This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I had to improvise a Thanksgiving meal today because plans with family members fell through. Unfortunately none of the convenient grocery stores were open, so I had to use things I already had. Luckily I've been cooking a lot lately and I had a decent amount of stuff to work with. Except I had almost no vegetables and no thawed or easily thawable meat except bacon. But our meal, while slightly odd, ended up being pretty tasty.
A few days ago I had made an impulse purchase of two matsutake mushrooms, also known as pine mushrooms both for their habitat and their coniferous taste. I wasn't sure what exactly to do with them since it was only two, but I'd been wanting to make pecan brittle for awhile and I thought mushrooms might be an interesting addition. Some of my favorite restaurants, including Elizabeth, use mushrooms in desserts. I also had some kafir lime leaves I needed to use up from a Vietnamese market on Argyle st. and I knew those were good with nuts because I used to buy cashews roasted with them from Nuts + Nuts at the New Amsterdam Market when I lived in NYC. Another thing I needed to use was some roast duck fat leftover from my bi-monthly duck cooking. The base recipe I used was from Elena's Pantry, because it looked pretty easy.
I chopped the mushrooms and sauteed them in the duck fat in a cast iron skillet with a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, which I used in my recipe instead of cinnamon. Instead of all honey I used a mix of honey and birch syrup leftover from my trip to Montreal last year, which I whisked together with the egg white and salt the recipe calls for. I also chopped up the kafir lime leaves into tiny pieces and mixed them in with the egg mixture before mixing in the pecans. Then I threw everything in my skillet with the duck fat mushrooms, mixing around to get the mushroom pieces into the brittle. I baked that in the pre-heated 300 F oven for 30 minutes.
I was worried about the egg white causing the mixture to stick, but they didn't and they turned out great. I was pleasantly surprised at how dominant the matsutake flavor ended up being. The resulting brittle was aromatic and exotic, reminding me of forests near and far.
I broke up little bits of it to use today for my main Thanksgiving recipe, a cornbread stuffing. For the cornbread I used Sean Brock's skillet buttermilk lard cornbread recipe. I then cooked some bacon and japanese chilis in my larger skillet. The broth I used was from some lamb necks I made using Ferran Adria's mustard mint lamb neck recipe from The Family Meal. I mixed a cup of that up with some butter and homemade harissa (I used The Domestic Man's recipe). I chopped up the cornbread and tossed it with an egg, then threw that in the bacon pan with some of my leftover pecan brittle and mixed it all up. Finally I poured in the broth mixture. I baked it in the oven at 350F for 35 minutes then tossed in some grated grass-fed cheddar and broiled on high for five minutes.
It was weird having stuffing at the holiday meal centerpiece, but this was hearty and delicious enough to serve as that. It was spicy and crispy and fatty with little bits of sweet goodness. I mixed up some leftover homemade aioli with some sliced carrots, apples, and kimchi to make a side salad. I'd actually never made stuffing before, but now that I know the basics, the possibilities seem endless. I'm dreaming of a pastrami buckwheat stuffing with chicken soup broth and chicken cracklings and mini crispy latkes now…
About the spring of 2008 I enjoyed the best health I had experienced in 25 years. I gained 20 pounds and my blood level did not show anaemia. I looked like a healthy person and I felt terrific. There was no medical explanation whatsoever. I ate everything, I over ate and I was drinking. I was going to author something that I was going to call ‘The Drinking Cure’. I thought that I had beaten the illness – something in my physiology had changed.
Then of course he has a devasting intestinal rupture.
I think the past ten years has seen an explosion in similar stories- "I cured X, here is my advice." They underpin quite a few blogs, even perhaps this one. But as this blog has aged, I've realized how unimportant my own story is. Sure, I managed to get rid of some illnesses, but it's very hard to say how given how much of my life has changed since I started out this journey.
So many of these "Paleo" or whatever diet challenges change so many things about a person's eating, drinking, and living habits that's it's very hard to isolate what is going on. Same goes with personal stories. Furthermore, many autoimmune disorders are known to go into spontaneous remission. At best they give people leads to try, at worse they are used as a "banner for the cure" that makes people try to obsessively follow an individual's success and then become disillusioned when they don't experience that same success.
Reiner's disease, Crohn's, is a great example– I know people who have had great success with things like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and zero carb, but I know others who got worse on those same diets and ended up having to have conventional surgery and medication. Some of them felt like failures even though they felt better receiving conventional treatment.
But if we understood what really causes these diseases, they wouldn't be so frustratingly hard to treat.
Recently I was about to write a followup about how I fixed my neck problems, which had been gone for awhile. As I drafted the post, they came back worse than ever. Of course I am disappointed, but I'm entertaining the possibility that the problems are related to my work and work stress far more than to my posture or the exercise I do.
I've been glad to see that famous success story Terry Wahls is spearheading studies that would possibly show if her remission on a "paleo" diet would apply to others as well. Though a problem is that she is promoting the diet as a potential cure well in advance of these studies being completed. Is this harmless or not? I'm not sure.
If there is anything I've learned from blogging in this sphere, is that one person's cure is another person's poison and I've certainly encountered people for whom her extremely vegetable-rich diet would be harmful. I know from experience that I cannot consume such a diet as it causes immense gastric distress. I've gotten more tolerant of things like brassica vegetables over time, but I still have to be careful.
My own advice is to try a variety of things, but don't expect them to work for you just because someone else has a miracle-cure story.
I'm thrilled that Grub Street shut down its entire Chicago department so that instead of writing about Chicago’s vibrant food scene, they can publish garbage like this: The Rise of the Lady Paleos: How a Dubious Diet Aimed at Men Appeals to Women, Too.
What really struck me is how they linked to the New York Times article from 2010:
The Paleo diet has always been difficult to take very seriously. The program aims to mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era and is most often associated with city-dwelling males who go around pretending they're cavemen. But the new shepherds of the Paleo diet aren't hypermasculine men who install meat lockers in their apartments and gnaw on turkey legs; they're friendly, perky women who wear polka dots and create Paleo-approved recipes for banana porridge. Including women has made the Paleo diet more popular than ever — even as the science it's supposedly based on looks more and more dubious.
Since that article first was published in 2010, it has been linked that way many many times in the context of suggesting paleo is a diet for faux-manly men, not women. Back in 2010, women were simply not allowed to eat such a meaty diet. We had to survive on cupcakes.
Oh, but right there on the top of the article is a picture, and in that picture guess who is there? Me. And I'm 100% sure I'm a woman. Maybe I'm just not "perky" looking enough?
Interestingly there were a large number of photos of me taken for the article. One of the nicer photographers, a woman, sent me hers. I can’t post them here for legal reasons (they still belong to the Times), but I look much like myself in them. The New York Times chose a picture where the lighting and angle seems designed unflatter everyone in the picture (a great illustration of how powerful this can be in this great video), and for me it makes me look somewhat less "perky" than I usually do to say the least. I felt like the editors who chose that particular picture had an agenda, which was to portray the paleo diet as conforming to outdated stereotypes about “cavemen.”
The NYtimes photo they chose, where half my face is in shadows vs. a much more flattering professional photo by Pro Creation of Bacon.
Despite my criticism of the paleo diet, to reduce these women– best-selling authors who run their own successful businesses, to being defined by stereotypically girlish personalities, food and clothing, is disgusting. “Meat lockers” (what some of these reporters call chest freezers) are for men...and porridge is for women? I have little interest in porridge, but I’ve had a so-called “meat locker” for several years now and I love it.
Notice they did not choose to interview women who do not fit stereotypes as easily, women who have had paleo books on the market for quite a long time. One of the co-authors of one of the FIRST paleo diet books was Marjorie Shostak, a prominent feminist anthropologist. It was published in 1989 when I was just toddling around. I sometimes wonder what influence she might have had if she were still around. Sadly she passed away in 1996. The Vegetarian Myth and Primal Body, Primal Mind (I’m not particularly fans of the accuracy of those books these days, but they had an influence on MANY people) were published in 2009. I guess since these women don’t fit girly GOOP-like diet empire guru stereotypes, it’s OK to overlook them.
Marjorie Shostak, who lived with !Kung hunter-gatherers
The 1989 book
The really stupid thing is that they chose authors that are actually moderate and flexible in their approach (esp compared to other authors) and then criticized the paleo diet for not reflecting the flexibility and variation of the past. They say they are excluding things like dairy and grains, while several of the authors consume dairy and in that very article they say one of them feeds her son grains (albeit sprouted, but still grains)! If this article gets anything right, it’s that a lot of them seem to call their junk food -free whole foods diets “paleo” just to call it that. I have to say, that while they didn't dig their own graves, they did hand the reporter a shovel. After the New York Times article and several other horribly biased articles, I learned how to figure out what reporters to avoid and what not to say to them. And most importantly, what editors hold their reporters to a higher standard. I learned that the number of these people was vanishingly small.
Recently I wrote an article about Malort, a bitter spirit, for NPR's The Salt and I was really impressed by how their editors encouraged me to write in a balanced and fair fashion. It also forced me to confront my own biases. Because of an article I had read before, I honestly thought when I started out that the people working for Jeppson's didn't really know how it connected to Sweden. Because the editor questioned this, I tracked down Peter Strom, who ended up completely changing my mind. I ended up re-writing a lot of the article.
But the thing is that "paleo" has grown increasingly scientifically and rationally vapid in the past few years. Most of these approaches aren't based on "dubious" science, a lot of them don't even bother for science. They are like Gwenyth Paltrow's GOOP inc. for people who like bacon.
There are issues with the paleo approach, but the author of this article is clearly not qualified to address them, instead resorting to Gawker-like sensationalist bullshit. I like how they cited Paleofantasy as being a book about debunking the diet, when not even half the book is about the paleo diet.
The sad thing is that Grub Street had a host of great reporters on restaurants, booze, and that sort of thing that they cut very recently in my home city of Chicago as well as other cities. They should have stuck to writing about bacon burgers and local pubs.
When people use the contact form on the bottom of this site, maybe they should take a few seconds and think about two things I don't tolerate very well, which are
Maybe don't send me that stuff, because I will post about it, and I will criticize it. Or maybe on the latter case, just leave the historical narrative out of your spiel if you can't waste more than an hour thinking about what it might actually imply.
One thing I really regret is when I first got healthy by eating a paleo diet, I thought that if everyone just ate like me, they could have a slim body like mine. It didn't seem that hard to me. So I became a zealot about it. But that process of being a zealot forced me to talk with a wide range of people about their experiences with food and health- from relatives to people I met at paleo meetups in real life. What shocked me were the people who ate like me, some of them ate "better" than me, and yet they were struggling with their weight. I even met people who gained weight on diets like mine. It was eye-opening.
And then there was the process of me discontinuing my strict diet, once when I moved to Europe, and next after I was having low blood pressure issues. I was talking to a friend who lost a lot of weight on paleo successfully and now works...making pizza. We were both joking how we have worried that we were going to suddenly gain a bunch of weight. But it never happens. It's not like we returned to a junk food diet, but I'm not going to turn down some ice cream or homemade pizza. And yet there are people right now turning down the kinds of things who can't seem to slim down. And then there are are fair number of people who slim down on diets full of paleo demonized foods like legumes and whole grains.
Some of them realize that health is about more than being slim, and while gaining weight might be a bad sign, the fact that they can lose a little and feel healthier is more than satisfying. Others however give up, disenchanted with the promises of a slim figure, dismissing it as just another fad diet.
Recently Jonathan Bailor sent me a contact email not once, but twice with his new "Slim is Simple" video to celebrate the creation of a non-profit devoted to distributing his educational material on healthy eating. I was surprised that so many got excited by this video. I criticized it on Twitter and some people were upset by that, saying it was a great educational tool and we need more such "simple" tools. No reason to be obsessed with scientific accuracy. Now I don't think I have that problem- I have recommended books that are quite imperfect on this blog many times from The Primal Blueprint to The Paleo Solution, but I don't recommend something unless I feel it has a useful and correct core.
Luckily I wasn't the only one who saw right through this video, Beth at Weight Maven, also posted a skeptical take on it. Evelyn has also written about Jonathan's other work before. I won't even get into his questionable calorie math that doesn't seem to bother with the fat that the correct equation takes maintence, which depends on body size, into account.
But I also would love to see more books that simplify eating without bordering on inaccurate propaganda like this video. I felt like I was watching a cult indoctrination film. Not only that, but it would seem its bolsters didn't even notice he's recommending a diet that is pretty different from the one they recommend- a diet based on three pillars of protein, fiber, and water. Eat as much as you want of those three things (maybe it helps that if you eat too much of the first two, you'll get diarrhea).
That's right- have as much protein as you want on this diet, have twice as much as normal, you'll be so satiated you'll supposedly forget about ice cream.I think this is exactly the kind of diet I coined the term "faileo" to describe (though sadly I feel this eventually contributed to a culture that somehow thinks you can guzzle as much coconut oil and bacon fat as you want, when I was kind of just trying to get people on board with more reasonable things like lamb shanks). The language is also exactly what many of us have tried to get away from, like the idea that we are "designed" for certain "clean" (an excessively moralistic word reminiscent of Kellogg and other health puritans) foods. Other foods, like starches and sugars (including most fruit- only citrus and berries are given a pass), will "clog our body."
But then I gets weird, because he says "almost everyone stayed healthy and fit without even trying until very recently" and the visuals for this are very interesting:
So we have an early bipedal ancestor, and than an Egyptian, and Pioneer, and someone who looks like they are from the 40s or 50s. Oh and a rather curvy person, who we presumably don't want to be...if only we knew what those Egyptians did. But Egyptians ate diet rich in bread and beer. Wait, I thought all these foods were the ones the video describes as "unnatural" and are responsible for our modern "clogs"? Hmm, well maybe we'll see about the pioneer woman. American pioneers had access to much more meat and fat than the average Ancient Egyptian, but they also ate things like biscuits and hoe cakes. 40s to the 60s? Well I collect cookbooks from those eras and they are certainly not full of an austere cuisine of protein, fiber, and water. Even if he had used the typical types of people that paleo dieters hold up as examples- the Hadza, The !Kung, the Kitavans, and other modern peoples who still live foraging lifestyles and remain very healthy, it would not make sense, because their diets contain a large amount of starch and even simple sugars.
Another use of history offender is Dr. Lustig in his new book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Others are more qualified to comment on the biochemistry errors in this book, but the food history in this book is so inaccurate that I wonder if publishers even bother to employ fact-checkers any more. His take on food history involves dividing ancient people into "hunters" mythic fat-burning intermittent fasting meat-guzzlers who "didn't know what a carbohydrate was and they didn't need to." The modern remnants are the Maasai and Inuit. Then there were the "gatherers" who ate carbohydrates and protein in the form of fruits and vegetables, "this is the basis for today's vegan diet. It is practiced in multiple cultures around the globe, because if you grow your own food, that's what's available." Yes...the vegan tribes of India, oh wait, there is no such thing. And has Lustig ever raised his own food or visited a farm? Where do you think most farmers are getting fertilizer from? Hint: it's not vegan.
And the Maasai, while they may sometimes be fat burners, are not a low-carb culture. As for ancient foragers, there is a reason they have been called hunter-gatherers, not hunters AND gatherers. In fact the vast majority of foraging peoples in the Ethnographic Atlas eat fairly mixed diets, the people who are primarily hunters or gatherers are exceptions.
But Lustig has to make up this false narrative so he can get to his all-encompassing theory of all our problems (and also because for some weird reason he wants to pander to both the Atkins and plant-based folks, a weird thread in this book), which is the "Omnivore's Curse"- "it wasn't until we became gourmets, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same meal, that our cells first felt the wrath of mitochondrial wear and tear." Apparently, with the advent of farming we started mixing fat and carbohydrates together in meals and thus we became diseased, because in nature there are no foods that have both things, which means somehow that we should take our lessons and cease our evil cooking of potatoes in butter. "This accounts for the appearance of metabolic disease with the advent of trade in the early seventeenth century; before that, food was still a function of what you killed or you grew yourself. Eventually, we became gourmands, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same food."
Reminds me of my maxim not to take advice on food from people who don't actually seem to like it very much. My friends and I have a historical eating club and this Saturday is our dinner based on ancient Mesopotamia. I still have some mead (liquid carbohydrates mmm) left over from our Viking dinner, though we might have some ancient beer as well. For dinner I am making lard-rubbed goat leg with cumin, mastic, coriander, mint, and ginger. There will be sides of roasted barley and roots. Yes, I will be mixing carbohydrates, fat, and protein in one meal, which presumably people have been doing since they have been cooking. Pottery dates well into the Paleolithic, and before that people probably used other containers to mix things together. We know they were cooking because they left residues of grease and boiled fruits and all sorts of other things. Because humans are curious creatures and some of us really do like to play with our food (though as Gary Nabhan has pointed out, there may be some evolutionary reasons some cultures adopted things like spices).
Some people cook less than others- for example the Hadza don't seem to cook very many "recipes" though they do mix baobab (which contains both fat and carbohydrate) with honey for a drink sometimes. It's funny that Lustig later mentions that Ancel Keys in his heart disease study left out populations like those in Tokelau- in Tokelau their diet is starch and coconut. If mixing fat and carbohydrate were an issue, we would have been the way we are now for a very long time. Not that I think ancient people were perfectly healthy- for example, both Egyptian and Inuit mummies show atherosclerosis, though back then it may have been caused by constant infections and cooking smoke inhalation rather than food and there is no evidence it caused any mummy's death. Lustig does also make a good point that heart disease was a problem in the 1930s, back before the "obesity epidemic".
When I think of my very slim (though probably wearing a corset) great-great grandmother pictured here, I don't think of diets based on protein, fiber, and water. I think of people who ate reasonable natural homemade food. The same food I eat now. I doubt she would have touched things like the Slim is Simple Peanut Butter Pie (which contains ingredients I actually do try to avoid: low-fat dairy, industrial whey protein isolate, and extremely high omega-6 peanut butter, cooked almond flour...he recommends leaving the honey out of the crust, which is funny because it's probably one of the healthier ingredients) with a ten foot pole.
She didn't count calories, and neither have I. As someone who eats made-from-scratch foods that are highly variable it would be pretty pointless for me to count calories, as it would be inaccurate. I know when I'm losing weight I have a calorie deficit though, even if it is going to not be possible to quantify it accurately. Some people find success with trying to do the math, but I always found it easier to try things that have been shown in studies to subconsciously reduce the amount of calories eaten. One of these is to eat a lot of protein, which is funny because that's one of Bailor's main strategies. Though it certainly never made me stop thinking of other foods, and I had significant energy issues when I was on the very high-protein, low fat, high fiber kind of diet Bailor advocates. Frankly, I felt sick and catatonic, but I guess his diet works for some people, and not for others, the same way some weight loss diets work for some and not for others. Because nothing to do with the human body is simple. Slim is not simple.
An incomplete list of my favorites- I set the timer on 30 minutes to sift through my photos (makes me realize why I take them- Schwa, Ruxbin, Blackbird's dinner menu are absent because I didn't take any) and here is what I picked.
@home: lingonberry(frozen w/ no sugar/crap added from Erickson's Delicatessen & Fish), seaweed (Seasnax), reindeer pate (Smoking Goose Meatery), and buckwheat pancake (buckwheat from Chicago winter Greenmarket, soured in sour cream for a day, mixed with egg, cooked in butter)
@home: chestnut flour (Chicago greenmarket)-battered smelt with sambel oelek aioli
@Hotel Lloyd in Amsterdam: a dinner of caraway gouda, fresh lettuce, pomme frites, mint tea, and sweetbreads
also their cheesy/beefy/quark coffee delicious breakfast
@Dahlgren's in Stockholm PERFECTLY cooked local lamb on earthy rye
@Frantzen/Lindeberg in Stockholm: raw beef tartare from an older dairy cow with SO much flavor, smoked eel, creamy bleak roe
@Publican in Chicago cooked by Chris Cosentino of Incanto in SF: noodles made with pig skin
Pork belly egg buns with sardine katsuobushi from my friends Nick and Shannon
@One Sister (now Elizabeth): oyster, mushrooms, meringues
Pork belly with sour cherries and herbs, cooked with "ancient roman" spice blend (cumin, coriander, black pepper, fish sauce, etc.)
@Next Sicily The most perfect tiny bit of handmade pasta with bottarga (fermented fish roe)
@Blackbird fluke with sea beans (soo deliciously oceanic) and lardo
Fantastic SE Asian food at SM Underground here in Chicago. Didn't get great pics, but the chicken curry wrapped in banana leaves was amazing.
Almost everything I ate at Vera (I eat their often since it's next to my office)- like this perfect spicy blood sausage hidden under these eggs, the skewers of tongue and octopus, and the divine uni deviled eggs
Seafood sausage at Saigon Sisters: I was skeptical, but it was just the right amount of fishy balanced with perfect curry spices and kaffir lime leaves
Another Asian-style sausage was this bone marrow sausage that used squid as a casing at Embeya. Every part was perfectly cooked, a feat considering that squid seems to overcook easily.
The absolutely perfect gravlax wrapped in turnip at Elizabeth. Salmon tasted completely balanced with the herbal notes.
Warabi Mochi at Next. I'd always wanted to try this mochi, made with earthy brown bracken starch. It was a little pillow of pleasure. I also loved the matcha. The sweetfish/ayu on the menu were also a revelation- their flesh really was sweet in just the right way.
Fish and custard? Who but Doctor Who would have ever thought this could work, but it did at Elizabeth, where I was served a Loup De Mer (Branzino) dish with just the right amount of terrestic custardy sunchoke and apple cider vinegar
The crispy duck heart hash at Au Cheval is the dish that made me like breakfast again, even though Au Cheval isn't open for that meal except on weekends. The crispy potatoes, creamy cheese, fatty gravy with bits of mineralistic duck heart, flecks of chives, and crowned with a perfectly cooked egg, yolk just waiting to be popped so it can join the fatty party.
No really, this is a bowl of new potatoes covered in autumn leaves at the Publican book release dinner for Faviken. But the potatoes are perfectly cooked and the summer butter you dip them in reminds you that simple foods can be absolutely perfect.
Everything I ate in Montreal was incredible, but I'll never forget this duck fat poutine at Au Pied Du Couchon
The silky beef tartare served by Thurk
More pork skin noodles, this time in a "Pad Thai" at the Trencherman's brunch that was actually more like a ramen down to the savory salty broth
Sweet potato with torched marshmallow ice cream from Jeni's was as good as it sounded...except better in every way. Better than the real thing. Grass-fed milk too and no weird gums or anything like that.
Senza's (the GOOD gluten-free restaurant) playful itty bitty cup of chicory "coffee" and flourless dark chocolate brownie with tiny marshmallows served at the end of the meal
The lardcore grits and cornbread at Carriage House, as well as the pimento cheese...I never had good memories of that stuff, but they make it with good ingredients and it is TASTY
My own simple lard-pastry buckwheat mini-mincemeat pies meat with real suet and some roadkill deer someone gave me
The boyfriend's perfect chicken ballantine stuffed with pork sausage, mushrooms, walnuts and arugula :)
Well, time's up, sure I missed a lot, but the whole point is that I ate well this year. If I can eat this well next year...life will be good.
When I was in high school and college I struggled with insomnia. The worst was when I lived in the dorms. Snoring roommate I hardly knew five feet away from me, sodium lamp light streaming in through the blinds, the ever-constant noise of slamming doors and drunken college students. I was constantly sick, constantly tired, almost always teetering on clinical depression. I missed class constantly, only getting by because like most colleges, the classes were a colossal waste of time and I could pass the tests just be reading the books. Recently when I was telling someone that the college I attended later in Europe didn't have such factory-farm-like housing and I did better health-wise there, someone said "well, dorm-living is a rite of passage." I kind of wanted to tell them off, tell them about how miserable I was and how it kept me from doing my best, but I guess some people are lucky and are able to endure it better. But the fact that the next door clinic was always full of legions of the chronically sick and the psychologists were constantly booked told me otherwise.
I tried everything to get to sleep. I even built some hybrid ear-plug/headphones and tried all manner of podcasts, classical music, even insipid "whale singing" and "relaxing sea sounds." I tried sleep masks, I even tried using Benadryl. Every night I lay there for hours past midnight before I could fall asleep.
When I studied in Uppsala things started to get much better for me. My room was so comfortable and noise-isolated there, it got much easier to fall asleep. I still had some occasional trouble though. The main trouble since then seemed to become distraction. It was just so easy to watch "just one more" episode of whatever show I was into on my laptop. Or play "just one more" hour of video games. "Just one more" often became a lot more. And I would often fall asleep under the glimmering light out of pure exhaustion well past midnight. Up until two months ago, it was really bad because I was in a studio apartment, my Macbook light tempting me all night, my video games stored under my bed in easy reach (I purposely buy simpler games out of the delusion I won't get addicted, but it doesn't always work out). At some point I was playing video games AND watching Netflix at two AM, a perfect storm of over-stimuli. My smart phone sat charging on my nightstand. I realized that I was "sleep walking" or something at night, checking my email at 4 AM without even realizing it and waking up to an inbox full of mostly already "read" messages. I was like "this has got to stop."
Luckily I moved into an apartment with multiple rooms of my own, something I've never had. I took my bedroom and made a rule that there would be no electronic devices in there besides a lamp, a radio, and the old un-backlit kindle. The windows are covered with blackout curtains. My phone charges in the kitchen. I go there at at 11 or midnight, start to read, and fall asleep easily.
Now that it is winter, I've also programmed my thermostat to drop to 45 F at night, extra motivation to go to bed. It reminds me of staying in a log cabin in the woods, heated by wood, and at night it gradually gets colder as the fire dies. And you are virtually forced to wake up naturally in the morning to put more wood in.
I've also been experimenting with daytime temperature. I keep it at 50 F when I'm away, but 61 F when I'm there. But I'm wondering if I could gradually go lower and adapt to it. I don't hope to match the achievements of legendary Cold House Journal folks, but I admire their fortitude and thrift. They make me feel rather weak.
Unfortunately I sometimes work in an office where my co-workers like to keep it at 75 F (WTF). When we walk to lunch, some of them look like they are about to die from the cold, even though it's hardly even cold for Chicago yet. I have to wonder if just not getting used to colder temperatures makes them less likely to be active.
A walk in the woods
I walk 20 minutes to work and I'm too stubborn to stop in the winter, particularly after living in Sweden where I saw people bike and walk everywhere even in the deepest dark winter (dark as in you need lights for your bike at 1 PM), so I can't afford to not be cold adapted. It is interesting that in the past I've really struggled with winter. I grew up in Georgia and I used to think I wasn't cut out for the winter because of it. My mother always kept our house pretty cold. I had to sleep under two comforters and an electric blanket. I blamed cold on being sick all the time. In retrospect, I wonder if the low-fat and later vegetarian and vegan diets were why I was constantly miserably cold all the time. The worst was when I was a raw vegan. I felt like I was never warm in the winter, even when I turned up the thermostat as far as it would go. Now these days, fueled by a good hearty beef stew, I feel able to easily endure the winter chill.
It also doesn't surprise me at all the researchers have tied indoor heating to obesity. "Good fat" known as brown fat, which burns calories, is activated by cold. People tend to gain weight these days on traditional rich holiday foods, but maybe they wouldn't if they paired them with traditional cold temperatures.
I'll never forget looking at my window in Sweden and seeing dozens little preschoolers playing in the snowy woods. They play outside every day. No matter what the weather. Here I walk by the local school on my way to work. The playgrounds and ball fields are eerily and starkly empty.
Recently I've been researching Southern food in the 1800s for a dinner that I'm cooking for. Weirdly, this style of cooking is somewhat in revival in Chicago with restaurants like Big Jones and Carriage House serving fairly authentic period foods. I was at Big Jones recently and all their biscuits are made with pastured lard. That's pretty hard to find in the South these days. In fact, recently a Southern relative said that "our family worked hard so our children wouldn't have to eat offal, and now you enjoy it?"
I grew up in the South and part of my family has lived there for a very long time. The states we are from, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi consistently rank very poorly in health markers.
I didn't grow up on lard. When I visited my grandmother, she had a tub of modern "healthy" margarine. But Grandpa still cooked with bacon grease. And there was always lots of shellfish and fish, which I hated as a youngster.
So when 23andme introduced its beta of a family tree feature and I started filling it out, I was dismayed to realize that on that side of the family at least, lifespan has dropped rather significantly over time, particularly if you exclude people who died in wars, accidents, at birth, or in childbirth. And even more if you exclude those who were not well to do. Most died in their 80s. Many were in their 90s. It goes along with this post I read some time back on Ryan Koch's blog on American lifespans. Nehemiah Manning of Bogalusa, who was my great-great-great grandfather, died when he was 99.
Interestingly, Bogalusa has been the site of a major heart disease study and an intervention program that promotes low-fat "heart healthy" diets for children.
Based on my research, that's not exactly what Nehemiah grew up on I would guess. It's hard to find much on that side of the family, but I have a lot more information on the family members from Arkansas. They weren't rich, but they were fairly well off. They owned cows, pigs, and sheep. They hunted bears and deer. And fished. My grandmother said her grandmother ate anything that moved. Living outside major cities was probably a boon for them since cities were so unhygienic back then and doctors did more harm than good. I calculated average lifespan of all some generations in my family that I had data for, excluding deaths in war, childbirth, and people who lived in very bad conditions (the McEwens when they first came from Scotland, for example, lived in crowded urban tenements), though I included some people who were rural poor (estimates would probably be higher without them).
Average lifespans for great grandparents was 74, for great x 2 it was 78, for great x 3 it was also around 78. There were plenty of nonagenarians. For people not living in obviously awful conditions or dying from things modern medicine does a good job preventing (typhoid, childbirth deaths, etc.), lifespans weren't so dramatically different it seems. Some lines of my family I can trace back into the 1700s, and I can assume a lot of them were wealthy considering they left records of all the land and livestock they owned. Plenty of nonagearians there too.
As for other things they ate, I know at least one of my great great great grandfathers, who died in a flu epidemic at the old age of 91, owned a flour mill. But those days flour was at least freshly milled and the varieties of wheat they grew were probably pretty different. I think that's why a lot of really old Southern cookbooks don't seem to contain very large sections of baked goods and buns that we think of Southern now, because heritage wheat is much more of a challenge to bake with.
The main cookbook I've been using for my research is The Virginia Housewife, which is available for free on Google. It's thrifty and luxurious at once. The upper and upper middle classes at the time were influenced by fine French food, but the cookbook is nose-to-tail and includes a lot of instructions on preserving.
this diet looks AWESOME to me
As far as eating like your grandmother, this stuff was long out of fashion by the time she was born. People started eating industrial margarine, low quality canned foods, and other processed foods even in the 20s and 30s in the South. In many ways they were probably worse than some of today's processed foods since many were adulterated or contaminated. Cotton took a heavy toll on the region. Cottonseed margarine, possibly the worst kind of margarine you could possibly eat, was present in many kitchens. Cotton mills and farms polluted the soil, a legacy still affecting us today as the recent arsenic in rice controversy has shown. Agriculture was consolidated and regulated. Households no longer kept their own hogs and cows.
And people blame the traditional southern diet on the region's health problems. Well-meaning reformists like Jamie Oliver attempt to introduce culturally alien low-fat and Mediterranean diets. Meanwhile in the cities in the North, svelte urban folks dine on butter and pork fat. It's kind of hilarious that I can find pimento cheese made with good pastured local eggs and dairy in Chicago, whereas the stuff I knew growing up in Georgia was often processed store-bought stuff. Lard? I can buy pastured lard at the corner store here. It would be a big effort to get that in the South these days in many places, particularly outside major cities where it is now popular with the bourgeois. Most hog farmers in the South are the Smithfield factory farm sort.
It isn't helped by what I would refer to as industrial pseudo-tradition, the same phenomenon responsible for fried bread being "traditional" Native American food. In the South I would say Paula Deen would be the perfect example of that. Her recipes are those of a region in decline, one in which processed flour, canned food, and refined sugar replaced the foods of the woodlands and rivers.
Even worse, many Southerners I've spoken to seem to firmly believe the Southern diet is "bad" and that foods like offal, game and animal fat are for "low-class" uneducated people.
As for fried foods, I also don't think deep fried food was that common. A good lard breed pig, which is what most families had back in the day, gives you a lot of lard, but that was precious and often had to last a year. These days, many families in the South use a deep fryer daily, mainly reliant on cheap processed reusable oil. In the Virginia Housewife, frying seems to mainly refer to pan frying.
I'm looking forward to exploring more about true traditional Southern cooking. I'll probably need to take a trip down South to see some family, including some distant relatives of mine who live mainly off of local fish and game.
I've seen a lot on social media the past week about boycotting Chick-Fil-A because they support organizations that aim to restrict gay rights. This is amusing for me because I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, eating Chick-Fil-A all the time. And I even went to Camp Winshape, which was started by Truett Cathy, Chick-Fil-As founder. Back then I was a fast-food-fried chicken Southern Evangelical. My life has changed since then, but I admit my mouth still waters a little when I think about the Chick-Fil-A fried chicken breakfast biscuit with tater tots. Oh, and the light as air lemon meringue pie. When my family moved north when I was 15, I missed such things sorely and ate at Chick-Fil-A whenever I went back South. But the love affair fell flat when I started cleaning up my diet. I remember I planned on making some exceptions when a Chick-Fil-A opened on the University of Illinois campus. I eagerly devoured my sandwich one bright Illinois morning. And felt absolutely awful for the entire rest of the day. It felt a lot like a hangover. I fell asleep in economics class. I told myself that wouldn't happen again. It wasn't worth it.
But a craving struck when I lived in Sweden. Obviously, it's impossible to get Chick-Fil-A there. So I hit the internet hoping to recreate it in my own kitchen. By then I was a lot more educated about nutrition, so the "top secret" recipe seemed a little horrifying to me. I wasn't about to coat chicken in sugar and flour and fry it in omega-6 garbage peanut oil. Of all the oils to chose, peanut is one of the worst. Extremely high in omega-6, which Americans consume in excessive amounts, it has a more unfavorable fat profile than even canola or soy oil, and is highly allergenic. Omega-6 is also not particularly heat stable and Chick-Fil-A is using it on fried chicken.
The real recipe also contains a form of MSG called autolyzed yeast extract, making it a super-palatable addictive monster, probably why it still makes my mouth water a decade later. I've written before about how so much meat that Americans eat contains sugar and inflammatory oils. I ended up using almond flour, honey, and lard to make my chicken and it was pretty damn good. But that recipe meant I was never seriously tempted by Chick-Fil-A again.
Also, god knows where their chicken comes from. I'm pretty sure it's not free-range or even organic. For a company whose ads involve animals pleading to not being eaten, it seems a little sad to think that their meat comes from an industry known for poor animal welfare, as well as community and environmental destruction.
Considering that chickens are excluded from almost all animal welfare legislation, it should be the chickens pleading to be spared. Besides, I'd prefer to not consume arsenic. Or production methods that encourage antibiotic resistance.
So I don't need to boycott Chick-Fil-A for its current stance on gay rights. I already was boycotting it for serving garbage. I mean, nothing says family values like abusing animals, destroying the environment, and addicting people to fast food...right?
It's really disappointing to me to see friends and family members saying they are going to eat Chick-Fil-A to support "family values" and "business freedom." Go to your local farmers market and you will find plenty of farmers with good old-fashioned Christian values. I'm sure Joel Salatin and Cathy would find much to agree on, except Salatin is against using the government to enforce his values while Cathy uses his business to funnel money into groups that lobby the government to shape laws that restrict other people's rights.
As for Chick-Fil-A being a "clean" fast food option, thanks to HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plans, food poisoning is pretty rare at any major fast food restaurants. Killing people with acute illness leads to lawsuits, it's perfectly OK to damage their health by serving food linked to chronic long-term health problems.
You know, it's kind of amazing to realize that you can get pretty good craft beer at nearly any convenience store in a city. You can even get it at a random mediocre bar your friend dragged you to for a birthday party or something. It's pretty much everywhere at this point. I wasn't allowed to drink when I was 5, but I hear that twenty years ago it definitely wasn't that way. I've often mused about what it would be like if you could get good grass-fed meat so easily.
But imagine if you went to a good bar and you asked what was on tap and they said "craft beer." You've heard good things about it. You ask what kind and they are like "well, it's artisan and it's certified craft beer." You order a pint and it's really really bitter. You decide to order a Corona next time.
Unfortunately that's kind of where grass-fed meat is now. It's a premium product, people are interested in buying it, but it's stuck in some kind of commodity purgatory. I'm often torn between thinking that it's great that some jerky in the store says "grass-fed" on the label and that there are "grass-fed" burger bars across Chicago, and kind of disappointed in them. Most of the time if you contact the companies that make those products or talk to the burger bar owners, they won't even tell you what farms the animals are from.
This is bad. I recall a conversion I had a few months ago with a guy at the gym. I told him I mainly buy grass-fed meat from local farmers and he said "yeah, I tried that, but it tasted so awful that I don't think I'll buy it again." I asked him where it came from and he had no idea.
Honestly, I've bought some positively awful grass-fed meat. It sucks to spend that kind of money on something that you end up having to drown in spices. Luckily I know that not all meat is the same. "Grass-fed" is a minimum premium standard that has nothing to do with taste quality. Taste is affected by diet, breed, age of animal, and butchering skill, among many other things. Yes, consumers buying these products often need to learn a few basic cooking skills, but that won't save them from meat that's just not very good (a meat tenderizer, added fat, tons of spices can sometimes save mediocre meat).
So the whole commodity attitude damages the product's reputation. I also think it stifles producer innovation (of course there are tons of things doing that, like regulation, this is just one of them). I was drinking some excellent Rockmill beer this weekend and I thought, what if niche meat were more like craft beer? What if people knew of certain producers and knew their product tasted different? What if stores stocked meat from multiple producers and labeled it as such?
I'm happy to say there are already some places in Chicago I know of that treat meat like this. The Butcher and the Burger is one of them. If you have been to the other burger bars in Chicago and didn't like them, definitely try this place. My main complaint is that they don't always get my order right (medium when I said rare) and they use peanut oil in the fryer, but the meat itself is very good and some of it is even from one of the owner's own farms. There are some exceptions on the menu, so I'd stick with the meat from specific farms, such as the Q7 beef, which is very silky and has a good amount of fat, and the La Pryor pork.
The good butcher shops I've been to are also pretty good about this. In NYC you have The Meat Hook and Dickson's Farmstand. In Chicago you have The Butcher & The Larder and Publican Quality Meats. Of course farmer's markets seem like a good option, but few allow consumers to taste before buying, which is an obstacle because why should I buy extremely expensive meat if I don't know what it tastes like? With craft beers, tastings are common. I had Mint Creek Farms lamb at a restaurant before, so that's how I started buying from them. With Meatshare I often worked with farmers new to selling to urban markets and they offered their meat at lower prices or offered tastings in order to gain a foothold. The cool thing about that is I can tell you exactly what their products tasted like. And they all tasted different. The pork from Spring Lake Farm, for example, had a high percentage of hay in the diet, giving the pork a delicious almost-beefy savory flavor. B&Y farms, a producer that later moved on to the farmer's market after working with us, produced Tunis lamb that had these fatty wonderful tails that braised up very nicely. The goat I would buy from Glynwood was the best goat I've ever had, not too fatty and not too lean.*
I've followed Carrie Oliver on Twitter for awhile and she does some events with beef tasting that seem like a promising model. I think we definitely need more of this- more emphasis on meat as a diverse producer-oriented product.
*that's the problem I have with Whole Food's lamb. The NZ stuff is grass-fed, but often is so terribly lean and gamey. The US lamb is usually too fatty and a little flavorless. I like balance.