This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
If something's worth doing...it's worth doing. A commenter told me that they want to go paleo, but they are post veg*n and still have an aversion to all things fatty. I was there. But any paleo-style diet is going to be beneficial and the great thing about paleo is that it's fairly flexible. On Free The Animal, Erwan Le Corre talked about his original diet, which was fish, tubers, fruits, and vegetables. He now eats all kinds of meat fatty delicacies.
Luckily, I just organized my photo collection in Picasa and I have a great record of my early forays into paleo:
Macadamia nut salad with pickled ginger
Microwaved wild salmon filet with vegetables and feta
Scary mini fridge
No wonder I was often hungry and cheated often, but in retrospect it's possible to do a low-fat paleo diet as long as you load up on the carbs and are careful to get enough calories.
I simply didn't know how to cook, I had never eaten many vegetables before, I had never eaten fish....AND I didn't have a kitchen at all. I just had a minifridge and a microwave. The earliest experience was just trying to eat clean and to expose myself to new foods by taking cooking classes, reading, and going to the farmer's market every Saturday morning. The first time I tried to cook meat I had no idea what to buy. I bought some sausages because that seemed easy to cook, but in the microwave they turned into a greasy mess and I threw them away. I ended up eating out a lot, though I tried to make my meals in restaurants as paleo as possible.
I think what's interesting about my experience was that restaurants played a big role in introducing me to new foods. At a nice restaurant I would try to order many new foods. They were cooked with great expertise, so I had positive experiences from the get-go. I remember pretty vividly my first lamb shank- it was at a small lovely tapas place in Champaign, IL. It was cooked in wine, which is a great way to "cut" the greasy flavor, and it melted tenderly in my mouth. It's been several years since then and 2009 was the first time I attempted lamb shank myself. In NYC I've finally completely embraced fat, but it's the first time I've had things like pork belly or lard. Guess I was finally ready.
If you eat well and expose yourself to new things, your diet will evolve into the direction you need. In did the paleo diet "wrong"- tons of fruit, massive amounts of nuts, and very little fat. My cheat meals were very scary. I sometimes ate whole jars of almond butter. I STILL felt better and was able to eventually remove those habits as my diet broadened. The goodness or badness of a diet is relative. Start with what you know you can do better and move from there. In the meantime, read good food writers like Jeffrey Steingarten, take a class on cooking a new dish, visit or volunteer on some farms, and enjoy a beautiful summer day at a farmer's market near you...or a winter's day at a good indoor food market where things like oysters and ham glow tantalizingly in the glass cases.
Edit: What's in my fridge now? Marrow bones, goat shanks, my farmer friend's homemade pancetta and lardo, wild rabbit, boar flank steak, some lemons, smoked wild salmon, lard, a jar of bones for stock, asparagus, and there are some mangoes on the kitchen table. Plus the herbs and lettuce on the windowsill. I haven't gone to the grocery store much this week, but I did make it to the butcher, so it's been a carnivorous one. I had not idea what any of these things were or how to eat them back when the old pictures were taken, but now I sure do love them! The main things that are gone from my fridge are bagged lettuce/spinach and almond butter.
In the dim light, the red walls glowed the pictures of various delicious animals. Brown paper tablecloths were stained with tiny conspicuous spots of grease. We had waited a long time to be here, and we were rewarded with course after course of succulent meats with vegetables whose sole purposes were to soak up the salty fatty drippings that tasted of rich flavors- savory black pepper, piney rosemary, lemon, and garlic. Of course the meats were delicious, but what the meat did to the vegetables was even more impressive. Ramps wilted in brothy sauce melted in my mouth. Asparagus fried in lard had been morphed into a pork rind-like delicacy that crunched pleasantly as it dissolved into fat. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert- we ordered another plate of ham.
The rich flavors of that night haunted me for days, until I bought some asparagus and fried it in lard with my friend's home-cured pancetta, garlic, black pepper, and a splash of lime juice since I had run out of lemons. It was incredible and I can't wait to make it again.
It is in these moments that I'm glad I didn't chose the paleo diet's rival- the low fat diets of Ornish and his ilk. With both high-fat and low-fat diets getting similar results in studies, I don't see any reason to give up my fatty treats in favor of bowls of barley and steamed carrots. My stomach is flat and free of pains it suffered with I ate loads of gluten and sugar every day, avoiding fat like the plague.
Sometimes I miss things like the cinnamon rolls in Sweden or the buttery biscuits from my native land, but on a low-fat diet I would have had to give up these....AND bacon/pancetta/lardo/fatty steaks/lamb shank. Yeah right. Life is too short for eating rabbit food. Maybe I'm just too much of a foodie, but how can a diet that purports to improve the quality of your life exclude the best foods in the entire world?
" We are Paleo hunters; only truly ALIVE in these moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises & stimuli frm envrmnt. If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead -the more precision, the more dead." - Nassim Taleb
We live in a culture were "unplanned" is a derogatory adjective. Into The Wild devotes some time to adventurers besides Chris McCandless who were criticized in death for their "foolhardy" unplanned ventures into the wilderness. You need a plan- a life plan, a shopping plan, and a diet plan to name a few. If you don't have one, you are probably irresponsible and immature.
Well, I don't have a plan. I don't know what I'm eating tomorrow. I have lost every shopping list I've made. This was originally unintentional and I've often felt guilty about it. I've often thought that my life would be better if I had "healthy habits." Lots of diet books and magazines have little pink bullet point lists with banal little habits you can oh so virtuously build- drink lots of water, pack your gym bag before work, snack on nuts, blah blah blah
It's a tyranny that makes us hothouse flowers. People are grumpy because their sleep got interrupted by barking dogs or they forgot to eat their oatmeal for breakfast.
Hasn't anyone stopped to think that people managed quite well for millions of years without worrying about their bedtime, how many apples they needed to buy, or regular mealtimes? In fact, perhaps people are quite well adapted for randomness.
The evidence seems to be to that effect. Not many people do well on rigid diets that require lots of planning. We can't do much about living in a world where many of us are forced to have routines, but we can control the diet part.
It's really impossible for us to understand the existence of paleolithic peoples, but of the remaining hunter-gatherer cultures we can see they have no bedtimes, supper times, or balanced meals. They eat what is there. They eat what the chaotic natural environment provides them. The gods are fickle and sometimes fain to dole out success. The animals they hunt are cunning and able to use supernatural powers to disappear into the thick foliage. At night, the rustlings in the trees and the stirring of relatives talking late into the night by the fire fade in and out. But really, we don't know much besides they probably didn't have a plan. They didn't need one. Things just were.
I don't know what I will eat tomorrow. Perhaps I will decide to eat breakfast, but probably not. I'll go to the farmer's market and get what appeals to me for lunch. Sometimes my meals look wildly unbalanced. Some days I eat only meat, others only plants, but most are in between. There is so much that even the sparse and unnatural environs of the city can provide to a pseudo forager.
I remember my time in Sweden. I never had much of a schedule there, not even my classes had a real schedule. Some weeks entomology was on a Wednesday at 8 in a random spot in the woods, others it was on Monday at 1 PM in the ecology building. I often went out foraging in the woods on a whim. Some days I had nothing, other days I was greeted by a rare glade of prized berries.
People in the North of Sweden are especially fond of berries and will spend inordinate amounts of time searching for treasures like arctic raspberries or cloudberries. You can't cultivate them, though many have tried. Make Prayers To The Raven describes how the arctic Koyoukon tribe prized the exact same berries as the Lapplander. How can you not? There is something very basically appealing about them with their jewel-like colors contrasting against the dark moss. You never know what they will taste like either. Some cloudberries are very bitter, others sweet like candy.
Occasionally I do an analysis on my diet just out of curiosity. But I know better than to look at days, an arbitrary delineation for diet. I like at averages over the week and they are excellent despite bizarre meals at odd times and the very unplanned intermittent fasting I do.
You don't need a diet plan. Eat real foods that a hunter-gatherer would eat. Be an opportunist.That's not a plan, it's a simple maxim that doesn't tell you which foods to eat or when to eat them. If you are really following the spirit of this and exposing yourself to a wealth of good foods, your diet will be fairly diverse, but don't worry if it isn't yet. My first year of paleo was lots of salmon and spinach salads, but now I eat offal and tiny bone-in fish.
Unfortunately in this day and age, some thought is required to get this exposure, whether it be from reading about food or going to a farmer's market or other similar rich environment. We don't have the elders to show us the good foods and teach us how to prepare it. We don't have the woodlands with their strange giving and taking ways- chanterelles one day and stringing nettles the next. We will have to strive, but we don't need a plan.
Have you read Let Them Eat Meat? It's a rather audacious blog written by ex-vegan Rhys Southan who now eats paleo. He skewers vegan pseudo-science, obsession, and guilt-mongering. He also posts some awesome interviews both with happy vegans/vegetarians and those who have found that the vegan diet didn't work for them. It's fascinating food for thought- philosophically and as an anthropological study of what people eat and why. Today he interviews yours truly. Take a look!
Apparently anthropologists have found that many women crave clay during pregnancy. In most of the Western medical literature it is considered pathological, but:
Worldwide, clays are used to relieve diarrhea..., detoxify compounds, and provide minerals that are insuficient in the diet. In Africa, this practice is also employed by women seeking to relieve nausea of pregnancy and it can serve to bind toxins that would harm that fetus in this stage. When geophagy continues beyond the early stages of pregnancy, it probably adds important nutrients to the diet, especially calcium, essential for fetal skeletal development and maintenance of blood pressure in pregnancy.
Anthropologists Andrea Wiley and Sol Katz propose that clay as a source of calcium helps to explain the distribution of geophagy in African populations. Their survey of 60 societies confirms that whee dairying is practiced and calcium is available in the diets of pregnant women, geophagy is less common...
Given evidence that clay consumption occurs in chimpanzees and may have been practiced by early hominins, it seems to have a long evolutionary history. Certainly most of the sources of calcium sought by pregnant women today (dairy products) were not available to our ancestors and clay consumption may have made the difference between a healthy and unhealthy pregnancy. As with all practices, however, geophagy may have negative consequences, including exposure to pathogens in soil, iron deficiency, and lead poisoning.
Kombucha. It's a magical fermented health drink that cures everything because it was developed by wise ancient Chinese monks or something. It's fairly tasty once you get used to it, perhaps even delicious and refreshing. It doesn't have much sugar either.
Recently I had been drinking it habitually after finding out the 711 right around the corner carried my favorite flavors. Since I can't have beer anymore (*cries*) except the gluten free kind that tastes awful and a tablespoon of wine makes me blind drunk, Kombucha became my flavorful and refreshing drink of choice.
The problem was that around that same time I started feeling kind of sick in the afternoon. I just couldn't believe my beloved kombucha was the problem, so I initially blamed seasonal allergies.
At some point I looked at my spending habits and figured I shouldn't buy a $4 bottle of kombucha every day. I planned on buying a kombucha starter kit eventually. Miraculously, not only did my pocketbook get heavier, but the afternoon sickness went away.
Lots of people ascribe fairly magical powers to fermented foods and many sick people down barrels of sauerkraut and kefir believing they will provide them health. But we have to remember that people with food sensitivities also often have cross reactions to pretty much EVERYTHING. Yeast is a fairly common sensitivities for those sensitive to gluten, but fermented foods also contain other potentially irritating ingredients like amines and histamine. In the end, while paleolithic people would have probably consumed lots of bacteria and yeasts, modern fermented foods have them in very high amounts.
So if you are having a problem, don't blame it on "detox." Take a good look at your diet, even at foods you think are healthy. Fermented foods can help heal, but they can also cause reactions.
Sunday, April 11, 7:30-10pm
Farmers Market Sweep
622 Degraw St., Brooklyn
Tickets, $12 in advance, $15 at the door
Bikeloc, a team of cycling locavore enthusiasts will take their love for the local food movement on the road this summer in a cross-country bike tour of small farms. Meet the mend behind the madness at a local food trivia night, Farmers Market Sweep, aka Brooklyn’s first food-themed game show. Aaron Zueck and Robert DuBois of Bikeloc, Louisa Shafia author of Lucid Food, Ava Chin of the New York Times, Joanna Shaw Flamm, editor of spoonandtrowel.com as well other prominent foodies will go head-to-head in a battle for the title of Champion Locavore.
The game show will be followed by the savory sounds of Smoothe Moose Laboratories featuring Brooklyn based cellist and electronic musician Cosmo D who will be serving it up with beat master DJ Saucy Crotch. If you’re interested in making a local snack for the event, please contact Aaron at
I'll be competing. We'll see if the bachelors in agriculture was worth it.
I found this picture and became jealous of my old self. I made this in Sweden. It was fish roe, sea buckthorn berries I collected in the autumn and froze, thyme from our window garden, and a real treat...early spring honey. We collected it our bee course because it was ending, but most beekeepers don't collect that early. It tasted heavily of airy sweet dandelions.
A few years back, a government agency promoting the American agrarian ideal shipped baby chickens and piglets to Koyukon Indian villagers- people who have been hunters, trappers, and fishers all their lives. Some folks took to the notion, built pens, raised healthy pigs and successful flocks, and eventually found eggs under their hens. That's when things started going awry. 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.
That's from the excellent Heart and Blood by Richard K. Nelson. I actually recommend this book more to former vegans than I do The Vegetarian Myth, because it's an incredibly well written eco-humanistic journey through our place in nature. I've been meaning to give it one big post, but it's hard to do because it's such an amazing book...so I guess I'll keep doing posts about it until I keep thinking about it.
Having experience with farming, I can say that there are animal husbandry methods that make me uncomfortable. People make much ago about foie gras, but they would find other more common methods just as distasteful if they were exposed to them. But they aren't. People live in a fantasy land where Bessie the cow gets retired to Green Acres when her milk production goes down and chickens die a painless death for McNuggets.
Knowing what I know about human evolution, my uncomfortableness with animal husbandry makes sense. Paleolithic humans may have kept animals, but only as allies like dogs, not as future food. With the domestication of animals comes the issue of killing something you raised yourself, that often bears some resemblance physically or behavioral to your pets and children.
I've had this problem in particular with goats. Domestic goats, unlike sheep or chickens, often crave human contact and react towards humans in a way similar to dogs. I think most of my readers would have a hard time slaughtering a domestic goat, even if they have pretensions against sentimentality. I've known goat dairy farmers to cry when sending away the male kids who have been born so they can be raised for meat. Although this disconnect and unhappiness among farmers has certainly gotten worse since the USDA mandated all slaughter for sale for non-poultry animals be done in a USDA inspected slaughterhouse that is usually unpleasant and far away from the farm.
I think it's partially a recognition of this inappropriate relationship that humans now have with animals that more and more people are interested in hunting from former vegans to Betty Fussell, an 82-year old NYC food writer who I met at a hunting workshop.
Last night I heard Joel Salatin speak in NYC. I was kind of surprising that he would speak on Easter Sunday. I grew up in Georgia and Easter was a big holiday there, but pretty much everything was open here and lots of people turned out for his lecture.
I only saw the first one, which was about whether or not the local food movement is elitist. Salatin mainly talked about how regulations hinder the development of new local food businesses and make food more expensive. I was familiar with this argument because I did my senior thesis on regulatory obstacles to a healthier local food system and Salatin's book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal was one of my starting points.
You can read his original essay on the subject here. What does this have to do with paleo? Well, the main food regulations affect are animal foods, though produce is becoming more controlled thanks to the spinach, peanut, and tomato food poisoning outbreaks that killed and sickened Americans.
The standard regulatory argument is that risk is risk and every farm should be regulated the same way. I personally disagree with that. Part of the rational behind regulations is that people are victims because they can't make a rational consumption decision due to the structure of our food economy. People wouldn't purchase things made unsafely if they could see the production, but they can't and it's pretty unrealistic to expect most people to closely keep tabs on food factories 1000 miles away. Of course a private certifying agency probably could, but it's equally unrealistic for libertarians to expect the US to drop all food regulations.
Even if you are not libertarian, it's clear that most regulations on food producers are unfair. I went to a big agricultural school sponsored by the government. Much of the technology used on farms is developed by such universities and most of it is geared towards large farms. That's an unfair advantage. So when regulations are written they typical require capital that would be unrealistic for a small farm to own or use. Also, there is rent seeking behavior- manufacturers of this expensive equipment often are the loudest advocates for more regulations. Things are changing- there is a foundation around here that is working on small scale mobile slaughterhouses, but they are facing an uphill battle. The mobile slaughterhouse has to have a separate trailer with an office and bathroom for the USDA inspector. They can't just use the normal bathroom in the farm office, regulations stipulate the inspector has to have their own.
Another subsidy is that large feedlot operations are pretty much allowed to pollute. I don't see why they should be allowed to sully steams they don't own. Small farmers often take great care of their land and the environment in general. Many factory operations also employ illegal workers and the government turns a blind eye, while small farmers struggle with the challenge of having legal workers, which is more than just paying minimum wage, it's often also paying worker's comp and dealing with some draconian state employment laws.
Contrasting with shoppers in the grocery store who really would have a hard time really knowing where their food comes from, people who purchase directly are able to talk to the farmer and often able to visit and work on the farm.
The consequences for all these regulations are stressed farmers who have to haul their cattle hundreds of miles to the nearest USDA slaughterhouse and more expensive meat. One of the reasons poultry tends to be cheaper is that there is an exemption that allows small farmers to slaughter on-farm . Why chickens slaughtered on farm are safe but goat aren't never struck me as logical. The safety of an animal to eat has more to do with the skill of the butcher than the magic of a USDA inspector. I'd certainly rather have animals killed by my own butcher that I know.
Either way, read the book, it's great and will help you understand why small farmers have such a tough time. Salatin also addressed the global agriculture problem. He mentioned how large companies like Monsanto who often claim to be the savior of the third world often don't acknowledge that the green revolution is often the cause of the problems in the first place. He mentioned how the old Thai system was diverse and grew rice alongside fish and vegetables. Replacing this system with rice monoculture created the vitamin deficiencies that the GMO golden rice is supposed to cure.
Another factor is that contrary to popular opinion, small sustainable farmers aren't Luddites. There have been massive increases in the efficiency of many sustainable methods like composting in the past 50 years. Such methods are more sustainable not just from an ecological perspective, but from an economic perspective. In unstable third world countries introducing methods that require imported seeds, pesticides, machines, and oil just isn't appropriate.
Salatin also talked about the choice aspect of the matter. I don't make much money myself, but in the past I had to be on all sorts of expensive medication. Now that I eat a better diet, I don't need those pills and inhalers, which unlike grassfed beef, just masked the symptoms and did nothing to nourish or heal me. Joel Salatin mentioned how tests done at the local ag school showed high levels of CLA, a fat that shows strong anti-cancer properties, and DHA, which is the most prized of the omega-3 fatty acids that promote good health in general.
He said it's a shame that libertarians, free marketers, and conservatives have so often been reactionary against healthy eating, but the tide is turning. I agree. While paleo dieters come in all stripes, a growing segment is people traditionally associated with the right.