This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few years back when I was researching the ancient MacEwan clan of Scotland, I came across an interesting anecdote. Apparently a MacEwan, Elspeth McEwan was the last witch to be executed in Scotland:
The lonesome lady lived in a house, Bogha, on the farm at Cubbox. She was not just some simpleton peasant either. It is said by her contemporaries that she was possessed of a ‘superior education’. I have not found what it was that started off the campaign against her but it seems that she became a local target to blame for all that went wrong. When eggs were hard to come by and the hens were not laying it is said that she could coax them into producing tremendous quantities for market. Perhaps she just had a way with chickens, as some can tame wild animals, but whatever benefit this had at one time it held darker power aswell. For when the hens did not do so well in the future, it was of course attributed to Elspeth’s will. It was now her fault when the area was deprived of eggs. The birds were not the only livestock she affected. If cattle fell ill or didn’t milk well this must surely be her doing as well. Not only did she cast spells on her neighbours cattle, she stole from them too! For she had in her home a peg dowelled into the kipplefoot – or part of the roof beam – which drew milk from the cows on demand!
For her crimes of being agriculturally innovative, she was strangled and burned.
What is quite facinating is that belief in witchcraft and fear of witches in incredible common across a diverse range of cultures. We are tremendouly lucky to live in an place and time where accusing people of being witches is not an acceptable way of dealing scapegoating people (though we've found new, but at least less deadly, ways).
Colin Turnbull, who wrote about the Mbuti, who are quite peaceful otherwise, left out this rather unpleasant story from his book The Forest People, but it is in his field notes and talked about on this interesting website. Apparently Sau is an older woman who some people believe is responsible for killing a child with the "evil eye" (another common superstition across many many cultures). Because of this she is harassed, beaten, and finally banished. A better fate than Elspeth's, but still quite horrible.
Sick Societies mentions several societies that are quite dysfunctional because of witch fears, such as the Gebusi:
The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.
Anthropologists have argued about whether or not witchcraft might be adaptive or whether is it a pathology:
Nevertheless, a few anthropologists have rejected this position. In the early 1960s Edward Norbeck rejected the received view of witchcraft as a benign and natural belief system with numerous socially positive functions; instead, he made much of witchcraft’s socially harmful consequences. Similarly, Melford Spiro interpreted the Burmese belief in witches as a form of psychological projection that led to cognitive distortion, and in 1974 Theodore Schwartz pointed out the dysfunctional effects of what he called the “paranoid ethos.” Schwartz speculated that a paranoid belief system was “… the bedrock psychopathology of mankind” that has persisted “over the span of human history as a substratum of potential pathology in all societies.” Schwartz believed that in Melanesian societies, especially Dobu, paranoid ideation with its extreme suspiciousness and hostility was so deeply entrenched that “… existence is at least uncomfortable, possibly highly stressful, and undoubtedly anxious.”
It is an interesting question to consider. I think that despite the fact that most of us do not believe in witches literally, that elements of it are persistant in our culture and could account for some antisocial behaviors today.
I suppose I haven't posted any music lately. I've been listening to a lot of stuff though, here are some things on repeat:
Sapmi by Torgeir Vassvik is an amazing album, though it's throat singing of sorts, so it's a bit of an acquired taste. Torgeir is from Finland and is Sami, the indigenous people of the Scandinavian high arctic. He combines overtone singing and joiking, which is a traditional Sami technique meant to capture the the essence of a person, place, thing, animal, or phenomenon. I own quite a bit of arctic music and this one really brings me back to the Arctic more than any other. I can feel the sighting of the bear in the pine-wood forest in the song Bjørnen / Máddu or the sound of rushing water in a mountain brook in Water Song / Siiggát.
Here is more music I suppose is an acquired taste...bagpipes:
The bagpipes are not just Scottish, you can find them in a great many countries from the Middle East to Estonia. Unfortunately, the art of bagpiping has died out in Norway, but Elisabeth Vatn has resurrected them admirable, combining them with some interesting jazz and country influences on her album Piper On The Roof.
I am a huge fan of Martyn Bennet and have been for some time. Sadly, he died quite young of cancer a few years ago. I had some of his other stuff, but just acquired this album recently. Glen Lyon remixes songs sung by his grandfather and mother in Scots Gaelic, a language I know a little of, but even if you don't you can enjoy this album. One of my favorite songs is "Cave of gold":
An ancient Hebridean legend tells of a famous piper who goes into a cave to find out why it claims so many lives. From deep within, his pipe music echoes out, telling those listening that a green fairy-demon is attacking him. This surreal song imitates the pipes and begins "It's a pity I didn't have three hands, two for the pipes and one for the sword." The chorus repeats his promise to return.
In more contemporary pop music, I've been enjoying Making Mirrors, by Australian artist Gotye
It's quite an eclectic album, but I really love the videos that have come out so far for the album, such as Bronte, which is about the loss of a beloved pet, but the video takes it to a whole other level of lush gorgeousness and wistfulness...
Speaking of wistfulness rediscovered this animated gem recently in my old Youtube favorites. It was done by Italian animator Bruno Bozzeto and is set to Sibelius' Valse Triste from Kuolema for orchestra (Op 44). It is quite a haunting reflection on the inevitability of losing things:
All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others…. There are some customs and social institutions in all societies that compromise human wellbeing…. For a number of reasons …many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies, or at least not to write very much about it... The message of this book is not that traditional beliefs and practices are never adaptive and that they never contribute to a population’s well-being; and I am not claiming that people never think rationally enough to make effective decisions about meeting the challenges posed by their environments. To do so would be absurd…what I am calling for is a moratorium on the uncritical assumption that the traditional beliefs and practices of folk populations are adaptive while those of modern societies are not and a commitment to examining the relative adaptiveness of the beliefs and practices of all societies. The goal is a better understanding of human adaptation not just in particular societies but over the course of human history.
That's from Sick Societies, by Robert B. Edgerton, which is a very interesting book. The subtitle "the myth of primitive harmony" is misleading. Not all societies in the book are stereotypically "primitive." He includes both jungle foragers and Appalachians living in hollers. Harmful maladaptations include physical mutilation, cannibalism, food and sex taboos, initiation ceremonies that make the worst Frat hazing look tame, and belief in witchcraft and divination (yes, some foraging societies persecute and sometimes kill people that they believe are witches).
The Netsilik Inuit believed that when a pregnant woman first felt labor pains, she had to be confined to a small snow house if it was winter or a tent during the summer. The woman herself was considered to be unclean, and a newborn child was thought to give off a particularly dangerous vapor at birth. Because the entire community was thought to be in great danger, no one was permitted to assist the woman in giving birth. If the birth proved to be difficult, a shaman might be summoned to drive away evil spirits, but no one was allowed to touch the woman.87 This taboo might have served as a population control measure because it probably increased infant mortality, but it also endangered the mother, and there is no evidence that the Netsilik had any desire to reduce the number of fertile and sexually attractive women in their society.
The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.34 They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.35
For me, it is quite fascinating. Having grown up around very traditionalist people I derive a certain level of comfort from traditionalism. But at some point it's clear that I'll always be an outsider, as my parents were. When it comes to committing heart and soul to ancient traditions whether social, dietary, or religious…I baulk. In the end traditionalism fails for me because in every tradition there is maladaptive beliefs and behaviors bundled together with ancient wisdom. Members of these traditions who have grown up with them from birth are often unable to see this.
Traditional solutions and long-standing beliefs and practices tend to persist not because they are optimally beneficial but because they generally work just well enough that changes in them are not selfevidently needed. Given all that we know about the sometimes astoundingly bad judgment of “rational” planners in modern nations, it seems unlikely that people in smaller and simpler societies that lack our scientific and technological sophistication would always make optimally adaptive decisions even should they try to do so...Psychologist Donald Campbell has suggested that this may be so because people have evolved to be conservative, to respect established ways and responsible leaders; for Campbell, conservatism is a survival mechanism.43 Similarly, sociologist Joseph Lopreato was so impressed by the human predilection for conforming to rules and forcing others to do likewise that he posited a genetic need for conformity….ith the partial exception of subsistence activities, for every man or woman in a folk society who has been able to explain why something believed or done is beneficial, there have been thousands (in some societies this includes everyone) who provide no more by way of explanation than “it is our custom” or “we’ve always done it this way.”
This has happened even when I've tried to climb up the family tree into our own past. A problem here is there are lots of trees to climb. I've climbed a lot of them so far and have been pretty disappointed, so I take what I like and leave. Unfortunately this is in itself somewhat maladaptive itself as it leaves me without the community and sense of belonging that usually accompanies such traditionalism.
postpartum depression are thought to include the stress of the event for the mother and family (including fears of being an inadequate mother), individual psychological characteristics of the woman, and changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone. Yet despite the frequency and seriousness of postpartum depression in the United States, the phenomenon appears to be quite rare in non-Western societies.112 For example, when Sara Harkness asked Kipsigis women in Kenya about their emotions following child birth, they unanimously denied that they felt sad or cried during the early weeks after giving birth. In fact, they declared that such things never occurred.113 For these Kipsigis women, despite hormonal changes, postpartum depression did not exist; giving birth was a happy event, one looked forward to by women who received positive social support throughout their pregnancies and after the birth of the child. The reasons why American culture (and the cultures of Western European countries) has made giving birth a depressing event presumably have to do with psychosocial stress. The Kipsigis and other societies have not made giving birth a stressful occurrence.
I've often thought that Jewish people are lucky because they have a strong secularized diaspora. I have some Jewish blood myself, but found that even that community still seems to be based on ties of kinship that render me an outsider. Is there an equivalent for Southerners out there somewhere? Maybe in Austin or Atlanta? I'm not a big fan of hot weather unfortunately.
Sweden is a relatively small country and as such they don't have that many native TV shows. They seem to fill in with some assorted American and British shows. It was there where I was exposed to British-style reality TV and I lost my Anglophilia. Instead of high tea and Jane Austen, there was "five ton mum" and "real life 40 year old virgin!" I guess one of the more interesting shows is Tribal Wives. The premise of the show is that a British person goes and lives with a tribe. Some anthropologists have called it exploitative, but it's reality TV, not an ethnography. Some episodes do actually seem like they are exploiting hapless tribes from all over the world, but I noticed a Kitava one on Youtube yesterday(multiple parts, click the links in the sidebar). Not much about food, but it's kind of interesting. You might note that there are plenty of plump women around the village. Perhaps the diet has changed in the decade plus since the Kitavan study.
She said she didn't miss creature comforts, including electricity, as her life simplified. “The whole island revolves around yams, the islanders' staple diet,” she said. “I ate them boiled, chipped and roasted. The tribespeople spend a lot of time working out new ways to celebrate the yam.”
*by yam, she means true yam(Dioscorea), which the subtitles mistranslate as sweet potato
On this one, the British woman gets upset because she isn't allowed to wear pants. On the one about the Afar (a pastoral culture) the British woman gets upset because of child marriage and female circumcision. Pastoral societies are generally much harder on women than horticultural ones. In another episode the British woman is upset about a forced marriage in the pastoral Himba tribe.
Much like the excellent book Nisa, this show puts a human face on the lives of women that professional ethnographies can't really approach. I think that between the two sources, it's clear that women in these cultures tend to be more socially constrained and threatened than some primitivists would like to think. Domestic violence, abandonment, and social persecution are real dangers. Like Price's search for vegan tribes, the search for matriarchal tribes has been in vain. But people who study these cultures often say these women are happier than most women in our society. Whether that is true remains to be seen.
What about all the people that can't afford grass-fed meat? Can't afford to stay home from work to breast feed? Can't afford to purchase whole foods?
These are tough questions that sideline many discussions about improving quality of life. They are important, but don't detract from the fact that there are many poor people who do manage to do these things and also from the fact that there are plenty of people with plenty of money who chose to feed crap to themselves and to their children. What does it say about our culture that there are P.h.D.s making $200,000 a year who are eating at Subway? Often these are people that have seen Food Inc. and read books like The Primal Blueprint or Omnivore's Dilemma.
I guess I know LOTS of these people since I work in tech. The WSJ reports that rich techies in Silicon Valley want cheap food. I remember my ill-fated effort to improve food at a certain local tech conference, which fell flat when I suggested we have something besides pizza and bagels. "What's wrong with pizza and bagels?" said the sweaty sysadmin with a beer belly hanging out from beneath his Linux t-shirt. Don't these men realize they'd feel better and possible get a date if they ate better? Don't get me started on what a lot of professors eat.
It's not just techies and academics though, a new study found that most people were unwilling to pay more for healthy food at restaurants.
On the breastfeeding front there is a sleek new formula machine that's just like Nespresso! It's an upmarket item. While I know many women don't have very many choices due to poverty, I seriously doubt the women using this machine are those women.
America has spoken: healthy food is too expensive and involves too many sacrifices and we don't want it.
A thought provoking book about the possibility that human cultures co-evolved with certain foods.
Does the Mediterranean Diet Even Exist? asks the NYtimes
The Mediterranean diet was always a composite. Spaniards love pork; Egyptians, as a rule, do not. In some regions, people made pesto with lard, not olive oil. “There is no such thing called the Mediterranean diet; there are Mediterranean diets,” says Rami Zurayk, an agriculture professor at the American University in Beirut. “They share some commonalities — there is a lot of fruits and vegetables, there is a lot of fresh produce in them, they are eaten in small dishes, there is less meat in them. These are common characteristics, but there are many different Mediterranean diets.”
The healthy versions of these diets do have one other thing in common: they are what the Italians called “cucina povera,” the “food of the poor.” In Ancel Keys’s day, Mediterraneans ate lentils instead of meat because they had no choice. “A lot of it is to do with poverty, not geography,” says Sami Zubaida, a leading scholar on food and culture.
Well, I agree that most low-meat diets around the world have more to do with poverty rather than health, that's not why some Greeks may have been eating lentils. The Greek Orthodox form of Christianity prescribes fasting for a little over half the year. Fasting involves eating not only less, but forgoing all animal products besides invertebrates like shellfish and insects (not many people take advantage of this). This letter to the editor from the journal of Public Health Nutrition asks why Ancel Keys didn't note that in his study.
When laymen break these fasts they don't eat lentils, that's for sure. It's a time to enjoy meat, dairy, and fish.
Hmm, I guess the problem with getting your family into eating healthier is that you might come home expecting to indulge in some Christmas sweets and find a fridge full of not fudge, but grass-fed meat and oranges.
When I looked at that fridge full of healthy foods I felt less than festive. And an inexplicable craving for fudge.
That was despite being surrounded by a million zillion twinkling Christmas lights and four Nativity scenes. Rich sweet foods are unfortunately tied to Holiday cheer.
So I chose to make one holiday dessert this year.
I've always been a bit of an Anglophile. I always like to read some Charles Dickens for Christmas and I've always been entraced by the food in those books. I think British food has a bad reputation that is unjust. Jane Grigson's book is a great introduction to British cookery and shows that true traditional British food isn't terrible different from good Swedish food. Lots of fresh fish, seaweed, goose, and mutton. Some of this was lost during the Industrial Revolution's urbanization, when people moved into the cities and could no longer harvest these foods from the land or afford them in shops. Unfortunately Jane's book has many recipes containing flour and refined sugar. I'm more interested in foods from the Middle Ages, when those ingredients were scarce. I'm not saying all British food is bad, but I do think there are some hidden gems.
This year I already made mincemeat, but I gave most of it away. I used this recipe, but added more suet since the lamb was a little lean. I also used fewer dates and added some brandy instead. I love the rich festive spiced taste of mincemeat and use it as a dessert or in a simple gluten-free almond-flour crust as a delicious pie.
For Christmas I'm making this Baked Almond Pudding for 4-6, which Jane says is a "firm cake-like pudding with a 'sad' centre and crisp outside."
250g ground almonds
a few drops of bitter almond essence
2 tablespoons double cream
1 tablespoon brandy
4 tablespoons rapadura
2 egg yolks
Melt the butter, pour it into a bowl, and add the remaining ingredients in the order given. Grease a shallow pie dish or Pyrex dish with a butter paper, ladle in the mixture and bake at 375 F for about 45 minutes. The time will depend on the depth of the mixture; allow room for it to rise a little. The surface will brown lightly and acquire that appetizing baked almond crust. Serve with sugar, butter and a sweet wine or sherry.
MMM. Not "healthy" but already gluten-free and not so bad either!
Whenever I get off the train at Bedford Ave., I feel like I'm in Stockholm again. Everyone is super-skinny and wearing the latest fashions. I go into a hip clothing boutique and can only fit into a size medium, when normally I wear an XS petite. Where am I? The domain of the hipsters in Williamsburg.
I can't tell you exactly what a hipster is, but you'll know one when you see one. They like irony, indie bands like Beach House, plaid shirts, American Apparel, skinny jeans, and pretentiousness.
So what's so great about the hipster diet?
BACON (and other animal fats)
Bacon and lard have really made a comeback in Williamsburg. Bacon is literally everywhere, even in places where it might not belong, like in desserts, cocktails, and chocolate bars. This is a major revolution, as the hipster community was once seem as a bastion of veganism. Some vegan outposts remain, but the vast majority of new restaurants are pretty much floating in bacon grease. The vegans aren't happy about it and some well known vegan bloggers have written essays about how awful it is. But honestly, they are pretty much powerless against the power of bacon.
Where to find it: Traif, whole name means "unclean" in Hebrew, is owned by some bacon-loving Jews. Let me say this place is a gem and I have loved everything I've eaten there.
Hipsters really love their butchers and whenever I meet a hipster I'm sure to ask who their favorite butcher is. Is it Tom from Williamsburg butcher outpost The Meat Hook, Bryan from Fleishers? The guys at Marlow & Daughters? Dickson's? These aren't your parent's butcher chops. They make weird bacon beer sausages and stock fridges full of various animal fats like lard and tallow. Of course all the meats are raised by local farmers and grassfed etc. etc. Don't be shocked to see "offal" cuts sold at twice the normal price though. These are prized here.
Where to find it: Any of the above places, but The Meat Hook is probably the capital of hipster butchery right now.
If you haven't eaten something weird, you aren't a good hipster. Any good hipster restaurant has head cheese, sweetbreads, and bone marrow.
Where to find it: Everywhere, but I hear good things about the marrow poppers, gizzard confit, and tallow hot dogs at St Anselm.
Barbeque is a major Williamsburg pastime and boy do they take it seriously. The best places at Fette Sau and Fatty Cue, both of which are very very very very fatty. You can read about my pig's head experience at Fatty Cue here. Hipsters aren't afraid of the truly fatty cuts.
Any good hipster fridge contains kombucha, which is fermented tea, and lacto-fermented real pickles or kimchee.
Where to find these: The New Amsterdam market has a good selection of hipster favorites like Mama O's Kimchee, Ricks Picks, and Kombucha Brooklyn. Through Mombucha, you can have a real hipster come to your apartment and bring you some really great kombucha!
There are lots of hipster chocolatiers, but the kings are The Mast Brothers.
Needless to say, their chocolate is for adults only. It's bitter and very rich. And it comes with a very important pedigree. It's also very expensive and comes with a free stylish hipster patterned wrapper. Hipster chocolate is often consumed plain, but if it's flavored it's usually with expensive tea, biodynamic almonds, sea salt, and hot pepper.
EXPENSIVE TEA AND COFFEE
Every good hipster bodega (it's our convenience stores in NYC) carries several types of coconut water and usually coconut milk and flour too.
The truth is that hipster food is so expensive that you can't eat very much and most hipsters have low-paying jobs at art galleries or whatnot. Expect to pay $15 for three bacon-wrapped scallops. Hipsters nurse their hunger with some tea until their parents send some money.
As you can see, the hipster culture is unique and there are many great things about the traditional hipster diet: animal fat, tea, coconut stuff, fasting, dark chocolate, and fermented foods. But hipsters also tend to drink crappy beer and many people despite them for being annoying and pretentious. Being despised can be very stressful, but since hipsters live in isolated enclaves, they are largely immune to it. Also, hipsters sometimes eat lots of trendy cupcakes and doughnuts imported from Manhattan, which has led to a notable trend of potbellies on hipster men. This is clearly a culture in transition, with a negative Manhattan influence causing loss of traditions and the influx of diseases of civilization ;)
I will share with you some traditional hipster songs.
Next up: New Victorians of Park Slope?
PS: My roommate says I'm a hipster, but personally I think I'm too conservative and square for that.
One of the best things about the paleo movement is how it brings nerds and jocks together. Me? I've always been a nerd. As a kid I did like running around outside, but I also liked RPGs, comic books, fixing computers, science news, robotic Legos, and STAR WARS. My parents made me do sports because maybe they thought it would help me be more well-rounded or something. I spent much of my time on swim team trying to figure out ways to get out of swim team. I was the weird shrimpy clumsy kid who turned blue on exposure to cold water.
I disliked *those* people. You know, the ones that were tall, had perfect tan bodies, and didn't bump into things randomly. They just weren't part of my world anyway.
But paleo has caused me to rethink things. First of all, just because you like to read Dune doesn't mean you have to be out of shape. Do you think Luke Skywalker could have brought balance to the force with a belly bloated by pizza and Mountain Dew? I don't think so. Feeling more energetic gives me more energy to do the nerdy things I love, though I confess that honestly I'd still rather read than exercise. I'm glad jocks are around to come up with programs that encourage me to get out of my reading chair and actually use my body.
And now jocks are interested in a diet that involves all kinds of nerdy talk about biochemistry and anthropology. Paleo jocks are smarter than your average jocks and paleo nerds really do stand out at tech conferences by not looking completely terrible.
Hooray for paleo :)