book reviews

Gift Guide 2018

Don’t worry. I’m not going to suggest you give away anything you bought at this year’s Bellevue Farmers Market and have been hoarding to tide you over until May 2019. My cans of St. Jude tuna and my jars of market-made jam aren’t going anywhere but in my family’s bellies. But Christmas is still coming and there are other gifts to be given.

Here. It’s not tuna, but I promise it’s still good. [Photo by  Kira auf der Heide  on  Unsplash   ]

Here. It’s not tuna, but I promise it’s still good. [Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash ]

For Someone Who Cooks:

A copy of a favorite cookbook. The one you have in your kitchen with the stained pages falling out and which naturally falls open to your most-frequently-made recipe. My sister mentioned that she and her husband were going to try going vegetarian for a while in January, so I quickly got her a copy of my much-much-used Deborah Madison. And, before I wrap it, I’m going to take a highlighter to the index to mark recipes I know they’ll enjoy.

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A homemade mix for something. Those soups-in-a-jar are always fun to get, but I was making pancakes this morning and thought it’d be fun to get a pancake or waffle mix that had the grains already mixed up for you, along with baking soda, baking powder, salt, and a little sugar. The recipient would just add the wet ingredients: butter/milk, two eggs, vanilla.

For example, a mix for the Deborah Madison pancakes I made would include:

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup spelt flour

1/4 cup rye flour

1/4 cup oat flour

1/4 cup garbanzo bean flour

1 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

1 Tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1/8 tsp nutmeg

On the little label you include, you’d ask them to add 3 Tbsp melted butter, two eggs, 1 cup buttermilk, and 1/2 cup milk (or all milk, but they come out flatter). Optional ingredients would be a sprinkling of sliced banana or blueberries. Mix all the ingredients and drop by 1/4 cupfuls on a medium-hot griddle. Proceed as normal for pancakes!

Your favorite kitchen utensil. Do you always reach for a particular spatula first? A certain pair of tongs? Have you, in the space of a month, managed to melt both your meat thermometers (ahem)? Chances are, if you like the design and functionality of that puppy, another cook will too.

[Photo by  Caroline Attwood  on  Unsplash   ]

[Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash ]

And how about gifts for the person who doesn’t cook much?

If they like to read and love history and/or southern food, this memoir was wonderful:

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Chef and history re-enactor Michael W. Twitty goes in search of both family history and food history and finds how they intertwine. This book will make you want to eat, cry, travel to the south, travel to Africa, get your DNA done, and grow a garden.

Or say your recipient wanted to visit Paris but is now scared off by yellow-vest rioters. Maybe this gift could remove some of the disappointment:

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The French-and-American author couple go from pre-Roman times right up to the present, regaling us with lots of mini food histories, collisions of culture, and who-knew? moments. Great fun.

And finally, if your loved one doesn’t cook much and doesn’t read much, but strangely you still like to hang out with such a person, there’s always a gift certificate for dinner at your house or a meal delivered to them. Because who doesn’t love home-cooked food?

Have a great week.

Eat Like a Peasant (or a Templar)

I've been reading this fun little book called A Bite-Sized History of France, which I warmly recommend to any of you out there who love food, France, and fun little facts.

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The authors are married, a Frenchman to an American woman, and they write with humor and a good eye for the ridiculous. Ex:

Today the Ban des Vendanges [date which the wine grape harvest can officially begin] is mainly an occasion for celebrating and promoting wine, but it remains a minor administrative hassle for vintners if they want to harvest any earlier. So, all in all, the Ban des Vendanges is very French, as France is traditionally a big producer of both wine and administrative hassles.

As the title suggests, the authors proceed chronologically through the great country's history, seen through the lens of food anecdotes. Along the way, I learned how food became a marker of social class in the Middle Ages. Because most vegetables were grown and consumed by peasants, to supplement their meager diet of whole grains and infrequent meat, "nobles shunned most vegetables, especially root vegetables, which grew underground." The same nobles also pooh-poohed fish, associating it with Catholic fast days. They wanted lots of meat, especially game (because of its warriorlike association with hunting) and fancy birds like heron, swan and peacock. And at the top of the desirable-menu-items list? Phoenix and salamander. If only they weren't so hard to find! 

Such a rich diet among the nobility made diseases like gout and cardiovascular problems common, and it's not like bossing peasants around burned many calories, in between crusades. At least, for all the bummers of feudalism (like oppression, disease, overwork, and always having to hand over the lion's share to the Man), those peasants got their exercise and ate healthy when food was to be had! And since, as the book points out, 95% of France belonged to this Third Estate, they had hundreds of years to get in shape for the Revolution, when they could chop off the heads of the First (clergy) and Second (nobility) Estates. (I'm not done with the book yet, but I really hope I get to a chapter titled, "The Peasants Strike Back, a.k.a., the Reign of Terroir."

Another group that did pretty well, dietarily and otherwise, were the Knights Templar. These warrior-monks, who may or may not have looked like Chow Yun Fat--

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took as their mission defending Christian-won sites in the Holy Land after workaday Crusaders headed home. So they combined monkish habits with other, decidedly unmonkish habits.

The diet of the Templars very much resembled that of other monks, but they were allowed to eat meat three times a week. It is actually thought today that their restrained eating habits, which involved lots of vegetables, fruits, and fish, were responsible for the noted longevity of Templar knights, which back then was seen as a sure sign of divine approbation.

My mom tells me that my stepdad has been diagnosed with a precancerous growth in his intestine, which gave me a chance to climb on my soapbox and urge them to eat like peasants and Templars. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables! Fruit, fiber, fish, whole grains! Throw away the processed foods when he's not looking!

Call it the revenge of the Second Estate. After disdaining all those healthy foods as too peasant-y and getting ousted and decapitated in the French Revolution, now it's the richest 5% in the world who are eating all the healthy foods and leaving what they deem the dregs to those who can't afford to eat otherwise. Sigh. Plus ça change...

The book is full of lots more good stuff, and I'll probably post again on it, but in the meantime I urge you to call on your inner Medieval French peasant and get out to the Market for some strawberries, greens, peas, tomatoes, tuna, and -- that old peasant favorite-- turnips! (Parting factoid: according to Bite-Sized, before the discovery of the New World and the world-shifting Columbian Exchange, turnips were the original second ingredient of cassoulet, not white beans!)

A Whole Lotta Whole Foods Fix a Whole Lotta Problems

I made the kids blueberry pancakes this morning. And as I mixed in the frozen berries from the grocery store, I made the vow I always make when I have to use frozen fruit from the store: "This year, I'm going to buy a lot more fruit at the Market and freeze it." You heard me. For 2018, fruit isn't just for out-of-hand eating or for pies. This year I'm going to plan ahead for the smoothies and pancakes and muffins and cobblers of the off-season. Otherwise, what is the point of all the food preservation techniques available to modern cooks?

Memento berri  [Photo by  Brigitte Tohm  on  Unsplash

Memento berri  [Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

The Market can't come soon enough. We finished off our last jar of raspberry jam from Growing Washington last week and have been tolerating inferior storebought. I'm down to one last can of Fishing Vessel St. Jude tuna. I hear rumors that the first Washington asparagus is being harvested. Is it May 17th yet?

And then there's the latest book I read, The Other Side of Impossible, which is really a collection of true stories about people with medical conditions who (mostly) managed to get better. Sit up and pay attention if you have, or know anyone who has, life-threatening food allergies, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, MS, ADHD, or asthma.

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I'll save you some time: one of the common denominators of the "cures" experienced in the book is a diet of whole foods, not always vegetarian, and often an avoidance of gluten and dairy. I'll tell you right off the bat that it would require a life-threatening condition to get me off gluten and dairy because I love them. Love love love. As does my husband. When I looked up from the book and said, "It's possible that your eczema is related to gluten-intolerance -- think of your cousin who has Celiac's," he answered, "I'd rather itch."

I did appreciate that this book was the first I'd read that actually explained why gluten might be a bad-guy in your gut, since avoiding gluten just because it's fashionable to do so is not a compelling reason for me.

Gluten is the one kind of protein our body can't fully digest, Dr. Fasano [visiting professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School] says...We don't have the enzymes to be able to break gluten down all the way. Its tight bonds are what we love about it -- they give bread its elasticity.  But the protein's recalcitrance seems to be the reason it can cause problems. Its distinctive chunkiness seems to be read by our bodies as harmful bacteria: Our immune system's response to gluten, including the release of zonulin [a protein that increases permeability of the intestine wall], is the same as its response to a suspected pathogen -- any microorganism that makes us sick. Our body treats gluten like an adversary that needs to be attacked and flushed out.

In other words, too much gluten, and our bodies might mount an immune response, including inflammation, which, when experienced chronically, leads to all sorts of health issues. Dr. Fasano's recommendation? Diversify your diet. 

I can get behind that. All the healthy and helpful bacteria in our guts needs food, and their favorite meal is dietary fiber, such as is found in whole fruits and vegetables. The more our healthy and helpful gut flora flourish, the less space there is for the unhelpful and unhealthy bacteria to find purchase. More good guys automatically means fewer bad guys. It's all about squatters' rights. If you are going to have billions of bacteria squatting in your digestive system (and you are -- it's how we've evolved to operate), at least encourage the nice squatters who take decent care of the property and even make improvements.

What happens if the bad bacteria take over? "An unbalanced bacteria population, or dysbiosis, is associated with a variety of diseases including autism, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, allergies, asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis." Bold claims, and correlation isn't the same as causation. But it is true that too much bad bacteria leads to ye olde immune response and inflammation. And too much inflammation is certainly associated with all those conditions.

It wasn't just good food that effected unexpected cures in the book. Some also went in for admittedly kooky-sounding treatments like energy "wands" and such, which sounded less kooky once the author explored acupressure points. All in all, seeking out miracle cures requires a whole lotta time and money, options not open to all. But we lucky ones with access to good, whole food can at least start there. And our Bellevue Farmers Market believes "everyone should have access to fresh, healthy, nutritious food," and that includes those of us who qualify for EBT/SNAP benefits and seniors eligible for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). Better living through better eating!

The Price of Domestication

We were dogsitting this past week, and, whenever it came time to feed the critters, I would find myself philosophizing about the price of domestication: in exchange for a steady food supply, wolves/dogs gave up their freedoms. On the plus side, they wouldn't starve. On the minus side, every day they must eat the same bowl of kibbles. The kibbles have been pumped up with pleasing synthetic flavors and a smidge of actual meat by-product, but it's still a little bowl of kibbles, twice a day, day in and day out, getting more and more stale the longer the bag sits out.

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It's a dog's life.

But I was also reading Kristin Lawless' Formerly Known as FoodHow the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture and discovering some uncomfortable parallels.

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Like dogs being domesticated, we've made a deal of questionable benefits. In exchange for convenient, always-available food, we've handed over our ability to choose what we eat. Yes, some of us can afford to be choosier in our groceries, but it's gotten harder and harder to avoid that darned bowl of kibbles. The corn, soy, canola, synthetic flavors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, preservatives, pesticide residues, packaging plastics, oxidized fats, antibiotics, and so on, are everywhere. Buy organic all you like. You cannot escape.

Some days it's all too much, and you just want to stay in bed.

Some days it's all too much, and you just want to stay in bed.

The book makes for some grim reading. There are the usual alarming facts about rising obesity, metabolic syndrome, and allergies, which we've almost become inured to, but what was newer to me was the discussion of cumulative effects of pesticide and chemical build-ups in fields, foods, and oceans, as well as permanent changes to our microbiota caused by diet-induced extinction. Did you know that DDT, banned way back in 1979, is still found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants? Discouraging, to say the least. Or that TBT, an organic pollutant used in paints and coatings for boats back in the 1960s (and since banned), has nevertheless so leached into our waters and been biomagnified up the food chain, that we're eating it today. So what, you say? Well, TBT is an "obesogen," causing animals in studies to "have more and bigger fat cells...They're eating normal food, and they're getting fatter." As an added bonus, TBT-induced weight gain can be passed down generationally.

Fine, fine, you concede. There's nothing to be done about the DDT, but I just won't eat seafood. Oh, but TBT is just one kind of "organotin" we are exposed to. There are others,

used in the linings and sealings of food cans, in polyvinylchloride (PVC) plastics, as fungicides and pesticides on crops, as slimicides in industrial water systems, and as wood preservatives. Like many other classes of chemicals, organotins were wrongly deemed environmentally safe for many years -- and they appear to be everywhere in our environment.

And remember the BPA fuss? Because it messed with our hormones, public uproar got it removed from baby bottles and water bottles and such. Sad to say, the plastic compounds used as replacements still have endocrine-disrupting characteristics. Plastic in food and drink packaging is unavoidable nowadays. Buy organic all you like, and 90% of the time, it's still being delivered to you in plastic. 

Lawless makes a very compelling argument for breastfeeding but recognizes that women who have to work outside the home and who don't have the most understanding schedules or workplaces for pumping breast milk face impossible situations. In fact, Lawless points out relentlessly how economic and social class constrain food choice, from gestation onward. Some of us can't simply "choose" to breastfeed and buy organic and home-cook our meals:

When food movement leaders say the solutions are to eat whole foods and buy organic, they leave out the crucial fact that we need to collectively reject the production of poor-quality processed foods and stop the production of dangerous pesticides and other environmental chemicals that contaminate many foods. Critics do not often articulate this omission, but it is largely why the movement is perceived as elitist, and rightly so. If the food movement's solutions are market based and predicated on spending more for safer and healthier food, they ignore how impossible these solutions are for most Americans...The food movement has allowed these [crappy, processed] products and additives to exist alongside a cleaner and safer food supply for the privileged few.
Food movement leaders also emphasize the importance of home cooking and cooking whole foods from scratch. Yet many fail to mention that the majority of Americans do not have the time, money, or resources to cook meals from whole foods at home. And when these leaders do acknowledge that lack of time to cook is a problem, they usually address it through providing better ways to cook healthy foods quickly.

I plead guilty to all of these charges.

What solutions does Lawless suggest, if you haven't already succumbed to despair? I admit, I was paralyzed by her solutions. She called for some fairly reasonable measures, like longer paid leave for new moms and household-skills classes for all, but then ventured into suggestions that made my eyes widen: universal basic income, paying people to cook at home, shorter work weeks, and so on. I just didn't see where all the money would come from. Yes, I agree our health as a society would improve, but it's hard to fund programs based on "we'll save money later, years down the road."

I liked better her mentions of urban farming programs on unused land, which has been done successfully in places like Milwaukee and Detroit, although the thought of sending inexperienced college kids out to run them made me think of Chairman Mao sending out all the academics to do the national farming and finding that--whoa!--they didn't actually know how, and now everyone's gonna starve! I guess if this FoodCorps hired the kids who'd done 4-H and had a little experience, but that's a dwindling pool nowadays.

In any case, I highly recommend the book as an eye-opener. And, if you've got the time and money, invite someone over for a home-cooked meal of whole foods, cooked and served on glass and metal.

Why You Eat What You Eat

Because it's covered in sprinkles

Because it's covered in sprinkles

When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked by a journalist, "Why did you want to climb Mt. Everest?" Mallory famously replied, "Because it's there." I feel like, for many of us, Why We Eat What We Eat might be summed up just as succinctly. Why did I finish everything on my plate, even though I wasn't hungry anymore? Because it was there. Why did I have a second cookie? Ditto. That handful of peanuts? Ditto ditto.

Rachel Herz gets more scientific in her book, and much of it you've probably heard before:

  • we've evolved to prefer sweet and fatty because those give the biggest caloric bang for the buck;
  • sugar, chocolate and spicy foods have mood-boosting, painkilling benefits;
  • flavors experienced in utero and early on with happy associations become preferred;
  • mindful eating can help us consume less and increase satisfaction;
  • using smaller plates makes the servings look more abundant; and
  • our sense of smell declines as we age, which is why, if you have the misfortune to eat at an old folks' home, the food often seems "too salty."

But there was plenty that was less familiar and quite interesting, like studies showing that we can fool our palates with aromas. Waft vanilla aroma over us, and whatever we're consuming is perceived as sweeter and creamier! Similarly, bathe us in a bacon scent, and the food will be perceived as up to 40% saltier. How has no one come up with the Aromatherapy Diet yet, if you've been told to cut back on sugar, salt, or fat?

Or how about putting the marijuana munchies to good use? Herz notes a study of severe anorexics that found the "cannabis compound dronabinol, which is also used to help patients with HIV and cancer combat appetite and weight loss, led to modest weight gain in as little as a week, and consistently increased appetite and weight gain for the four weeks that the study lasted" (loc 1146).

For the greater percentage of us, however, attempting to gain weight is not the problem, but rather the opposite. There's hope here, too. Who knew that, among rats at least, "merely sniffing grapefruit aroma can suppress weight gain"? Eating the fruit works too, a half at every meal, but they aren't the most portable of fruits, so the aroma possibility tantalizes. Same goes for the scent of olive oil. Adding olive oil aroma extract to plain lowfat yogurt was found to be "remarkably appetite-curbing"--maybe because that sounds so unappetizing that you're put off your food for a few hours... But it does seem to fool your brain into thinking you've had a fattier food, leading to increased feelings of fullness.

But say you find yourself at your desk at 3 pm, dreaming of the donuts on the conference room table. Apparently, taking a big whiff of something totally unrelated to food can bump your brain out of that track and help you resist a craving. At last--something to do with that Yankee Candle your mother-in-law gave you (unless she gave you a sweet, food flavor)!

Herz also discusses how things like sound and color, temperature and texture affect our perceptions of taste. Basically, we have very fool-able brains and should take full advantage, for our dietary benefit. Never mind labeling foods "lowfat" or "healthy" or even "organic"--that makes us more likely to overeat or to cheat elsewhere. But if we're told something is indulgent or extra-rich, our body speeds up our metabolism, whether the item really was as advertised or not.

It's a lot of info, but it would be fun to experiment with friends and family members, and Herz does offer helpful tips for various conditions like picky eaters, the eating disordered, and the smell-impaired. I would have loved some "For this outcome, try this!" charts, but that's just a quibble. If you like reading about food and our perceptions, I recommend this book!

And don't forget the End of Season Celebration at the 520 Bar and Grill. I'm happy to report that, "when food is in bite-sized bits we eat less than when the same food is served in larger pieces," so enjoy those hors d'ouevres guilt-free! On the other hand, we do tend to drink more when served beverages in glasses with fluted sides, so don't say you haven't been warned...

Harping on Your Gut

My oldest recently had to do two successive rounds of antibiotics. Now, given the choice between letting an infection run rampant or downing the antibiotics, there was no contest, but I still wrung my hands over the thought of her gut flora being decimated. Especially since she just graduated high school and spends most of her time and money eating out with friends, where I suspect she isn't eating fruits and vegetables.

She isn't the only one. I've been hearing several gut complaints lately, and if I had a nickel for every time I recommended this book, I think I'd be a dollar-aire by now:

 

Read me!

Read me!

If you've had to do antibiotics, if you suffer from constipation, unruly gut--heck--even constipation, read this book. It might even help with depression, for Pete's sake. Our gut is a big, complicated, symbiotic organ that impacts just about everything, and it deserves better treatment from us.

As this Stanford Medicine blog post recounts, our gut and the flora it hosts impact our weight, brain, immune system, and overall health. And the best way to keep everything A-Okay is to provide all the little buggers with the best food possible: the fiber from a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Too much of any one type of fiber favors microbial strains that can digest it at the expense of the majority that can’t. The result would be reduced microbial diversity, the opposite of what’s desirable. Instead, eat lots of different fruits and vegetables. (Cooking them’s fine. We’ve been doing that for hundreds of thousands of years).

Do probiotics help? According to the book they don't do much to rebuild gut flora, since they largely pass through us. But they do provide spackle between intestinal wall cells, preventing leakage from the gut. As the Sonnenbergs put it, the intestinal wall is "a protective barrier that keeps microbes from getting out of the gut and into the bloodstream, where they emphatically don’t belong." Strong spackle is good.

Therefore, at the Market last week, I checked out one of the vendors of kombucha, otherwise known as fermented tea, otherwise known as a good source of probiotics, as are all fermented foods.

 

ShenZen Tea sells both loose tea leaves in many flavors and several varieties of kombucha.

 

Since I drink tea hot and iced year-round, I'll have to check out some of the many varieties on offer, but this time we got a 16-oz of the "most popular" kombucha, which I think was a lemongrass flavor...?

In any case, it was refreshing and delicious, like mildly carbonated, hardly-sweet-at-all soda. My other daughter and I would gladly have drunk the entire thing on our own, but since it was supposedly for the gut-depleted one, we refrained. But if you're walking through the Market on a warm day and don't want a big sugar rush from the other refreshments, give kombucha a try! Your gut will thank you.

Always in Season, at a Price

Last week I was at a wedding. The reception buffet was delicious, including the labeled "Seasonal Fruit Platter." When the person in front of me in line spotted that sign, he nudged me and asked, "In season where?" No kidding! The platter held fresh strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, blueberries, cantaloupe, and grapes, fruits which are currently in season in California, the tropics, Mexico, California, Central America, and Chile, respectively.

Wikipedia comes through with the picture of "seasonal fruits"

Wikipedia comes through with the picture of "seasonal fruits"

Now, I enjoy all these fruits, and you'll find grapes, bananas, oranges, and kiwis in my house right now, none of which were grown in Washington (the apples and pears were, however), but enjoying "never out of season" fruit comes at a price, according to author Rob Dunn.

As I mentioned last week, Dunn notes that most of the food eaten worldwide and certainly in America, comes from fewer and fewer plants. Not only does the number of plants we eat shrink with the passing of time, but the variety of the chosen plants has dwindled as well. Most famously we eat the Cavendish banana almost exclusively, but other plants don't fare a heckuva lot better. California mass-produces a few strawberry varieties that they ship all around. Unless you hit the farmers market, you're likely to be offered just two to three kinds of potato at the grocery store, and so on.

So what, you ask? So, this: in winnowing the foods we eat and then growing what are effectively clones of the same few plants all over the world, we make our food supply uniquely vulnerable. Think Irish Potato Famine vulnerable. Plant a whole country with the "lumper" potato, and when potato blight finally hitches a ride to Europe, there goes the food supply. 

Dunn traces a familiar pattern through history: a few seeds get chosen for planting in a whole new environment, they outrun their natural predators and diseases for a time, then the predators and diseases catch up and threaten to wipe out the whole crop. We respond with pesticides, more furious breeding, or moving everything to a "clean slate" to buy more time. If and when we return to the plant's original habitat to look for different varieties to grow or to cross with our familiar ones, the plants and their original habitats increasingly have ceased to exist! Beloved crops like cacao (eek!) and coffee face these threats, by the way, so we all should find this an alarming trend. There are still some botanists and other scientists trying to gather and preserve not only the wonderful variety of plants that have covered the earth, but also some of the places that yielded them, and you can imagine their rate of success (not super promising).

Our love's in jeopardy, Baby. (Cacao fruit)

Our love's in jeopardy, Baby. (Cacao fruit)

What can we do? Unless we're adventurous botanists who want to collect specimens from marginal wildernesses (because we want plants that grow where it's hotter and drier, to prepare for our climate future), Dunn makes the following suggestion:

You can buy diverse varieties of local crops...By increasing the proportion of food that is purchased from locally grown and diverse varieties of crops, we increase the incentives farmers have to plant those varieties. We increase the incentives farmers have to find unusual varieties. And, importantly, we increase the willingness of farmers to experiment, whether with unusual crop varieties or even with the breeding of novel crop varieties...In parts of North America and Europe...local food movements have already increased the diversity of crop varieties available in seed catalogues and stores.

And where best does all this happen? At the farmers market, of course, where we can have an immediate impact with the dollars we spend. Can't wait for Opening Day! We have one more week to go, which is just enough time for you to grab a copy of Never Out of Season and get yourself inspired!

Top 10 Reasons to Support Your Bellevue Farmers Market in 2017

Two weeks to Bellevue Farmers Market's Opening Day, people! And, if your anticipation hasn't been building, I'm here to give it a boost.

"We have great grocery stores in Bellevue," you say. "Why would I bother to make an extra trip to a farmers market?"

I've got ten reasons for you (not counting those Market flowers pictured above):

  1. FOSTER CROP DIVERSITY. I'm currently reading this fascinating book, which I'll post about next week when I finish, about the perils of our monocultural worldwide food supply. "In 2016...80% of the calories consumed by humans came from just twelve species and 90% from fifteen species" (Never Out of Season, p3). Why is that a problem? Think Irish Potato Famine. Our worldwide food supply is vulnerable to disease and pathogens, since we generally mass-grow just one variety of things. Not at the farmers market! Our farmers cultivate multiple varieties of familiar and less familiar fruits and vegetables, and, as a result, they take greater advantage of the entire growing season and reduce the harvest vulnerability. More genetic diversity = more robust food supply.
  2. BRANCH OUT, FOOD-WISE. Speaking of fostering diversity, we tend to get in ruts, food-wise. At the restaurant we always order the same thing. We eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day, and rotate among seven dishes for dinners. Hey, the time will come when our taste buds wither, and we have to dump more and more salt on food to make it taste like anything, even if we still have the teeth to chew it up--let's make the most of our food-is-glorious window! At the Market, not only can we buy foods outside our eating ruts, but we can ask the farmers and other people we see buying that food how they like to prepare it. When's the last time you whipped up some pea vines? Kabocha squash? Fiddlehead ferns?
  3. DISCOVER THAT FOOD ACTUALLY HAS FLAVOR. Recently my daughter brought home a dozen red roses she'd gotten along with an invitation to prom. "Too bad they don't smell like anything," she said. That was when I explained to her that plenty of roses actually do smell like something, but ones that have been bred for mass-production were chosen for color and hardiness, not fragrance. The same thing happens to our food. In order to make fruits and vegetables survive the journey from field to table, often crossing thousands of miles, farmers bred for looks and durability, not flavor. You can't say you don't like a certain fruit or vegetable if you haven't actually tasted one. A real one. Not its storebought counterpart.
  4. SWAP YOUR DIET, SWAP YOUR CANCER RISK. Did you know South Africans on a traditional diet rarely have colon polyps? Why do Americans accept them as normal and just cross their fingers, hoping none of them get out of control? This Forbes article talks about our fiber-less American diet and its repercussions. Seriously. Eat more fruits and vegetables. And not processed ones. Fresh ones (or frozen). Fiber, fiber, fiber.
  5. MAKE YOUR KIDS LESS "CORNY." According to Never Out of Season and The Omnivore's Dilemma, we eat a lot of corn in North America. Not the on-the-cob kind, dripping with butter, but rather corn products. "In North America, more than half the carbon in the average child's body comes from corn--corn syrup, cornflakes, cornbread" (Never Out of Season, p.4). Lots and lots of corn syrup. Not to mention, our meat is often corn-fed. Skip the processed foods and feed your kids something fresh and whole, including grass-fed meat.
  6. CONJUGATE THAT LINOLEIC ACID. Speaking of pastured, did you know that even buying organic dairy doesn't guarantee the cows were sufficiently pastured? Check out this recent Washington Post article on some big organic dairy suppliers skimping on the requirements. The result? A nutritional profile to their milk more in line with conventional than pastured. I was bummed to see how mediocre-ly even Organic Valley scored. So ask our dairy farmers at the Market how much pasture their cows see!
  7. FIGHT AGING AND DISEASE--EAT FARM-FRESH EGGS. After getting a bad cholesterol rap for decades, eggs are back on the menu, and now eating an egg a day might have beneficial effects. But don't just eat any eggs--you want eggs from chickens who strut around on grass, supplementing their chicken feed with bugs and worms. You want eggs with thick whites and orange-y yolks. You want Market eggs.
  8. FIGURE OUT THAT "HOMEMADE" IS BETTER THAN PROCESSED. Once a month I participate in a church potluck, and it makes me frantic that the teenagers will reach for the uniform, processed desserts, rather than the irregular, homemade ones. Eek! It all goes back to not knowing what real food can taste like. The Market offers great ingredients for making your own goodies, as well as offerings lovingly prepared by artisan bakers and candy-makers and ice-creamers. If you're going to spend your calorie allowance, by all means make it count.
  9. PUT MONEY BACK IN YOUR OWN POCKET. Buying from our local farmers keeps the money circulating in our local economy and in our state. And our healthy economy is one of the reasons we live in such a great place!
  10. LIVE LONGER IN OUR GREAT PLACE. I bet physical therapists have a name for the posture and neck problems of people who spend 80% of the day staring at computer screens and their phones. Not only do we suffer aches and pains, but we actually shorten our lives because it's the face-to-face interactions that impact longevity, healthfulness, and general well-being. Befriend the farmers you meet at the Market. Make dates to meet your friends or significant others there for dinner and live music. Replace one texting exchange with a live-and-in-person encounter. You'll be happy you did, and you'll live longer to be happy about it.

 

Says who? Says Susan Pinker. Who, I'm positive, would love the Bellevue Farmers Market.

Says who? Says Susan Pinker. Who, I'm positive, would love the Bellevue Farmers Market.

Some Prebiotics for the Easter Table

The Easter Bunny, contemplating his prebiotic-laden grass

The Easter Bunny, contemplating his prebiotic-laden grass

A friend was recently telling me about the super-loaded probiotic supplement her husband was on. As we all know from the marketing deluge we stand under daily, probiotics are supposed to increase gut microbiome diversity and robustness, which will hopefully fix everything from inflammation to mental health to our corner of the universe.

As you know from past posts, I'm all in favor of a healthy gut and find the evidence convincing that a healthy gut is underrated. But, for the money, I'm going with prebiotics, rather than probiotics.

Author and doctor James Hamblin, who writes for The Atlantic, says consuming probiotic supplements "is like reaching into a bag labeled 'Assorted Seedlings' and taking a handful and throwing them into a forest...If some of them do grow, will they be good for the forest?" More helpful, he deems, is the consumption of "prebiotics," that is, things that promote a "diverse, robust microbiome." You might know them better as fruits and vegetables. Hamblin also notes that a Harvard study has shown that "diets high in meat and cheese rapidly and dramatically change microbiomes, limiting diversity and otherwise boding ill."

Now, I know holiday feasts are exempt from health concerns, and I fully plan on eating plenty of ham, deviled eggs, rolls, and pie, but in that microbiotic wasteland, a few fruits and vegetables could be a welcome addition. How about some of each?

Broccoli-Grape Salad

(serves 8 easily, especially if some present are kids)

4 c broccoli florets, in bite-size pieces

2 c green grapes, halved

1 c celery, sliced

1 c raisins

1/4 c roasted, salted pumpkin seeds

1/3 c mayonnaise

1/4 c yogurt or sour cream

2 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp white vinegar

Combine all and toss! Super easy.


Deborah Madison's Provencal Winter Squash Gratin

2-2.5 lb butternut squash

5 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 c chopped parsley

salt and pepper

3 Tbsp flour

Extra virgin olive oil

(optional: feel free to sprinkle a LITTLE brown sugar over the top)

Preheat the oven to 325F and butter a casserole dish. Peel the squash and cut it into little cubes, maybe 1/3" across. Toss cubes with the garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Add the flour and toss to coat. Spread the squash out in the dish and drizzle olive oil generously over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the squash is browned and tender, 1.5-2 hours. (You can completely make this a couple hours ahead and then give it a quick reheat before serving.)

When I served this up last night (and forgot to take pictures), it was eaten by 80% of the family. That is, by everyone but the 17-year-old. Even the boy had a second tiny helping, and that was just with 1 Tbsp of brown sugar sprinkled over the whole thing.

 

The Shakespeare Diet

For all its popularity, it's doubtful whether the Paleo Diet is really even possible in our day and age. According to Stanley Boyd Eaton, who, along with colleague Melvin Konner, originally wrote about "Paleolithic Nutrition" in a New England Journal of Medicine article, Paleolithic people "ate about three times as many fruits and vegetables as modern humans do." And, when they did get a hold of meat, it would've been now-widely-unavailable creatures like mammoths, not today's farmed chickens and cows, penned up and eating biologically-bizarre things. (Mammoth has occasionally been on the menu, when a carcass gets dug up, but even Paleolithic people might have turned their noses up at 250,000-year-old steaks.) Supposing we all upped our fruit and vegetable intake--the planet still could no longer support everyone eating a diet centered around meat. Which means, unless you're relatively rich and somewhat delusional, historic Paleo is off the table.

 

(This and other interesting tidbits can be found within these covers...)

(This and other interesting tidbits can be found within these covers...)

So if we can't go for a 10,000-year-old diet, would something more in the 500-year range be possible? Or at all beneficial? Well, it turns out life expectancy in the Tudor era (say 1485-1603 A.D.) wasn't any great shakes. On average, you were looking at your mid-30s, a little less if you were a woman, since childbirth was so perilous, but really if you made it through childhood you had a good chance of living longer. It was the high infant mortality that dragged overall life expectancy way down. In any case, though, few made it to old age. Accidents or disease dragged them off, since once you were sick you were basically a goner, however many times the local doctor might "bleed" you to be helpful.

On the plus side, food was local and unprocessed and low in sugar, so, even if you had a long enough life to develop metabolic syndrome, you usually didn't. Only the very rich, with access to lots of sugar and delicacies, suffered from gout or even tooth decay. (Henry VIII became famously enormous and unhealthy, and even Elizabeth I was reported to have blackened, rotting teeth.) So what did Shakespearean-era people eat? According to How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman, the common folk ate a lot of bread. But not bread like we know it.

 

Depending on where you lived in the country, your life might contain different combinations of grains. Bread made entirely from wheat was called "manchet bread" and was reserved for special occasions. The rest of the time your wheat would be mixed with rye or barley or oats or even acorn meal. But even manchet bread wasn't exactly equivalent to our modern loaves because Tudor wheat was not modern wheat.

Enormous genetic changes have occurred in varieties of bread wheat over the past 400 years, affecting the look, the yield and the nutritional make-up of the plants. Modern varieties of wheat are knee-high when fully grown, and the uniform grain-bearing stalks are tightly packed together in the field, each ear holding a dense cluster of up to fifty fat grains with plenty of gluten inside to give that soft, light, springy texture to bread that we have come to expect. (p.126)

But Tudor wheat? The author examines wheat found in thatched roofs and finds "short ears and long ones, hairy and smooth ones, red, white and grey ones, some which resemble spelt or emmer or rivet" (p.127) And the different varieties yielded different kinds of bread; for example, grey wheat "was often used for second-best bread, known as 'cheat bread.'" Not only was the wheat different, the yeasts and milling and kneading and baking techniques were different.

So what do they all taste like, these different grains, leavens, and bakes? In general they are good. The flavours are much stronger than most modern, commercially produced breads, which can be a little disconcerting to those accustomed to bland neutral flavours in their white loaf. Even the lightest, whitest of manchet breads is heavier, nuttier, denser and more filling than most of us are used to, and the commoner maslin and dredge breads are solid indeed by modern standards. (p141)

All of which means, if you decide to go on the Shakespearean diet, you're going to need to special order the heirloom wheats, mill it on stones, catch some yeast, and build your own bake oven. On the plus side, that chewier bread will strengthen your jaw muscles, which atrophy with age and disuse.

In addition to bread, the Tudor folk ate plenty of "pottage," or seasonal stew. Think pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold. You started with stock, added any meat or fish you had, thickened it with grain or pulses, jazzed it up with herbs, and added vegetables near the end. These stews live on in modern cooking, though we don't pay much attention to the seasons anymore.

If you were better off, you enjoyed open-roasted meats and imported ingredients, but in general, the masses were plagued by malnutrition diseases: rickets, scurvy, and anemia. The downside to local food, of course, being when local crops get hit hard. The rich would get by, as they always do, but if you didn't own land and couldn't make up calorie losses by hunting and fishing from your stocks, times were tough.

Maybe any historical diet takes a misleading view of history. After all, no one pictures themselves as the penniless beggars in period dramas, only as the well-to-do in their lovely outfits. So if I were to write a Shakespeare Diet book, I'd focus on the local, fresh, seasonal, genetically-varied food, with limited sugar and processing and--oh, wait--that diet book's been written a hundred times already.

I guess some things never change.

Betty Bought a Better Butter

As promised, this is the second installment of my butter researches, inspired by Elaine Khosrova's fun microhistory Butter: a Rich History.

 

Some varieties I found at the store

Some varieties I found at the store

For starters, while no one needs to be told that butter tastes wonderful, we were told it was a nutritional no-no for so long that it's worth reviewing where butter is a nutritional yes-yes. Especially pastured butter, where cows' milk has benefited from all the goodies grass contains.

  • Butter is chock-full of fat-soluble vitamins like A (vision, immune system, skin health), D, E, and K. We hear a lot in the Northwest about being Vitamin-D-deficient, given our sun's tendency to hide behind rain and clouds and our own tendency to cower in fear from the remaining sun exposure. Our resulting deficiency might lead to chronic diseases and even depression. Because we make vitamin D in response to sunshine, it's not much found in foods unless we add it back, like in milk. But vitamin D is naturally present in butter. Ditto for vitamin E.

 

  • Grass-fed butters are rich in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which prevents cell damage through its antioxidant powers.
  • And let's not forget vitamin K2 (not like the mountain--it's just that SquareSpace won't let me do subscripts). K2 promotes "healthy skin, forming strong bones, preventing inflammation, supporting brain function, reversing arterial calcification (aka 'hardening of the arteries')," and even helps to prevent cancer. Yowza.

If the fancy butters are cost-prohibitive, consider saving the grass-fed butter for when you're eating it straight on toast or biscuits or vegetables, and using less exciting stuff for baking. I made biscuits this week from her book recipe, in order to showcase butter.

 

Topped with pastured butter AND homemade apricot jam

Topped with pastured butter AND homemade apricot jam

I won't bother inserting her recipe here because it was pretty standard for a biscuit, although she added the trick of folding the patted-out rectangle of dough into thirds, patting out into a rectangle again, and folding in thirds once more. This gives you the layers of flaky biscuit you would find in a storebought canned biscuit. Pretty and delightful! She also substituted some cake flour for all-purpose flour, to increase lightness, but I thwarted this by substituting some whole-wheat pastry flour for all-purpose (because, really, otherwise you might as well make cupcakes).

If you don't pick up Khosrova's book, here are some of her recommended butters which I've seen in our local stores. To this list, of course, we can add our farmers' butters, when the Market starts up again next month!

Recommended Butters

Clover Organic Farms Unsalted Butter & Farmstead Organic European-Style Butter with Sea Salt (California)

Organic Valley Salted Butter& Pasture Butter, Salted (Wisconsin)

Cabot Creamery Unsalted Butter & 83 Unsalted Butter (Vermont)

Challenge Butter (California)

Kerrygold Pure Irish Salted Butter (Ireland)

Land O'Lakes Unsalted Sweet Cream Butter & European Style Super Premium Unsalted Butter (Minnesota)

Lurpak Salted Butter (Denmark)

Plugra European Style Unsalted Butter (Missouri)

Straus Family Creamery European-Style Organic Salted Butter (California

Tillamook Unsalted Sweet Cream Butter (Oregon)

We like salted butter, ourselves, even if the recipe calls for unsalted. And do note that not all the butters listed above are pastured, if that matters to you. Read the labels and have at it!

Like Buttah

Butter has made a comeback. Once we all got over our mistaken fear of fats (search my past posts on www.urbanfarmjunkie.blogspot.com if you didn't get the memo), there didn't seem any earthly reason to eat margarine ever again, unless it was for the original reason--that margarine is cheaper than butter. Back in the day when oleomargarine was made from beef tallow, milk, and annato-seed coloring, it gave industrial butter of uneven quality a run for its money, but those days are long gone. Even the most blah supermarket butter nowadays beats margarine hands-down.

In fact, attacks on butter in our time now come from the environmental direction. Check out this graphic Michael Pollan retweeted this morning:

 

Yep. Butter has been lumped in, so to speak, with environment-killing beef. We live in sad times. Omnivores like myself either have to (1) go vegan; (2) cut back; or (3) be richer. Out of the three options, I've chosen (2) and (3). Our family eats beef 1-2 times per week, and we fork over more money for pastured beef and milk and butter.  This week I picked up Elaine Khosrova's delightful microhistory  Butter: a Rich History .   

Yep. Butter has been lumped in, so to speak, with environment-killing beef. We live in sad times. Omnivores like myself either have to (1) go vegan; (2) cut back; or (3) be richer. Out of the three options, I've chosen (2) and (3). Our family eats beef 1-2 times per week, and we fork over more money for pastured beef and milk and butter.

This week I picked up Elaine Khosrova's delightful microhistory Butter: a Rich History.

 

She opens with a scene in Bhutan, of a little boy following his mom up the steep mountainside to go milk the yaks. (And if the thought of yak butter makes you yak, consider that is has "less milk sugar and more protein than cow's milk." Could it be the next hot Paleo food?)It reminded me of nothing so much as Heidi, and it turns out Heidi's life and food experience had more in common with Norbu and his mom than with us, her modern, post-Industrial-Revolution counterparts. Khosrova's account of historical dairying around the world brought not only Heidi to mind, but also Laura Ingalls Wilder making butter with Ma in Little House in the Big Woods and fallen-woman Tess Durbeyfield going incognito as a dairymaid in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Butter is big in literature. I doubt margarine shares its literary pedigree.

 

Tess at work (1891 Joseph Syddall illustration)

Tess at work (1891 Joseph Syddall illustration)

Butter: a Rich History is larded with fascinating facts. Who knew that goat butter was white, because goat milk lacks carotene? Or that camel milk has three times the vitamin C as goat milk (to which it is otherwise similar), but often the butter made from camel milk contains sand and--blurgh!--camel hair? Who knew that, in the 14th century, your average cow yielded 140-170 gallons of milk per season, but today's Holstein can flood us with 2,574 gallons? Who knew that what we call cultured butter today used to be the norm, when setting milk would attract environmental bacteria as it sat for a couple days? What we eat is "sweet cream butter," a pretty modern invention that arrived after cream could be instantly separated from milk and turned to butter, no wait period required. Before refrigeration, butter had to be salted to keep it from going rancid--salted to the point that you had to rinse and repeat before serving! And butter has always had a complex history with the environment: in the "Butter Belt" of the 18th century, dairies around Philadelphia wreaked havoc by dumping their excess buttermilk in the streams and rivers.

I especially enjoyed the discussion of how dairying and buttermaking moved from a woman's domain (think Tess and Marie Antoinette frolicking and posing in her Hameau de Versailles) to a man's industrial world. Quality went down; distribution and profits went up.

While I haven't finished the book yet (look for Part II next week), I'm already eager to try some of her recommended butters listed in the appendix. One warning: "many big brands...add 'natural' flavor (diacetyl) to their butter." I'm going to check that out, too. Keep you posted.

 

Custard's Last Stand

When I was a kid I had a Winnie the Pooh scratch-and-sniff book (a genre of books that really is ripe for a comeback). All these years later, I still remember my favorite page: where Kanga makes Roo a custard pie. I scratched that custard pie over and over and took deep whiffs until olfactory fatigue set in.

Was this the version?

Was this the version?

Well, yesterday being Pi Day and all, I got the urge to whip up a pie, but it turned out I only had ingredients for one kind: custard. There wasn't even a single can of pumpkin in the pantry, and certainly no baker's chocolate or fresh fruit in pie-making quantities. So custard it was. After all, custard is nothing more than eggs, sugar, milk/half-and-half, and vanilla.

I confess, I had memories of the Winnie the Pooh book spurring me on, and, of course, the homemade custard pie could not live up to the memory. But it was tasty, nonetheless, and quite simple to make. So, if you're looking for a mild, home-y pie, not too sweet, give this a try.

 

Sweet Auburn Old-Fashioned Egg Custard Pie

1 unbaked pie shell (use your favorite recipe)

4 eggs, beaten

3/4 c sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp nutmeg

2 c milk

1/2 c half-and-half

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 400F. In a medium bowl, mix eggs, sugar, salt, and nutmeg until well-blended. Gradually stir in milk, half-and-half, and vanilla.

Pour custard into unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle the pie with additional nutmeg. Bake for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350F and bake 35-45 minutes more, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool completely and then refrigerate until serving.

 

Scratch and sniff

Scratch and sniff

Hmm...typing this post has made me think another slice might do the trick. It's Wednesday morning, but, with so many eggs in it, custard pie is practically breakfast food...

Granola 2.0

Recently I was given a couple boxes of Seattle-made Marge Granola, which retails online and at various places in Washington, a box of the original flavor and one of the cacao-nib variety.

Marge-Original1-300x300.jpg

I'll say right off that it was absolutely delicious. Crunchy, flavorful, no weird ingredients. I'll say secondly that the stuff is quite pricey ($10 for a 12-oz box). Which means that, however much I like it, I'm unlikely ever to buy any because granola is so easy to make. 

In the past I've recommended Deborah Madison's recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but after tasting some homemade granola we received as a gift and the Marge varieties, I'm actually jumping ship on our old standby, in favor of a lighter, crunchier variation.

Enter Love Your Leftovers

You might remember this book from when I posted on black bean tacos. That inspired me to get a copy from the library and see what else Nick Evans might suggest. it's a beautiful book full of good ideas, but the first one to grab me was his granola recipe because it contained less honey and oil than Deborah Madison's. Even so, I modified it a wee bit for personal preferences (e.g., I don't like sunflower seeds, and I wanted a little oil in it so the honey would come out of the measuring cup).

Cranberry-Pumpkinseed-Sesame Granola

Cranberry-Pumpkinseed-Sesame Granola

Nearly-Oil-Less-Nick's Granola Recipe

6 cups rolled oats

1 cup slivered almonds

1/2 cup shelled pumpkin seeds (from the bulk aisle)

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp salt

2 Tbsp mild vegetable oil, swirled around liquid measuring cup, and then fill the rest of the way to the 2/3 cup mark with honey

1 c dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 325F. Mix all the dry ingredients except cranberries and drizzle in oil-honey mixture. Stir well to combine. Spread out on two baking sheets. Bake 20-25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes to keep from browning too much at the edges.

Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes. Then add cranberries and let cool completely.

Store in an airtight container.


It's delicious, easy, and, if you buy the ingredients in the bulk aisle, pretty cheap! Plus, this version stays nice and crunchy, isn't too sweet, and has more protein for the carb-fearing. In his cookbook, author Evans offers all sorts of suggestions for how to cook with the granola, but I haven't tried a single one because I'm hoarding it all to eat for breakfast. Maybe the next batch...

You Put What in Your Mouth?

Just yesterday, my thirteen-year-old, who has been my Bellevue Farmer Market shopping partner since she was teeny-tiny, asked, “Can we buy some maraschino cherries?”

Ye olde Wikipedia maraschino cherry

Ye olde Wikipedia maraschino cherry

Bad timing on her part. Not only was I driving, but I’d just that day read a book about the ingredients in our foods, in which was a section on those wretched “cherry cordial” candies, where you bite hopefully into a lump of chocolate, only to have it ooze out a tablespoon of cloying goo and a maraschino cherry. Ugh. Has anyone ever found that a pleasant surprise?

“Maraschino cherries are fake!” I cried. “They’re pumped full of sugar and dye!”

“But they taste good.” (This interchange is only a sample of why I now, with three teenagers in the house, consider myself an utter parenting failure and have set fire to any manuscripts of parenting books I was drafting.)

According to This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth, a compilation of columns with the same name from Wired Magazine, maraschino cherries are generally Michigan cherries pumped full of Red Dye #40 (petroleum-derived), sulfur dioxide (to prevent browning), and two types of corn syrup.

I: “I’ll buy real cherries.”

13YO: “But you never do!”

I: (Sputtering in the face of this outright lie) “I buy them when they’re in season!”

So you see, not only have I failed to impart a delight in fresh, whole foods, but somehow seasonality has totally escaped my children as well. Even though (apart from apples and pears brought out of cold storage) I never buy out-of-season fruit at the store. Alas.

In any case, if you’re still a hold-out for fresh, whole, seasonal food that isn’t highly processed, you may like indulging in Schadenfreude by reading this book.

 

Di Justo collects his fun, interesting findings and delivers them with humor. For example, who knew that it wasn't just your (disgusted) brain telling you wet dog food was stinky? Because dogs are scavengers and love the smell of freshly dead carrion, one of the "natural flavors" added to canned food is sort of “Death-y.” Or did you know that Beano's active ingredient breaks up the gas-inducing culprit raffinose into simpler galactose and sucrose molecules--you digest without the “music,” but you're getting about four extra grams of carbs for every hundred grams you eat.

If you’re a food reader, you may have already known that real cheesemakers wanted the canned stuff labeled as "embalmed cheese" because of its sodium phosphate (embalming fluid) component, but did you also know that locust bean gum was used by ancient Egyptians to keep those mummy wrappings nice and tight?

Some foods tend to be not as awful as I would’ve imagined. Take Slim Jim “meat sticks,” for example. Really just salami-like material. So, if salami doesn’t gross you out, neither will a Slim Jim. Nor was I dismayed by sugarless gum and the thought of chewing tree sap that also gets used in tires(!!!) because who cares? People have been doing it for thousands of years.

The author ventures outside the food aisles as well, into such mysteries as hair dye and Rain-X and fabric softener. The fabric softener was an eye-opener—the secret ingredient being animal fat, to give our laundry that soft, silky feeling. Mmmm…

All in all, the book made for a quick, fun read, and if you never pick it up, I’ll just leave you with this tip: if you’re scheduled for a cranial MRI, skip the mascara. That thing won’t know if you have luscious lashes anyhow, and the metal in your mascara can throw off the readings! Who knew?

Eating Like Champions

Patriorts.jpg

I planned not to watch the Super Bowl this year. I didn't buy any avocados; I didn't make any seven-layer dip; I didn't invite myself to anyone's party. Because I knew the Patriots would win and had no interest in seeing happy New England fans or supermodel-selfie-sideline celebrations. Of course, with our new Alexa dot, I couldn't help asking the score from time to time, and eventually I was lured by Atlanta's deceptive lead into watching the second half. My mistake. Ugh. Nauseating image courtesy of NBC News

However, Tom Brady's latest triumph has revived national curiosity: how does the man do it? How does he play so well for so long and marry a supermodel and win over and over and over again? One key put out there is the family diet: like a Michael Pollan book, the Brady-Bundchens eat mostly plants, no processed food, no sugar, hardly any meats. Business Insider headlines this as an "insane" diet, and, while I wouldn't go that far, I'd agree that it's a tough one for Americans to imitate. It's expensive, it requires lots of cooking and prep (tough, if you don't have a personal chef), and it makes you give up many ingredients that make life worth living. When asked what the Brady-Bundchens consider "comfort food," according to the article, their chef responded:

I've just did this quinoa dish with wilted greens. I use kale or Swiss chard or beet greens. I add garlic, toasted in coconut oil. And then some toasted almonds, or this cashew sauce with lime curry, lemongrass, and a little bit of ginger. That's just comfort food for them.

Tasty? Sounds like it. Comfort food? Uh...I guess if you take comfort in how your money and elite lifestyle shelter you from the mac-and-cheese of the masses.

But while we can't all live round-the-clock like triumphant Brady-Bundchens, we can try to inject a little Food of Champions into our week. To help you out, I'm including a couple recipes I'm sure they'd approve.

Confetti Quinoa Salad from THE NO MEAT ATHLETE COOKBOOK

 

Confetti Quinoa Salad

2 cups cooked, cooled quinoa (see what I mean about lots of time to cook?)

1 cup diced pineapple

1 cup corn

1 diced red bell pepper

1 diced red onion

2 scallions, sliced

1 large tomato, chopped

lime-cumin vinaigrette or avocado-lime dressing till moist (use your fave recipe--Deborah Madison has a good one)

1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds or pine nuts

1/4 cup cilantro

Toss all together and salt and pepper to taste.

And then there's the kale salad I've eaten and then made numerous times, and which a recent non-kale-fan declared "the best salad you can make with kale." Don't skimp on using all the dressing because it weighs the ingredients down and makes the kale tasty.

More than a Pinch of Yum

 

Pinch of Yum's Chopped Thai Salad w Sesame-Garlic Dressing

5 cups Baby kale or slivered dinosaur kale, stems removed

2 Bell peppers, julienned

3 lg Carrots, grated or julienned

1 cup Cilantro, chopped

16 oz Edamame, cooked and pulsed a couple times in food processor

3 cloves Garlic, minced

3 Green onions, sliced

3/4 cup cashews, toasted and chopped

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, leaving out the cashews if you're not serving it right away. Then, combine dressing ingredients and toss. Right before serving, sprinkle with the cashews.

Dressing:

1/3 cup Canola oil

2 tbsp Distilled vinegar, white

1 tbsp Sesame oil

2 Tbsp water

3 Tbsp soy sauce

squeeze of lime juice

squeeze of lemon juice

2 Tbsp honey

There you go. With these two salads, prepare to conquer.

Sugaring Off in 2017

29983426.jpg

One week remains on the yearly No-Sugar January, but I read the perfect book to help me continue the trend into February (my all-time record is until March). Reading this book, in fact, had me drinking Oolong tea for two days, so that I could forego the usual teaspoon I put in a cup of English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

They say when you find a hammer, the whole world is a nail, and that is indeed the case with Taubes. In the book, sugar gets blamed for the whole suite of Western diseases: diabetes (and insulin resistance), obesity, high triglycerides, metabolic syndrome, inflammation--even gout and possibly certain dementias! Indeed, something has to be blamed for the rise in these illnesses all around the world, tracking perfectly with the Westernization of diet around that same world. As became more apparent as time passed, the culprit wasn't saturated fat, as we were told for decades, so the witch hunt was back on.

Going through the research, as Taubes does at length, there are some major strikes against sugar:

  • Processing fructose in the body requires the production of insulin. (Table sugar is made up of half fructose and half glucose, which abets the digestion of fructose.) Consuming a lot of sugar leads to chronically elevated insulin levels.
  • Calories that get stored as fat only get released from fat cells and burned as energy when insulin levels in the body drop. So, if your insulin is always elevated, the fat never gets released, and you get fatter and fatter.
  • Chronically elevated insulin levels lead to insulin resistance, which is tied to everything from high blood pressure to elevated triglycerides to inflammation to creating and feeding hungry cancer cells.

The problem with most studies done on humans is that there is neither the money, time, nor inclination to do long-term research, and sugar takes a while to wreak havoc. One study thought sugar was just fine, but that was when consumed at the then-current rate of forty-two pounds per person per year. We blew past that number decades ago and now sit at about ninety pounds! Even if we don't drink soda or eat many desserts, sugar is omnipresent in processed foods, from bread to salad dressing to cereal to most peanut butters. (After reading this book, I'm switching brands of whole-wheat bread. Too much sugar in the one we have in the house.)

Another fascinating path Taubes goes down is to recount the tobacco industry's history with sugar. I had no idea "American blend" cigarette tobaccos mixed a roasted, caramelized tobacco variety with another variety that had actually been marinated in sugar solution! The sweetness both increased the inhalability of the tobacco and the nicotine delivered. Amazing. Toxic, addictive, and amazing. Sugar helped tobacco lure new smokers, and it made the smoke more deadly.

As I head to the dentist for more fillings this morning, it's hard to argue that sugar needs to be eaten. Yes, it tastes wonderful, preserves food, and does seem to provide a brief, accessible energy boost, but, as Sugar-Free January proves every year, it can be eaten in miniscule amounts and not be missed, for the most part.

Laura and Mary during annual "sugaring off" time in Wisconsin [Garth Williams]So consider extending your reduced-sugar period this year and saving the sugar blowouts for special occasions. Your triglycerides will thank you for it.

Tiny Habits Make a Big Impact

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You all might know I love brain books. How the thing works; how the thing doesn't work when it gets damaged or old; what can be done to make the thing work better, and so on. For example, some favorite recent reads include: How the thing works

 

What happens when the thing gets damaged

 

What can be done to make the thing work better

In this season of New Year's Resolutions, I was particularly interested in how we form habits. After all, the only hope we have of keeping a resolution to eat better or exercise more is to make it habitual, rather than an act of willpower. Willpower falters sooner or later, and when it does, things tend to come down with a crash. We not only put the weight back on, but we add more. We not only skip the gym, but we decide to binge-watch a TV show while we lounge on the couch eating ice cream. We need the power of habit on our side. If we automate the good choices, they require no effort and are much more likely to happen. A book I read some years ago claimed we go through 40% of our daily activities on autopilot! That's a lot of the day. So why not use it to our advantage?

40%, says Charles Duhigg

Stanford tweeted out this interesting article on exactly this question: how do we form new habits and use this technique to make the habits beneficial ones? It turns out the answer is baby steps. Or "tiny habits," to use their phrase.

And lo, anyone could participate in a five-day-long tiny-habit training for free! i joined immediately, participated last week, and am now reporting back on my findings.

It works like this:

  1. You pick something you already do habitually, and tack on a TINY habit at the end. They give the example of: "After I brush my teeth, I will floss ONE tooth."
  2. When you have completed the tiny habit, you mini-celebrate, so that it gains a positive association in your brain.
  3. You practice a few times in a row before the five-day session begins, and then you just do it when it naturally occurs during the five days.

During the session, you get a daily email checking on your progress, and you can watch videos on Facebook and ask questions with a coach. They ask that you attempt three tiny habits in your sessions. The general theory is that, once you know how to create a helpful mini habit, it will lead into better behaviors and enable you to add other good habits incrementally.

So I picked:

  • After putting breakfast dishes in dishwasher, I will wipe one surface. (Promote cleanliness.)
  • After taking off my shoes when I come home, I will go up the stairs and back down. (Promote exercise.)
  • After getting into bed at night, I will thank God for one thing that happened that day. (Promote spiritual growth and attitude of gratitude.)

For the mini-celebrations afterward, I totally forgot to celebrate wiping a surface (and that habit was the most frequently forgotten), but I did "Felix" after going up the stairs and back down--

How Felix reacted to his perfect game, and how I reacted to keeping my tiny habit

and that habit stuck! Sometimes I found myself leaving my shoes on longer because I knew I couldn't run upstairs right away and didn't want to get out of the habit of doing those two activities back-to-back. I also forgot to celebrate my last tiny habit after getting in bed but found this was an easier habit to remember because there isn't a heck of a lot going on the second you crawl under the cold sheets.

Did I get cleaner? Well, I wiped a few surfaces and also made the bed twice. Did I get more active? Apart from going up and down the stairs when required, no. Did I get more spiritual and grateful? Actually, I'd say I found it was a great way to end the day. And I'm still continuing the habits this week, so the experiment was an overall partial success. Certainly worth doing again and adding in another tiny helpful habit or two.

So if your New Year's Resolutions have already gone by the wayside, don't give up! Just start smaller. Sign up for a Tiny Habits session and see what happens. And feel free to "Felix" if you find something to celebrate.

Go With Your Gut in 2017

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It turns out that we were on to something with expressions like "my gut tells me" and "I just have a gut feeling." As I first read in

last year, our bowels have a mysterious emotional connection to our brain, producing 95% of our seratonin, for example. And there's a reason nervousness gives us butterflies in our gut, not our brain. We ignore our guts at our peril, in terms of our emotional health.

Well, this December I picked up another book on the under-appreciated gut:

The cover makes it sound like a diet book, but, really, the authors, who hail from Stanford, give a great laymen's background on our gut and its bacterial population. Yes, they give some tips for improving gut health, which I'll get to, but first they just have plenty of fascinating information to share.

First off, whether or not you have the gift of hospitality, your body hosts bazillions of bacteria. On your hand alone "there are more microbes present...than there are people in the world." For germaphobes, this news might freak them out, but the Sonnenburgs want us to know that the bacteria our bodies have learned and evolved to live with are largely helpful. It's only when the helpful little guys are absent or decimated that the few bacterial villains gain a toehold and make us very, very sick. Our "gut flora" help us extract nutrients from food, bolster our immune system, and communicate with our brains. They can even determine if we tend toward leanness or obesity! When the populations of various bacteria are underfed, they might go extinct (freeing up more gut space for harmful bacteria) or start eating the mucus lining of our large intestine, destroying the protective layer between everything coming into the body and the bloodstream.

In our modern Western world,

Four factors have greatly changed gut flora in individuals in our population over the past few decades. They are: 1) increasing consumption of industrialized, processed foods, 2) widespread use of antibiotics, 3) the alarming rise in Caesarean deliveries, now accounting for one in every three births, and 4) the decline in breast-feeding.

What happens when our gut flora get out of wack?

Dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance, is observed in people with a variety of health problems such as Crohn's disease, metabolic syndrome, colon cancer, and even autism. In fact, it is getting more and more difficult to find a health condition that has not been linked to aberrations within the microbiota.

The authors are careful to emphasize that correlation is not causation, and they go carefully through the data (mostly on mice studies at this point), but certainly promoting gut health wouldn't make any of those conditions worse and would probably yield related and unrelated benefits. There's absolutely nothing to be lost in promoting gut health.

Some circumstances we can't help, like being born by unexpected C-section, but the authors ensured that their C-section daughters received a good swabbing with mom's birth canal bacteria, since that first essential exposure populates the infant's clean system with tried-and-true good flora. Breast milk further provides some incredibly complex carbs too expensive to reproduce in the lab, feeding those good bacteria and ensuring that they flourish. If you missed both those boats with your kids, despair not, but do try to keep them off the antibiotics when possible, since "antibiotic use in children is associated with an increased risk for a number of ailments such as asthma, eczema, and even obesity." Similarly, antibiotic used in adults usually wipes out plenty of the healthy bacteria along with the culprits, leaving us vulnerable to the bad guys taking hold and creating super bugs. (Wonder why old folks are so vulnerable to food-borne bacterial infection? Aging decreases the variety of our gut flora!)

The good news is, we can impact and maintain the health of our gut flora with a few key decisions. With these in mind, I came up with my 2017 New Year's Resolutions.

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables--for the fiber! No matter what health/wellness book you read, there's no escaping this one. All that natural fiber keeps our flora hard at work, keeps them from eating the mucosal intestinal lining, and reduces inflammation.
  2. Ditch the refined flours. In order for our flora to have something to eat and break down and work on, they need food that doesn't turn instantly to sugar before it even gets to them. Go whole grain. Watch for "glycemic load."
  3. Reduce the meat a little.  I'm looking at you, Paleo dieters. This one will be tough with us because I have a teenage son who needs the protein and is constantly starving.

Several studies show that a meat-centered diet impacts the microbiota in a way that is detrimental to health. Within four weeks, dieters on a high-protein, reduced carbohydrate regimen had a dramatic increase in both the amount of [short chain fatty acids] and fiber-derived antioxidants they produced and a buildup of hazardous metabolites in their colons. This type of environment would negatively affect long-term colon health by increasing the risk for inflammatory diseases and colon cancer.

Finally, you may wonder if consuming probiotics helps. All the marketing gimmicks aside, consumption of live-culture yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, etc. increases the number of transient bacteria moving through your system, and "there is evidence that the presence of probiotic bacteria passing through us reinvigorates our body's defenses against invading pathogens." Not bad, for tourists. They also promote the secretion of that glorious, protective intestinal mucus. So let's say, as a last Resolution:

4. Add some probiotics to the diet.

I'm headed to the store to pick up some yogurt and maybe some kefir to experiment with. I'll keep you posted.

 

Why Diets Make Us Fat: Book Review

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As one of the few remaining people in America who've never seen a TED talk, I came upon Sandra Aamodt's fascinating research findings via a good old-fashioned book. dietsIt seems that 108 million Americans went on a diet in 2015. "Yet research shows that dieters almost always regain their lost weight within a few years, no matter which diet plan they follow. In fact, they often regain more weight than they've lost" (p2). This isn't news, right? Everyone who has dieted or who knows someone who has dieted has also probably known a yo-yoer. The questions seems to be how long of a string their yo-yo has: will the weight come back in six months? A year? Two years? Hard to say because, as Aamodt points out, most diet studies end after six months, when a reasonable success rate can still be claimed, and then by two years, the yo-yo has returned to its starting point (if not overshooting it), and the person has gone on to the next diet. Oh, the humanity.

What is Aamodt's response to the ineffective-diet dilemma? Stop dieting.

Why? Because it doesn't work.

Why doesn't it work? Isn't it just because I've tried the wrong diet, or I got stressed out and blew it and just need to get back on?

The brain has a body weight range that it prefers and will defend for each individual. The brain's weight-regulation system will maintain a stable, healthy weight for most people, if it is allowed to do its job without interference (p3).

There was good news and bad news in that statement. The good news: a body in tune to its hunger and fullness cues will maintain its preferred weight range, irrespective of occasional indulgences or lapses in trips to the gym. The bad news: if you're trying to go below your body's preferred weight range, you're fighting a losing battle.

Aamodt goes into a thorough discussion of the evolutionary purposes of how and why we gain weight under different circumstances, and how our body fights to maintain the preferred weight range. Sadly for us, living in our age of easy food abundance, while we cannot lower this preferred weight range, we can RAISE it by continual overeating and making temporary weight gains permanent. Bummer. The brain learns to defend the new higher weight.

When we diet, cutting calories and possibly increasing exercise, our body compensates. It makes us hungrier. It lowers our metabolism and energy levels. Maintaining the diet and fitness requirements requires active thought and effort, something our body tries to minimize when possible because they're energy-intensive. As a result, when a stress hits us, we lapse back into low-energy habits. Our willpower goes out the window as too expensive, energy-wise, and we wolf down whatever we can get our hands on. The yo-yo heads back upward.

Only 15 percent of dieters managed to maintain a weight at least 22 pounds below their starting point for three or more years. And the more weight people lose, the more likely they are to gain it back...Within four years, two out of five dieters end up heavier than they were before they lost weight. Deliberate attempts to become thinner strongly predict weight gain over the long term, even when researchers take initial weight, diet, and exercise habits into account. Because dieting is more likely to make people fatter than thinner in the long run, the increased prevalence of dieting over the past few decades may itself be one cause of the increase in the obesity rate. (pp20, 22)

What solutions does Aamodt offer?

  • Learn to accept your weight range. It doesn't necessarily mean you're in bad health, especially if you do exercise moderately.
  • Healthy is better than thin. "Women at the low end of the so-called normal range, with a BMI of 18.5 to 20, have the same risk of early death as women at the low end of the obese range, between 30 and 35" (p189). Who has the lowest risk? "People in the so-called overweight range," indicating the ranges are set too low.
  • Eat mindfully, to prevent your defended range from creeping up. Here the usual tips come in: use smaller plates, turn off the TV, wait five minutes before going back for more, stop when you're full. Develop new habits, since so much of eating is habitual. Don't practice deprivation; allow yourself your favorite foods, but stop when you've had enough. The first bites always taste the best anyhow--we just stop noticing and shovel the rest in.
  • Move around more. Don't become a crazy exerciser, because that just makes you hungrier and can't be maintained, in most cases. Just move more.

Diets do offer the comfort of those boiled-down rules and regulations, to be followed for however long you last on it, so Aamodt names four health habits which "predict much of the risk of dying over the next fourteen years, regardless of weight" (p202):

  1. Don't smoke.
  2. Exercise at least twelve times per month.
  3. Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
  4. Drink (wine), and do it moderately. <1 drink a day for women; 2 drinks per day for men.

Bummer for me, since I hate exercise and drink about a glass of wine per year, but there's still hope for the rest of you!

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Our Market may be over for the season (sniff!), but don't let that stop you from keeping up the good eating habits. Kick off your off-season with this Ham and Sweet Potato Hash that my whole family actually eats!