This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
So after the silly article in NPR, a lot of people simply said that paleo is definitely not about grain-fed meat. But I find a lot of people who purchase "alternative" products are eating grain-fed meat without even knowing it, simply because it's pretty hard to do commercially viable chicken or pork without it. I and others have worked on models, but they aren't coming to a store near you anytime soon.
And for poultry, even if it's from a farmer's market, it's not often free-range in the way you might think of it. In NYC there was one farm selling poultry and I read about how they wouldn't allow people tours to their farm. When I looked closer, I realized that was because while the poultry wasn't in individual cages, they were kept in dark sheds. But it was a small family farm, so what can you say? I guess it's hard for people to believe that such a place could do wrong.
Philosophically, I like to have livestock living as close to how an animal would live in nature as possible. I know people will argue that chickens are safer in dark sheds, but people argue people are safer with irradiated food. In a natural system, some animals don't come home. Some animals die. They fall prey to raccoons or coyotes or accidents. That's a loss economically, but philosophically I'd rather have the animals survive on their own terms, fully using all their muscles and ancient survival instincts, than shut up in a shed. Perhaps I'm more sentimental than I give myself credit for.
Historically chickens and pigs were secondary production methods. They ate waste from the other crops produced on the farm. This was a sustainable method and what is highlighted in Simon Fairlie's book.
But if I were supplying a cafeteria this way, most of the time they wouldn't get chicken and when they did, it would be a smaller mostly-dark meat chicken. As I've written before, I think it's not a bad thing to have less chicken or pork, as these meats are generally nutritionally inferior to ruminant meats. I think these birds are delicious and most of the world agrees with me, but Americans want their chicken breasts.
And so even small sustainable farmers are giving it to them. And I think it's at the expense of making the pastured model truly grass-fed and truly pastured. If you are putting deformed modern industrial chicken breeds (the Persians or Pugs of chickens in terms of their deformities and health problems acquired because of breeding to please humans rather than overall function) in a cage on pasture and feeding them grains...that's better than factory farming, but how much?
Here are some pictures of farms I've dealt with:
This is the chicken tractor with Cornish Cross method Salatin made famous. These birds are being produced for a "green" restaurant that serves chicken every night. I didn't talk with this farmer about the behavior of these chickens, but at these densities I think bullying becomes an issue, but maybe not since this breed is basically a catatonic walking breast. In Eating Animals, a pastured poultry farmer named Frank Reese says:
Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It’s a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask them. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. (113)
"OK," he concedes. "You know what, that's fine if you want to do that. I'm not opposed to heritage breeds. We have some heritage breeds. Here's the problem though: marketability. When you say: 'Can we feed the world?', we're not going to turn around the system by feeding only 10% of the population. We gotta feed 90%."
You don't think people will pay…
"Double?" he says, finishing my question. "No, they won't. And besides, it's all dark meat. No double breast. Hey, 40 years ago, every woman in the country – I'll be real sexist here – every woman in the country knew how to cut up a chicken. When we started doing these pastured chickens, it was a moot point. Nobody asked for breast – it didn't exist! I mean as a separate item. Now 60% of our customers don't even know that a chicken has bones! I'm serious. We have moved to an incredibly ignorant culinary connection."
Salatin is hitting his stride now. "We tried heritage chickens for three years and we couldn't sell 'em. I mean, we could sell a couple. But at the end of the day, altruism doesn't pay our taxes. And I'm willing to say: 'You know what? I don't have all the answers and I pick my battles and compromises.' If you want to get brutally honest, in my opinion we shouldn't even have egg sales in America! Every restaurant and every home should have two or three chickens. I mean, you got a parakeet, why not have two chickens? You get eggs instead of a parrot keeping you awake at night. In a perfect world, that's how it would be."
Which sounds exactly like the arguments factory farmers or Barbara King make. Is this really all going back to bare efficiency? Maybe we should rethink chicken's place in the production system in the first place. Thousands of pastoral cultures did grass-fed quite fine without it. But Salatin would not be able to sell to conventional restaurants if he didn't use this method probably. How many restaurants are willing to have chicken on the menu only 1/8th of the year and mainly in the form of broth?
These chickens are on Veritas farm in New York. They are eating apples that were damaged in a hail storm. They go pretty much wherever they want.
And these are chickens on my family's farm, hanging out stupidly with cows. They also go wherever they want. Luckily, as heritage breeds, they are a little smarter. Of course both these examples also eat grain, but not human-food-quality grain and not a lot compared to other models. And it's possible to go-grain free on this model with some ingenuity. Socially, they are much less interested in pecking at each other because a bullied chicken can easily go elsewhere on the farm.
Truly free range chickens like these are going to have more dark meat (which I like). If you consume chicken this way, you don't consume it often, though you make great pains to extend it by making soup from the bones and other less-edible parts. You won't have enough of them to eat them every week or possible even every month.
Maybe if you can't produce something well in a commercially viable way, you shouldn't produce it at all?
I know I've been blogging about public school lunch a lot lately, but I think it's a great example of everything that is wrong with the food system in America and what will happen if we allow the government to be in charge of more and more of the food system.
A few months ago I noticed that the USDA school lunch standards were restricting starchy vegetables (like potatoes), corn, and legumes. I neglected to blog about it, I suppose because I was so busy. Had the USDA read Gary Taubes?
Nope. Apparently, it was based on a report by the Institute of Medicine that recommended restricting them not for any problems with the foods themselves, but in order to encourage schools to try other vegetables.
That seems a little sanctimonious to me, like something a moralistic grandmother would do. In the meantime, I don't see any USDA restrictions on fried food or chocolate milk.
If you read the IOM recs, it's clear they are unable to think about food holistically. They are not seeing that it's not the potatoes or the chicken that's the problem, it's the fact that they are often breaded and/or fried. If only our problem was overeating potatoes and lima beans! And we could solve that be eating them less and making sure we get our chalk-colored fortified water, I mean 1% milk. It's laughable once you think about it.
But never fear, don't forget the government guidelines are often a combination of paternalism and lobbying interests. This time, I guess they canceled each other out and the USDA abandoned the plan.
Eowyn talking to Grima in LOTR in case you are not a nerd
At the conferences I go to it's mostly cheese pizza, soda, bagels, and coffee with crap powdered creamer. It's like sugar flavored bread and it's not worth eating because it not only makes me fall asleep in the afternoon session, but it doesn't even taste good. I think I first thought of Eowyn because I had eaten the normal lunch and I was in an afternoon session on improving server performance and I was just crashing. I couldn't pay attention at all because I felt so low in energy.
I have learned that I should just hope there is a decent restaurant around the conference center and not eat with the nerds, which makes me feel antisocial. There are so many paleo/primal folks in IT, maybe someday we can take over?
The exception, which I should mention, are the cool events run by Food+Tech Connect.
Some people have occasionally asked me to comment on the Danish fat tax. I do have a background in economics, but I didn't comment at first because I don't live in Denmark and they won't let me live there even if I wanted to. Oh, and based on my time in Denmark, it seems like they are used to paying more for everything anyway and their consumption won't change much, except canola oil will be used in most commercial/institutional food, but that was already happening. Scandinavia taxes alcohol through the roof and makes it difficult to buy. When I studied abroad in Sweden I got an email from the UI Study Abroad office telling us that some American students in Italy were giving us a bad name by binge drinking. I laughed. There was no way I could out binge drink the Swedes. And alcohol there cost a pretty penny.
But I was naive. Of course people are going to look at the fat tax in Denmark and consider whether or not such a tax would have an effect here. Marion Nestle has a letter in New Scientist: "let us congratulate Denmark on what could be viewed as a revolutionary experiment. I can't wait to see the results."
Unfortunately it's not going to be a very enlightening experiment in regards to the fat tax because while the fat tax is getting a lot of press, it is part of a general tax reform program that is levying "sin taxes" on all sorts of things from sweets to tobacco.
I don't object to these taxes, sometimes portrayed as "sin taxes" or "pigouvian taxes", but I think they are usually quite disingenuous and do not do what they are supposed to do. As noted in Marion's letter, the powerful lobbies in Denmark (which have very little power compared to similar lobbies in the US) got their products exempted and it just so happens that these taxes encourage the consumption of canola, a crop that the government there has been promoting for years.
And it prevents us from talking about the fact that it's not sugar or fat per se that's the issue, it's foods that people overeat and those are almost all processed foods. And the government has put together an institutional and regulatory structure that is an effective (and sometimes outright) subsidy on processed foods. From school purchasing to regulations requiring expensive high-capital equipment and facilities in order to sell food to the public, the whole system is rigged. And here is where I'm quite unlibertarian (or at least traditionally)- most of these industrial farms and processing facilities are allowed to destroy things they don't even own. If you don't own a river, you shouldn't have any right to destroy it. The EPA has some regulations that sort of say you can only dump so much toxic crap into various bodies of water, but they are anemic and poorly enforced.
If you tax saturated fat, companies with large food-science departments aren't going to suffer. They are going to figure out how to get saturated fat low in their cookies while keeping other palatability markers high and people are going to continue to overeat them. Anyone ever try to eat the recommended serving size for Snackwells cookies or Skinny Cow popsicles? I certainly never could.
I usually despise the use of the word privilege, since it's often used as a way to tell certain people their opinions aren't valid, but I think it's very much true that the companies that make industrial processed food are operating from a position of privilege. The regulatory structure is made for (and often by) them, they control political discourse through lobbyists, and they have contracts with the government to provide food to our schoolchildren and military, our jobs and lifestyles are often based around the assumption we will rely on processed foods.
“They’ve drawn Michelle Obama into negotiations on improving the nutritional quality of processed foods,” he explained, “which is better than nothing, but her original, and to my mind, much more effective focus was simply on real food—fresh produce, cooking for your family etc. There is reason to doubt that ‘better for you’ processed foods will do us any good. Think about Snackwell’s—the same idea, during the low-fat campaign. It was ‘better for you’ yet we binged on better for you products and got fat on low-fat. The same thing could happen again.”
We can't fall into their trap, which is to reduce debate about food to "fat," "fructose," and other properties of food rather than to actually talk about the food itself. Food itself is more complicated and its constituents can act in unpredictable synergistic ways (like the economy).
I think we should recognize the immense privilege processed foods have in our society and acknowledge their negative impact, and consider how that can be dismantled, rather than taxing isolated properties of food. We should also end subsidies on processed foods, from agricultural subsidies to school food buying programs. I'm not hopeful about this being done on a national level myself though. I know it can be hard for people to let go of the idea that there is one right way to do something and we have to force everyone in the whole country to do it that way, but I think it would be better of more food policy issues were decided locally rather than federally.
I'm going to call the paleo diet portrayed in the media the PaleoStrawman diet. It contains only lean meat and non-starchy vegetables. The meat comes from factory farms. The latest place it has showed up on is NPR, where anthropologist Barbara King contends that it is not the way to a healthy future for the world. She says she has interacted with paleo dieters online and has read Paleo magazine, but it doesn't show at all.
I think there are only a few holdouts in the lean meat camp. The no-starch camp is in its death throes as we speak, embracing a doctor who believes anyone who eats carbohydrates has diabetes and drfiting further into denialism territory. There is not a single paleo book on the market that I can think of that advocates eating grain-fed meat. PaleoStrawman has gotten considerable criticism from within the ancestral health community.
But in the end, it doesn't matter, because even if the paleo diet involved chomping down on grain-fed steaks all day, it would have nothing to do with our ability to feed the world.
We all want to believe our diet has the power to change the world, but it does not. If every person in NYC chose to stop eating grain-fed meat today, it would not help people in Africa. When grain doesn't go to the feedlot, it doesn't get sent to Africa either. Farmers would chose to grow less grain or grow it for biofuels. We already produce enough food to feed the entire population of the world. What is hurting poor countries is political corruption and poor infrastructure. What poor countries need is good leaders and investment in infrastructure and education.
As for vegetarianism and factory farming, sadly, the worst offenders in factory farming are vegetarian products such as dairy and eggs. Vegetarianism is more efficient compared to grain-fed meat partially because the industrialization of eggs and dairy has made these industries very productive. However, they are the most cruel and environmentally destructive animal industries besides the industrial hog farm industry. Jonathan Safran Foer, certainly no paleo dieter, recommends in Eating Animals that if you care about animals, conventional eggs and dairy are the first foods you eliminate.
As for the anthropology, it makes little sense to worry about australopithecines being vegetarian, a hominid with significantly different morphology. Or to worry about the local context very much. Of course people ate diverse diets then. You can eat a diverse locally-based paleo diet now. And for those of us in the North, it makes absolute sense to eat meat rather than trucked-in grain products. Solutions for world hunger do not have to involve the same diet for everyone. Sustainable solutions will be local solutions.
One thing I will miss in NYC are the fantastic restaurants. I particularly applaud the trend of restaurants that go whole hog and use real bone stocks and animal fat in their dishes. Obviously, these restaurants are pretty vegetarian-unfriendly and have been a little controversial.
Unvegetarian, unapologetic animal eater restaurants
The Momofuku restaurants were instrumental in jumpstarting the pork belly and rich broth trends. There are several restaurants in the group (and one in Sydney and Toronto now). There are plenty of vegetables on the menu, but often they are drenched in delicious pork fat. One of the best dishes is chanterelles with bone marrow, a luxurious and fatty combination, but only available seasonally. The various traditional Southern Hams make an excellent appetizing and the offal dishes are not to be missed.
I think Salt & Fat, which is in my neighborhood in Queens, is a little inspired by Momofuku and also be Williamsburg's excellent Traif. Their appetizer is bacon-fat popcorn, which is amazing. I recommend the yellowtail tartare, the delicious ribs with homemade BBQ sauce, the incredibly rich salads with all kinds of animal fat bits, and the hearty oxtail terrine.
I'm mentioned Takashi like a zillion times, but that's because it's a temple of delicious meat and they do offal so well that it's the perfect place to try crazy things. I LOVE the sweet breads. They seem kind of scary at first, but they melt in your mouth. The liver is also not to be missed. I don't usually like liver that much, but their liver is marinated so perfectly that it's delicious raw. I've never had anything I disliked on the menu and I think I've eaten almost everything on it.
I really like Fatty Cue because they use lots of delicious animal fats with dashes of fish sauce for flavor. The dishes are salty, fatty, tangy, and spicy. I particularly recommend the coriander bacon.
Because it's Brooklyn, they actually probably have some real vegetarian dishes at Palo Santo, but the chef here cooks everything else with real house-made animal fats and stocks. The cuisine spans many countries in Latin America and uses ingredients from many local farms.
Vegetarian Restaurants I actually eat at:
Saravanaa Bhavan is one of my favorite places for Indian food. I love idlis, which are steamed fermented rice/lentil cakes served with a spicy soup called sambar.
Rockin Raw makes an excellent raw-vegan cinnamon roll that's gluten, soy, and nut-free. When I crave a sweet treat, I go here.
Occasionally I get a weird craving for falafel. Organic Avenue's raw falafel is oil-free and gluten-free. To me, it tastes as good as the real thing.
Bacon Branzino @ Salt & Fat
A few years back when I was researching the ancient MacEwan clan of Scotland, I came across an interesting anecdote. Apparently a MacEwan, Elspeth McEwan was the last witch to be executed in Scotland:
The lonesome lady lived in a house, Bogha, on the farm at Cubbox. She was not just some simpleton peasant either. It is said by her contemporaries that she was possessed of a ‘superior education’. I have not found what it was that started off the campaign against her but it seems that she became a local target to blame for all that went wrong. When eggs were hard to come by and the hens were not laying it is said that she could coax them into producing tremendous quantities for market. Perhaps she just had a way with chickens, as some can tame wild animals, but whatever benefit this had at one time it held darker power aswell. For when the hens did not do so well in the future, it was of course attributed to Elspeth’s will. It was now her fault when the area was deprived of eggs. The birds were not the only livestock she affected. If cattle fell ill or didn’t milk well this must surely be her doing as well. Not only did she cast spells on her neighbours cattle, she stole from them too! For she had in her home a peg dowelled into the kipplefoot – or part of the roof beam – which drew milk from the cows on demand!
For her crimes of being agriculturally innovative, she was strangled and burned.
What is quite facinating is that belief in witchcraft and fear of witches in incredible common across a diverse range of cultures. We are tremendouly lucky to live in an place and time where accusing people of being witches is not an acceptable way of dealing scapegoating people (though we've found new, but at least less deadly, ways).
Colin Turnbull, who wrote about the Mbuti, who are quite peaceful otherwise, left out this rather unpleasant story from his book The Forest People, but it is in his field notes and talked about on this interesting website. Apparently Sau is an older woman who some people believe is responsible for killing a child with the "evil eye" (another common superstition across many many cultures). Because of this she is harassed, beaten, and finally banished. A better fate than Elspeth's, but still quite horrible.
Sick Societies mentions several societies that are quite dysfunctional because of witch fears, such as the Gebusi:
The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.
Anthropologists have argued about whether or not witchcraft might be adaptive or whether is it a pathology:
Nevertheless, a few anthropologists have rejected this position. In the early 1960s Edward Norbeck rejected the received view of witchcraft as a benign and natural belief system with numerous socially positive functions; instead, he made much of witchcraft’s socially harmful consequences. Similarly, Melford Spiro interpreted the Burmese belief in witches as a form of psychological projection that led to cognitive distortion, and in 1974 Theodore Schwartz pointed out the dysfunctional effects of what he called the “paranoid ethos.” Schwartz speculated that a paranoid belief system was “… the bedrock psychopathology of mankind” that has persisted “over the span of human history as a substratum of potential pathology in all societies.” Schwartz believed that in Melanesian societies, especially Dobu, paranoid ideation with its extreme suspiciousness and hostility was so deeply entrenched that “… existence is at least uncomfortable, possibly highly stressful, and undoubtedly anxious.”
It is an interesting question to consider. I think that despite the fact that most of us do not believe in witches literally, that elements of it are persistant in our culture and could account for some antisocial behaviors today.
There is a great article on Yahoo about a guy who is living a minimalistic lifestyle, while maintaining a paleo diet.
What do you eat?
I eat pretty well. I don't skimp on food. I eat a lot of grass-fed meats, fruits, and vegetables ... some people call it the caveman diet. I go to farms, farmers markets, and health food stores. I probably spend about $250 a month on food. I could spend a lot less if I didn't care about eating well.
I think his budget is interesting because $250 is the max amount of monthly food stamps for a single person, so he's basically on a food-stamp diet. It's clear his life priorities are health and simplicity. What I don't get is all the comments that weirdly act as if his choices mean he somehow is trying to say everyone else can live this way. I guess people feel attacked when other people chose to live differently in a way that's obviously not applicable to everyone? I get the same kind of comments when I talk about paleo diets or homeschooling. Here are some lovely sexist/classist gems:
No no, I read that article about living making 20k a year. And the comments weren't that it's a kings ransom, but that the family had to forgo children and are severely unprepared for the inflation and healthcare costs coming down the road. Wow... Now for a mere 11k a single man can live to be trailer trash. Great. So the 99% should all live like trash so the 1% can spend 40k on a kid's playhouse so their kid can have a playhouse with running water and electricity...
He doesn't mention any "girlfriend" or "partner" of any kind... uhmm... You know the reason right? Let me put it this way, if the guy is happy on his own at 42 then fine... BUT spare me the @#$% when what he calls his "freedom" doesn't include a girlfriend/wife/partner etc. So let's be honest about it and acknowledge the fact that with his "free" life style his chances of attracting a girlfriend are pretty much zero...
I missed the part of the article where he suggested everyone live the way he lives. Personally, his lifestyle is not for me, but my own lifestyle is not for everyone either. I think his story very interesting and kudos to him for following his dreams.
I've been moving a lot of stuff lately and I'm kind of horrified that I *own* stuff. When I moved to Sweden I brought two suitcases and then when I life if I couldn't fit stuff in my two suitcases I gave it away. I'm giving a lot of stuff away this move too, but I have a lot more stuff that I'm keeping, I guess because I never was sure how long I'd stay here and I did invest in some nice books/clothes that don't have holes in them. But I still view stuff as a burden and I'm happier if I own less of it.
While I'm not fan of nanny states dictating what people can eat, vegetarians really are the bane of institutional food. The core of ancient peasant cooking was using the whole animal and that meant cooking things in broths, sauteing and frying animal fat, and using bits of dried/cured meat in soups/stews/beans/etc. Countless restaurants and cafeterias have switched to MSG-based bouillon and vegetable oils so that their dishes are vegetable-friendly. I admire Chipotle for standing its ground and continuing to cook many of their beans with pork bits/fat. This is truly sustainable cooking, utilizing regional products to their full extent. Some other favorite restaurants of mine, such as Momofuku, also explicitly do not serve vegetarian dishes because they buy and USE whole animals.
Contrast this with meat-free Monday, which encourages cafeterias to serve foods based on imported industrial monocultures (soy/corn/wheat) in the form of "textured vegetable protein" or "veggie burgers" and often utilizing industrial vegetable oils, additives, and flavorings. Or low-quality factory-farmed dairy, often with food coloring and sugar added.
I've eaten at many cafeterias and tend to think there is really no way to do institutional cafeteria food well. The goal is to feed a large diverse group of people as cheaply as possible. And the industry is dominated by a few large corporations that have deals with processed food companies.
And the cafeteria model in general may encourage over-eating and other problems. Since I was homeschooled until high school, I didn't encounter cafeterias until I was older. That's also when I started to gain weight. It's no wonder scientists use a "cafeteria" diet in experiments to induce obesity.
The solution probably lies with smaller schools with more local control and parental involvement. Unfortunately, the Federal government is increasingly dominating education, so this may be limited to private or homeschooling-hybrid* systems.
I think there is also a clash here between the politically-correct ideal of accommodating everyone and the fact that this accommodation often leads to inferior compromises.
*homeschooling hybrid is what I did for a lot of my youth. Some education is at home, but some classes/other stuff is done with other homeschoolers communally outside the home.