, they had been spread from the South. Charle's Mann's 1491 discusses the hypothesis that the North and Southern Native Peoples were peopled differently, South America being populated by a sea-faring coastal society, rather than from Beringia up North. McGovern describes the culture of the coastal peoples, who consumed a tantalizing array of berries, fish, mollusks, wild tubers, mastodon meat and fat (they processed enough fat that it congealed on the floor, which my sister's roommate reenacted recently by pouring some bacon grease directly down the drain), bulrushes, and seaweed. It is theorized that the cold snap of the Younger Dryas around 13,000 BC may have forced them to rely more and more on underground tubers, spurring on the domestication of the potato.
However, the Siberians, like the North Americans, do not have alcoholic beverages (that we know of at least), relying on other resources for a buzz:
In place of any alcoholic beverage, the Siberian peoples engaged in shamanistic practices based on the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). When European explorers finally braved the frigid tundra of Siberia, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, they recorded how the shaman often dressed in a deer costume with antlers, like the Palaeolithic creature depicted in Les Trois Freres cave (see chapter i). After consuming the mushroom, he would beat on a large drum, whose monotonous repetition reinforced the effects of the active hallucinogenic compounds (ibotenic acid and muscimole) and took him into the ancestral dreamtime.
Northern peoples in the Americas also smoked tobacco. Meanwhile, people in the Southern parts North America certainly did imbibe in alcohol. The Pima who are so infamous in nutritional circles consumed a sweet cactus wine. The health effects of another regional beverage, Pulque, which is made by fermenting agave sap, have been explored a bit. It was found that among highland tribes that consume it, it accounts for much of the iron and Vitamin C consumption in pregnant women. Pregnant women who consume too much or none are more likely to have low-BMI and reduced mental performance infants. Consumption of pulque might also increase the bioavailability of vitamins in other traditional foods.
The use of agave in fermented beverages should be considered when looking at data from that region that suggests a high fiber consumption from these plants, particularly given the presence of quids and the fact that these fermented beverages could enhance digestion of fructooligosaccharides in these plants. I've seen such papers conclude that this means that humans in these regions ate absurd amounts of fiber and we should emulate them. What is more likely: that anatomically moderns humans were eating 255 grams of fiber a day from plants like agave, well above what any known living culture consumes, or that they were making something a bit like tequila?
It is possible that such drinks have been under emphasized because of very real issues of alcoholism that plague many modern indigenous peoples. However, most of these traditional alcoholic beverages are not like the modern alcohol that is abused. Indigenous beverages are typically 3-6% alcohol, seasonal and contain many nutrients and phytochemicals, which are biologically active plant chemicals. McGovern's lab has been working on exploring the medicinal properties of many of these phytochemicals.
McGovern describes how many of the early beverages in the Middle East, ancestors of our modern wines and beers, contained potent medicinals. Early grape wines, for example, often contained tree resins:
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Palaeolithic times. They could be used as glues and were perhaps even chewed to give pain relief, as suggested by lumps of birch resin with tooth marks that were found in a Neolithic Swiss lake dwelling...Resinated wines were greatly appreciated in antiquity, as we have come to see in analyzing wines from all over the Middle East, extending from the Neolithic down to the Byzantine period. Although some wine drinkers today turn up their noses at a resinated wine, now made only in Greece as retsina, the technique is analogous to ageing in oak. The result can actually be quite appealing: the Gaia Estate's Ritinitis has a mildly citrusy flavor, achieved by adding a very slight touch of Aleppo pine resin to a Greek grape variety. Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the "queen of resins"), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.
It is a powerful reminder to consider ancient diets holistically, that things were not just consumed for their nutritive value, but for recreational, medicinal, and religious purposes. And possibly some of these substances were "unwise" traditions and may account for some of the diseases found in mummies and skeletal remains if people drank too much or adulterated their beverages with carcinogens and other poisons. Even today, adaptation to alcohol seems uneven and imperfect in humans, as many Asians who experience Alcohol Flush Reaction will attest. Distilled high-alcohol spirits are also very much an evolutionary novelty. As someone with alcoholism running in the family, I very much understand that consumption of these kinds of alcohol can be difficult for certain people to moderate with terrible, even deadly consequences.
I think renewed study and emphasis on fermented alcoholic beverages in human evolution will provide much insight into human adaptations to food and the development of domesticated crops. Even with the knowledge we have now, I think it's wholly inappropriate to describe liquid carbohydrates as evolutionarily novel. Soda is novel in that it is a liquid carbohydrate devoid of any of the nutrients or phytochemicals in indigenous beverages, but mainly we need to look to modern science and biochemistry to tell us what effect soda has on the body and mind.
It's also fascinating to see some of these ancient beverages recreated and revived. I've since tasted several of McGovern's collaborations with Dogfish Head, such as Chateau Jiahu, which is made of rice, honey, and fruit recipe gleaned from 9000 year old Chinese pottery. I've also enjoyed some of the more modern spit-free chicha at several Peruvian restaurants and being a lightweight, I appreciate that it's pretty low in alcohol and also very tasty. There has also been renewed interest in home brewing ancient herbal ales. You can do it yourself with the book Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers. There are also some herbal beers on the market. I've enjoyed William Brother's spruce, seaweed, and heather beers. Unfortunately, none of these beers are gluten-free, which is slightly disappointing since the original Jiahu pottery probably did not contain barley.
I enjoyed Uncorking the Past, but it does read a bit like a textbook at times, which is why it took me so long to get through it. I'm looking forward to enjoying more of his brews though. Dogfish Head is even tried making Chicha the old fashioned way, though it didn't exactly work out, since it was more labor intensive than they expected.
Sadly, I had a less exciting dinner, but some people have asked me to share this method I use for post-workout or other meals in which I need a lot of calories at once. It's simply cooking haiga rice with some sausages (or fish if you want a lower calorie meal) on top.
My favorite sausages to use used to be the Banh Mi ones from the Meat Hook because of all the rich flavors contained in them. But these are lamb merguez from Smoking Goose. I also like some of the Butcher and Larder Sausages. The aim is to find a sausage that is full of goodness because it will hopefully drip into the rice when you put it in the steamer. I also have found that this method will cook frozen sausages perfectly fine, just make sure to check the middle to make sure it is cooked and if it's not you can throw it in the frying pan, but I've never had that happen. You can also add any kind of vegetables you would normally steam.
Meanwhile, I grease the bottom part of the rice cooker with ghee and add in my .25-.5 cup of rice and some ice cubes of frozen stock. I turn the rice cooker on and leave it to cook. When it's done, the rice has a nice crispy buttery bottom resembling the Persian "tahdig" delicacy. The rice is seasoned by the sausage, but I also add garlic-pepper relish, an egg yolk, a few drops of Red Boat fish sauce, a bit of rice vinegar, and tamari. I mix that all together, slice up the sausage, and top with vegetables, fresh herbs, or seaweed.
Not very pretty, but delicious and filling... and quick and easy.
I associate sugar-free with sad looking hard candies in a lonely corner of the drugstore shelves, carefully quarantined from the "good candy." From those ugly bright pink packets of sugar at every diner to Diet Coke, things labeled "sugar-free" are decidedly low-brow.
But in Chicago we have Homaro Cantu, chef of ritzy restaurants iNG and Moto, who is trying to make it sexy. Luckily for those of us who are intolerant of sugar alcohols or mildly neurotic, instead of lacing his food and drinks with chemicals, he's using something called miracle berry. I remember back in college when this stuff was vaguely illegal or something and people hoarded their pills of it imported from Asia. Now you can order it on Amazon. Surprisingly, I had never tried it before last night. I guess it was a "why bother" thing for me, since I pretty regularly eat normal desserts in moderation, though my taste buds have shifted over the years from not eating junk and I find almost all desserts way too sweet.
But last night I signed up for a special meal at iNG hosted by Chicago Foodies that was themed Guilty Pleasures. All six of the courses were themed around foods and drinks people feel guilty about. I was imagining a meal of pony tartare and whale sushi, but I guess that's my own sick mind at work. They were more mundane things: cigarettes, late-night tacos, carbs, meat, butter, and coffee. Unfortunately, I don't feel guilty about any of those things, though I have a vague disease related to coffee since it occasionally makes me more insane than I already am. Maybe cigarettes, but I've only smoked maybe twice in my life. The carbs course was a bit hilarious to me since it consisted of a single raviolo, Lilliputian slices of truffle-covered bread, and a copious amount of vegetables. Chef Nate Park said he was once quite overweight from gorging on pasta, but I don't think he would have had a problem if he had eaten pasta the way it was served there.
I wasn't terribly thrilled with the flavor tripping, but I wondered if I had done something wrong. Things tasted OK, I guess. The best thing was probably just this simple orange and this block of orange cream. It tasted a bit like fanta and icing...
My friend who is diabetic said she liked the way the sweet things tasted without the miracle berry powder. I agreed. I think this happens to a lot of people who don't eat processed foods: our taste buds get more sensitive to sweet and we also learn to appreciate more complex flavors. If I ever indulge in foods I used to overeat when I was less healthy, a lot of them taste cloying and disgusting to me. It would be interesting to know what percentage of this is physiological and what is psychological.
I think the flavor I appreciate most now is sour. When I played with some miracle berry powder at home, I found that many things I enjoyed like kombucha and lime tasted very flat. I also tried it with a very sour little Australian citrus my cousin gave me, but that tasted flat as well. Apparently in that little lime there wasn't much else to it but sour.
I am planning to trying it with some other stuff though, particularly things that don't seem to express their full flavor without massive amounts of sugar like chai and mulled wine.
However, it is interesting what iNG is doing and another diabetic friend told me he appreciates that he can enjoy a sweet cocktail there that has essentially very little sugar.
That's the fun part. But Cantu envisions greater purposes for this little fruit: eliminating sugar from our diets, conquering obesity and curing hunger. If squeezing lemon into soda water produces something resembling Sprite, then why shouldn't that be Sprite? Two ingredients plus the miracle berry. Junk food becomes health food. Sugar goes away. "All these sugar cane growers can just get rid of the sugar cane and start growing the berries, and then we can live happily ever after," Cantu says. "I just see it as a very simple, easy fix."
However, my own impression is that miracle berry is very hard to use and even a top restaurant with experienced chefs like iNG seems to have trouble delivering a consistently good flavor from it. It is widely speculated that this is the reason iNG keeps getting snubbed by the Michelin guide.
It is cool though that he is more realistic about human nature than other celebrity chef health campaigners. He recognizes that one of the reasons people eat fast food is because it tastes good, that in order to get people to eat differently, we have to work on viable alternatives
CANTU: We - we have a problem with food addiction in our country. Diets don't work, and people that go on diets go on and off. You've never heard anybody ever say, boy, I really enjoyed being on that diet. That was awesome. You know, that just doesn't happen.
We're trying to take the other approach. We want to give you food products, like this waffle, that tastes better than the real thing, just because of the way it's made. And, you know, you - you swear you're ingesting tons of, you know, calories from sugar, but there's nothing there.
But having studied food science at a major research university, I feel like I've definitely seen this before, and that it doesn't always go well. It's not like food science departments at both universities and major corporations haven't been working on this for ages, bringing us such failures as Olestra chips and Diet Soda. There rarely is a simple, easy fix...
And I see more and more fancy restaurants dealing with the sugar problem by just having tiny desserts. Honestly, I'd prefer to have a very small dessert made with real sugar like this innovative and delicious silver dollar-size dollap of ice cream and mochi I had at Blackbird, than the two very large sugar-free desserts I had at iNG.
Anyone else tried miracle berry? What do you think?
I've noticed a few people tweeting this new paper, titled Hunter-Gatherer Energetics and Human Obesity, but I haven't seen many blog posts about it. Some of the tweets are to the effect of "haha, total proof that eat less, move more is a farce."
The paper is open-access, but the researchers published an editorial in the New York Times
We found that despite all this physical activity, the number of calories that the Hadza burned per day was indistinguishable from that of typical adults in Europe and the United States. We ran a number of statistical tests, accounting for body mass, lean body mass, age, sex and fat mass, and still found no difference in daily energy expenditure between the Hadza and their Western counterparts.
Unfortunately, the applicability to the average dieter in the United States might be limited. Notice "typical adults in Europe and the United States." I don't know, but last time I was in Europe, it seemed like people biked and walked places a lot more than in the US. As a non-driver, when I lived in Europe I was hardly the oddity I am here. In many places in the United States it is not even possible to walk to the grocery store. One study showed that the average American takes 5,117 steps a day, whereas the average Swiss person takes 9,650 steps a day. That's another issue with the Kitavan study, in that it also compares activity levels with a non-US group of people, the Swedish.
There is also the possibility that the Hadza are not expending as much energy as expected because of nutritional stress. Whether or not certain hunter-gatherer groups are naturally small or if they are exhibiting stunting is an important question. A paper that came out last year about a similar group of hunter-gatherers, the !Kung, re-opened this debate, speculating that the !Kung are somewhat malnourished:
Given the adverse conditions of life in the Mexican refugee camp, and the similar pattern of growth of the Maya and !Kung, the most reasonable interpretation of the growth of the !Kung infants and children is that it is due to inadequate food intake, disease, or a combination of both. Small size of !Kung infants and children sets the pattern of growth for older ages, as !Kung adults remain relatively short and light throughout their lives...
People with energy deficiency, or living at a delicate energy balance, do practice an economy of effort. Some examples are studies by George B. Spurr and colleagues of marginally undernourished boys and girls, ages 6–16 years old, in the city of Cali, Colombia. These boys and girls adjust their energy expenditure according to energy intake. In one quasi-experiment (Spurr & Reina 1988), normal and undernourished boys were observed at a summer day camp. They were encouraged to increase their physical activity by playing sports and other games. The undernourished boys were not able to keep up with the normally nourished boys during the morning session. At mid-day both groups received a meal and the undernourished boys received an extra 760 kcal of food, all of which was consumed. During the afternoon play session the undernourished boys were able to keep up with the normal group for about 2 hours, which is about the time they expended the extra 760 kcal eaten at lunch.
I would like to see similar data for the Hadza. And other foraging cultures, especially those with access to higher quality game. And it's worth remembering that even if the Khosian hunter-gatherer lifestyle is of continuous antiquity, it is the tip of the iceberg in terms of foraging. There were many very diverse paleolithic foraging cultures and so few of them are represented in the tiny remnants of this lifestyle available to study today.
Some books about the paleo diet reference the impressive height of paleolithic hunter-gatherers, comparing them to stunted agriculturalists. However, the archeological record is full of shorter hunter-gatherers and almost all modern foragers would be considered tiny. The average Hadza man is only 161.3 cm tall (5.3 feet). Is this stunting or is it genetic? Either way, some see their height as a feature, not a bug, contending that shorter people have certain metabolic advantages that are protective against many diseases of civilization. Hilariously, that paper I just linked to is posted along with many others on the website Short Support, which is all about how awesome short people are. At five feet two inches tall, I approve of this site.
And indeed, studies reporting differences in metabolic-hormone profiles between traditional and Western populations support this idea (though more work is needed).
Also it's worth noting that physical activity has many known benefits beyond just burning calories.
Furthermore, it is quite funny to see how popular this study is with people promoting a low-carb diet because one of the reasons some of them have said foraging people can tolerate starch/sugar is because of their high activity levels. Though conveniently Rosedale has recently switched to saying it's because they are short, just in time for this study. Because honestly, the Hadza diet has quite a bit of sugar in the form of honey, berries, and baobab:
Dr. Lustig should come and tell them not to eat so much sugar. That humans aren't evolved to eat so much sugar and didn't have access to it in our natural evolutionary environment. Especially the honey. It's really appalling how sugary that stuff is.
Don't get me wrong, this is an interesting paper, but grouping Europeans together and then those Europeans with the particularly sedentary Americans means we can't use this paper to say that food is the main thing that matters in determining weight.
I'm sure you have your own take on this, since the paper is open access, I recommend reading it.
I remember when I was a vegetarian and I first encountered literature on veganism that described the dairy industry. When I learned about how older cows and unwanted calves were sent to slaughter, it made sense to become a vegan. To this day, beyond people who don't like meat or who come from a vegetarian cultural tradition, vegetarianism doesn't make much sense to me. Even for people who are religious vegetarians, the dairy produced in most of the US is a far cry from that traditionally consumed in India.
Even the beef cattle from the worst farm gets to spend part of their lives, usually most of their lives, on pasture. It's a far cry from factory egg and milk production, where animals are often in a state of continuous overcrowding in filthy low-quality conditions. This is true confinement agriculture.
In confinement dairies, after cows have reached the end of their "production cycle" they are normally sent to the slaughterhouse. This was in the news recently because some animal rights activists exposed the mistreatment of a dairy cow at a slaughterhouse. The video is worth watching if you can stomach it, but the cow was a "downer" cow, meaning she was sick and was lying down. The video shows workers torturing her with electric prods. It's sickening.
Beef from dairy cows is 6 percent of all beef production in the U.S. and about 18 percent of ground beef, but the amount varies. I'd imagine that because of the drought, more and more farmers will send their cows to slaughter as feed prices continue to soar.
Typically this isn't exactly premium beef, but it doesn't have to be this way. The NPR article notes:
Veterinarian Richard Wallace, who spent 15 years at the University of Illinois before joining Pfizer Animal Health in 2010, has led the campaign. "Slaughter is not a place to dump animals," he says.He tells dairy farmers to think of their older cows differently — not as "cull animals," but as potentially valuable beef cattle. And instead of going directly from milk barn to slaughterhouse, Wallace says farmers should coddle those animals for a few weeks. After ending their milk production, the cows should just get to rest and eat. The result, Wallace says, is a healthier cow, higher-quality meat — and more profit for the farmer.
If you are buying from a local dairy this might be a great opportunity to get some decent grass-fed beef for pretty cheap. I find that a lot of people, particularly people who eat grass-fed beef for health reasons, don't care all that much about getting the very best quality. For example, my family slaughtered an older cow and the beef was a little lean and chewy. At $3 a lb, it sold out immediately, mainly to the Crossfit types. I ate it too. It was fine, and even very good in certain dishes like Chili or Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes" so it's quite fitting.
Another great option is pastured veal. Now this isn't the kind of veal you feel bad about buying. It's from young steers that grazed with their mothers on pasture, not from confined grain-pap fed calves. It's actually really really good and I think it is going to become a trend, because the cuts are so much smaller and so easier to fit in a small freezer.
Indeed, the method of chaining and crating veal calves is a new practice, established in the years following World War II when the agricultural communities of the United States began their dramatic move from the small, intimate and self-sustaining farms they were to feed-lots and monocropping. Dairy farmers moved male offspring, who otherwise held little value, indoors to save space and costs in an era when young farmers were encouraged to “modernize.” Tradition, as is often the case, was lost under the effort to modernize the agriculture of America’s heartland. Prior to this change, veal calves were raised alongside their mothers in open pasture, under the sun and with access to clean air and fresh water before their brought to harvest at about the same time lambs are traditionally slaughtered. Thanks to the renaissance of truly traditional and sustainable farming practices – and, in a way, to the raw milk movement – humanely raised veal is increasing in availability.
I don't know anyone who eats confinement veal and it amazes me that they still produce it. The dairy farm next to me has about 20 calves in teeny tiny pens. It's not as bad as a PETA video, but I do not think it is a production method that respects the animal. This dairy farm is also a small family farm, so once again proof that this is no guarantee that such an operation is a good one.
A commenter on my last post pointed out that craigslist is a good source for finding some affordable beef, if you don't mind the animal having had some grain in its life. One of the first results for Chicago was a pastured Jersey steer for $1.40 a lb. Surprisingly big though at 1000 lbs, but I wonder what the yield on this breed is. The yield is the actual weight of the meat since there are things you obviously aren't getting in your freezer order like skin/hooves/horns/etc. It's an on-farm pickup which is great too, since you can see what the farm is like, though obviously it would be awkward if you got there and it was not to your liking. Maybe this calls for a new post on interviewing your food suppliers...
Someone asked me if I could please update my What's on the Menu page, but it's hard because I've been eating out a lot. Like way too much. Partially because of moving and partially because I still do not have my furniture delivered to my new place and can't have anyone over. I also stopped telecommuting and now have a separate office, which I felt I had to do for productivity reasons, but now I've ended up in an apartment that has an extra room. Wow, that is a sentence I never could have written in NYC. Yikes.
Anyway, I also got a lot of questions about this cocktail I posted on instagram:
It is from the amazingly talented bartenders at BellyQ on Randolph. It's a Sudachi Sochu, coconut vinegar plum infusion, and cucumber cocktail called the Serpentine. Later I had their drinking vinegar, which is so much better than it sounds and was very similar to the Som drinking vinegar from Seattle.
I ate there on opening day and I was sufficiently impressed. They told me there are one of only two restaurants in the US that have infrared tabletop grills. The other one is in NYC and it happens to be my old favorite, Takashi. Unfortunately BellyQ, unlike Takashi, doesn't have any offal on the menu.
But I can't complain though. My rice puff and spinach salad was very good and my grilled BellyQ beef was fantastic. The space is also just amazing, with the sparse industrial naturalistic aesthetic that characterizes the neighborhood.
If you are in Chicago and you are gluten-free/paleo/whatever, another interesting development is that there is a new gluten-free restaurant called Senza. I bet you thinking "Ugh, great, so I can have sandwiches made with overpriced inferior gluten-free breads and pastas made with crap processed ingredients." Because honestly, that seems to be the gist of most gluten-free restaurants, which is frustrating since I have some friends who can't have any gluten at all and can't go to regular restaurants, but the menu seems to actually contain real food. I'll report back when I've eaten there.
But my latest haunt has been Green Grocer, which is a small grocery store right down the street from me that stocks all kinds of great local stuff. They roasted a pig from Gunthrop Farms last week and that was a blast.
Also if you are in the West Loop, there is a small new cafe called Fulton Market Cafe on Racine & Fulton that seems to have some good lunch options
I think referring to conventional feedlot cattle as "grain fed" is unfortunate. I think it's an insult on small local family farmers who raise their cows mainly on pasture, but supplement a little grain here and there. Sometimes I buy this kind of beef. It's not terribly different nutrient-wise from completely 100% grass-fed beef. And many people prefer the taste. Furthermore, it's often very affordable, as low as $2-$4 a lb if you buy in bulk.
Such cattle might also have received antibiotics, but for sicknesses, not to promote growth or to make up for unsanitary conditions like in a feedlot. If you have a sick cow and only a few cows in your herd...you are going to want to give the cow the medicine it needs.
The difference between these cattle and the cattle that receive a little supplemental whole grain is like the difference between someone eating a standard American diet and someone who eats a "paleo" diet and has tacos a couple of times a week.
Now, meat and bone meal from cows is explicitly banned from cow diets. But it ends up in chicken feed; a significant amount of it spills into bedding and ends up in poultry litter; and poultry litter gets fed back to cows.
Official numbers on just how much poultry litter ends up in bovine diets is hard to come by. But with corn and soy prices at heightened levels in recent years, feedlot operators are always looking for cheaper alternatives, and poultry litter is very much in the mix. Consumer Union's Michael Hansen claims that 2 billion pounds of chicken litter are consumed by cows each year—as much as a third of which consists of spilled feed, including bovine meat and bone meal.
So much for "grain fed" beef.
It does raise the question of what exactly should be done with America's massive amount of chicken waste? Maybe we should eat less chicken? Or as much as I hate to think about, pigs are at least better equipped biologically to eat such "food."
So if you are having a hard time affording good beef, considering buying from a local farmer that is not 100% grass-fed, but who doesn't finish on a conventional feedlot. It can be hard to find such farmers though since a lot of them tend to be older and not think of promoting their product in the many online directories that exist like Local Harvest or Local Dirt. Often such cattle are sold word of mouth to family friends and through old-fashioned social networks like churches.
But if you have a freezer, you should stock up ASAP because cattle prices are on the rise thanks to the aforementioned droughts.