April 30, 2012
In 1933, James Hilton, a British novelist who read about travels in Yunnan Province in National Geographic magazine, wrote a novel called Lost Horizon, which describes a mythical kingdom set far, far away from the rest of time: Shangri-La. Three years later, Frank Capra turned Hilton’s paperback best-seller into a film. The place entered our lexicon as an earthly retreat from the worries of modern civilization.
The fictional Shangri-La appears to be an amalgam of Yunnan Province and Tibet. But the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan became, in the American mind, the closest thing to the real-life incarnations of the people of Shangri-La. The Hunzakut people reportedly lived to be 100 and had a practically illness-free existence in an inaccessible mountain valley. Paeans to healthy Hunza proliferated. President Eisenhower’s cardiologist reported that Hunza men could eat 3,000 apricots in one sitting. In 1960, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial extolling the virtues of the Hunza diet as a harbinger of hope for human longevity and modern medicine.
“Hunzaphilia” is one of the many compelling (if a bit chronologically disordered) stories in historian Harvey Levenstein’s new book Fear of Food. The natural, edible fountain of eternal Himalayan youth fit into a long line of claims about exceptional longevity—except that, at least among the Hunzakut, it contradicted the truth. One Japanese doctor, Levenstein writes, reported “rampant signs of poor health and malnutrition—goiter, conjunctivitis, rheumatism, and tuberculosis—as well as what seemed to be horrific levels of infant and child mortality, which are also signs of poor nutrition.”
Nonetheless, the idea that these healthy people cut off from the rest of the world could live practically forever would persist, Levenstein writes, thanks in part to an ex-I.R.S. employee named Jerome Irving Rodale. Like Hilton, he had never traveled to the Hunza Valley, but Rodale was well-versed in the robust genre of books touting the Hunza—including both Robert McCarrison’s 1921 Studies in Deficiency Disease and G.T. Wrench’s 1938 The Wheel of Health, one of the basic texts of the health food movement.
Rodale’s book The Healthy Hunzas attributed their longevity to whole grains, dried apricots and almonds, as well as breastfeeding, relatively low alcohol use and plenty of exercise. “They are a group of 20,000 people, none of whom dies of cancer or drops dead with heart disease. In fact, heart trouble is completely unknown in that country! Feeble-mindedness and mental debilitations which are dangerously rampant in the United States are likewise alien to the vigorous Hunzas.”
Later, Rodale founded Prevention magazine, and Levenstein writes, “It regularly used the Hunza as examples of how eating natural foods could ward off the illnesses caused by the over-civilized diet.” By avoiding modern science and with it the ills of modern society—all on the basis of what it was not—Rodale’s exaltation of a more “primitive” people paved the way for the Paleolithic Diet, the Primitive Diet and the modern natural foods movement as a whole.
Yet Hunza health and longevity remains apocryphal, and Rodale himself left us with one of the movement’s more dramatic cautionary notes. One week after telling Wade Greene, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, “I’m going to live to be 100 unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver,” Rodale went on the Dick Cavett show, served some asparagus boiled in urine, and then died on Cavett’s couch. He was 72.
Image: Wind-powered apricot cracker via Nigel Allan/Geographic Review, 1990.
December 14, 2011
When I decided, at age 40, that I wanted to try to have a child, I knew I faced a few elevated risks over younger women: first and foremost, I might not be able to conceive at all. I mentally prepared myself—as much as I could, anyway—for that and other possibilities, including the higher risk of the baby having a genetic defect.
So far I’ve been fortunate. The one risk I hadn’t given much thought to—the higher chance of developing gestational diabetes—is the only one that has been a factor in my pregnancy. I’m fairly healthy, I have no history of diabetes in my family, and I try to eat well—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and few highly processed junk foods.
But older pregnant women—and that means even women as young as in their late 20s, believe it or not—can have a harder time regulating insulin, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Gestational diabetes, if not controlled through diet and exercise, can cause high-birth-weight babies and potentially lead to delivery complications, as well as increasing the risk that the child will develop obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. For the mother, there’s also the risk of high blood pressure and a higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.
I haven’t been diagnosed with gestational diabetes so far. But because my blood sugar was a little high during my early glucose tolerance test (this is given to all pregnant women around 28 weeks, but women of my age are also sometimes tested earlier), I was advised to exercise more frequently and follow a low-carbohydrate diet, the same advice given to those with the diagnosis.
The last thing a pasta-loving pregnant lady with a sweet tooth wants to hear is that she should cut out carbs. I have always been skeptical of the low-carb diet craze, suspecting it was a ploy by meat-lovers to make eating triple bacon cheeseburgers acceptable—as long as they’re sandwiched between lettuce leaves instead of a bun.
Luckily, the diet prescribed for me was not so extreme. The point is not to lose weight or to cut out carbohydrates entirely, but to limit them and to ration out their consumption throughout the day, always combining them with protein and a little bit of fat.
There were a few surprises in the information the dietician gave me. An unpleasant one was that my usual breakfast—a bowl of cereal—was out. Even sugarless, high-fiber varieties far exceed my maximum allotment of 30 grams of carbohydrates for the morning meal. (Blood sugar levels are especially prone to spiking in the morning, so the breakfast allotment is lower than that at lunch and dinner.) On top of that, I was surprised by how many carbs there are in a glass of milk—about 13 grams per cup. My other favorite breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese, was also way over the mark. Instead, I’ve switched to a whole grain English muffin with peanut butter.
On the upside, I’m not going to starve. In addition to the three regular meals, I’m supposed to eat a morning and afternoon snack, plus a smaller evening snack. And I can still have pasta, but instead of a big bowl of it on its own, it should be a side dish or mixed with enough vegetables and protein so the carb portion is limited. The happiest news of all? On those rare occasions when I am allowed to squeeze in a little treat, I was told it’s better to go for ice cream than sorbet, because the fat helps slow down the breakdown of carbs. Can do, doc.
September 7, 2011
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “home economics”? Perhaps the image of a perfectly attired Stepford wife criticizing the texture of the first pound cake you attempted to make or memories of the flyby course you took when you wanted to put in minimal effort and come out with a passing grade at the end of the term. For many people, the class has a reputation for being an outdated course where the most you learn is how to make biscuits and maybe a cake from a mix and use uni-tasker kitchen appliances. (During a perfectly useless semester in seventh grade, I was made aware of the wonders of an electric sandwich press, but it’s not something I would ever include in my kitchen arsenal.) But with a little retooling and updating, home economics classes could be a valuable tool in the fight against obesity.
Home economics had its start in Lake Placid, New York during a series of annual conferences held between 1899 and 1910. Organized by MIT sanitary engineer Mary Richards, librarian Melvil Dewey and a host of other educators, the meetings were dedicated to finding ways to apply the latest in science and technology to improve life in the American home. In 1908, the conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture. Between stocking a pantry, furnishing and maintaining a home, caring for children and managing a budget to take care of it all, there are a lot of issues a person has to juggle in order to make a home function smoothly.
But along the way home ec attained the reputation of being a relic, a gender-stereotyped course meant to confine women to domestic roles. Some school systems have managed to breathe new life into the course by divvying it up into more specialized classes—like courses that specifically address food preparation, which might be more attractive to prospective students in the age when Food Network-style programs inject fun and excitement into life in the kitchen. However, because home economics is typically classified as an elective course, it—like art and music classes—is prone to being eliminated from a school’s course offerings.
Furthermore, over time the cutting-edge knowledge about nutrition and sanitation that was the impetus for home ec in the first place came to be viewed as common sense. But is common sense really all that common? We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter, and a cultural preference for prepackaged convenience foods isn’t helping matters. If this is the case, couldn’t a home economics course focused on planning and preparing nutritionally balanced foods help alleviate this problem?
It’s a question assistant professor of history Helen Zoe Veit explores in a recent New York Times oped. A victim of the stereotypical kind of class where you learn how to make doughnuts from prefab biscuit dough, she argues that instead of condescending to students’ fledgling abilities in the kitchen, classes should teach them how to cook real food. “Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook,” she says in the article. “Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis.” Those sentiments are shared by nutrition scientist Alice Lichtenstein and physician David Ludwig, who wrote an editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “[G]irls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century,” they say. “As children transition into young adulthood, they should be provided with knowledge to harness modern conveniences (eg, prewashed salad greens) and avoid pitfalls in the marketplace (such as prepared foods with a high ratio of calories to nutrients) to prepare meals that are quick, nutritious, and tasty. It is important to dispel the myths—aggressively promoted by some in the food industry—that cooking takes too much time or skill and that nutritious food cannot also be delicious.”
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I learned my way around a kitchen because I had a mom who cooked all the family’s meals. That’s the standard of living I want to maintain because I prefer the taste of “from scratch” food over the prefab stuff. If I didn’t have that kind of a model at home to follow, I might have ended up trying to sustain myself predominantly on convenience food. Wouldn’t giving home ec a much-needed facelift—and maybe even making it a graduation requirement—potentially turn out more savvy, self-efficient and healthy young adults?
August 25, 2011
We here in D.C. got a bit of a shakeup Tuesday afternoon when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck. There are other parts of the United States and the world that put up with far worse seismic disturbances, of course. But for us, this was far from the norm. And to top things off, we have Hurricane Irene making her way up the coast. In these parts, storms should not have eyes and I’m hoping she keeps her distance and we won’t feel her full force like current weather reports are predicting. (Isabel was all the hurricane I ever care to endure.) But wherever you live, it’s a good idea to be prepared for whatever disasters might spring up. You really don’t want to be that person at the grocery store before, say, Snowmageddon who in a fit of panic decides to stock up on wine and Dreamcicles instead of essential foodstuffs. And really, who thinks of cooking at times like these? You might someday find yourself in a situation where you won’t be able to use your usual cooking tools—an oven won’t do you much good if the electricity goes out—and you need to have an emergency plan for feeding yourself.
Let’s start with the basics of stocking your pantry. The American Red Cross recommends that you store enough food to last you for two weeks. Foods that will serve you especially well include: ready-to-eat canned meats and fruit, prepackaged beverages, high energy foods (granola, peanut butter, etc.), compressed food bars, instant meals (like cups of noodles) and comfort food (why not try to make the best of a bad situation?). Avoid salty foods and be careful with items that require water to prepare since you may need to rely on your water stash to keep hydrated and clean. Try to avoid really bulky items, especially if storage space is an issue. And a person should generally have about half a gallon of water a day for drinking, so stock up accordingly. Things like pasta, beans and rice are cumbersome to prepare in less-than-ideal conditions and should also be avoided. In the event of a power outage, consume perishables you have in your fridge and freezer before diving into your emergency store of dry goods.
And while it’s hard to be the consummate kitchen maven in the face of disaster, it’s still possible to manage food prep without a fully functional kitchen, which the Canadian Red Cross illustrated in a Wal-Mart cooking demo earlier this month. Local chefs were brought in to create recipes that could be made without water or electricity, and came up with dishes such as “disaster tacos”—canned chicken, aerosol cheese and salsa piled into a shell—and hemp seed bean salad. For more ideas, check out The Healthy Hurricane/Disaster Cookbook by Dr. Marcia Magnus of Florida International University. Free to download, it’s a helpful guide for how to pull together balanced meals and snacks. Some recipes do, however, require heating. For those of you who can swing by a book store, try flipping through books like Apocalypse Chow (especially if you’re a vegetarian), The Storm Gourmet or Emergency Food Storage and Survival Handbook.
If weather conditions allow you to go outside and use a kerosene heater or a grill, more power to you. Some people create stoves from tin cans that use alcohol for fuel, and you can find a number of tutorials on the web on how to craft one; but bear in mind that even the Boy Scouts of America has banned the use of these devices by their troops, so this is a device you use at your own risk. If you plan ahead, you can buy commercially manufactured stoves that use fuel pellets or stoves that use Sterno as a heat source. These are all pieces of camping equipment and are intended for use outdoors.
You can also search around the Internet for no-cook meals, though this method for meal planning requires a lot of sifting. Even though these recipes don’t require an oven, you might need other electrical appliances to prepare them, or the prep work itself might be more than you want to manage under stressful conditions. If you’ve ever had to put food on the table while all hell is breaking loose around you, tell us about how you managed to muddle through.
Oh, and one last piece of advice: Don’t forget the can opener.
June 28, 2011
Earlier this month, an ice cream shop in Columbia, Missouri decided to take advantage of the summertime resurgence of cicadas. Employees caught the critters in their backyards, boiled them, coated them in brown sugar and milk chocolate and then added them to a batch of ice cream. The insects are perfectly safe to eat and enough ice cream connoisseurs were unfazed by the “ick” factor of eating bugs that the batch quickly sold out. (One patron compared the cicada’s flavor to peanuts.) However, because there are no regulations regarding the preparation of cicadas for mass consumption, the health department stepped in and asked that the store discontinue that particular flavor. Creepy crawly cuisine may be way off the average person’s radar, but entomophagy—the fancy Latin term for eating insects—is beginning to gain attention in the Western Hemisphere.
The practice of eating bugs dates back millennia. In scripture, the book of Leviticus lays out laws and codes for day-to-day living in the ancient world, including diet. While Chapter 11, verses 6 to 8 puts the kibosh on eating rabbit and pork, verse 22 gives the green light to eating certain insects: ”Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” (Other translations also include katydids.) In present-day cultures, bugs have gone so far as to attain delicacy status—be it the fried caterpillars served in Africa, grasshoppers with soy sauce in Japan or water boatman eggs in Mexico city, which are supposed to have a caviar-like flavor and can cost more than beef. Even some of Washington, D.C.’s upscale dining spots offer exotic spins on familiar foods, such as tacos stuffed with grasshoppers.
But why even look to bugs as a food source? First off, certain bugs, such as caterpillars, have a protein content that is comparable to beef. Second, farm-raising bugs is a big energy saver. Raising livestock is problematic because of the amount of energy required to create those neatly packaged cutlets at your local grocery store. Large chunks of land are set aside to produce feed and for the animals to live and breed, not to mention the fossil fuels needed to transport animals from farm to slaughterhouse and then to market. And, at least with the beef industry, cattle produce more greenhouse gases than cars, contributing to global warming.
Then there’s the matter of the resources it takes to fatten up an animal until it’s ready for the table. When the Wall Street Journal broke down the numbers, the same 10 pounds of feed used to produce 1 pound of beef or five pounds of chicken could also yield up to six pounds of insect meat. Furthermore, while we may think insects are dirty and unhealthy, recall mad cow disease and salmonella and the risk that those meat-borne pathogens pose to us humans. And certain bugs are fortified with fats and vitamins that could help fend of malnutrition and starvation. With the United Nations predicting we will have one-third more mouths to feed by 2050, while still trying to deal with existing issues of hunger and starvation, finding alternate, sustainable protein sources will become even more urgent.
In the meantime, summer is here and I’m sure you’ve noticed that bugs are in abundance. But if you’re feeling adventurous, there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about indulging in a six-legged snack:
1. Not all insects are edible. However, of the approximately 6 million species of insects crawling around, about 1,400 of them have been documented to be safe for human consumption. Do your homework beforehand.
2. If you are allergic to shellfish or chocolate, avoid eating insects.
3. Insects in your backyard may have been exposed to pesticides. It is unclear if pesticide residues on garden-variety bugs are harmful to humans if consumed, but if you’re looking to get insect-savvy in the kitchen, your safest bet is to buy farm-raised bugs. You may also be able to find some canned bugs, such as silkworm pupa, at an Asian grocery store.
Still ready and willing to take the plunge? There are a few bug cookbooks on the market, as well as the website Insects are Food, which features a continuously growing list of recipes and a list of places where you can buy your creepy crawlies. And yes, there’s even a recipe category devoted entirely to cicadas. But sadly, none of them are for ice cream.