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!
Mango shrimp on the shore at "mermaid cafe" in Stockholm
Freshly harvested honey
The apple genetics garden had hundreds of varieties of apples free for the picking- plus berries. Some, like this crabapple, were hardly edible though.
I loved it there because you could really live the idyllic life with the conveniences of the city. I never had to drive, bike paths went everywhere. A high speed train took me to Stockholm in an hour. The winter sucked, but I think the summer more than made up for it. If I had my way in life, I'd live in Madrid in the winter and Stockholm in the summer.
Yesterday I face two cooking fears: small fish and frying. I was at the Union Square Farmer's market with a paleo friend yesterday. At the Blue Moon fishery booth I was about to get some sort of inoffensive seafood, maybe scallops. But then I saw my friend order something that was an unappetizing pinkish grey. It was monkfish liver. Not to be outdone in the adventurous eating department, I looked for something slightly more appetizing. My eyes alighted on a barrel of small iridescent blue fish with pearly eggs spilling out of their guts.
"What are those?" I asked. The fisherman answered "sparing." I had no idea what that was, but I ordered half a pound. It was a mere $2, but instantly I felt regret. What would I do with those? I'd never even heard of sparing.
Apparently they are smelt. Which I'd heard of, but never tasted. When I visited Madrid last year I had many fresh delicious sardines and anchovies, which I found much tastier than the canned varieties, but since then I haven't eaten many tiny fish.
I didn't eat fish until I was 18 or so and didn't cook it until I was 19. My family always ate fish, but I thought it was absolutely disgusting and only fit for cats. I forced myself to eat fish when I went paleo because of the convincing literature on the health benefits. I definitely didn't like it and pretty much did my best to drown it in heavily-spiced sauces. Since then I've tried different types of fish slowly and always with trepidation. I've fallen in love with shellfish, but my relationship with oily fish is a little less stable. I usually try fish for the first time at restaurants, because at least they sort of know what they are doing...right?
Either way, I was stuck with these smelt and wasn't about to waste them. According to my Google searches...eating the whole thing was recommended. Pretty scary...the thought of eyeballs and brains and ugh.
Per some tips on paleohacks, I washed and dried the smelt, then dipped then in egg, and then in a mixture of coconut flour, almond meal, and my favorite spices. I'm pretty cautious about frying, but a good method I've found is just to use lots of heat, but protect yourself with a lid from the popping oil. I fried the fish in a couple of tablespoons of ghee until they were crispy. Then I seasoned then with a dash of salt and a pinch of lime.
And I ate them. I'd never eaten a whole entire fish before, but these were delicious. I totally forgot about eyeballs and other nasty bits. They were crispy and mild. I dipped some in my delicious homemade mayo and they were perfect. It's great to add another healthy, cheap, and fairly easy food to my recipe box!
Offal can be scary, but it can also be mind-blowingly delicious. I hate to admit it, but if I had started out on offal with a bag of bloody livers bought from the farmer's market, I might not be writing this blog (the same goes for fish...I'm never would have tried shrimp or lobster if I didn't eat out). Let a good restaurant usher you into the wonderful world of offal, starting with the least-scary things- cheeks and marrow bones, which are so delicious they probably don't qualify as offal. Tongue is also delicious, but hard to cook right. If you are willing to eat non grass-fed meat, most authentic Mexican places serve it, but it's increasingly found in upscale restaurants. Liver you might not need to go to a restaurant for, since pates can be found at a good butcher or grocery store.
Eating food prepared by an expert can give you a taste of how great offal can be when prepared properly, which is a great motivation to cook it yourself. When I started cooking from Nose to Tail, I knew what I liked about offal and was able to modify the recipes accordingly. For me, the route to a great offal recipe is tons of spicy chili and lime.
I also admit to being very inspired by the offal adventures of one Anthony Bourdain.
Another reader pointed out that most of my advice seems cleared towards people in major metro areas, but I started out eating offal in Champaign, IL, which is three hours from a major city. You might have to travel some, but supporting a good chef and eating great food is worth it. Also, sometimes ethnic restaurants in American towns will have offal items not on the menu, so it might be worth asking.
My latest offal adventure was at Traif with Rhys Southan & friends. I admit I was a little scared to try the sweetbreads, but both of us have reputations as adventurous eaters to uphold and we bravely ordered them. Thankfully, they were absolutely delicious...who knew they would have so much delicious fat! I remember when I was a kid and I thought sweetbreads were cinnamon rolls and asked for some. When my grandma told me what they were I was totally appalled and couldn't believe anyone would eat such a horrible thing. Hehe.
However, Rhys and I were sorely dissapointed by X'ian famous foods. When we ordered the lamb face salad we expected it to be absolutely ghastly, full of macabre parts of eyeballs and gums, but instead it was a mixture of nice spicy fatty cheeks and vegetables. Sometimes you want your offal good, other times you want to just eat it because it exists.
Last night when I took off my shirt I was horrified to find a small black speck on my stomach. It was a tick, a souvenir from Virginia, feasting upon my blood. I had showered many times since returning to the city, but perhaps it had hid in my thick dark head of hair.
I had been feasting on blood myself. The blood of a fallow deer, killed for my hunting class with a perfect shot to the head that preserved her still grace in heavy lidded glassy eyes.
Many people who have never really dealt with dead animals much assume it is a bloody affair, but the reality is that unless you bungle some blood vessel, it's possible to wear your nicest suede shoes while you butcher. Each cavity is wrapped with convenient lovely translucent membranes that make the job much easier than you would expect.
Hide preservation expert Fergus was there to teach us how to get the hide off in a way that allows you to keep it for tanning without much work scraping. Later he showed us finished hides, which were warm and silky. Apparently you can tan hides quite easily with the animal's brain, which is rich is nourishing fats that led to a soft, if slightly fishy smelling buckskin. We didn't want to eat the brain anyway because of some concerns with chronic wasting disease, a relative of mad cow disease that has never been found in humans, but I suppose it's a risk not worth taking, especially considering that ghee and butter are a tastier replacement for the nutritional qualities of brain.
The next concern is the digestive system, the potential source of meat contamination. If you do it right, you should avoid being assaulted by the fermenting contents of the stomach and intestines. You "unzip" the stomach with a good sharp knife, preferably featuring a rather useful gut hook that prevents puncturing quite well. Then comes the taste of disconnecting this long path that the deer's food had been taking, so different from mine. The deer's magic stomachs have the ability to take what looks like useless leaves and other woody forage and ferment them into food. A deer is a great way to eat your salad, as they can do more with it than you ever can.
The rest is taking out the cuts of meat, neatly skinning to make a blanket for the deer to rest while you cut. From the back we ate small slivers of the ruby red meat raw. It tasted fresh and slightly chewy, like the woods that were now full of small honeysuckle flowers tempting me as a walked past them with the hot musky summers of Georgia where I grew up. At night I could hear mockingbirds sing. It had been many years since I last heard that strangely haunting sound. I could imagine myself back in the South, despite not missing the rude insects that devoured my food or the Southern Baptist churches that devoured my soul. I liked hearing" y'all" from the mouths of smiling people, I liked the humid languishing mornings cooled by lemonade from the surprisingly bustling farmer's market. I liked the idea that the hunting license allows one to take a bear, something a Virginian in my blood named William Gibson once did back in the 1700s according to some old records I once found.
But Virginia is not the South I remember, the Florida panhandle, Louisiana, Mississippi places my family now lives that are ancient swamps. Virginia is more manicured- in between the primeval of the deep South and the dark Northern cities. Perhaps like I am having been so far from the South for nearly a decade now.
We carved the body cavity through and through, leaving bare ribs skinless so the light could shin through. The digestive system we left for the vultures, as it belongs to them. I read recently about one of the earliest religious sites, Göbekli Tepe, a marvel considering that hunter-gatherers had no cities, but they bothered to build this temple carved with vultures, lions, and other predators of humans dead...and alive. Some theorize that the hunter-gatherers left their dead here to be eaten by these fierce flesh eating creatures. The word for this is "excarnate," which is very beautiful to me, the idea of sharing your body with other carnivores. I think of then as a time when none owned another, except in death when it was an honor to be consumed and melded with others. Some place has called it the "garden of Eden," since it was theorized that this was where the transition to agriculture might have happened as people gathered together in more density. It's funny how the true garden of Eden is a place of lions and vultures rather than lions lying down with the lambs. Et in Arcadia...
But that is just myself extrapolating based on my own experience. I would be quite happy to only consume hunted meat only though, perhaps with some cream and butter from my own cattle. Mary Strange's book Woman The Hunter has much about the philosophy of hunter-gatherers towards animals. The lines are more blurred for them- they are animals and each animal perhaps becomes other animals, and each is intelligent and cunning in its own way.
A common criticism of hunting (and, as in Carol Adam's vegetarian feminism, of meat-eating in general) is that the hunter objectifies the prey, enforcing the split between human and nonhuman nature. According to this logic, one can only kill and eat something one perceives as an inferior "other," an entity worthy of use rather than of love or mutual regard. Yet from all we know about hunter-gatherer worldviews, precisely the opposite is the case for people who rely upon hunting for a significant portion (literal or symbolic) of their sustenance. For them, they animals they hunt and the predator species that are hunters like themselves, are kindred souls, powerful and intelligent. All animals, nonhuman and human, participate together in a web of pulsating life: birthing and nurturing, pursuing and fleeing, capturing, and dying.
By contrast ...the conventional view of nature that has developed in American civilization and, arguably, has reached its quintessential expression in such movements as animal liberation and radical ecofeminism, insists upon two assumptions: that humans are not really part of nature, and that our primary way of involving ourselves with the natural world is to destroy it.
Brings to mind C.S. Lewis when he said "Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness."
Speaking of woman the hunter, our teacher Jackson Landers mentioned that women are the fastest growing group of hunters. Our class had three, including myself. I enjoyed the company of everyone on the trip immensely, but was especially heartened to see my fellow females. As I will write in a later post, it's rather unfortunate that so many men see hunting as "reclaiming manliness." I see it as reclaiming our human-ness that has nothing to do with sex. Either way, Woman the Hunter is an excellent book no matter your gender.
The deer itself? The taste was magnificent. Each piece had a different flavor and only a few were gamey. For those who requested the recipe, the heart I prepared the way I prepare every heart- in coconut with red pepper, tamarind, ginger, cilantro, and garlic. Either simmer in coconut milk or fry in coconut oil. A more locavore approach can be found in Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail, where he recommends marinating in vinegar.
I plan to improve my shooting skills and my family has invited me to hunt deer in Wisconsin this fall. Hopefully I can get all the licenses in order...one thing I learned is that it is very hard to have a real hunting rifle in NYC. Unless you are crazy and willing to hunt with a Civil War musket, it can take up to a year and $250 to acquire the right to have a hunting rifle in the city!
I never asked for to find my twin, but there you are And I never asked for the spools to unspin, but there they roll.
I never asked for to carve your ribs, but here I go
and I've never pleaded for a new skin as i do now
Flowers and blood
Build up a new me of flowers and blood
I'll shoot me a gun made of leaf and branch in this here town and eat me a bowl full of secret and mud, yes, I will if you build up a new me of flowers and blood -- say you will.
I had a great time at Jackson Lander's deer hunting workshop, but I will write a post on it later since I'm still...ruminating...haha! But John Durant already beat me to it and has some great picture, so you should check them out.
But it's really not as simple as non-paleo and paleo. Really, most foods aren't "paleolithic." If a museum curator put a domestic chicken in the prehistoric human diorama in the Museum of Natural History they would be fired. But paleolithic eating isn't about reenactment, it's about emulating the nutritional intake of our ancestors- no African baboon meat required.
That's why I include butter/ghee in my diet. Paleolithic hunters ate the brain, which is very rich in fat. I don't eat that because it's hard to buy and when hunting there are concerns about prion diseases (which I think are largely exaggerated and I plan to do some of Fergus Henderson's brain recipes whenever I finally get ahold of brain). But hunter-gatherer cultures like the Hazda seem to love the brain.
Onwas then reaches into the fire and pulls out the skull. He hacks it open, like a coconut, exposing the brains, which have been boiling for a good hour inside the skull. They look like ramen noodles, yellowish white, lightly steaming. He holds the skull out, and the men, including myself, surge forward and stick our fingers inside the skull and scoop up a handful of brains and slurp them down. With this, the night, at last, comes to an end.
But why are sesame seeds not-paleo on my list and cumin is? Well, it's actually not as simple as that. As an astute reader pointed out, there is evidence that prehistoric hominids ate small amounts of seeds, grains, and even legumes. Note the small amounts- it's pretty hard to gather enough wild grains to make a rice pilaf or tahini. Personally I DO eat sesame seeds. They are a tasty garnish on raw tuna sashimi. I put maybe 10 on. In small quantities they are like cumin, which is also a flavoring/garnish. Both of these used as garnish are tasty, but probably inconsequential either way for someone with a healthy digestive system.
Contrast that with hummus, which contains large amounts of chickpeas and ground sesame seeds in the form of tahini. It's used as a food, but as a food it provides inappropriate nutrition, particularly in the form of excess omega-6 fatty acids. Something people don't think about is that seeds and grains used as foods displace better foods. If I eat a cup of white rice at a Korean place I'm not going to get sick, but it's going to fill me up and I'll eat less blood stew or squid, which are much more nutritious.
When I'm at a nice restaurant sometimes pork will come with a teeny tiny side of beans. I'll eat those. Since my digestive flora has been rebalanced by eating paleo, they honestly don't bother me and beans cooked in pork fat are mighty tasty. I'm ultimately a foodie and taste means a lot to me.
I stick with my guns that your staples should be grass fed meat from ruminants, fish, coconut, and other sources of saturated fat. Go ahead, season with cumin or sesame seeds, but if you eat them by the bag-full, it's just not evolutionarily appropriate.
Sticking with my guns
What about taste? Is our sense of taste a useless piece of baggage that leads us to fruit rollup and fried chicken perdition? No way! Our tastebuds are shaped by evolution to help us survive. It's our environment that messes them up and allows them to be used for choosing crap instead of choosing tasty nutritious fat. Do them a favor and strip your eating environment of junk. The best use for them in a paleo diet is that they tell you when to eat more fat, which particularly if you are doing a meat-only fast, is very very useful.
One thing optimal foraging theory misses out on is that humans have a sense of taste that often trumps "efficiency," which is why you will find cultures all over the world going after things like berries and nuts that provide little in the way of calories but much in the way of flavor. Perhaps they provide something else? Honestly, cutting nuts out of my diet has been easy because I no longer crave them. Perhaps there is something in my offal, seafood, and fat-rich paleo diet that I wasn't getting when I was a nut-crazed (hehe) faileo.
As an aside, I'm more likely to respond to your comments nicely if you use the contact form rather than posting comments unrelated to the post you are commenting on.
For some reason I get Gwynyth Paltrow's "GOOP" newsletter, maybe because of her roasted chicken video, which laughably raised the ire of vegans. Nothing weird about roasted chicken, but apostates can't be tolerated...
Anyway, today her newsletter was about the diet she ate to get ready to play Pepper Potts in Iron Man. It was kind of a low-carb diet, but mostly just bare bones- smoothies, chicken, salad, turkey, low-carb wraps, soup...
When people tell me the paleo diet is "restrictive" I sometimes wonder what they mean by that. Hmm...not eating foods that make you feel like crap? What a revolutionary idea! And oh the horror of having to eat wild salmon or delicious braised lamb shanks.
I was surprised that I got a similar reaction with the limit nuts, chicken, olive oil, pork, and avocado post. I'm not saying these foods are delicious...but there is so much more out there! There is nothing bad or evil about them, but treating them like the main attraction in your diet is not the best way to emulate paleolithic fatty acid intake. The fact that they are so attractive to beginners is more a testament to our pathetic food culture than anything. Most Americans these days have never even tasted the deliciousness that is beef tongue. Things like olive oil are safe, easy...even politically correct.
There is really no arguing that grassfed meats are closer to paleolithic game than any animal that require grain/legume rations. People kept saying how much chickens are carnivores, but so far no one has ever found me an example of a farmer who doesn't feed their chickens grains/legumes at all...
If you eat grassfed ruminants nose to tail you will get plenty of luxurious and balanced fat. The tongue, the eyes, the face, and the bone marrow are so delicious! How can almonds even compare to these things? If you don't know, you should definitely give them a try. My diet is definitely more awesome and nourishing that any conventional diet like Paltrow's, though she is moving in the right direction by adding in some meat.
When I read about sad conventional diets like that it makes me sad. People are really missing out on great food that will make them feel great, altough these days the things I enjoy, like pork headcheese, are sadly a tough sell..