10 October 2011

The Right Foods Can Make all the Difference

The drought affecting the Horn of Africa has had a devastating impact on the people of Somalia who have already suffered from 20 years of war, a lack of infrastructure and development, and the most basic services.  Now that international efforts to treat the hundreds of thousands of severely malnourished children is well underway, it is clear that feeding children the right foods can make the difference between life and death.  

All the evidence is here:

Doctors Without Borders is one of the many organizations that is treating malnourished children under the age of 5 with "ready-to-use" therapeutic foods such as "Plumpy Nut," which contain animal protein like milk. Experience has shown time and again that the standard food aid package of blended cereal grain flours does not have the proper nutrients to prevent malnutrition in rapidly growing children under five, or to prevent disease and death in already malnourished children.  

Based on this evidence, two things seem apparent: 

1) It is unacceptable that we provide foods to babies in poor countries that we wouldn't feed our own babies (i.e. we wouldn't give just cereal to children under 1-year without still supplementing with breast milk or formula).
2) It is pretty clear that cereals have little nutritional value. They may fill bellies and provide caloric energy, but children do not grow or develop because they are eating cereal. This begs the question, "why do we even feed babies cereal at all?" 

I am convinced that the human body was designed to survive on animal foods. No sentimentality or ideological beliefs can change this.

17 September 2011

"More fruits and vegetables" strategy is not preventing Diabetes in New York

A friend of mine recently sent me this article. He lives in Arizona so probably isn’t familiar with the demographics of New York City, and those new to New York might also be surprised to see how the neighborhoods can sometimes drastically change from one street to the next. This article highlights this very phenomenon, and the author’s observation of people missing limbs because of diabetes in one neighborhood and not the next is an extremely sad example of the health disparities between rich and poor in this country.

Nourishing New York's Low-Income Communities

When Gina Keatley first moved to New York to attend culinary school, she noticed that many of her neighbors were missing limbs.

"I lived on 99th Street across from some projects," she said. "I would walk to the train and think, 'Why are there so many amputees?'"

Keatley found out that many of them had to have amputations because of complications from diabetes. Diabetes can reduce blood flow to extremities and cause nerve damage, and sometimes amputations are necessary if serious infection sets in and there is severe damage to the tissue and bone.

The neighborhood where Keatley lived, East Harlem, has the highest diabetes rate in Manhattan, according to city health officials. It also has the highest obesity rate: One-third of adult residents are obese or overweight.

"It's so shocking to me to see people who are poor and unhealthy and literally dying in the street," said Keatley, an award-winning chef and nutritionist.

Keatley said that when she would visit more affluent neighborhoods near East Harlem, she wouldn't see nearly as many amputees. And she was pretty sure she knew why.

"You go over this invisible line, and there are people with farmers' markets, people with organic food ... healthy sandwich shops," she said.

This “invisible line" that Keatley speaks about between East Harlem (one of the poorest communities in NYC) and the Upper East Side (one of the wealthiest communities in NYC) has always existed. It has just presented itself visibly in many different ways - the recent rise in amputees as a result of the spike in diabetes being one of the most dismal reminders.

I used to work in some of these neighborhoods that are considered "food deserts"- the term that has been assigned by advocacy groups to areas where there is a lack of supermarkets and access to fresh food. Most of the programs designed to improve nutrition in these areas focus on bringing more fruits and vegetables to these families, either through increased vegetable markets and produce stands, food stamp programs that can be used at farmers markets, and education programs (teaching families to eat more fruits and vegetables). Ten years in and it doesn't seem like these food programs are really working since morbidity rates keep going up. This leads me to believe that simply providing more fruits and vegetables may not be the answer.

Obesity, diabetes, and other associated chronic diseases are associated with poverty. In the past, poor Americans suffered from being underweight due to malnutrition and food insecurity. Today, poor Americans suffer from being overweight due to malnutrition and food insecurity. Cheap, processed nutritionally poor foods (or food stuff) are more ubiquitous and abundant in the US then they ever have been in the history of this country. So are poor people eating more junk food? Probably, but bad choices are not the only reason and are only part of the picture. Poverty is associated with many determinants of bad health - it's not just about eating fast food. Other significant factors are stress (social, financial, work), lack of health care, lack of education, depression, disrupted routines because of familial or employment insecurity, cultural norms (i.e. - fear of food insecurity can cause parents to over feed children), lack of outdoor space for physical activity, lack of resources for any activity, and reliance on poor quality food either in “food desert” neighborhoods or in the form of food aid, to name just a few.

So while these programs are well-meaning, and I do think that increasing good supermarkets, farmers markets, and fruit and vegetable stands in food deserts are positive steps in the right direction, I think new approaches to food access and nutrition must address these other problems with multi-pronged strategies at different policy levels for improvement - not just teaching people "how to..."

First, I think it's paternalistic, elitist, and irresponsible for government or non-profit organizations to think they should "teach" people how to eat, and that lesson being: eat like a vegan. This is not to say that we, especially those of us with chronic diseases, shouldn't be provided with nutritional information and guidelines on what we should and shouldn't be eating (obviously no sugar and carbs for diabetics). But most of you already know where I stand on carb and protein intake - so you know where I'm going with this. Of course, convincing people to cut back on processed fast food and getting them to cook fresh food at home would be ideal. But trying to convince people to eat expensive organic fruits and vegetables to fill bellies that have been used to calorie-dense starchy, sugary carbs is not exactly the most satisfying alternative or realistic approach.

Along with plenty of vegetables and some fruits (but not for diabetics), part of these guidelines should also include healthy animal proteins and fats - which are both energy and nutritionally dense foods. They fill you up, give you energy, and won't cause insulin resistance or diabetes. Our present nutritional guidelines that are promoted both by government and non-government agencies are created from junk science, ideological trends, and advertising. They distract us from our traditional diets that have kept our ancestors healthy for generations. Until we start promoting REAL food again and stop believing there is a magic bullet (like non-fat, soy, spelt, gluten-free, whole grain, organic cane juice, agave sweetened, nugget/food/stuff), we will continue to get fat and sick. And until we approach the root causes of poverty and tackle the different problems associated with bad health outcomes, we will continue to see a rise in these chronic diseases and mortalities.

I want to mention one aspect of the obesity/diabetes problem that no one ever seems to address. We have become a culture that is obsessed with eating all day long. I find this to be more significant than the idea that we may be more sedentary than we used to be. Food is everywhere, available all the time, and there is so much of it. Think about all the new restaurants, cafes, bakeries, cupcake shops, food trucks, and vending machines that keep popping up everywhere you look. And what about all the food that we now bring to our offices, schools, and common spaces where we spend our time?

Think back to 20, 30, or 40 years ago (if you are my age) and try to remember how many restaurants were in your neighborhood. How many times a week did you eat out? And how big were the portions? How many times during the day did you eat? Were there vending machines at your office? Was there a never-ending supply of cupcakes, muffins, and brownies at your workplace? Did you celebrate birthdays in school with cake every day? Were ice cream shops even open in the winter? Did you eat your meals at a table with your family, or in front of a TV or computer screen? or on the run? Did food trucks exist? Were so many fruits and vegetables available all year round? Was there such thing as "turducken?" Were there such things as soy burgers or soymilk? These answers may be different for everyone, but then ask yourself this: Were you or your friends obese? Were your parents obese? Were your grandparents obese? And if they weren’t, what and how did they eat? It seems pretty simple, huh? So while we may have been more active as kids back in the day, we never ate as much as people do today either.

Which brings me to my last point: Food in this country should be expensive. I’m sorry. This is the last thing people want to hear… but mass production of cheap, subsidized food is killing us, killing animals in the most inhumane ways, killing our land, killing the livelihood of farmers worldwide, killing competition, creating market fluctuations that make it impossible for poor countries to maintain, and force poor people here to eat cheap non-nutritional food while the majority of us just overeat. Clearly food economics is a completely different topic for research and discussion, but I think it’s something to think about – especially if you’re of the libertarian mindset and believe in the power of supply and demand.

27 March 2011

Why I Eat Meat - Part 2

In the first part of this post, I laid out some of the reasons why I made the personal choice to return to meat eating - mostly for health reasons. Since I wrote this last summer, more and more evidence of the health benefits of an omnivorous diet, rather than a solely plant-based diet has begun to surface. More and more people are beginning to understand the importance of animal based proteins over inferior plant-based proteins - especially those derived from soy and wheat.

Before I move on to some of the environmental and ethical questions that always surround this topic, I want to mention that last week NPR's Fresh Air featured a story about Dr. Kevin Patterson, a young internist who has spent a good portion of his career in the Arctic circle, as well as Afghanistan with the Canadian army. Over the years he noticed that while doing surgeries on Afghani patients, there was a virtual absence of body fat, both externally and internally surrounding their organs - which is a pervasive characteristic of western patients (both fat and thin). The typical Afghani male weighed about 140 pounds and were pastoralists who lived primarily on food they grew and animals they raised. He also saw an absence of any signs of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or any arterial thickening that is also characteristic of even young Americans and Europeans. And while working in the Canadian Arctic, he watched the Inuit's (native people of the Arctic) health degenerate as they transitioned from their traditional diets of caribou, whale blubber, seal meat, and occasional berries (during their short season) to a North American based diet of simple carbohydrates and processed foods. He said that obesity, diabetes, and heart disease began to soar in these places where it was once absent.

This is just another testament to why many believe that traditional foods are the healthiest - and when I say traditional, I mean mostly a hunter/gatherer diet. Animal/plant based diets have sustained civilizations for millions of years, while modern agriculture has only existed for less than 10,000 years - coinciding with the rise of chronic diseases. The human body evolved over millions of years to digest animal foods and assimilate the proper nutrition from these foods. Our bodies have not yet adapted to cereal grains, pulses, and some other agricultural products, which is why so many people suffer from food allergies, digestive disturbances, inflammatory conditions like chrohn's and celiac disease, and chronic diseases like diabetes and cancers. This is also why you will see many semi-traditional cultures ferment these foods - so they can be made more digestible. Sourdough breads, fermented soy, soaked and sprouted grains, and soured dairy products - were all ways in which people made foods that weren't exactly natural for humans, more digestible and less harmful to the body.

But aren't vegetarian/vegan diets traditional? Well, no - except for perhaps the Jainists and some early Buddhists - although few historical texts are available from that time to provide evidence of large movements. There were many cultures that practiced abstinence of animal foods for religious and spiritual purposes, such as the Hindu practice of Ahimsa (nonviolence), and some forms of asceticism. But even today there are few cultures that practice pure vegetarianism. The Jains drink milk and dairy products, the Okinawans (contrary to popular perception) eat a lot of plant-based foods but also a great deal of fish and pork, the Mediterranean diet consists of vegetables, olive oil, fish, and guess what else? Meat! Lamb, pork, beef, chicken… are all dishes you will find on any Italian, Greek, or other Mediterranean country's plate. In poor countries, wealthier people eat meat and are taller, stronger, and live longer. Those in poor countries who live on grains (corn, rice, wheat), beans, and a few vegetables are shorter, have more developmental problems throughout their lives, and have shorter life expectancies due to malnutrition and infectious diseases. Anyone who has lived or traveled anywhere in Central and South America, Africa, and in parts of Asia have witnessed this first-hand.

So while I believe that vegetables and fruits are healthy and an important aspect to a healthy diet, they are not the whole picture. The latest articles which tout vegetarians feeling better, losing weight, and living longer also don't tell the whole story. Many of these people make big lifestyle changes that go hand-in-hand with becoming a vegetarian: more physical activity, a more spiritual outlook on life (less stress), eating more whole foods rather than processed foods, quitting smoking, drugs, alcohol, etc... Many of these factors are not taken into account when these stories are published, therefore implicating meat and animal fats as the culprit of all that is unhealthy has not been proven. In fact, it may be quite the contrary.

So while I, too, love the idea of being vegan/vegetarian, and never having to kill another sentient being for my food, I realize that this may be an unrealistic and over romanticized ideal that is frankly, a western privilege. It's easy for those of us who have had normal body and brain development as a result of our good lifelong nutrition to make a stand against eating animals when we have an overabundance of food in our lives and hundreds of meal choices. But are we really going to tell the native Alaskan who has subsisted on Caribou and whale meat, that their livelihoods are cruel and they should switch to eating tofu and bok choy? How about in south Sudan where a whole family can subsist on a cow, a goat, and growing some yams and cassava? Are you going to convince them that imported rice and beans from the Americas is the right way to go? It isn't very sustainable and sounds a bit evangelical, doesn't it.

09 July 2010

Why I Eat Meat – Part 1

A lot of my friends who have known me for many years may be surprised to learn that I have started eating meat again after being a vegetarian for nearly 20 years (vegan and macrobiotic for about 7 of those). I frequently find myself having to defend this position, which I fully understand, having been a former enthusiast for animal rights and a vegetarian lifestyle. My reasons are varied and complex – but the biggest would have to be for health reasons. I’ve stated many times over the course of this blog that being a vegetarian, vegan, raw foody, etc… never made me a healthier person, and I question to this day if it even contributed to my declining health.

I had a heart attack when I was 39-years-old for reasons that still no one can explain. When I tell people that I was a vegetarian, a marathon runner, a devoted practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, and never had a weight, cholesterol, or blood pressure issue in my life – they are even more perplexed. After my first heart attack, I was put on the Dean Ornish /NO-FAT diet. This diet was basically vegan and meant no meat, dairy, or oils of any kind. I ate nothing but fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains. I had another heart attack two years later.

After that, I modified my diet to include “good fats” like olive oil, fish, and avocados. I incorporated non-fat dairy and other low-fat foods into my meals and increased my intake of soy products (which at the time was being touted by the medical community including the American Heart Association as a heart-healthy food). I still didn’t eat any red meat or chicken. I ate egg whites, a lot of whole grains, salmon, tons of vegetables, fruit, tofu, beans, nuts, tempeh, fake meat products made of wheat gluten, and helped myself to desserts that were “vegan,” “raw,” and anything that was made with agave syrup, soy, canola oil, and spelt. This was supposedly the perfect Mediterranean “heart healthy” diet. I had another heart attack five years later and then needed bypass surgery.

So why now have I changed my diet yet again to now include meat, animal fat, full-fat dairy and egg yolks? It sounds like a recipe for another heart attack, doesn't it? Well, actually no. I don’t believe it is. After spending the last 3 years combing through the medical literature that addresses the “lipid hypothesis,” I have come to the conclusion that it is all… inconclusive. It has never been proven that cholesterol causes heart disease. It has never been proven that animal fat raises cholesterol. It has never been proven that red meat causes heart disease and cancers. It has never been proven that vegetable fats are healthier than animal fats. It has never been proven that soy is healthy. It has never been proven that agave syrup is a “health food.” There have been correlations between all these things. But anyone that knows anything about science knows that correlation does not equal causation.

So here is what I do know:
  • I know that sugar spikes insulin and that insulin spikes cause the body to store fat, cause inflammation, lower the immune system, and tax the body and all of it’s functions. This is the same mechanism that, in time, can also lead to the development of type-2 diabetes. No one is debating whether sugar is bad. We know it is – and that is in all of its forms – synthetic or not: fructose, sucrose, honey, maple syrup, agave, etc… are all high-glycemic foods and raise insulin the same way.
  • I know that grains and carbohydrate-rich food turn quickly into sugar in your body, which also lead to spikes in blood sugar. I know that whole grains and refined grains both spike blood sugar (fiber or not) at the same rate, in the same way.
  • Wheat and polyunsaturated vegetables oil also cause inflammation in the system and are linked to auto-immune conditions like celiac disease, chrohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, dermatitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Inflammation is now being considered the strongest risk factor for heart attacks and heart disease.
  • Soy is not a health food and causes hormonal imbalances and fertility problems in both men and women (and boys and girls), which is why the American Heart Association has now pulled all their endorsements for soy products.
  • 75% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and vitamin D deficiencies are also linked to cancer and heart disease. The two major sources of vitamin D are animal fat and the sun. 

  • Carnivores in my family lived long, healthy lives. Vegetarians in my family did not. 

  • Cultures who still subsist on hunter/gatherer diets have the lowest (some non-existent) rates of chronic diseases in the world (Inuits, Kitavan, Masai, etc...)

Our ancestors lived on animal protein and fats, little sugar, no vegetable fats or other refined foods, and fewer grains than we do today – and exhibited much lower rates of chronic diseases.
  • Many vegetarians have vitamin D, vitamin B, iron, and amino acid deficiencies. And I suspect that all of these deficiencies may pose a greater risk to one’s health than meat and fat consumption. 

  • Children under 5 who are deprived from animal protein suffer from malnutrition - often resulting in wasting, stunting, and in worse cases - death (see Doctors Without Borders study below).
All this is to say that I now eat meat. I don’t want to have to depend on grains and high-glycemic foods for energy. I don’t want to experiment with processed soy and other fake foods for my protein sources. I no longer want to be deficient in vital nutrients that combat and prevent diseases. I want to feel full and energized after eating a meal, and not sleepy and craving more breads, pasta, and sweets. I no longer want to be the person who asks for everything on the side in restaurants and has an anxiety attack if there is butter involved. I no longer want to feel the debilitating exhaustion of the afternoon crash after eating a high-carb lunch (or brunch). And I no longer want to feel the rapid heart beat, the angina pain, and the fear of having another heart attack – that accompanies my blood sugar spikes. 

So what about animal welfare, and the environment, and all of the hormones and antibiotics that are ever present in most meat and dairy products? 

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3.

In the meant time, here are some fun resources:

Gary Taubs on PBS - transcript
The Cholesterol Myths
Dr. William Davis' take on cholesterol
The Dirty Little Secret of the Diet-Heart Hypothesis
Debunking the China Study
Soy Alert!
Vitamin D Council
Saturated Fat in non-industrial cultures
Read about the Masai!
Agave syrup is not a health food!
Doctors Without Borders on childhood malnutrition

18 April 2010

New Chicks in My Life

"You should really have your own chickens."

It wasn't a challenge - or if it was I was too dense to recognize it as such at the time - but when Stephanie first suggested I get some egg-laying hens a couple of years ago I didn't think much about it. Frankly, I didn't much care for the idea. It sounded like a lot of work. Picking up eggs at the store is so easy.

The notion, though, hung around like a bum at a plasma donation center. Then about a year ago I visited my neighbors just down the street and toured their little chicken operation. I later wrote about my conversion to local, genuine free-range eggs. I started looking at my big, empty, full acre lot a little differently. But, gee, I was way too busy to do it myself.

And then fate stepped in.

My son recently asked a local girl to a prom. Her response included a little poster with "I'd love to be your 'chick' for the dance." And, to punctuate the pun biologically, three real little chicks. Females.

Hello there!

Suddenly, I was a grandpa. Sort of. And so, the question: Should I drop them off at a local agricultural products vendor? Give them to my neighbor? Should I [hard swallow] keep them?

Steph and I have talked a great deal over the last couple of years about the evolution from local food systems to increasingly complex, networked systems. The powerful economic realities of cheap food production have led to the sad, perverse fact that it can be less expensive for a local rancher to buy commercial meat at the supermarket than it costs him to sell himself one of his animals and have it butchered. This, however, does not consider the quality of the meat.

I decided that it was time to try my hand at egg farming.

Asher and I built them first one, and then a second, larger box. We established feeding and watering systems. The bird box became a fixture in the kitchen. The little birds learned to get excited when their sugar-daddy (me) would come around. Changing their bedding every couple of days kept the place from smelling like an avian toilet.

"Peek-a-boo" through the cardboard windows

Now they're several weeks old, and their real feathers are coming in nicely.

The day before yesterday I put together part of an old dog run I had in the backyard, and turned it into a chicken run.

Mother Earth News published a good article about the superiority of genuine free-range eggs over commercial eggs. Even so-called commercial "free-range" eggs are misleading. It may mean that the eggs come from chickens that can see daylight or have somewhat more spacious cages.

I've had a talk with these maturing chicks. I've committed to providing for them and shown them what I expect. We've set some goals and I have a good feeling. I don't think they'll let me down. And I will be there for them.

Honesty and transparency are the bases of good relationships.

I don't yet have a coop, but I'll put something together during the next several weeks. I can run power from the garage to their run and give them the heat they'll need at night and during next winter. They're still a little young to be outside at night anyway. For now, my girls are enjoying being in the safety of the run during the day, eating seeds, bits of grass, and bugs, and living reasonably decent chicken lives.

10 March 2010

Psssst . . . There's sugar in there.

I thought this article was worth re-posting, since many of us are attempting to cut out sugar from our diets. I had a bit of a scare myself last month when I suffered a terrible episode of hypoglycemia. My energy level dropped so drastically that I literally had to get off my bike and sit down on the side of the road. Since then, I've been working very hard to bring my glucose levels down and energy levels back up.

Incidentally, keeping glucose levels down is also a sure-fire way of taking excess weight off.

This comes from Dr. William Davis' Heart Scan Blog

You non-diabetics who check your postprandial blood sugars already know: There are hidden sources of sugar in so many foods.

By now, everybody should know that foods like breakfast cereals, breads, bagels, pretzels, and crackers cause blood sugar to skyrocket after you eat them. But sometimes you eat something you thought was safe only to find you're showing blood sugars of 120, 130, 150+ mg/dl.

Where can you find such "stealth" sources of sugars that can screw up your postprandial blood sugars, small LDL, inflammation, blood pressure, and cause you to grow visceral fat? Here's a few:

Balsamic vinaigrette
Many commercially-prepared balsamic vinaigrettes, especially the "light" varieties, have 3 or more grams carbohydrates per tablespoon. Generous use of a sugar-added vinaigrette can therefore provide 12+ grams carbs. (Some, like Emeril's and Wish Bone, also contain high-fructose corn syrup.)

I learned this lesson the hard way by taking my blood sugar after having a hamburger, turkey burger, or vegetarian burger (without bun): blood sugar would go way up. The effect is due to bread crumbs added to the meat or soy.

Tomato soup
If it were just tomatoes, it would still be somewhat high in sugars. But commercially-prepared tomato soup often contains added high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and wheat flour, bringing sugar totals to 12 to 20+ grams per half-cup. A typical 2-cup bowl of tomato soup can have upwards of 80 grams of sugar.

Sure, granola contains a lot of fiber. But most granolas come packed with sugars in various forms. One cup of Kellogg's Low-fat Granola with Raisins contains an incredible 72 grams (net) carbohydrates, of which 25 grams are sugar.

Given modern appetites and serving sizes, you can see that it is very easy to get carried away and, before you know it, get exposed to extraordinary amounts of sugar and carbohydrates eating foods you thought were healthy.

And don't be fooled by claims of "natural" sugar. Sugar is sugar--Just check your blood sugar and you'll see. So raw cane sugar, beet sugar, and brown sugar have the same impact as white table sugar. Honey, maple syrup, and agave? They're worse (due to fructose).

19 February 2010

Lenten Season and Primal Eating

Whether or not one happens to be religiously inclined, religious seasons can be good opportunities to rededicate. Stephanie, who is Jewish, and I, a religiously mediocre Catholic, are taking advantage of the Lenten season - a forty day period of "purification and enlightenment" - to engage in some dietary refocusing.

What's "primal eating?" Steph introduced the subject here, and we went into a little more detail here and here. Basicially it's a practice based on the philosophy that we evolved to eat certain things (such as wild meat, nuts, berries, leafy vegetables), and not others (agricultural grains, processed carbohydrates). I must be truthful and confess that dairy is pooh-poohed by the strictly Primal people, but I won't give it up, and I'm not nearly as rigorous as a great many committed primalists, but I'm going to try for Lent. And I'm looking forward to doing it in solidarity with a partner.

24 September 2009

History Under A Harvest Moon

Posted by guest blogger, Laura

Though only a few days into autumn, already the air has cooled and farms around the country are preparing for the Harvest.

When I lived in the Garden State, harvest season was the highlight of the year. The last tomatoes are brought to the farm stands, the corn finishes ripening, and the bright pumpkins swell in the fields.

The Harvest, Robert Zund (1827 - 1909)

Few people ever consider the historical circumstances that allow us to enjoy these fruits and vegetables around the world today. Most people know that Amerindians cultivated corn (maize) for thousands of years, and introduced it to the Europeans who arrived on America's shores in the 15th century. However, corn wasn't the only "New World" vegetable to impact Europe.

For instance, though tomatoes are today considered an integral part of Italian sauces, the British and North American British colonists refused to eat tomatoes for years because they erroneously believed them to be poisonous (only the leaves are toxic). Anyone who has been hiking or enjoys the outdoors probably has heard that brightly colored berries are typically bad to eat. The vibrant fruit of the tomato made some Europeans nervous, so when Spanish explorers brought back seeds from Tenochtitlan around 1519, the British only cultivated them as decorative plants. Obviously since the Spanish had seen the Amerindians eat the tomato with no ill effects, the fruit caught on quickly in Spain, with Italy following closely behind. The myth of the poisonous tomato persisted among the British and Americans until less than 200 years ago.

Ripening Tomatoes 4, Cindy Revell (Contemporary)

Were you aware that the Irish didn't farm potatoes until recently? Native to Peru, the potato is first mentioned by Spaniard Pedro de Cieza de Leon in 1540, when he writes that the native peoples have, in addition to maize, another "plant that supports a great part of their existence: the potatoes...." After making its way around Europe, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) first brought the potato to Ireland when he planted them at his estate near Cork. The new crop gained so much in popularity that "cooking any food other than a potato had become a lost art. Women hardly boiled anything but potatoes" [Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1962]. This dependence on the potato directly lead to the starvation of millions when the blight destroyed nearly all the potatoes in Ireland.

Gathering Potatoes, Jules Bastien-Lapage (1848 - 1884)

Perhaps the crop most associated with autumn is the pumpkin. We make pies and soups from it, roast the seeds, and even fry the blossoms. While pumpkins today are grown on every continent save Antarctica, they are believed to have been first cultivated in Mexico thousands of years ago. In addition to using pumpkins as food, Amerindians would pound the tough rind into strips and weave it into mats. Colonists first created the pie when they hollowed out a pumpkin and filled the inside with milk, honey and spices, then set the squash in the fire to cook.

Gathering Pumpkings: An October Scene in New England, ca. 1860

In the spirit of harvest, I'd like to share my very simple pumpkin soup recipe that I enjoy making with fresh pumpkin, then serving in the shell.

3 tbsp. butter
2 cups cubed fresh pumpkin
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup fat free half and half.

I cook the pumpkin in a pan (to soften it), then place all the ingredients in a blender (I'm sure a food processor works as well). I then return it to the pan to continue simmering for about 20 minutes. Some people pour the soup back into the pumpkin and bake for a little while - it keeps the soup warm.

I'd like to thank the lovely Stephanie and "Ninja-hot" Mark for graciously allowing me to sully their otherwise excellent and informative blog. When not annoying my friends or searching for decent beer, I write drivel over at The Angry Historian.

05 September 2009


Milk Thistle enjoys wide human use throughout the world as therapy for livers taxed or damaged by disease, such as hepatitis, or chemical/drug exposure. Its cousin, the Musk Thistle, grows in my backyard and enjoys many of the same benefits.

Many thistles end up on "noxious weeds" lists. Such lists largely indicate that the "weeds" are simply contrary to local agricultural interests, and say little about whether or not the plants are actually useful to humans in other ways.

I hope you enjoy my time spent with the "noxious" Musk Thistle in my backyard.

05 August 2009

Tomatillos have arrived.

There is so much good food in season right now that it's hard for me to make choices when I go to the farmers market: lush greens, huge bouquets of broccoli, cauliflower, and romanesco; purple bulbs of kohlrabi, cabbage, beets and other new roots; beautiful varieties of sweet heirloom tomatoes; and then there are all of the berries and stone fruits. The donut peaches and sugar plums barely make it back to my house without being devoured on the way home. But these little green beauties wrapped up in their own natural parchment were just screaming out at me this week - tomatillos!

Tomatillos are like husked tomatoes but they are actually from the gooseberry family. They taste like a cross between a tomato, a plum, and rhubarb - slightly lemony and tart. If you have ever had good salsa verde in a Mexican restaurant, they are the staple ingredient.

I first made this dish about a month ago while I was visiting Mark in Utah. We found these gorgeous tomatillos that were from California and some fresh bay scallops in his local grocery store. We roasted a bunch of vegetables in the oven, blended them up into sauce, and served it over pan-seared scallops with a little sour cream and avocado. It was so light, fresh, and summery that I decided to recreate it once I was home, only this time I substituted fresh calamari (squid). The sauce is just about the most delicious summer salsa on the planet!


1/2 lb. of cleaned squid chopped into 1-inch thick slices or 1/2 lb. of bay scallops
2 Tablespoons of bacon fat or clarified butter (ghee)
Sea salt, freshly ground pepper
2 cups roasted tomatillo sauce (below)
1 Hass avocado
Creme fraiche or sour cream

1. Using a saute pan, render a few slices of bacon into about 3 tbsp. of fat.
2. Once the bacon is crispy and there is enough fat in the pan, remove the strips and save to crumble over a salad. You can also use clarified butter (ghee) for this dish since it also has a high smoking point, which in that case you'll want to season your squid with salt and pepper before frying. If you use bacon fat, it will already be salty so you can just season with black pepper.
3. Once fat is good and hot, drop squid into pan and saute over hi-heat until the white parts begin to brown a bit and the tendrils begin to curl up on the edges (3-4 minutes). You can taste it to be sure it's tender. Don't overcook the squid since it can become too rubbery.
4. Once the squid is cooked, remove from the pan and transfer to some paper towel to drain.
5. In the center of a serving bowl or plate, ladle about 1/4 cup of tomatillo sauce.
6. Arrange a handful of squid on top of sauce.
7. Spoon some creme fraiche over the squid and top with chopped avocado.


1/2 lb. tomatillos, husks and stems removed, thoroughly rinsed until no longer sticky
1 Anaheim chile pepper, stemmed, quartered, ribs and seeds removed
1 Green or purple (or red) pepper - stemmed, quartered, an seeds removed
5 cloves of garlic
1 onion quartered
3 Italian Roma tomatoes sliced in half
1 bunch of cilantro, leaves only
Juice from 1 lime
Sea salt to taste

1. Pre-heat oven to 450
2. Place tomatillos, peppers, tomatoes, onion, and garlic in roasting pan.
3. Roast vegetables until tops are charred (8-12 minutes).
4. Remove from oven and allow to cool
5. Spoon all the vegetables along with the juices that have collected in the pan into a blender
6. Add cilantro and blend slightly until you get a chunky sauce consistency. Add a little lime juice, salt, and pepper to taste. This sauce should be naturally sweet, slightly astringent, a little smoky, a little spicy, and slightly salty.
7. Refrigerate and use as a sauce for fish, meat, or eggs (huevos rancheros).