Health and fitness, diet and nutrition, solitude and occasional melancholy…and a really nice pair of socks
With the holiday season comes the inevitable worry of expanding waistlines and depressing weigh-ins. For me this is a year round concern, so nothing is different right now. I avoid temptation by doing very little socializing. Actually, temptation is no longer a problem for me. I am so frightened of sweets and baked goods that I can no longer partake of them with any pleasure. This change in attitude – and believe me, it was a big, big change – occurred eleven years ago when I first found out that I have Type Two Diabetes. As the potential complications were being enumerated, my doctor got to diabetic retinopathy…and she did not need to go any further. I was scared straight, from that moment.
In fact, I was so scared, I virtually stopped ingesting carbohydrates, convinced that they were my sworn enemy, out to inflict loss of vision on the world’s most compulsive reader. This is NOT what I was advised to do. A moderate intake of carbohydrates is necessary for good health. Note the use of the word “moderate.” A dietician calculated what I should be eating along those lines; her conclusions were based on my sex and my weight. She was being reasonable; I was being terrified. I not only cut out carbohydrates, I drastically reduced fat. What was left? Mainly protein laden foods like beef, chicken, fish, and eggs, and rabbit food – sorry, salads. I quickly got sick of garden salads. I hated – and still hate – steak, though I can tolerate ground beef. I ate numerous hamburgers (no rolls – those things are loaded with carbs), eggs, and a little cheese – strangely, the sole dairy product almost completely free of carbohydrates. I cared only about lowering my blood sugar to an acceptable (for me) level. I achieved this goal in fairly short order. In the process, in the space of a few short weeks, I lost 37 pounds.
I also lost almost all joy in the consuming of food, up until then my chief joy in the world. Eating became an activity inextricably mixed with anxiety. I was so repulsed by the food I could eat in any quantity, and so filled with longing for the food that I could eat only in minuscule amounts, that the whole enterprise began to seem pointless. I thought I’d take on cooking as a challenge but it soon began to seem like an onerous chore. (And I so missed those heaping plates of pasta!)
Eventually, I stabilized my relationship with food. There are some things I have pretty much sworn off entirely: rice, pasta, bananas, nearly all sweets, most baked goods. I knew I could not give up bread completely, so I still have it, but in very small quantity, and almost always in its multi-grain or whole wheat form.
I’ve always loved what I ate between meals much more than the meals themselves. These are the items that keep me from going crazy when desperate for something to snack on: . It’s probably needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: the aforementioned can in no way take the place of the beloved and still longed for: .
Three other items are of critical importance to my eating life. In fact, they represent to high points of my day. For breakfast, I have one of the Kashi whole grain cereals. Loaded with fiber and occasionally enriched with dried fruit, the taste is one of natural sweetness (though I add Stevia anyway). This is my current favorite: For lunch, I have a sugar free (or no sugar added) muffin baked by the excellent folks at Butterfly Bakery. Brenda Isaac began creating these recipes in 1998 with her own mother, a diabetic, in mind: “As I shared my creations with family and friends, I realized there was a real need for these products in the marketplace.” This gifted baker also observed that”….the choices in the marketplace were unappealing and limited.” Well, Ms Isaac, all I can say is that you have earned the everlasting gratitude of this constantly-feeling-deprived diabetic!
Every night my dessert is the same: one Carb Smart ice cream bar from Breyers. Six net carbs! (‘Net carbs’ means the number of grams of carbohydrates minus the number of grams of fiber. If you’re diabetic, fiber is your friend.)
What I really wanted to write about here is the emotional impact of all of this. Like many Type Two diabetics, I have struggled all my life to control my weight. I have gained, lost, and then gained back more pounds than I’d like to count. It was only the threat of vision loss that was powerful enough to get me on the wagon for good.
So, isn’t this a good thing? Of course it is, but it has come at a cost. I’ve made a number of discoveries since embarking on this life of Being on a Diet Forever. One is that you cannot force yourself to love broccoli. (My gorgeous, slender daughter-in-law Erica actually does love it, wouldn’t you know!)
Another is that it’s the anticipation of eating something you know you love, as opposed to the actual consumption of same, that provides the major mood lift. I’d be thinking happily of settling down on my favorite soft couch reading spot with a good book and a bag of chips. Immediately thereafter I would realize with a sharp pang that although the former was permissible, indeed desirable, the latter was not. I felt a momentary panic. Would reading, and my joy in it, still be possible without the accompanying, seemingly essential Joy Bringer? Only time would tell….
Time has told. I am reading now more compulsively than ever. And enjoying it. Loving it, really. But as for the rest of life, abstention from chips, cookies, cake, big hunks of crusty French bread, heaping bowls of pasta, rice, and French fried – French fries! – has exacted a price. If you’ve used food for mood control purposes your entire life, and then you have to stop doing that, you do suffer a kind of withdrawal, or at least, I did. You may not be as effortlessly happy as you once were. I’m not.
I have also kept off all of that 37 pounds.
I do not want this little piece to degenerate into a whining plea for pity. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a terrific primary physician and an equally terrific husband, both of whom have been unstinting in their support. (This is the same husband whose favorite, somewhat modified article title is: “Health and Nutrition, Its Prevention and Cure.” He trots this out every time he feels annoyed at yet another lecture in writing from the food police.) I know that there are people facing far more dire challenges to their health with courage and resolve that I am almost certainly incapable of summoning.
Much more could be said on this subject, but I’d rather, at this point, move on to the fitness component. The fun factor is much greater there. Besides, I must get to work on the Boeuf Bourgignon. This dish is one of the few that I still enjoy cooking. The recipe comes from The Art of Cooking for the Diabetic. . (I’ve written about this before, in a somewhat different context.)
And so: on to Part Two, in which, among other things, the mystery of the Really Nice Socks will be revealed….
Kathleen Flinn takes the Book Babes book club on a delightful – and delectable! – excursion to The City of Light in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry
This past Sunday night, the Book Babes (also known by its more refined name, the Literary Ladies) discussed The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. This is a memoir of Flinn’s experience attending the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. Most emphatically, this is not a book I would ordinarily choose to read on my own, but our leader was to be Jean, who herself just got back from Paris. Her presentation really brought the author’s experience to life for us. And of course, as always, it was a pleasure to hear the fluent French that trips so easily and beautifully off her tongue.
The Sharper Your Knife belongs in the genre (subgenre?) of culinary memoirs. The reason I personally shy away from these books – from any books about the cooking life, in fact – is that Type Two Diabetes has caused me to develop an extremely vexed relationship with food. Fact is, though, that I was never an especially good cook. Why go to all that trouble, after all, when my absolute favorite thing to eat could be found safely sealed in a bag? No freshness issues here; I always knew they would taste great – would crunch deliciously – would make me feel wonderful…. Yes, here they are again: . Ah,yes; once they were to me what the Sirens were to Ulysses and his shipmates – but alas, those days are gone forever…
Well – back to the book: Kathleen Flinn’s Cordon Bleu experience made for some pretty entertaining reading. And talk about going to trouble! Some of those dishes, not to mention the techniques that had to be mastered beforehand, were positively mind boggling in their complexity. As someone who considers the production of a decent plate scrambled eggs a culinary triumph, I was deeply impressed, I can tell you! Of course, the Cordon Bleu students get to concentrate on the food preparation while someone else does the washing up. In fact, when Flinn tells us about one of the dishwashers, I thought she was speaking of genus Whirlpool or Bosch, but no – she was actually referring to “…a tiny, pleasant Algerian who comes up as high as my shoulders.” Les plongeurs, Flinn assures us, form a vital component of the Cordon Blue staff: “They’re the only ones who can get you a passoire when urgently needed.” (A passoire is a colander or strainer. When I did an image search on this term, I got this unexpectedly delightful result.)
I liked the bright and breezy style with which Kathleen Flinn narrates her Parisian life in general, and her cooking school experiences in particular. Chapters have headings like “La Catastrophe Americaine;” these are usually followed by “Lesson highlights;” in this case: “The International Buffet, Why You Can’t Make Substitutions with Cheesecake.” As one would expect, there are plenty of recipes, ranging all the way from surprisingly basic to dauntingly complex. (There’s an index to the recipes in the back of the book.) At this point in my life, I cannot read a recipe without first assessing the dish’s carbohydrate content. The French tendency to bake food en croute – wrapped in pastry – and the frequent presence of potatoes, rice, and pasta caused me to shake my head sadly. But there were a good number of recipes that were fairly low in carbs. For instance, there’s a recipe I’d like to try for Diffusion de Tomate Provencal – Provencal Tomato Spread. The ingredients are as follows: olive oil, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, Nicoise olives, capers, fresh basil, and coarse sea salt. Of course, what do you do with this delectable mixture? Spread it on bread or crackers, of course, those notorious repositories of carbohydrates! But even I must consume some carbs, after all, and Kathleen recommends this spread for seared or grilled fish as well.
Flinn introduces us to her fellow Cordon Bleu students, and we get to share in their awe as they’re taught by the creme de la creme of the culinary universe. I expected to encounter screaming, uncompromising perfectionists who would think nothing of humiliating the poor struggling students. That did happen a couple of times, but mostly Flinn describes individual chefs who are eccentric rather than tyrannical, each with his own unique approach to the art of la cuisine francaise. (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, as there seemed to be very few, if any, women chefs on the premises.)
And speaking of which, Flinn was at a distinct linguistic disadvantage when she began her studies: her knowledge of French was rudimentary at best. The school did provided translators, but not on every occasion. As her tenure at the school progressed, Flinn’s grasp of the language did likewise. I was once more reminded - as if I needed reminding – of the beauty of this language, which I can read with a fair amount of fluency but can speak only in a very halting fashion. (I was also reminded of the delightful film series from the BBC Sandrine’s Paris, featuring art historian Sandrine Voillet. This aired some months ago on PBS and has since been rebroadcast at least once that I know of. Otherwise, both the book and the DVD are difficult to obtain here. )
While at the Cordon Bleu, Flinn was also in the midst of a rapturous love affair, begun in Seattle, and continued in France when Mike, the object of her affection, flew over to join her there. Jean asked us if we became impatient with the details of this relationship – but we older and wiser folk (plus the young and already wise Joanne) declared that if you couldn’t indulge your passions in Paris – well, then, where could you?
Another theme running though The Sharper Your Knife is the abandonment of an unrewarding job, or series of jobs, in order to pursue a dream. This is what Kathleen Flinn did when she decided to move to Paris and enroll at the Cordon Bleu. I admired her daring; I also wondered at her ability to get along without a regular paycheck – an ability apparently shared by Mike. (Well, it’s good to have things in common with the one you love!)
For me, the most interesting part of this book came near the end, when Flinn’s class took a field trip to Rungis. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Well may you ask. I had never heard of it, but Rungis, located on the outskirts of Paris, is purported to be the largest wholesale food market in the world. It replaced Les Halles, the storied marketplace that had existed in the heart of the city for hundreds of years. In 1971, Les Halles shut down, to be replaced by Marche d’Interet National de Rungis. Click here for the market’s official site. And don’t miss the video of the month. You’ll hear some lovely French spoken, as praise is heaped upon the humble turnip!
Here are some pictures of the market: . Click here to see more, but I should warn you: formerly living creatures destined for the dinner table are delivered to the market – shall we say, unprocessed. This includes rabbits…sigh. It’s enough to make one a vegetarian, n’est-ce pas? Dealing with raw ingredients in this form was something that Kathleen Flinn had to work to get used to. (Full disclosure: I had a grilled hamburger at Applebee’s last night – delicious!)
The French do love their meat. In fact, many of the recipes that Flinn first learned featured “meat stuffed with meat.” When my son and his wife were in Paris last Spring, they had to search long and hard for a vegetarian restaurant. (They finally succeeded in finding one – I don’t recall its name. They also took some great pictures.)
Inevitably, as our discussion wound down, much longing was expressed to be once again in the City of Light, where Jean just was and where lucky Marge and her husband will be next month. I was last there in 1995, when my son was spending a college semester there. I have intensely happy memories of that time, especially of my solo visit to the Musee Cluny ( now the Musee national du Moyen Age), where I sat for some time communing with the fabulous Unicorn Tapestries.
Thanks to Jean for the lively discussion of a rather unusual selection that proved to be exactement a propos. What we really need to do, of course, is to descend on the city en masse, with Jean as our guide!
Here’s another recent film I look forward to viewing: It too appeared recently on PBS. I missed it, but have just managed to acquire the DVD. And speaking of DVD’s, do yourself a favor and watch the BBC comedy Chef! – one of the most entertaining programs I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing on television.
For about nine years, I attended an aerobics-cum-conditioning class taught three times a week by George Sakkal. I started doing this not long after receiving my diagnosis of Type Two Diabetes. In addition to drastically changing my diet, I was strongly urged to get more exercise. A better way to put that is that I was urged to get exercise, period. Up until that time, the only parts of my body getting a workout of any kind were my hands, or more specifically, my fingers, as they turned the pages of the books I devoured. Yes, devoured… along with a generous helping of Doritos, my favorite food group. Then, a terrible reality was borne in upon me: If I wished to continue to gorging myself on these , I would have to stop gorging myself on these . This was a cruel choice to have to make, but there really was no choice. Adieu, my delicious, wonderfully crunchy Doritos… Do I still miss them? You bet I do. In fact, I’m starting to crave them as I write this.
While battling extreme chip withdrawal (along with potato and rice and pasta and bread and dessert withdrawal – pretty much everything that makes life worth living, in other words), I started going to exercise classes. And the most amazing thing happened: I began to have fun. That fun was mostly generated by exceptional teachers – like George Sakkal.
This summer, after teaching aerobics for more than twenty years, George retired. He is still in excellent health – despite some daunting challenges in the past – but he felt that it was time to pursue other passions. I’ve written about George before. In addition to being a fitness instructor, he’s an artist and musician. He’s led a varied and fascinating life.
Those of us who’ve enjoyed George’s classes over the years gave him a little impromptu send-off during his last week. We wanted to thank him for the gifts of health, perseverance, optimism, and humor that he has given us (not to mention invaluable aid in maintaining a healthy weight, at least in my case – I dropped thirty-four pounds on the new regime and have kept it off for ten years.)
Oh – and the music! George took special care in his selection of songs for our workouts. One of his favorites – “Ooh, I love this song!” he would yell out with his customary glee – is “Someday I’m Coming Back.” Here it is, sung by Lisa Stansfield.
There was always plenty of ABBA:
For the cool down, there was often Rod Stewart and his great American songbook:
I’m especially grateful for this rendition of “Once in a While” by Johnny Mathis. And this video is such an affectionate tribute to a bygone era.
Sometimes, with the lights turned down low, we would soar into the stratosphere with the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman:
A member of our group came up with this graphic to commemorate the occasion:
I would have liked another day in Naples – actually another week would have been most welcome. For one thing, I had wanted very much to see the Caravaggio paintings housed in various venues in the city:
Caravaggio, whose turbulent life would make a great movie, is one of many great artists and writers who were either born in Naples or lived some part of their lives there. Among these are Giovanni Boccaccio, author of Tales of the Decameron; the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the notorious and fascinating Emma Hamilton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the composers Alessandro Scarlatti and Carlo Gesualdo, to name just a few.
Like Caravaggio, Carlo Gesualdo led an eventful life marked by violence: upon finding his wife in flagrante with her lover, without hesitation he killed them both. He then fled to his castle in the mountains, where he proceeded to kill his only son because he suspected him of having been sired by his wife’s illicit amour. Talk about material for a movie! (This bloody tale is recounted by Jordan Lancaster in her history of Naples entitled In the Shadow of Vesuvius. The author further informs us that in a trial that lasted only a single day, Gesualdo was acquitted, ‘given the well-known just cause which guided him.’ )
And yet, and yet…such beautiful music!
And speaking of music, I neglected to mention when writing about our visit to the Cappella Sansevero that while we were there, sacred music was playing softly in the background. I heard one of my favorite selections in the early music reperoire: Miserere Mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri:
(Click here to read the history of this work – a history that involves the young Mozart.)
And speaking about music once more, I had also hoped at least to visit the Teatro di San Carlo, if not actually attend a performance there.
Alas, we got only a fleeting glimpse of this historic (1737) performance venue as our bus sped through the city.
And now, from the sublime to the merely delicious!
Among its other virtues, Naples is the birthplace of pizza – specifically, Pizza Margherita. It seems that when Queen Margherita of Savoy came to the city in 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the reigning pizzaiolo of the day, sought to create a dish in honor of her visit. His deceptively simple concoction consisted of the basic ingredients, bread and tomato sauce, topped with the famous local mozzarella di bufala and finished off with sprigs of fresh basil. Ecco, there you have it: red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag!
It’s official: Ron and I hereby declare that the best restaurant meals we’ve ever eaten have been served at Tersiguel’s, located downtown in Historic Ellicott City. Wednesday night I had the pan roasted seasonal salmon, while Ron had the rockfish special. Now I note that on the menu, my entree is more precisely called “saumon mignon.” I don’t exactly know what “mignon” means when used to describe seafood, but I do remember being 21 years old, standing on a street corner in Paris, and having this word applied to me (“Que tu es mignonne”) by a gendarme, no less. Ah, well, that was another country…
Ellicott City was founded in 1772 by the Ellicott brothers John, Andrew, and Joseph. The town was originally called Ellicott’s Mills, after the flour mills built by the brothers. (To read more about the history of Ellicott City, click here.)
The historic district comprises a short stretch of Main Street; the edifices located thereon are a mix of old and new. The newer buildings have for the most replaced those damaged by either flood or fire. The area has sadly suffered both depredations, more than once, in recent history. Tersiguel’s, originally called Chez Fernand, opened on Main Street in 1975, where it enjoyed great success before being destroyed by fire in 1984. Those of us who prize fine cuisine feared that we had lost this treasured dining venue for good. However, after a stint in downtown Baltimore, the Tersiguel family returned to Ellicott City in 1990 to re-open their eatery as Tersiguel’s Country French Restaurant. (Here is the story, as told on their website.)
Many are the pleasures of dining chez Tersiguel’s: gracious surroundings, a warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable waitstaff, and above all, of course, the cuisine. For those like myself, who can no longer consume with careless abandon the food we once loved – and who still harbor, albeit with some degree of embarrassment, a desire to have a nice big bag of
for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner! – it has become a matter of some urgency that the meals that we still can eat be delicious as well as nutritious. In addition, when I first started learning to live with dietary restrictions after years of food-based self-indulgence, I came to understand that the anticipation of delicious fare to come is as important as the actual consuming of same. Any outing to Tersiguel’s stokes the flames of that anticipation. We feel blessed to have a restaurant of this caliber a mere ten minutes from our front door! And BTW – from time to time, we have dined at other establishments where, although the food itself may be just fine, the portions are – well, I guess the phenomenon is usually described as “nouvelle cuisine.” Ron, who likes hearty servings and never eats between meals, has been known in such situations to stare down at his plate and exclaim, “Hey – I already had my appetizer – I can’t eat these little squiggles around the edge - where’s the rest of my entree!” (Or words to that effect.) Such has never been the case at Tersiguel’s.
Right now, in this country, we are living in parlous times. All the more reason to allow yourself, when possible, a few of life’s small but exquisite luxuries. Here is Tersiguel’s current bill of fare. If you can’t quite see your way to having dinner, try going for lunch. Ron and I have never had a meal there that was less than excellent. A goodly number have been superb.
In the immortal words of Julia Child, who knew a thing or two about the joys of French cuisine: Bon Appetit!
It all began, innocently enough, with a desire to make an Americanized version of Boeuf Bourgignon. This French beef stew works especially well for me because there are no potatoes in it. Potatoes, as we all know, are tasty and filling and loaded with carbohydrates. In addition, they lack fiber, which is such an important carb buffer for Type 2 diabetics like myself.
Our recipe for “Classic Beef Bourgignon” comes from The Art of Cooking for the Diabetic by Mary Abbott Hess. This dish has for several years been a great favorite of ours. Provided you use fresh ingredients and the highest possible quality stewing beef, you’re sure to enjoy a delightful repast.
Yesterday we were going great guns purchasing and assembling ingredients for our stew. We like to do this the day before we actually do the cooking. That way, the vegetables are still quite fresh, and we can time the actual cooking process however we want to.
Well, as I was saying, we had just about everything we needed in order to make our lovely stew when we came to one of the key ingredients:pearl onions. I mean fresh, not frozen. We went to three different supermarkets – no luck. This caused Ron to announce portentously that we were in the midst of a Pearl Onion Suppression.
Meanwhile, on the way to one of the supermarkets, we stopped at the library in order to return some materials. Alas, we found the book drop hopelessly jammed. Several patrons, anxious about fines no doubt, were standing about and debating what action to take, if any. I sighed deeply and put my bag back in the trunk. It was turning into one of those days…
Luckily we had the radio on and were being treated to a particularly fine performance of Rachmaninoff’s glorious Second Symphony. Such wonderful, yearning, unabashedly romantic music! (So much so, in fact, that Eric Carmen borrowed a line of melody from the adagio movement for his 1975 song, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”)
Anyway – I love it. It saved the day.
At last, early this afternoon, we found not only fresh white pearl onions but also red pearl onions, which we hadn’t even known existed, and another little onion cutie called cipolline! All were found at a marvelous new supermarket recently opened in our area: Harris Teeter. Thanks, guys; you rock!
Oh – and the beef bourgignon was absolutely delicious!
What I’m reading:
Hamlet, Revenge; by Michael Innes, a Golden Age classic (written in 1937) that’s out of print and hard to find. I got my copy several years ago from a small British publisher, House of Stratus. They do not currently stock any copies! And so we beat on, boats against (contemporary publishing) currents, borne back ceaselessly in our search for (out of print) gems from the past (with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Waterloo Sunset, crime fiction set in Liverpool and written by the dependably engaging Martin Edwards;
The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Well, yes, I do identify with all those irrelevant intellectuals, but so far, Jacoby is preaching to the choir (and that’s one of the problems she addresses in the very first chapter).
The Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, by Martha Sherrill. The story of the man who almost singlehandedly saved Akitas, referred to in Japan as “snow country dogs,” from extinction as a distinct breed.
An especially meaty issue of The New Yorker. “Uncluttered” is about the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose work I recently saw at MoMa in New York. And there’s a fascinating piece by Rebecca Mead on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires. It seems this venerable dwelling is at the moment threatened with foreclosure. Even the great Edith Wharton has been unable to escape the nation’s current subprime mortgage crisis! [This article is not available online.]
Finally, there’s Daniel Mendelsohn’s meditation on Herodotus, occasioned by two new versions of The Histories. [Attention, children's librarians: The New Yorker cover is by the late William Steig, author of one of my all time favorite children's books, Dominic.]
What we’re watching – and that would be on our brand spanking new 32-inch Toshiba 32RV53OU : The Wire, Season Two. I have nothing to say about this astonishing, harrowing program that hasn’t already been said. We finished Season One two weeks ago; I was so wrapped up in what was happening to these characters – especially Kima – that I was going to sleep obsessing about them and then dreaming about them.
[First picture: Dominic West and Wendell Pierce as Jimmy McNulty and "Bunk" Moreland; second picture: Idris Elba and Wood Harris as "Stringer" Bell and Avon Barksdale]
How did they find these fabulous actors? (There was an interesting article about David Simon, creator of this landmark series, in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly.)
Unscheduled event of the weekend:
My husband’s brave but ultimately futile attempt to convey a piping hot Pepperidge Farm Chicken Pot Pie from the oven to the table resulted in said pie landing with a great splat on the kitchen floor. I’ve eaten this item before – from the table, I hasten to assure you! – and it really is quite tasty. But perhaps there should be a warning on the box concerning methods of conveyance. I’d suggest a picture of the pot pie imploding as its container crumples. A second graphic would have the pie’s crust and innards liberally spread hither and yon, while one’s pet – in this case, Miss Marple, a cat ever alert to novel culinary situations – comes racing in and careens right through the middle of the mess. Don’t try this at home, folks!
Ron and I spent Easter Sunday at home, just the two of us. We made beef bourgignon and listened to music. First, the Mozart symphonies, starting with number twenty. We made our way through to the mid-thirties before switching gears and putting on the ‘Prelude and Good Friday Spell’ from the opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner.
The Mozart symphonies were performed by the Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The recordings were made in the early 1990′s. The clarity and exuberance of the playing – perfectly captured by Telarc, that home of sonic wonders! – fills the house.
The delicious aromas of the mingling stew components are equally pervasive. As dinnertime draws near, we put on the Wagner. I like to listen to this at Easter time. The recording we have features the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by the great Bruno Walter. Here is what the liner notes – uncredited, alas – say about this music:
“Like Tannhauser, the last of Wagner’s music dramas, Parsifal is built around a story of the Knights of the Holy Grail, and concerns itself with the conflict of spirituality and earthly passion. It contains some of the greatest music Wagner ever wrote, particularly the spiritual Prelude and one of the most awe-inspiring religious pieces of music ever penned–the ‘Good Friday Spell’ in Act III.”
If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is cherish days like yesterday for their simplicity and for the peace and love with which they are filled.
Michael Pollan says that he began doing the research for In Defense of Food almost as soon as his epochal work on the Western diet, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was published: “I found that readers were, first, astounded to learn what they were eating, and second, eager to know how they might change the way they eat. I was surprised to discover how confused so many of us are about this most elemental of creaturely activities: figuring out a healthy diet.” There are several reasons for the obfuscation currently surrounding what should be a fairly basic question. For one thing, food and eating have become detached from the cultural context in which they were formerly embedded. Add to that the combined exertions of nutritionists and the food industry, and we find ourselves where we are today: trying to eat in a healthy manner but puzzled as to how to do so.
I especially enjoyed Pollan’s description, in his introduction, of the kind of food his mother grew up eating: “…stuffed cabbage, organ meats, cheese blintzes, kreplach, knishes stuffed with potato or chicken liver, and vegetables that often were cooked in in rendered chicken or duck fat.” He adds that he never ate that food except when they went to visit his grandparents. This was the cuisine of Jews who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe or Russia, and it describes the kind of cooking my grandparents did as well (except that I also remember the vegetables being boiled to within an inch of their poor lives!). Okay, Pollan, admits, this was one cultural gift that was not the healthiest in the world. But some of it, I can tell you from experience, was really delicious!
However – we digress (always a danger when food is being discussed). Pollan’s little book is full of fascinating contemporary food facts, some of which amaze, while others infuriate. He marshals statistics and cites studies, lightening the tone from time to time with tales of some incredibly bizarre theories from past years and the equally bizarre personalities who espoused them. For instance, it seems that animal protein was the bugbear of many nutrition scientists in the early part of the 20th century. John Harvey Kellogg was of the opinion that it was not only responsible for the proliferation of toxic bacteria into the colon – it also promoted masturbation! Pollan then regales us with tales of the doings at Kellogg’s Battle Creek sanitarium:
“…patients (who included John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt) paid a small fortune to be subjected to such ‘scientific’ practices as hourly yogurt enemas (to undo the damage that protein supposedly wreaked on the colon); electrical stimulation and ‘massive vibration’ of the abdomen; diets consisting of nothing but grapes (ten to fourteen pounds of them a day); and at every meal, “Fletcherizing,” the practice of chewing each bite of food approximately one hundred times. (Often to the rousing accompaniment of special chewing songs.)”
The lesson here, obviously, is that nutrition fads encouraged by nutrition crackpots are nothing new on the scene. While this type of extreme “treatment,” unsupported by hard science, was eventually discredited, the food science of the second half of the 20th century became more serious, more methodical – and more insidious in its effect, or so it seems to this reader.
The basic problem, as Pollan sees it, is the tendency of nutrition science to isolate nutrients and then recommend the consumption of certain foods because they possess those nutrients – and to advise against eating other foods, for the same reason. Of course, the most egregious example of this is the margarine/butter imbroglio, in which it was eventually revealed that the trans fats in margarine were much worse for you than the saturated fats in butter. (In our house, we had a one word response to this finding: HURRAY!!) There needs to be more awareness and acceptance of the fact that the interaction among various foods, when those foods are eaten together, can in itself promote health, for subtle reasons that are not well understood (and possibly don’t need to be).
Toward the book’s conclusion, Pollan offers some specific guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid eating. He has already summed up his advice on this question with a seven word mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But what does this rather cryptic exhortation actually mean? Well, to begin with: Don’t eat anything that would not have been recognizable as food your mother, or your grandmother – or possibly even your Neolithic ancestors! In other words, stay away from engineered comestibles: anything processed, including food that has had nutrients inserted into its makeup in a way that nature never intended. Rather, eat foods in which those nutrient elements occur naturally
As regards how much to eat, Pollan suggests cutting down – way down – on snacks, in favor of regular meals, preferably eaten in good company, and very importantly, eaten slowly. (See the Slow Food Movement.) Finally, Pollan extolls the virtues of fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens. They are rich in all sorts of nutrients that benefit our health. Omega-3 fatty acids are espcially vital. Although we usually think of fish as the primary source here, leafy green vegetables are even better. Fish get the Omega-3 from the algae and seaweed that they themselves consume. As Pollan reminds us, you are not only what you eat – you are what you eat eats!
(And wouldn’t you know it: just as I am resolving to eat more spinach, a story entitled “Report Criticizes FDA Over Spinach Packers” appears in today’s Washington Post!)
I hasten to say here that I’m oversimplifying a very complex subject. Michael Pollan does an impressive job of elucidating these various issues in this relatively short, highly readable volume.. I love his writing style, which is conversational, engaging, and liberally laced with humor. He avoids being doctrinaire, preferring instead to use sweet reason; because of this approach, I find him persuasive and compelling.
My only criticism, and it’s a gentle one, is that I was left feeling a bit wistful regarding the matter of flavor. In Defense of Food is not a recipe book, nor is it intended to be. I still have questions in my mind as to how to make my leafy greens taste delicious without undue adulteration. It was this same voracious quest for flavor that led me down the fatal garden path to – horrors! – Doritos Nacho Flavored Tortilla Chips, to which I was, in my former life, virtually addicted. (The diagnosis of Type II Diabetes put that guilty pleasure permanently off limits some years ago, though I still yearn for them, the crispy little devils!)
Here are some of the sites Michael Pollan recommends in the section on resources:
Center for Informed Food Choices. (See especially the FAQ’s.)
Weston A Price Foundation. I’m grateful to Michael Pollan for introducing me to Weston A. Price, a dentist by profession, a sort of nutrition visionary by inclination, and altogether a person worth knowing about.