I had to improvise a Thanksgiving meal today because plans with family members fell through. Unfortunately none of the convenient grocery stores were open, so I had to use things I already had. Luckily I've been cooking a lot lately and I had a decent amount of stuff to work with. Except I had almost no vegetables and no thawed or easily thawable meat except bacon. But our meal, while slightly odd, ended up being pretty tasty.
A few days ago I had made an impulse purchase of two matsutake mushrooms, also known as pine mushrooms both for their habitat and their coniferous taste. I wasn't sure what exactly to do with them since it was only two, but I'd been wanting to make pecan brittle for awhile and I thought mushrooms might be an interesting addition. Some of my favorite restaurants, including Elizabeth, use mushrooms in desserts. I also had some kafir lime leaves I needed to use up from a Vietnamese market on Argyle st. and I knew those were good with nuts because I used to buy cashews roasted with them from Nuts + Nuts at the New Amsterdam Market when I lived in NYC. Another thing I needed to use was some roast duck fat leftover from my bi-monthly duck cooking. The base recipe I used was from Elena's Pantry, because it looked pretty easy.
I chopped the mushrooms and sauteed them in the duck fat in a cast iron skillet with a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, which I used in my recipe instead of cinnamon. Instead of all honey I used a mix of honey and birch syrup leftover from my trip to Montreal last year, which I whisked together with the egg white and salt the recipe calls for. I also chopped up the kafir lime leaves into tiny pieces and mixed them in with the egg mixture before mixing in the pecans. Then I threw everything in my skillet with the duck fat mushrooms, mixing around to get the mushroom pieces into the brittle. I baked that in the pre-heated 300 F oven for 30 minutes.
I was worried about the egg white causing the mixture to stick, but they didn't and they turned out great. I was pleasantly surprised at how dominant the matsutake flavor ended up being. The resulting brittle was aromatic and exotic, reminding me of forests near and far.
I broke up little bits of it to use today for my main Thanksgiving recipe, a cornbread stuffing. For the cornbread I used Sean Brock's skillet buttermilk lard cornbread recipe. I then cooked some bacon and japanese chilis in my larger skillet. The broth I used was from some lamb necks I made using Ferran Adria's mustard mint lamb neck recipe from The Family Meal. I mixed a cup of that up with some butter and homemade harissa (I used The Domestic Man's recipe). I chopped up the cornbread and tossed it with an egg, then threw that in the bacon pan with some of my leftover pecan brittle and mixed it all up. Finally I poured in the broth mixture. I baked it in the oven at 350F for 35 minutes then tossed in some grated grass-fed cheddar and broiled on high for five minutes.
It was weird having stuffing at the holiday meal centerpiece, but this was hearty and delicious enough to serve as that. It was spicy and crispy and fatty with little bits of sweet goodness. I mixed up some leftover homemade aioli with some sliced carrots, apples, and kimchi to make a side salad. I'd actually never made stuffing before, but now that I know the basics, the possibilities seem endless. I'm dreaming of a pastrami buckwheat stuffing with chicken soup broth and chicken cracklings and mini crispy latkes now…
What’s the deal with gluten sensitivity? Gluten sensitivity as a proposed disease showed up in the scientific literature in the past few years. The key here is proposed, because there was evidence it might exist, but it remained in a scientific grey area because there was not a known mechanism behind it.
But enough people had already decided or wanted to decide gluten was bad that they took the proposed disease and ran with it, producing and selling a large volume of scientifically dubious diet books featuring “gluten sensitivity”.
A profitable food scare
One of the most popular studies was Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without celiac disease: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial. Whole Health Source’s Stephan Guyenet covered in in a popular post. It has been cited over a hundred times in the scientific literature and cited as evidence that gluten is bad in many popular diet books.
But the authors knew it had flaws (listen to an excellent podcast with one of them, Dr. Peter Gibson, here). And so they did another study to make sure it was gluten, a protein, that was the problem, and not carbohydrate intolerance.
Their new study, No Effects of Gluten in Patients With Self-Reported Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity After Dietary Reduction of Fermentable, Poorly Absorbed, Short-Chain Carbohydrates, was published recently and is available for free online.
They found a source of gluten that was carbohydrate depleted. As Dr. Gibson says in the podcast “We wanted to do a more detailed and intense study to control for other things in the diet to ensure it was only the gluten we were looking at.” It was also cross-over and examined inflammatory markers in detail. Celiac disease, a gluten-related disease with a well-developed mechanism behind it, was ruled out in the subjects. The subjects were people with “IBS” who reported they felt better on a gluten free diet.
The diet they used for carbohydrate intolerance was FODMAPs (Fermentable, Poorly Absorbed,
Short-Chain Carbohydrates), a diet developed in Australia for gastroenterological symptoms. They used it as their background diet and supplied all the food for the participants. The re-challenge trial diet was even more strict, eliminating FODMAPs, dairy, and low in naturally occurring and artificially added food chemicals “salicylates, amines, monosodium glutamate, as well as preservatives benzoates, propionate, sulfites, nitrites, sorbic acid, plus added antioxidants and colors”
Of course these diet books say “just try eliminating gluten and see how you feel.” But their eliminations usually violate basic scientific experimental principles. Most of these diet books have their adherents completely overhauling their diets. For example, Wheat Belly and a new book called Gut Bliss both tell dieters to not only eliminate all gluten from their diet, but to avoid gluten-free grain products. That is not testing the elimination of gluten, but the elimination of gluten AND foods with added sugar, starchy grain-based foods, etc. That’s testing a lot more than gluten intolerance. In the end I meet a lot of people who end up living a grey area, people who believe gluten is bad, but sometimes will eat it as part of their 20%. If they really have celiac this is devastating. If they don’t, they are living in fear for no reason.
Interestingly many of the subjects in the study got better on the diet they used than they had been on their previous gluten-free diets. This was my own experience as well, that I felt better on a FODMAPs diet, even though it contained some foods I once thought were kind of questionable, but in small amounts, than I did on a “paleo” diet. In fact I’d almost dread going to a “paleo” potluck these days, when so many paleo recipes seem along the lines of “let’s turn cauliflower (which is high in certain FODMAPs) into everything from faux rice to faux pizza crust.”
Of course this doesn’t tell us much about whether or not gluten plays a role in other diseases besides celiac, such as skin conditions. There are some hypotheses about that out there. Unfortunately, as “Stabby the Raccoon” said, paleo has become about “about scaring people over hypotheses.” Why? Simply because it’s profitable. Witness the rise of content farms that publish low-quality articles in this genre and manage to get massive amounts of hits and social media shares that can be reaped for ad dollars.
If you believe you might be affected by gluten, I’d recommend you get screened for celiac. If you don’t have celiac, I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion you have gluten “sensitivity” especially given how poorly defined this potential condition is. It seems wise to consider that FODMAPs might be an issue for you, which turned out to be the case for me.
Luckily, FODMAPs intolerance doesn’t have very much in common with celiac disease. Eating a little wheat is not going to cause a cascade of inflammatory reactions in your body. People who have issues with FODMAPs can typically tolerate some of the offending foodstuffs depending on individual differences and the preparation of that food. The re-challenge diet in the study also seems to point to dietary context as being an oft-overlooked consideration. Some people might be sensitive to one food only if another food is causing the initial irritation.
For example, I do not possess lactase persistence genetically, so technically I am lactose (a FODMAP) intolerant. In the real world, that means it might get uncomfortable if I guzzled a lot of fresh milk, but I can tolerate plenty of low-lactose dairy products and small amounts of fresh dairy. I also seem to be intolerant of the fructans in wheat. When I thought it was gluten, I ate a gluten-free diet that contained a lot of FODMAPs and often my symptoms were much worse than before. When I realized it wasn’t the gluten, I am now able to enjoy small amounts of wheat-containing foodstuffs. Same of fructan-containing alliums such as onions. I can’t enjoy them fresh, but when they are cooked down they do not seem to bother me. That means a lot for me since I love to travel and try a lot of foods. It might not be a biological “need,” but it is meaningful to me.
Note: if you do not plan to read the whole post, please skip to the last section
Kale is one of those vegetables that everyone thinks is so healthy. From kale chips to kale salad, kale has become an extremely trendy vegetable. But people have embraced kale without thinking enough about the chemicals it contains and its effects on the Earth. What you don't know could kale you.
Before scientists were blinded by kale’s health food halo, they studied its horrific effect on livestock. Farmers had been mystified by the births of lambs that already had goiter. Researchers experimented with kale on sheep and rabbits with grisly results. Turns out kale does contain a goitrogen, thiocyanate, which is chemically very similar to deadly cyanide. Some young lambs were stillborn, their brain development stunted by their goiters. The consumption of kale had blocked their thyroid’s ability to function properly even in the presence of proper iodine consumption. With many Americans consuming little iodine, especially those obsessed with health foods who eschew iodized salt, the effects could be devastating.
Even more alarming, later experiments showed that mixing the kale with corn and blood meal increased the effect, something you might want to think about next time you consider sauteed kale with cornmeal pancakes and blood sausage.
Scientists then never considered that humans would someday consider kale a “health food.” Back then it was only food for livestock and ignorant Scottish peasants. But even though people weren’t noshing on kale chips all day, kale managed to poison them. Cows grazing on kale transferred its poisons to their milk, affecting the thyroid development of children who drank it and causing an epidemic of goiter on Tasmania.
Kale is also rich in sulfur and compounds that convert to sulfur, which is the chemical that makes rotten eggs smell putrid. One metabolite of sulfur, S-methylcysteine sulphoxide, is known to cause “kale poisoning” – severe hemolytic anemia, a life-threatening breakdown of red blood cells, in livestock. Poor sulfur digestion is associated with many serious illinesses in humans, though whether it causes them or merely exacerbates them remains to be seen.
It makes sense that Kale would be dangerous given it evolved in an evolutionary war against those that dare to eat its leaves from aurochs to insects. One powerful weapon it possesses is lectins, which many of you recognize as a serious danger to human health, implicated in many autoimmune illnesses and other inflammatory disorders. The lectins in kale and other related species are very similar to the equally dangerous wheat germ agglutinin lectin.
Some people think that kale and other related vegetables prevent cancer, but large-scale epidemiological studies have shown no such effect and their phytochemicals may even cause cancer. For example, indole and its derivatives have been shown to promote many types of cancer, possibly by causing hormone imbalances or by stimulating the cyt-P450 pathway that produces genotoxic metabolites. If you already have cancer, it can promote further growth and the so-called “antioxidants” which people think are so healthy can prevent your body from fighting the cancer effectively.
Studies in pigs have shown that kale’s close cousin broccoli promotes severe DNA damage in the colon. Kale may also promote other types of digestive problems through difficult-to-digest carbohydrates known as fructans, part of a family experts are calling FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols). Many people have found relief from IBS and other stomach problems by avoiding foods like kale on a low-FODMAPs diet. If you are constantly bloated and gassy it might be the pound of kale you are eating for breakfast every day.
You probably already worry a lot about antinutrients in grains, but kale contains many of the same antinutrients that rob your body of important vitamins and minerals and irritate the digestive tract including oxalate, phytic acid, and tannins.
The amounts of these chemicals in each variety of kale varies widely, so consuming kale is like eating an uncontrolled cocktail of immunogenic and bioactive health-harming chemicals and their even more chaotic breakdown products. Terrifyingly, these chemicals also vary with time of day and season, even when they are in your fridge!
Kale-ing the Environment
As kale becomes more and more popular, it raises the question: how will we feel the world’s almost 9 billion people on kale? The Food and Agricultural Organization at the UN doesn’t track kale production and consumption yet, but they will have to start. At current rates of growth, by 2350, almost all the world’s cropland will be devoted to kale. The consequences to the environment will be devastating.
Large-scale industrial commercial kale production requires clearing massive amounts of animal habitat and killing animals that invade the fields of kale. In the world of leafy greens production, any life that’s not a leaf is a potential liability. After the spinach-related e.coli outbreak, farmers can’t take the risk of co-existing with other plants and animals. Will the world look like the Salinas Valley looks like today? A sterile dry wasteland where any signs of life are promptly shot or poisoned?
Kale production not only destroys rivers and wetlands, it uses water that human beings need. It needs heavy irrigation during the hot months of the year. Furthermore, kale needs to be fertilized extensively, particularly given its soil-fertility reducing effects, and many farms use industrially-produced resource-intensive fertilizer or fertilizer made from the manure of factory-farmed animals. A full environmental impact analysis of kale production has yet to be done, a fact people ignore when they shovel kale chips blindly into their mouths.
The way kale is grown also increases its negative effects on your health. The EWG lists kale as one of its “dirty dozen” of vegetables most likely to be contaminated by pesticides. Pesticides used on kale include phthalates, dangerous chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors, wreaking havoc on the human hormonal systems. Many pesticides used to grow kale also are contaminated with immune-damaging dioxin and liver-destroying hexachlorobenzene.
Even organic kale might be rife with harm. Laverlam, a common organic pesticide, may trigger allergic reactions, which are on the rise in the United States today. As if kale didn’t destroy enough animal habitat, mineral oil used in organic production destroys the microhabitats founds in soil that are home to a great deal of biodiversity.
Thinking you can beat that by growing kale in your garden? Home-grown greens are known to be heavily contaminated by brain-damaging lead and cancer-causing arsenic.
In the end the best thing you can do for yourself, your family, and the world is to avoid kale and its cousins. This post contains over fifty peer-reviewed references to science, so think about that next time your so-called friend serves you a massaged kale salad with delicious flecks of parmesan reggiano. Remember there is no documented need for kale in your diet and you can get all the nutrients you need from delicious nutritious cow’s liver.
I was going to put this part up the next day, but the reaction I got from the post was so extreme that I almost immediately felt guilty. People sent me emails asking advice about other vegetables that might be bad. Some of the comments were hilarious, some just made me feel bad
And in general people took if very very seriously, I guess they forgot I had put up a poll some time ago asking what food should be my victim to demonstrate you can demonize anything with Pubmed. Also I thought the language was pretty silly: "ignorant Scottish peasants" ... " delicious nutritious cow’s liver"??
Yes, Kale does contain chemicals, all foods do. In very large amounts or in certain vulnerable people could cause problems. Many of the studies I chose involved animals with a diet almost completely based on kale, which I think anyone will agree is a bad idea. Most also involved varieties not sold for human consumption and consumed in ways that humans might not consume- uncooked, un-marinated, etc. A lot of the rest involved just scary language about various chemicals and studies involving isolated chemicals.
I do think that the point about antioxidants being overrated is valid, but overall I don't think kale or most other foods (barring actual intolerances or allergies) are going to cause problems as part of a diverse diet. Maybe you shouldn't juice a pound of kale and drink it for breakfast every day though. Sadly to say, I have met people who do things like that. You have to respect that leaves have to protect themselves from herbivory or these plants would not have survived millions of years of evolution. Some of those chemicals to deter consumption can be healthy in small amounts, but unhealthy in largely amounts.
I will say the issues regarding leafy green production being destructive are worth thinking about, but you can certainly find responsibly-produced kale in season at your local farmer's market. I brought them up because people rarely think about the environmental effects of things that have a moral halo around them like greens, including people more than willing to tell you about how bad meat is for the environment. We should think about the fact that people pretty much demand to have salad greens every single month of the year and what that means for wildlife, wetlands, and biodiversity in general.
But when you see an article that demonizes a food, think about whether or not there are citations and follow those citations. Ask yourself whether they apply to human beings eating a diverse diet with adequete calories. Or whether they involve very high concentrations no human being eats, isolated chemicals, or preparations that no normal human would put on their plate. I see narratives like this, not as satire, in many diet books and on a lot of diet blogs. I have been guilty of this in the past, when I took a lot of stuff seriously that I no longer worry about. Like phytic acid in foods– most of the studies that show this is a problem involve populations of people who are malnourished. I suppose some people get to that point while dieting though.
As far as the cornmeal pancakes with blood sausage and sauteed kale, I think that's what I'm going to have for breakfast today.
About the spring of 2008 I enjoyed the best health I had experienced in 25 years. I gained 20 pounds and my blood level did not show anaemia. I looked like a healthy person and I felt terrific. There was no medical explanation whatsoever. I ate everything, I over ate and I was drinking. I was going to author something that I was going to call ‘The Drinking Cure’. I thought that I had beaten the illness – something in my physiology had changed.
Then of course he has a devasting intestinal rupture.
I think the past ten years has seen an explosion in similar stories- "I cured X, here is my advice." They underpin quite a few blogs, even perhaps this one. But as this blog has aged, I've realized how unimportant my own story is. Sure, I managed to get rid of some illnesses, but it's very hard to say how given how much of my life has changed since I started out this journey.
So many of these "Paleo" or whatever diet challenges change so many things about a person's eating, drinking, and living habits that's it's very hard to isolate what is going on. Same goes with personal stories. Furthermore, many autoimmune disorders are known to go into spontaneous remission. At best they give people leads to try, at worse they are used as a "banner for the cure" that makes people try to obsessively follow an individual's success and then become disillusioned when they don't experience that same success.
Reiner's disease, Crohn's, is a great example– I know people who have had great success with things like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and zero carb, but I know others who got worse on those same diets and ended up having to have conventional surgery and medication. Some of them felt like failures even though they felt better receiving conventional treatment.
But if we understood what really causes these diseases, they wouldn't be so frustratingly hard to treat.
Recently I was about to write a followup about how I fixed my neck problems, which had been gone for awhile. As I drafted the post, they came back worse than ever. Of course I am disappointed, but I'm entertaining the possibility that the problems are related to my work and work stress far more than to my posture or the exercise I do.
I've been glad to see that famous success story Terry Wahls is spearheading studies that would possibly show if her remission on a "paleo" diet would apply to others as well. Though a problem is that she is promoting the diet as a potential cure well in advance of these studies being completed. Is this harmless or not? I'm not sure.
If there is anything I've learned from blogging in this sphere, is that one person's cure is another person's poison and I've certainly encountered people for whom her extremely vegetable-rich diet would be harmful. I know from experience that I cannot consume such a diet as it causes immense gastric distress. I've gotten more tolerant of things like brassica vegetables over time, but I still have to be careful.
My own advice is to try a variety of things, but don't expect them to work for you just because someone else has a miracle-cure story.
“I was always conflicted about being from the South” says Andrew Beck Grace at the beginning of Eating Alabama, a documentary about attempting to eat local which I watched while I was in Alabama. This particular line rankled some of my relatives, “Why would you be conflicted about being from the South” one said, mere hours after he had said “I can feel my IQ dropping” as we crossed the border between Florida and Alabama (something that doesn’t make sense on any level considering the state of Florida).
Indeed, I feel like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time myself not to make such cracks about the places and people of the South, a habit I picked up not in the North, but while young in the South, which I spent over half my life so far. Missed in the controversy about Paula Deen, was that some of the off-color jokes she admits telling were about “rednecks”, a term that some people have applied to Deen herself and one that speaks to an ambivalence that isn’t always introspective.
And sometimes it is brilliantly so, such as Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, a story I find myself reading often. A story that despite being short, I would struggle to write about all the meaning in it without filing a novel. Part of O’Connor’s brilliance was that she could do that in so few words.
The children in the story express their disdain for their home place early on:
"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.
"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."
"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."
"You said it," June Star said.
Interestingly, nearly all the food in the story is modern industrial food- white bread, canned apricots, Coca-Cola. To me these emphasize that the story takes place in that very Southern-between place, of embracing modernity in its commodity capitalism form existing side by side with a profound consciousness of the past, often with two few questions asked.
Paula Deen fantasized about an “old fashioned” plantation wedding, the grandmother in a Good Man is Hard to Find fantasizes about visiting a beautiful old “Gone with the wind” plantation, a fantasy that ultimately leads the family to their doom.
Some people have pointed out correctly that if we harangued everyone who told jokes like Deen’s, we’d have few people left. But the fact that she said those things didn’t cause her downfall, it was the fact that unsurprisingly it was part of a hostile and miserable culture in the workspaces she and her family ran.
Admittedly I had been critical of Deen for far longer than this recent incident, who not only represented the transmogrified processed food that has unfortunately come to dominate Southern tables, but actively promoted the corporations behind it. For example, she was a spokesperson for Smithfield, a now Chinese-owned pork factory-farming conglomerate. The fastest way to kill a small town is to put one of their hog farms there.
But there has been considerable backlash against the downfall of Deen, which also isn’t surprising to me. Regardless of anything, her food represents a type of opulence which is OK among the kind of people for whom “elitist” (or even worse “elitist Yankee”) is a slur. Regardless of their income, I have been told by many that a place like Whole Foods is for “those people.” And Paula’s food is for people like them. It represents ease, choice, modernity, comfort, and plenty.
The Southern food which is almost impossible to avoid these days at ritzy restaurants in big cities is the food that many people once had to eat when they had few choices. Food made from scratch, from local ingredients that were once widely available, is now largely for rich college-educated city folk both symbolically and in reality. And like it or not, regardless of my roots, I'm "those people" now, and there isn't really going back on that, though I'm not always sure it's a good thing. There are things I've experienced that are amazing, but there are things I'll never understand in the way I would have if I had "stayed home," but it was a choice made for me when I was 15.
And probably some of that backlash is right. It seems like crocodile tears for some of these companies that once sponsored her to care so much about the matter. But in the end, the structures that made her decided she was no longer useful and spit her out. It is in the end OK for corporations (Cracker Barrel survived far more egregious accusations for example) to espouse such ideas, but not for their cogs. This is a time when a corporation can be redeemed, but not a person. Smithfield probably ran the numbers and calculated it was no more profitable to continue to stand behind her than it is to allow sows to give birth to their piglets outside a farrowing crate so small it doesn’t allow them to even turn around.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a character called The Misfit consumes the family. I won’t quote the story directly and spoil the ending, but instead I’ll refer to Alex Link’s excellent essay (sadly behind a paywall):
In place of the sentimentalized, commodified estate, the story gives us a commodified South that comes to life to consume the family in its tum. It swallows the family with a "satisfied insuck of breath" ( 129) with the help of the Misfit, the embodiment of Lefebvre's residual "incommunicable." As both a terrifying figure out of the tabloids and a perfect southern gentleman out of nostalgic fantasies like Gone with the Wind, the Misfit embodies the Romantic gloss that interposes itself between subjects and the South, as well as the means of transcending that interposition.
And Paula Deen, despite her willing promotion of that system, was just as much a product of it as anyone else. I remember making her recipes in my college dorm cooking club. We had a miserable cramped dorm kitchen. They were easy and they tasted good (don’t let people tell you things like that don’t, maybe they don’t have any fancy complexity, but my mouth still waters reading about them sometimes). Sometimes at the end of the day, looking at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, I miss the times when I ate that way.
Cooking has become seen as an empowering act allowing you to take charge of your health and the food system. I want to believe that too, but if I, a young person without any children, find it hard to fit into my life, I don’t have much hope for it at least if things stay they way they are. When I learned to cook from scratch I lived in Sweden, where I maybe went to class a few hours a day, and that’s if I was feeling studious. It’s just the realities of the American economy that part-time work is untenable for a large majority of people (try finding health insurance and having a part-time job) and a 9-5 job often creeps onto other hours, consuming your life with after hours and commutes. Plus it’s hard for me to decide to spend hours in the kitchen when it means sacrificing social and intellectual pursuits.
Also whatever she was, at least Deen was not of the watered down politically-correct version of Southern cooking that has haunted the "those people" media outlets like PBS. You know, like collard greens cooked with olive oil and soy sauce, because butter and ham hocks are soooo bad for you sort of thing.
In Eating Alabama, you can see how time-consuming and somewhat socially isolating their eat only local project is. They spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out wheat and processing it themselves rather than questioning whether or not it belongs in Alabama any more than the fire ants or kudzu do. The amount of time they spend on it (as well as soybeans) only would make it more affordable than just eating even a fairly expensive alternative if you were seriously underemployed and your time was worth nothing. Plus, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in heritage grains advanced by chefs like Sean Brock and entrepreneurs like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. Alabama has its own McEwen & Sons organic cornmeal and grits. I don’t know if I’m related to them, but I a can vouch for their quality.
Though I didn’t spend very long in Alabama this time, I thought the selection of local quality food available was pretty impressive, but you can’t look to move there and just find exact local equivalents to foods you already eat like the couple in Eating Alabama seemed to do. Given the climate and geography, if you want to eat local easily you’ll find yourself eating more seafood and less of things like dairy, which coming from the Midwest where it’s not easy to find things like good shrimp I was more than happy to do.
Local gulf shrimp boil, local pecans, a game cookbook my grandmother had, boiled peanuts
Of course it’s hard not to have the oil spill in the back of your mind, that put a bit of worry onto the region’s oceanic bounty, but is only one of the shadows on the food system there. The relentless sprawl that has already rendered my hometown unrecognizable from my memories. The weight of cotton on the soil, the pesticides used to grow it showing up in foods such as rice grown in the region. And sometimes it seems like like nature itself has it out for the place, ravaging New Orleans, one of the few places I’d say is really proud of its old foodways to the point where it has resisted change better than most.
But the televisions networks that made Deen a star are unlikely to feature this food or its cooks. The Food Network for one exists to sell things at scale. If you wanted to make Paula Deen’s recipes in the far North of Wisconsin, you could. There was nothing in them you couldn’t get at a big grocery store or Walmart. To contrast, I can’t make a good crawfish boil in Illinois. The crawfish available here aren’t even close to being the same. Same with Edna Lewis' incredible cookbooks.
Just like there was no reason for the networks to keep her on when she became a liability to what they wanted to promote, there is no reason for them to promote foods and people that aren’t any good at promoting those things in the first place.
I'm thrilled that Grub Street shut down its entire Chicago department so that instead of writing about Chicago’s vibrant food scene, they can publish garbage like this: The Rise of the Lady Paleos: How a Dubious Diet Aimed at Men Appeals to Women, Too.
What really struck me is how they linked to the New York Times article from 2010:
The Paleo diet has always been difficult to take very seriously. The program aims to mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era and is most often associated with city-dwelling males who go around pretending they're cavemen. But the new shepherds of the Paleo diet aren't hypermasculine men who install meat lockers in their apartments and gnaw on turkey legs; they're friendly, perky women who wear polka dots and create Paleo-approved recipes for banana porridge. Including women has made the Paleo diet more popular than ever — even as the science it's supposedly based on looks more and more dubious.
Since that article first was published in 2010, it has been linked that way many many times in the context of suggesting paleo is a diet for faux-manly men, not women. Back in 2010, women were simply not allowed to eat such a meaty diet. We had to survive on cupcakes.
Oh, but right there on the top of the article is a picture, and in that picture guess who is there? Me. And I'm 100% sure I'm a woman. Maybe I'm just not "perky" looking enough?
Interestingly there were a large number of photos of me taken for the article. One of the nicer photographers, a woman, sent me hers. I can’t post them here for legal reasons (they still belong to the Times), but I look much like myself in them. The New York Times chose a picture where the lighting and angle seems designed unflatter everyone in the picture (a great illustration of how powerful this can be in this great video), and for me it makes me look somewhat less "perky" than I usually do to say the least. I felt like the editors who chose that particular picture had an agenda, which was to portray the paleo diet as conforming to outdated stereotypes about “cavemen.”
The NYtimes photo they chose, where half my face is in shadows vs. a much more flattering professional photo by Pro Creation of Bacon.
Despite my criticism of the paleo diet, to reduce these women– best-selling authors who run their own successful businesses, to being defined by stereotypically girlish personalities, food and clothing, is disgusting. “Meat lockers” (what some of these reporters call chest freezers) are for men...and porridge is for women? I have little interest in porridge, but I’ve had a so-called “meat locker” for several years now and I love it.
Notice they did not choose to interview women who do not fit stereotypes as easily, women who have had paleo books on the market for quite a long time. One of the co-authors of one of the FIRST paleo diet books was Marjorie Shostak, a prominent feminist anthropologist. It was published in 1989 when I was just toddling around. I sometimes wonder what influence she might have had if she were still around. Sadly she passed away in 1996. The Vegetarian Myth and Primal Body, Primal Mind (I’m not particularly fans of the accuracy of those books these days, but they had an influence on MANY people) were published in 2009. I guess since these women don’t fit girly GOOP-like diet empire guru stereotypes, it’s OK to overlook them.
Marjorie Shostak, who lived with !Kung hunter-gatherers
The 1989 book
The really stupid thing is that they chose authors that are actually moderate and flexible in their approach (esp compared to other authors) and then criticized the paleo diet for not reflecting the flexibility and variation of the past. They say they are excluding things like dairy and grains, while several of the authors consume dairy and in that very article they say one of them feeds her son grains (albeit sprouted, but still grains)! If this article gets anything right, it’s that a lot of them seem to call their junk food -free whole foods diets “paleo” just to call it that. I have to say, that while they didn't dig their own graves, they did hand the reporter a shovel. After the New York Times article and several other horribly biased articles, I learned how to figure out what reporters to avoid and what not to say to them. And most importantly, what editors hold their reporters to a higher standard. I learned that the number of these people was vanishingly small.
Recently I wrote an article about Malort, a bitter spirit, for NPR's The Salt and I was really impressed by how their editors encouraged me to write in a balanced and fair fashion. It also forced me to confront my own biases. Because of an article I had read before, I honestly thought when I started out that the people working for Jeppson's didn't really know how it connected to Sweden. Because the editor questioned this, I tracked down Peter Strom, who ended up completely changing my mind. I ended up re-writing a lot of the article.
But the thing is that "paleo" has grown increasingly scientifically and rationally vapid in the past few years. Most of these approaches aren't based on "dubious" science, a lot of them don't even bother for science. They are like Gwenyth Paltrow's GOOP inc. for people who like bacon.
There are issues with the paleo approach, but the author of this article is clearly not qualified to address them, instead resorting to Gawker-like sensationalist bullshit. I like how they cited Paleofantasy as being a book about debunking the diet, when not even half the book is about the paleo diet.
The sad thing is that Grub Street had a host of great reporters on restaurants, booze, and that sort of thing that they cut very recently in my home city of Chicago as well as other cities. They should have stuck to writing about bacon burgers and local pubs.
My last name came from Scotland. I’m not sure how the McEwens ended up in the United States. The last in the line I can trace is to an overcrowded Philadelphia tenement. They seem to have been very poor. There are rumors of a murder, a flight to South America, and then somehow they ended up in Arkansas.
Much further back, the MacEwans were a Scottish clan that held a fair bit of land by Loch Fyne, a place I have often dreamed of going. In the 1400s they were broken up, seemingly due to the chieftain's financial incompetence, and became the vassals of other clans like the Maclachlans.
When I was a child I liked the idea of my Scottish heritage being defined by deep blue Highland lochs bordered by pines. And swords, and kilts. At the time it was more attractive to me that my more immediate heritage. The reality was probably that my ancestors of that clan were probably poor tenant farmers. And the kilt wasn’t even invented when they lived in Scotland.
But I’ve often thought of the clan crest, a cut oak stump bearing shoots of new growth with the motto “reviresco”- we grow again, underneath.
Two years ago an overzealous logger on our land cut down the big oak tree in the front of the farmhouse. My father was pretty angry about it and stubbornly left the stump there, as if to refuse to let the tree go. I reminded him of the crest. When the spring came the stump sent out shoots with green leaves, as I knew it would.
In forestry school in Uppsala we had a couple of acres of willow coppicing forest, a practice I had not been familiar with before. Coppicing is the very ancient practice of cutting down a tree without killing it in order to utilize the re-growth. They told us that Sweden was the only place in the world that was using willow coppicing to fuel a biomass power plant. The coppice forests were rather beautiful too, whirring with the buzzing of both honey and wild bees.
Coppicing has experienced a renaissance in the United States on small farms, where it can be used as a method of producing firewood or material for crafts like baskets.
Oak can be coppiced in long rotations. So we’ll leave the stump there to give it a chance to grow again.
American Chestnuts were once an important presence on the landscape here. Their starchy nuts were an important source of food for many humans and animals. I once heard them called “tree potatoes.” When I was a girl I was often fascinated by the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” of The Christmas Song.
I had never had one. Because of chestnut blight, which was introduced into the United States in the late 1800s from imported Asian chestnut trees, which are immune to the blight. The blight spread quickly, killing over three billion trees.
The American Chestnut should be extinct, but it lives on an an eternal coppice-like state, sending out hopeful shoots that grow and then die again and again in a world that no longer welcomes them. Unless you can get some of the last stock, from nurseries in Oregon and Washington, and plant them far away from these undead remnants. Then they might live, but the odds are against you.
The only hope is for them are scientists, who are have used the genetic material to create resistant varieties. America might yet be covered with chestnuts again. I have wanted to plant some resistant varieties on the farm, but the nursery I want to buy from always sells out so quickly, sure signs that people are replanting.
I tasted my first chestnut while browsing a Christmas market in the Czech Republic, where they sold bags of roasted chestnuts. They were hearty and slightly sweet, not quite the rich fatty nut I imagined in my childhood dreams. These days you can find chestnuts at the local farmer’s market. I think the flour is among my favorite alternative flours, especially for pancakes. It is silky and has maple notes. But it is expensive, which is amusing since in the past, like lobster and oysters, chestnuts were considered an undesirable peasant food.
I was disappointed in not getting the chestnuts this year, but I ordered a random variety of trees from Oikos and the DNR. I’ve been reading Common Sense Forestry by Hans Morsbach, which notes that he like us was a resident of Chicago who had land in Wisconsin. He also owned some restaurants, so I thought it would be interesting to get in contact with him.
Turns out I can’t. Because he died a few years ago. Knowing that imbues the book with a certain sort of melancholy I don’t often experience when reading books on growing things. He talks about how much of what he does he may never see come to maturation. And I know he never will see it.
That’s what’s really incredible. And I honestly can’t see why everybody who isn’t a child, everybody who’s theoretically old enough to have understood what death means, doesn’t spend all his time thinking about it. It’s a pretty arresting thought, not being anything, not being anywhere, and yet the world still being here. Simply having everything stopping for ever, not just for millions of years. And getting to the point where that’s all there is in front of you. I can imagine anyone finding themselves thoroughly wrapped up in that prospect, especially since it’s where we’re going to get to sooner or later, and perhaps sooner.-The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
If the trees I’ve planted could think, they would see me as I see the wood fly that lives for only a few days.
But they don’t think of this. And while trees sometimes take me into melancholy thoughts of mortality, to try to put yourself in the place of the woodland plant is to imagine that which cannot as Wendell Berry says “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
But it is only for the moment that one can escape there. Even the “peace of wild things” is a “memento mori.” The gaps in our vitality the forest claim. A horticulturalist relative of mine told me he was clearing away the orchard to prepare for this. Past the orchard gate at that same orchard once I remembered peering into the dark forest. The hinges on the gate was twisted, closed by little vines like those oak or chestnut shoots, testing the world outside, seeing if it had been made ready.
Once a friend told me I had trouble sleeping. I told him how I get to sleep when it comes slowly to me. I go in my mind to past dreams, some of them now old enough that perhaps they are worlds of their own. One of the most vivid is a place of murky waters and thick forest. The trees are very old and imposing, holding many strange creatures and towns. It is my grandmother’s Southern Louisiana swamps, the Chattahoochee in Georgia, the dirty miasma of the Skokie canal, the rushlands that were once great Viking rivers in Ultuna. It is all theses places I have known in once, and perhaps places I haven’t. At some point, moving so much, without a home, this became the place I was from.
The call came in the morning, it was some cows we couldn’t keep in our fields, that another farmer had taken to his own farm. They had escaped. We drove northwest there, a shudder crippled my heart. It was as if this were the place in my dreams. The karst topography, holes on the surface of the Earth filled with waters of mystery. There was a heavy fog that morning. The cow had broken her leg in a hole, bellowing sadly stuck in the swamp. There wasn’t much else to do besides get a gun. There wasn’t much blood or commotion. We pulled her out of the swamp into the grass. She looked as if she was sleeping. Her large belly still sighed. It would have been filled with a calf soon, if misfortune hadn’t followed her into the deep green land. Instead the microbes that helped her thrive in life had turned against her flesh for one last meal.
We found a cow skull once; we thought it was
From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun
Shone into the holes through which it had seen
Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel, had heard
Its truculence cursed, had learned how human sweat
Stinks, and had brayed-shone into the holes
With solemn and majestic light, as if some
Skull somewhere could be Baalbek or the Parthenon.- Galway Kinnell's Freedom, New Hampshire
We cut her open. The butcher handed me her liver, it was heavy and dripped with blood on my boots. I also took her sweet breads, they were large and succulent. They always are the best in a young cow. An unfortunate delicacy.
Like hunters we left the gut pile there by the swamp. An offering to some whose home we had disturbed. This land never belonged to any person, it never could belong. It has too close of a relationship with ancient disorder. That’s why it took our cow before we could. You don’t always get to prepare your orchards for when that day comes. I was reminded of this when my grandmother said she’d brought her son’s ashes back to Louisiana. I felt sorry I had been so far away for so long.
Later at home I was tired, but I had to process all the organs, cut away the sinews and freeze what I couldn’t eat soon. I didn’t want to waste anything, and besides it is one of those rare activities where I can be satisfied with work, where the time of work passes quickly in the mundane work of hands.
I cooked the liver and sweetbreads on a hot cast iron with a little salt. They were the best I’d ever had. The sweetbreads popped like popcorn, salty and fatty. I hesitate to give cooking advice for these things. I don’t recommend recreating that day.
That night I dreamt I gave stillbirth to a young lamb and laid him in the grass. I believe it was the lamb from Magnu’s Nilsson’s Faviken book and this artist's depiction of a small microcosm of life growing out of a death. Nilsson has said “ Meat is the remains of what was a living individual that we selfishly raised and killed with the sole purpose of feeding ourselves.”
I felt a million living tendrils
rooting through the thing I was,
as if I’d turned to earth before my death
or in my death could somehow feel.- Christian Wiiman
We always kept our distance from this particular herd of cows. They don’t have names. They have sharp horns. She died much like a wild deer I had seen while hiking once, its skeletal form bent against its tree where its foot was still tangled. Except maybe we are a little less cruel than nature and she didn’t die slowly, stuck in a hole for a long time waiting for the wolves. A part of me welcomed this nourishment from a death that was not a choice.
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.- Galway Kinnell Freedom, New Hampshire
When I was about thirteen or fourteen and first had regular access to the internet, looking back into the past of my name, in boredom. I came across a women who shared it, Gwendolyn MacEwen, a poet and writer. She had died a year after I was born from the alcoholic malady I sometimes feel is a particularly Celtic curse. In pictures she has the most haunting eyes, eyes that seemed far older than her face.
There is one poem of her that I have been remembering since. It is Dark Pines Under Water:
This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
I think of it often. I think it must be stored in the deepest part of my brain, where it has gathered a hold of the way words are in my thoughts, like a strange prayer that emerges in the woods and at night. Before her I didn’t really write, but it has been like an infection since.
I was never the sort that anyone could call private. But there is so much that just must be left unsaid for now at least, people whose shadows I trace with my words, deftly avoiding showing their faces.
One way I do that is to write of the past. Of things that no longer live in consciousness on this world. But even then people always seem to have a stake in things.
Instead I try to write of things that seem a bit more mundane. Like trees.
I knew it - you would have too, if you'd been there; it was a figure I’d glimpsed in a car park as a child; an expression crossing the face of a stranger late one night at Waterloo Station as I hurried for a train with my parents; a carving in the portico of a mediaeval church. In some nightmarish way it was particular, and it was also infinite. It was itself, it was the wood, it was the last roses in the garden, and yet it was also a wider sentience, perhaps best described as the feeling that the trees and fields we look at have always secretly been looking back into us.- Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele
Someone I know who follows a gluten-free diet said that he saw an ad for this product called GlutenCutter, an supplement that claims it helps people digest gluten, on Facebook. I would assume he "likes" many gluten-free/paleo/etc. blogs on Facebook that that is why he saw this ad. I looked at the product out of curiosity and it is a bit worrying, particularly the FAQ:
Q: Is Gluten Cutter intended for those with Celiac Disease?
A: It is recommended that those with Celiac Disease first consult with a doctor prior to using Gluten Cutter.
I would only hope they have a competent doctor who tells them the truth, which is that while some research is being done on using enzymes that would possibly allow a celiac to digest gluten, this is in very preliminary stages. There is currently no safe accepted dose of gluten for a person with celiac disease.
Furthermore with the state of our health care systems, I would worry that people with celiac symptoms would use this product. People who haven't had celiac ruled out. In the US I meet many people like this who cannot afford the diagnostic tests, particularly since the gold standard if it's not ruled out otherwise is biopsy that is performed as a surgical procedure. In places like the UK, it is often hard to obtain these tests as well, as it is not easy to see a specialist.
The supplement industry often thrives by filling in the gaps of the healthcare system, and sometimes in unsafe ways. I would not use this kind of product if it were possible that I might have celiac.
I have used Glutenease in the past, but celiac is ruled out in my own case. Glutenease mainly contains one of the enzymes under study, which is dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPPIV). It seemed to help me transition out of a gluten-free diet, but I stopped taking it late last year and haven't had any problems. I think if i had continued to need it, it would have indicated the possibility of a more serious problem since low levels of it in the body are tied not just to celiac, but to other diseases that cause mucosal damage.
Compared to Glutenease, Glutencutter contains a host of other supplements which might have unintended side effects. One of the many reasons I think people experimenting with supplements should avoid bundled supplements and just supplement what they need in doses that are adjustable.
It just reminds me that gluten is probably a major public health issue in our time because
- it is ubiquitous in the food supply
- current tests for celiac disease are inaccessible to many (if not most) people at risk for celiac
- even the screening tests are rarely done for people at risk, even those with symptoms
- like other food allergies, celiac disease seems to be increasing in prevalence
- many at-risk populations are in some developing countries
Not being gluten-free anymore has significantly broadened my ability to travel, eat-out, and go to social gatherings. And that's kind of a sad fact considering not everyone has that choice.
In developing countries, this problem is magnified:
Wheat and barley are major diet constituents with few acceptable alternatives, rendering the convincing of parents that bread is the cause of diarrhea very hard. Also, convincing patients with atypical CD to adhere to a GFD is difficult. Finally, lack of information about CD manifestations, lack of benefit from a GFD and lack of encouragement to adhere to such a diet may contribute. More than 10% of adults with CD do not adhere strictly to long term GFD and more than 30% who believe they are, are actually consuming grams of gluten daily.
Interestingly, some of the most at-risk populations come from the "Fertile Crescent" where wheat agriculture originated. Rather than poor adaptation to grains, celiac might be more of a legacy of more recent evolutionary trade-offs, an issue explored in Aaron Sam's dissertation (PDF). The crop that these early farmers so successful may also have ended up being a curse on their wide-ranging descendants.
Every two years or so I notice a cyclical trend in the online “paleo” community. It’s the resurgence of dogmatic carnivory. It has two main themes: plants are “poisons” that cause most of our health problems and humans “evolved to be” very low carb. Always an undercurrent with some very zealous devotees (“The Bear” of Grateful Dead fame was probably one of its most prominent popularizers), it suddenly finds popularity among normally more moderate people, picking up some non-paleo low-carb followers in the process. Then it goes away again, hilariously with some of its top cheerleaders renouncing it in the process (like Danny Roddy).
It’s been back again lately. A few readers have written me about Anna who writes the blog Life Extension*. She is a graduate student in archaeology and social anthropology. Anna’s most popular post so far is “Debunking and Deconstructing Some ‘Myths of Paleo’. Part One: Tubers.” Sadly, an opportunity for greater communication to the public from a much-maligned discipline becomes a manifesto for low-carb diets. The tagline is “Glucose restriction represents not only the most crucial component of ancestral diets but is by far the easiest element to emulate.” I think we’ve heard this one before, but this time it is in language that is more authoritative than usual. This is the kind of writing I would have liked Paleofantasy to take on.
Unfortunately she doesn’t refer to sources directly in her text, so I’ve done my best to figure out which sources she is referring to.
Most archaeologists don’t go around promoting diets, because they recognize the limitations of their field. There is so much that is unknown and unknowable. It’s pretty easy for nearly anyone to pigeonhole what we do have to fit their own narratives.
The reduction in size and robusticity of the human skeleton is a clear temporal trend of newly agricultural communities. Diachronic skeletal comparisons reveal large-scale, significant reductions in growth rates.
Yes, of some newly agricultural communities, and that doesn't mean it stayed this way. I’ve written about it more than I would have liked. I just wrote about it in my last post about Paleofantasy (which cites this review).
Then a funny thing happened on the way from the preagricultural Mediterranean to the giant farms of today: people, at least some of them, got healthier, presumably as we adapted to the new way of life and food became more evenly distributed. The collection of skeletons from Egypt also shows that by 4,000 years ago, height had returned to its preagricultural levels, and only 20 percent of the population had telltale signs of poor nutrition in their teeth. Those trying to make the point that agriculture is bad for our bodies generally use skeletal material from immediately after the shift to farming as evidence, but a more long-term view is starting to tell a different story. - Marlena Zuk
It also brings up how questionably height is used in these narratives. The few hunter-gatherers that exist today are very very short (mostly due to genetics). The rest of the world has grown taller and taller. Staffan Lindeberg in his magnum opus suggests we are too tall from overnutrition. Other markers that extremists attempt to use to show that agricultural humans show a downward trend in terms of health suffer from similar limitations.
Instances of porotic hyperostosis brought on by iron deficiency anaemia increased dramatically in agricultural settings.
There is a new appreciation of the adaptability and flexibility of iron metabolism; as a result it has become apparent that diet plays a very minor role in the development of iron deficiency anemia. It is now understood that, rather than being detrimental, hypoferremia (deficiency of iron in the blood) is actually an adaptation to disease and microorganism invasion.”- Porotic hyperostosis: A new perspective
Either way, I’m not sure what the transition these communities in upheaval experienced has to do with whether or not tubers or any carbohydrates are bad for you. It wasn’t just the food that changed for these people, it was their entire way of life, and it was a transition that changed their biology. And while there are trends, there is no linear health decline. There is a more systematic database of human remains and health markers that is in the process of being created right now that should be a great resource in the future. At this point a lot of papers claiming a decline are using inappropriate sample sizes and statistical methods.
Far too little evolutionary time has passed for us to be successfully acclimated to the novel conditions of agricultural life.
Another common thread that is begging the question. How long is long enough? How many adaptations are enough?
Speaking of evolutionary time:
Spending most of our human history in glacial conditions, our physiology has consequently been modelled by the climatologic record, with only brief, temperate periods of reprieve that could conceivably allow any significant amount of edible plant life to have grown.
Like Nora Gedgauda's paleo book Primal Body, Primal Mind, which she cites for unknown reasons, this sentences implies to her lay readers than glacial conditions = something out of the movie Ice Age. Which is just not true. A glacial maximum left some people in the cold, but Africa was still quite warm, and if we are talking about evolutionary time, that’s where we spent most of it. Outside Africa, most humans seem to have clustered in fairly temperate refugia such as Southern Iberia during the last ice age.
Many think of the late Pleistocene as the “Ice Age”, a time when continental glaciers coveredmuch of the earth and where the land not under ice was inhabited by giant cold-adapted animals—wooly mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, and cave bears—pursued by hardy humanhunters. While this image may be somewhat accurate for part of the world, most of the earthremained unglaciated throughout the Pleistocene.” -In Glacial Environments Beyond Glacial Terrains: Human Eco-Dynamics in LatePleistocene Mediterranean Iberia
Of course “significant amount” is also going to be a point of contention. Only in the very coldest tip of the arctic do levels of plants in human diet fall to close to zero. Beyond that, many people might not be aware of levels of starch and sugar available in the environment because traditions surrounding them have died out. I have written quite a bit about Northern sources of carbohydrates- “Siberian potatoes” and Alaskan native plant foods.
Further information on the evolution of our diet can be garnered from the genetic data of present populations, which demonstrates the historically-late biological adaptation to less than minimal quantities of starch and to only few and specific starch compounds.
I assume this refers to amylyse (AMY1) copy number, the function and history of which is not quite clear, much like lactase persistence. For example, I do not possess lactase persistence, even though my ancestors probably raised livestock for dairy, they were diversified pastoralists, so it’s likely there was not enough selective pressure for them to develop this trait. They consumed dairy, but the majority of their diet was not dairy.
It is unlikely the ancestral human diet was as high in starch as some horticulturalist tropical diets are now, where the majority of calories come from starch. But in the end, the differences in AMY1 copy number between humans are small compared to our differences with other primates, indicating that perhaps this was selected for in our own evolution. And in the original paper it is kind of mind-boggling they use the Mbuti as a “low-starch” population given their high starch consumption.
The Mbuti are particularly interesting because they are hunter-gatherers, but trade their surplus meat for starch and have done this for quite some time (when this isn't available there are forest tubers utilized as fall-backs). The only time they don’t trade is when honey is in abundance.
Anna’s assertion that starch is comparatively “inefficient” compared to meat using optimal foraging models doesn’t mean that humans would have chosen to eat only or mostly meat. That data includes game from South American environments, which is unusually fatty in comparison to African game. Even in South America, such game is not available in unlimited amounts in the first place, which is why even hunter-gatherer cultures that have access to it like the Ache also extensively gather and process starch and gather honey.
The consequences of limited availability and time investment of edible Palaeolithic plant foods has been analysed by Stiner, who compared food class returns amongst contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. Stiner found the net energy yield of roots and tubers to range from 1,882 kj/hour to 6,120 kj/hour (not to mention the additional time needed to dedicate to preparation) compared to 63,398 kj/hour for large game.
Anna’s assertions stand in stark contrast to the paper she seems to cite:
Staple plant resources present an extreme contrast to large game animals with respect to prevailing economic currencies (Table 11.1). Large animals generally yield high returns per unit foraging time (kJ per hour) but are unpredictable resources. Seeds and nuts give much lower net yields per increment time (kJ per kilogram acquired), but they have potentially high yields with respect to the volume obtained and the area of land utilized.
Surveys of hunter-gatherers show overwhelmingly that preferred foods are fatty game and honey, highly caloric (and delicious), yet these are not the majority of the diet because they are not available in high predictable amounts, like the modern equivalents are.
As Kim Hill, who studies the Ache says “High-ranked items may be so rarely encounteredthat they represent only a very small proportion of the diet; low-ranked items in the optimalset may be encountered with sufficient frequency to contribute the bulk. It is interesting to note that on several occasions, reports of nearby palm fruit (ranked 12) were ignored, something that did not happen with oranges. On several other occasions people discussed the relative merits of hunting monkeys (ranked 11). reaching consensus that monkeys should not be pursued “because they are not fat.”
Anthropologists have theorized on the importance of having carbohydrate fallback foods in the event that high-fat game is not available, either because of seasonality or over-hunting. In these cases, “rabbit starvation” from excess protein is a real danger. Surviving off of game is a real challenge, which probably accounts for the fact that many humans have any exploited seemingly tedious to gather plant resources in nearly every environment.
Some of Anna’s arguments indicate that she has decided on some issues that are actually very controversial in anthropology and archaeology, such as the date of regular fire use (Anna asserts it was much later than many think) and that “However, plants have been preserved in the Lower Palaeolithic, and they are used primarily for functional and material – rather than nutritional – purposes.”
She does admit that “I will concede however that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but then goes on to list some sites that show possible non-food-related plant use that aren’t even associated with Homo sapiens, many are hominid offshoots that are unlikely to have contributed to our line (except for some of us who have a possible small amount of neanderthal ancestry). Other sites she mentions aren’t dated to the lower Paleolithic anyway.
Later sites such as Kebara she also dismisses, implying that legumes would have been used as fire starters rather than food. But admits that hominids would have supplemented their diet with “low glycemic” foods when meat was scarce.
Firstly, Neanderthals were highly carnivorous and physiologically inept at digesting plant foods. This can be measured using the megadontia quotient of Neanderthal postcanine tooth area in relation to body mass, which reveals that H. neanderthalensis must have consumed a greater than 80% animal diet. Nonetheless, the evidence of phytoliths and grains from Neanderthal skeletons at Shanidar Cave may reveal the rare consumption of starches in this singular context, but not the deleterious costs to the health of those that ate them.
The megadontia quotient, which is controversial in the first place, is not meant to be used in this way. Neither is the also mentioned expensive tissue hypothesis. They are meant to analyze use of uncooked fibrous plant foods and is not particularly enlightening in the case of large-brained hominids with cultural adaptations to food such as cooking. Some of the most recent research that reappraises the carnivorous theory of neanderthals is covered in this recent talk by neanderthal experts Dr. Margaret J. Schoeninger and Dr. Alison S. Brooks.
Humans show up as carnivores, even when they are known corn-eating agriuculturalists, like these people. But what happens when you plot other plants?
Now the data makes more sense (remember this data is showing where protein in the diet came from, it doesn't tell us how much protein was eaten).
As you can see, initial isotopic studies (which can only show where the protein came from, not the amount of protein in the diet) that showed neantherthals as top carnivores came into question when farming populations were showing similar values. They realized that they needed to consider analyzing plants based on their most nutritious fractions, since when was the last time anyone sane ate something like a whole stalk of corn, husk and all? Another great paper by John D. Speth also summarizes some of the recent research on neanderthal diets and debunks hypercarnivory.
humans were no longer able to transmute fibre into fat – as other primates can (consequently, they eat a high-fat diet) – through fermentation in the large intestine.
This, as anthropologist Dr. Richard Wrangham has pointed out, could also be an adaptation to cooking. And we didn’t lose this ability, it is just reduced, though no biologist would argue it the SCFA produced in the colon, which can provide calories and also modulate inflammation, are unimportant. SCFA metabolism is not comparable to longer chain fatty acid metabolism, so it’s not really appropriate to call these diets “high fat.” Furthermore, there are other primates with similar guts to ours like capuchins, who most certainly do not eat a carnivorous diet– they eat sugary fruit. But it’s very hard to compare our guts to the guts of other animals since cultural traits like cooking are so important for our food consumption.
I think it’s a bit amusing to read these posts alongside those of PaleoVeganology, written by a graduate student in paleontology who criticizes many popular paleo narratives. However much I disagree with him on the issue of modern diet choices, I commend him for not using his expertise to promote his chosen diet- he is explicit that his dietary choices are built on modern ethics and not the murky past.
The skeletons at Shanidar are certainly the first of many analyses of starches on teeth, which rules out theories like that plants were only used as decorations or fire starters. Since that first paper was published, others using the same method have followed and more will. But there is no way to use such data to speculate on how often or how much of these foods were consumed.
The coprolite “paper” that Nora Gedgaudas frequently cites also comes up, which I’ve addressed here.
Another common thread in carnivore narratives is that plants were used “only” as medicinals. I would not consider this as insignificant in any way– in most cultures, the line between food and medicine is a thin one. Many foods we enjoy as foods these days have medicinal roots.
Anna rightly criticizes the use of non-hunter-gatherers as hunter-gatherer proxies in writings about the so-called paleo diet and then cites a study that does the exact same thing-
In an attempt to reconstruct the diet of ice age hominids, a recent study analysed the macronutrient dietary composition of existing hunter-gatherer groups within latitude intervals from 41° to greater than 60°.
But where did this data come from? Anthropologist Katherine Milton responded quite well to this paper by Cordain:
The hunter-gatherer data used by Cordain et al (4) came from the Ethnographic Atlas (5), a cross-cultural index compiled largely from 20th century sources and written by ethnographers or others with disparate backgrounds, rarely interested in diet per se or trained in dietary collection techniques. By the 20th century, most hunter-gatherers had vanished; many of those who remained had been displaced to marginal environments. Some societies coded as hunter-gatherers in the Atlas probably were not exclusively hunter-gatherers or were displaced agricultural peoples. Because most of the ethnographers were male, they often did not associate with women, who typically collect and process plant resources.- Katherine Milton
The Ethnographic Atlas used in the “study” is available online and quite clearly does not contain 229 pure hunter-gatherer cultures. The 229 Cordain uses includes people who trade for or cultivate foods.
There is no evidence that mostly carnivorous groups of humans have particularly high longevity and in fact mummies, whatever their limits, have shown people eating these diets were not in fantastic condition, which of course like the bad condition of some early agriculturalists cannot be blamed on their diet.
It is awfully convenient to build a narrative to convince people to eat a limited diet based on the murky unknowns of the far past and near-mythical groups of supposedly extremely healthy carnivorous hominids. The carnivore-ape hypothesis is about as credible as the aquatic ape one.
One of the problems with human evolution, as opposed to, say, rocket science, is that everybody feels that their opinion has value irrespective of their prior knowledge (the outraged academic in the encounter above was a scientist, but not a biologist, still less an evolutionary biologist). The reason is obvious – we are all human beings, so we think we know all about it, intuitively. What we think about human evolution "stands to reason". Hardly a month goes by without my receiving, at my desk at Nature, an exegesis on the reasons how or why human beings evolved to be this way or that. They are always nonsense, and for the same reason. They find some quirk of anatomy, extrapolate that into a grand scheme, and then cherry-pick attributes that seem to fit that scheme, ignoring any contrary evidence. Adherence to such schemes become matters of belief, not evidence. That's not science – that's creationism.
I saw the same story building among vegans, who often craft similar narratives around our lineage's long plant-eating past. It speaks for a deep desire for people to justify their own choices. What all these dietary narratives have in common is that they confirm a particular limited diet is our “natural” diet and one that is best for humans, animals, and the environment. It’s not possible for them all to be right, and that’s because none of them are.
Ancient humans ate a large variety of foods, which is why we are adapted to so many. Human variation is high though, since our lineage has become so populous and geographically wide-ranging. There are many reasons for a modern human to adopt a low-carbohydrate or limited carbohydrate diet either temporarily or permanently. None of those have to do with this being the optimal diet for all humans or with a mostly-carnivorous ancestry.