am frequently was once asked, “How did you come to be such a good cook?” and “How did you learn to eat and enjoy weird food?” You’re in luck, dear reader, because today’s blog will be an exploration of the relationship between food and health, our personal journey through nutrition, anthropology and ecology. If this sounds pretentious, you’re absolutely right. But don’t be afraid, because I’m really just going to tell some stories and slap some memes around.
Growing up in my family, we apparently ate very well, although what I remember most was going to Burger King frequently and eating Kraft macaroni & cheese at least twice a week (sorry Mom). My favorite meal up until the age of about 16, which I would order every single time we went out to a restaurant, was chicken tenders with honey mustard sauce. At the same time, there was the Lebanese food culture in my family: the epically huge potluck feasts on holidays; afternoon dinners at Sitty and Jiddy’s (my paternal grandparents) where days were spent in preparation and 5 or 6 main dishes were the norm; and the ubiquitous Lebanese salad dressing, present at every meal – the holy trinity of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, that most catholic of condiments that accompanies every vegetable dish from green beans to broccoli. Alongside our mac & cheese suppers we always had a Vegetable. Instead of our Daily Bread, it was our Daily Salad, and I remember my brothers and I fighting over who got to lick the garlic off the mortar (or the pestle, whichever it is. It’s the pestle).
My parents weren’t food nazis – there were plenty of foods each of us hated, and we were never forced to eat what we didn’t like. They also never made a fuss over eating “healthy” or otherwise (although I’m guessing the only people who knew about “healthy” eating back in those days were from California). However I was never particularly adventurous – I liked what I liked and I didn’t stray far from that path. Apart from my love of chicken tenders, I also loved everything Sitty made, and my favorite was and still is laban immo, a garlicky yogurt-based lamb stew. It sounds weird, but it is the ultimate comfort food. I believe it translates to “mother’s milk”. When Jiddy was alive, he would tell me to “Slow down, darling” while I was eating it – I loved it so much that I would figuratively* inhale it as quickly as possible.
As my brothers and I got older, my parents had more time and energy to spend on cooking (i.e. no more boxed mac & cheese). I came to appreciate my parents’ attitude towards food – the reliance on simple Mediterranean flavors, the use of very fresh ingredients, lots of fruits and vegetables, and a little bit of wine. I think I started drinking wine my senior year of high school and haven’t looked back since. There was a general ease to cooking and preparing food every day – it was never a burden, and it was always a family-involved process. Dinner-time conversation always included some kind of discussion and/or critique of the meal we were eating (which for some reason David finds very strange), before digressing into a heated debate about politics, religion, or anything else controversial – those of you who know my family will know what I mean here. Food had become a focal point in our family life – not only the actual substance of what we were eating, but the whole context of sharing meals and time together as a family.
When I moved away to Edinburgh and had my own (shared) kitchen, food was more about keeping warm and keeping going than anything else. I probably ate some form of chicken curry with naan bread, rice and Daily Salad at least three days a week, and a pre-made pizza (with Daily Salad) the other days. I was okay with the monotony (or routine), because I just needed to survive.
Then halfway through my time in Edinburgh I got sick. What started as a stomach bug continued on as chronic nausea and diarrhea for weeks and months. Every time I started eating, I would immediately feel sick. It was pretty awful, and food became my enemy in a way. The doctors said it was probably due to stress, but even years later when I wasn’t feeling particularly stressed, I would still have the nausea. Luckily it was manageable with medication, but in 2011 my doctor told me I would probably have to be on meds for the foreseeable future. I thought that was a bit pants.
So in early 2012, partly in response to my digestive issues, David and I tried the Paleo diet for a month. It meant a lot more cooking from scratch than we were used to. It was fun, David lost a fair amount of weight, and we both felt pretty good. We continued to be Paleo-ish for several months afterwards – we avoided wheat for the most part, as well as processed foods and vegetable oil, and added in other grains like rice and corn. I continued to feel good, so I thought I would try weaning myself off the medicine. To my surprise, I was able to get off completely with no more nausea. It’s been more than 18 months and I am still nausea-free!
When I see the Paleo diet being talked about in the news or online, whether in positive or negative light,
most part of me rolls my eyes because I do think it’s become a bit faddish. I think a lot of the science behind the Paleo theory is questionable (for instance I don’t think we really understand the evolutionary mechanisms or time frames when it comes to humans adapting to different types of food), but there are also some very good things we’ve taken away as well, most of which can be boiled down to: Eat Real Food.
One very important part of my journey that came out of Paleo initially and later through reading Weston A. Price is basically food anthropology: the traditional ways of preparing and eating food, the different foods that are usually lacking in the American palate (including organ meats, animal fats and fermented foods), and also the social and cultural context of food. By looking at traditional food cultures, I saw not only “healthy” eating in terms of nutrition and nourishment for the body, but also the context that is created when real food is prepared – a food experience that nourishes the soul as well.
In traditional cultures, such methods of food preparation as soaking, pickling or fermenting are fundamental, and the benefits of these methods are numerous. Lacto-fermentation, the method I’m most interested in because it’s kind of miraculous (and has nothing to do with lactose or dairy), is the process of harnessing natural bacteria found on the surface of all living things to preserve and store food safely. Using salt, water and spices, it provides a way to preserve vegetables and fruits long past their growing season without needing a freezer. Apart from preservation, it also produces beneficial bacteria – those same probiotics you take in a pill – and increases and releases the vitamin content in foods. But most importantly (for this story at least), it adds a depth of flavor that makes your average American meal seem pretty darn boring.
So I began to (intentionally) acquire a taste for fermented foods and organ meats. I learned to make kimchi and pickled vegetables. I learned to love liver pâté. I make yogurt once a week using Sitty’s starter culture that has been in our family for at least a hundred years. And in learning these things, I was put back in touch with the context of community, learning and history that is lost when food is just a product to be bought. I could go to a store and get Chobani Greek yogurt, for example, but that would deprive me of the privilege of some day teaching my children to make laban using their family’s unique “heirloom” starter culture and the pinkie finger trick that Sitty taught me. Passing on these things is a right of passage and a relational bonding experience. I’ve been asked so many times for the recipe for so-and-so Lebanese dish, and I kind of laugh because I know what is involved in learning to cook Sitty’s food. Indeed, one does not simply make Lebanese food by following a recipe.
I learned Sitty’s recipes by watching and cooking with her countless times, and trying and tasting and feeling my way through. It’s a process that’s so embedded in context that it’s almost impossible to separate the recipes from the family history. And almost every cuisine in the world has all this richness of culture – it makes me want to eat and sample and learn!
If we’re talking about connectedness, there has to be a conversation about ecology and where our food comes from. There is so much more to say on this subject, but for the sake of this blog already being wayyy too long, let’s leave it for people who are smarter than me. In short, it matters where our food comes from. The condition of the land where food is grown matters. It matters from a taste perspective. The first time I ever had carrots from a local CSA/veg box was in Edinburgh, and I had never tasted anything so carrot-y delicious before. Indeed it was like I had never even tasted a carrot before then. I think the condition of the land also matters hugely from a health perspective. I’m not just talking about “certified organic” or the lack of chemicals. It’s about the fertility of the land impacting the quality and nature of food. It’s also about the relationships between farmer and community and animal. It’s all connected, man.
I believe that the context of food – the growing, preparing, learning and sharing – is every bit as important as the actual substance of the food itself. This is why I don’t think the Paleo diet for us was sustainable – food is the ultimate social experience, and it’s super lame to have to decline food because you can’t eat what someone else eats. However – and maybe I’ve just turned into a food snob – having gone to a few shared meals at church or wherever lately, I have been supremely disappointed by the “home-cooked” food that has been offered. It’s not that people weren’t trying their best (bottled salad dressings aside), but I think there is a lot of context that is missing from American food culture – and our health and taste buds suffer from it. I’m not saying that everyone should own their own cows to milk to make cheese, but can you compare store-bought taco shells, “economy” ground beef (with taco seasoning packet spices), pre-shredded lettuce, and Kraft three-cheese blend to proper Mexican braised pork tacos with salsa fresca and homemade tortillas? We can do so much better. And yes, you may slap me now in the face for having written the most pretentious run-on sentence you will probably read all week.
What I’m saying is I’m aware that cooking from scratch requires a bit more time and effort (and, sadly, money) than mixing something from a packet, and there are plenty of nights where I’ve taken the easy option because I’ve been too tired to do anything better. But if that’s all you do, and if that’s all you know, the creativity, the flavor and the context of food (and I would also argue our health) is so much poorer.
So every once in a while, let’s investigate something new, let’s explore a new cuisine, let’s learn from that Korean grandmother that lives on your street that probably buries her kimchi in the back yard. The world is such a rich place, it would be such a waste to eat only chicken tenders.
*I wanted to say ‘literally’, but David
has issues with the word “literally” objects to the idea of his wife sucking up food through her nose.