Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tradition and Food

When my husband and I attended the Meeting in Rimini almost three years ago, we were intrigued to meet the founder of Club di Papillon. My husband is particularly interested in wine and cooking, so we enjoyed the on-site dining and the bottled vinegar and olive oil selection.

The story goes that in some depressed parts of Italy, people in the movement went back to producing some of the traditional foods of the area that had been supplanted with modern products, with some success. This emphasis on tradition as a source to mine in solving problems is something which is rarely heard. Applications of this method which was very important to Fr. Giussani are also used in third world countries, where AVSI helps people recover some traditions that allowed sustenance in their particular milieu. In many cases, the loss of tradition via instant modernization has caused a great deal of misery. An obvious example is the use of infant formula to replace breastfeeding.

So, I found a fascinating book about food and ... tradition. I'm interested in food; who isn't? Michael Pollan, a journalist, has written a provocative history of processed food which will (is in my case) send you to your local farmer's market and have you removing the boxes of vacuous substitutes from your pantry. Forget Atkins, low-fat, low-carb, sugar-free, diet-this and eliminate-that. His recipe: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

The book is an anti-ideology manifesto which returns to cultural traditions to look for the answers to our problems with eating. We have some serious disorders related to food in our post-industrial society. We're overweight and feel guilty for eating. There's something wrong here. For example, is the French paradox (eat with olive oil, drink red wine and be merry) actually an anomaly, or have we erred in our nutrition calculations?

Pollan: "I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it--in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone--is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has understood the term."

Pollan maintains that nutritionism has taken for its object food stripped down to a list of nutrients. By mixing and matching these nutrients, producing quasi-food products and then creating "guidelines" for consumption, we are actually becoming fatter and sicker than ever before. The low-fat craze led to carb-binging and people got larger rather than healthier.

The Mediterranean diet is supposed to be one of the most healthy in the world. It is based on a 1950s study of people from Crete. But Pollan points out that food cannot be taken out of the cultural context of those people:
Yes, they ate lots of olive oil and more fish than meat. But they also did more physical labor. As followers of the Greek Orthodox church, they fasted frequently. They ate lots of wild greens--weeds. And perhaps most significantly, they ate far fewer total calories than we do.
Pollan argues that our Western diseases of diabetes, cancer, dental decay and heart ailments have come about with the mass commodification of our food. A group of Aborigines who were living on the Western diet with the attendant health ailments returned to a hunting and gathering lifestyle; they virtually eliminated their diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in a matter of months.

The author goes on to discuss whole vs. refined foods, the reduction in variety of foods (we eat mostly corn and soy) and the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 in our oils. He discusses the sacrifice in quality in crop strains that offer higher yields. And finally, there is the issue of how we eat our food, in huge quantities, alone and grazing without defined meals. He does not address exercise, which is an undeniably large factor in our general health and in comparing traditional diets with our own. Still, returning to cooking and eating traditions, finding closer food sources and rejecting food substitutes could go a long way to improving our necessary relationship with food.

By the way, this a belated response to my sister's recent blog question: "These are some silly-sounding foods I've seen (but not tasted) in recent days... Organic American Cheese. Non-fat Half-and-half.... And so, my question is... why???"

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