Saturday, July 24, 2010


Subjects for blogs come at me from every source and this morning was no exception. An Englishman who calls himself the Grumpy Old Bookman (his temperament and age match mine, so we were friends at once) has written a compendium of what he knows about eating -- oh, all right, dieting. Dave Lull, the cross-pollinating librarian who connects a circle of people absorbed in this topic, sent me the url for it:

GOB is a long-time fan of Adelle Davis. Her program and Pep-Up were pressed on Bob and I in the Sixties by Hal Bieler, MD, the author of “Food Is Your Best Medicine.” He had been enormously fat until he converted to Davis’ ideas, which he tried to encourage us to eat. Besides Pep-Up, a mix of milk and vitamins roughly resembling sludge, he recommended lots of papaya juice (for digestion) and a soup that was diced-up boiled veggies with skim milk poured over them. We stuck to that pretty well unless we’d been lucky hunting and were hungry for deer meat. I doctored up both of them with lots of garlic and butter, which would have been considered unhealthy at the time, but are almost approved according to the later books on GOB’s list. If there were company, we had steak and baked potato.

The point is that food has half a dozen vectors impinging on it, depending on how you slice-and-dice it:

1. The times and places:

Because my mother’s concept of nutrition was shaped by Depression and WWII, plus growing up on a farm, we always had salad. But if we were at Bob’s mom’s house for supper, salad was likely to be “Montana green stuff,” which is some kind of Jello with marshmallows, pineapple, and mayo. She was Edwardian from Quebec, prosperous, and she creamed everything, avoiding all roughage. In old age she was much troubled by diverticulitis, but she lived well into her eighties. My mother reached 89. In times of drought and war, people might be lucky to eat anything at all. Otherwise, the state of advice in any time has a lot to do with circumstances. In our time people who are fat are considered morally deficient but in other times fat was a status marker. The skeletal people of Somalia are pitied, but skeletal starlets are admired.

2. Nutritional:

As GOB advises, nutrition research is fine (though it changes its mind every Friday), but once a carrot was a carrot and an apple was an apple. Now they are not: force-grown, chemicalized, inbred, and prettified. Maybe not even a product of earth/dirt. Soy used to be the magic plant, full-nutrition and a good thing to put in your homemade bread. Now suspicion is raised. The Devil is in the details. And then there's that Eternal Twinkie that never rots and never hardens, which calls into question whether it's food at all.

2. Political:

Bananas and coffee, two of my staples, are controlled by international mega corporations. In the past of the Strachans (my maiden name) and the past of the MacFie’s (Bob’s mother’s maiden name) was their participation in sugar empires based in the American Caribbean, part of the evil triangle of sugar cane/rum/slaves. Today the mega-banks starve whole nations by speculation on “long futures” of grain to drive up the prices of the stuff. (See the July Harpers.)

GOB doesn’t include on his list of influential books the early political cry to action of “Food for a Small Planet,” but I put it on my list. Still, I’m no vegetarian and resist those whose politics require them to eschew all eating of flesh, thereby replacing gratitude for a source of life with their own sense of virtuous abstention.

3. Social:

Food is how we share, how we nurture each other. Pot lucks and banquets, “lunching” and teatime, only begin to name the ways. Offices and stores and banks around here keep dishes of candy to offer their customers. The hardest part of being Diabetes II is not being able to participate in the funeral “feed” or the wedding party. On the other hand, refraining can be another of those “virtuous abstention” gambits for confounding other people. In some circles dinner parties are attended by as many people who have brought their own “must have” food as people eating what the hostess serves.

4. Personal:

Somehow I’ve always had the feeling that I might starve. I don’t know why. When I was circuit-riding, I always carried breakfast bars -- just in case -- and, indeed, some of my hosting parishioners would either eat so abstemiously themselves or be so determined to reduce my girth that supper might be a salad. Period. I’d hide the wrappers of the breakfast bars. My mother was always after me for my weight. (Her vice was smoking.) Maybe the hunger was not for food. But realistically, WWII was a time when Europe starved and it was depicted in newsreels on a movie screen, much harder to ignore than TV during dinnertime. I was born in 1939.

GOB calls his compilation of personal research “Is It Safe to Eat Breakfast?” If I were writing one, I’d maybe call it “I Miss Eating Breakfast.” The Adelle Davis rule of eating like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch and a pauper at supper was interpreted by myself and some friends as long leisurely brunches in cafes: three egg omelets with bacon and cheese, toast, hash browns, bottomless coffee cup. A country working man’s breakfast. But we didn’t DO that kind of work and neither do a lot of country men now, since so much is mechanized and managed from a tractor cab.

But the practice that really did me in was the afternoon coffee break when I was low-level clerical in the City of Portland. I did well for lunch, but about three in the afternoon my energy level hit bottom. Starbucks was flowering and the coffee shops all had wonderful pastries, but my fav was the brownies in the Portlandia Building: thick, chewy, packed with nuts. Of course, I was taking Vitamin C and a couple of aspirin to get through the day, so I soon had holes in my stomach and my joints were inflamed. My daily anxiety level was pretty high, but at least I never took mood pills. The anxiety was justified. Maybe that was the difference. The doctor never tested me for diabetes.

The point I’m making is that diet is part of a whole complex of forces, not just food choices. The best thing I ever did for my diet was to move back to small town Montana where the cows are known individually and the wheat is grown and stored right here. Now if I could escape Roundup . . .


Art Durkee said...

I once had a group of encounters with the raw-foodies, who are religious zealots as far as I'm concerned. They say that cooking food destroys it, and of course they're vegetarian and/or vegan on top of it. No meat, of course.

But the dinner they made and served us was all raw vegetables and nuts run through the food processor, made into pastes and paté-like substances, served with shredded leaf veggies. The texture made me gag. No one ever told me WHY it had to be done like that. Give me a carrot to gnaw on, fine, but don't turn it into paté.

I absconded from that dinner and went and ate a burger at the local roadhouse. One of the best burgers I've ever tasted, I might add.

Michael Allen said...

Many thanks for using my essay on food (with link) as the basis for your thoughts.