This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Recently I've been researching Southern food in the 1800s for a dinner that I'm cooking for. Weirdly, this style of cooking is somewhat in revival in Chicago with restaurants like Big Jones and Carriage House serving fairly authentic period foods. I was at Big Jones recently and all their biscuits are made with pastured lard. That's pretty hard to find in the South these days. In fact, recently a Southern relative said that "our family worked hard so our children wouldn't have to eat offal, and now you enjoy it?"
I grew up in the South and part of my family has lived there for a very long time. The states we are from, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi consistently rank very poorly in health markers.
I didn't grow up on lard. When I visited my grandmother, she had a tub of modern "healthy" margarine. But Grandpa still cooked with bacon grease. And there was always lots of shellfish and fish, which I hated as a youngster.
So when 23andme introduced its beta of a family tree feature and I started filling it out, I was dismayed to realize that on that side of the family at least, lifespan has dropped rather significantly over time, particularly if you exclude people who died in wars, accidents, at birth, or in childbirth. And even more if you exclude those who were not well to do. Most died in their 80s. Many were in their 90s. It goes along with this post I read some time back on Ryan Koch's blog on American lifespans. Nehemiah Manning of Bogalusa, who was my great-great-great grandfather, died when he was 99.
Interestingly, Bogalusa has been the site of a major heart disease study and an intervention program that promotes low-fat "heart healthy" diets for children.
Based on my research, that's not exactly what Nehemiah grew up on I would guess. It's hard to find much on that side of the family, but I have a lot more information on the family members from Arkansas. They weren't rich, but they were fairly well off. They owned cows, pigs, and sheep. They hunted bears and deer. And fished. My grandmother said her grandmother ate anything that moved. Living outside major cities was probably a boon for them since cities were so unhygienic back then and doctors did more harm than good. I calculated average lifespan of all some generations in my family that I had data for, excluding deaths in war, childbirth, and people who lived in very bad conditions (the McEwens when they first came from Scotland, for example, lived in crowded urban tenements), though I included some people who were rural poor (estimates would probably be higher without them).
Average lifespans for great grandparents was 74, for great x 2 it was 78, for great x 3 it was also around 78. There were plenty of nonagenarians. For people not living in obviously awful conditions or dying from things modern medicine does a good job preventing (typhoid, childbirth deaths, etc.), lifespans weren't so dramatically different it seems. Some lines of my family I can trace back into the 1700s, and I can assume a lot of them were wealthy considering they left records of all the land and livestock they owned. Plenty of nonagearians there too.
As for other things they ate, I know at least one of my great great great grandfathers, who died in a flu epidemic at the old age of 91, owned a flour mill. But those days flour was at least freshly milled and the varieties of wheat they grew were probably pretty different. I think that's why a lot of really old Southern cookbooks don't seem to contain very large sections of baked goods and buns that we think of Southern now, because heritage wheat is much more of a challenge to bake with.
The main cookbook I've been using for my research is The Virginia Housewife, which is available for free on Google. It's thrifty and luxurious at once. The upper and upper middle classes at the time were influenced by fine French food, but the cookbook is nose-to-tail and includes a lot of instructions on preserving.
this diet looks AWESOME to me
As far as eating like your grandmother, this stuff was long out of fashion by the time she was born. People started eating industrial margarine, low quality canned foods, and other processed foods even in the 20s and 30s in the South. In many ways they were probably worse than some of today's processed foods since many were adulterated or contaminated. Cotton took a heavy toll on the region. Cottonseed margarine, possibly the worst kind of margarine you could possibly eat, was present in many kitchens. Cotton mills and farms polluted the soil, a legacy still affecting us today as the recent arsenic in rice controversy has shown. Agriculture was consolidated and regulated. Households no longer kept their own hogs and cows.
And people blame the traditional southern diet on the region's health problems. Well-meaning reformists like Jamie Oliver attempt to introduce culturally alien low-fat and Mediterranean diets. Meanwhile in the cities in the North, svelte urban folks dine on butter and pork fat. It's kind of hilarious that I can find pimento cheese made with good pastured local eggs and dairy in Chicago, whereas the stuff I knew growing up in Georgia was often processed store-bought stuff. Lard? I can buy pastured lard at the corner store here. It would be a big effort to get that in the South these days in many places, particularly outside major cities where it is now popular with the bourgeois. Most hog farmers in the South are the Smithfield factory farm sort.
It isn't helped by what I would refer to as industrial pseudo-tradition, the same phenomenon responsible for fried bread being "traditional" Native American food. In the South I would say Paula Deen would be the perfect example of that. Her recipes are those of a region in decline, one in which processed flour, canned food, and refined sugar replaced the foods of the woodlands and rivers.
Even worse, many Southerners I've spoken to seem to firmly believe the Southern diet is "bad" and that foods like offal, game and animal fat are for "low-class" uneducated people.
As for fried foods, I also don't think deep fried food was that common. A good lard breed pig, which is what most families had back in the day, gives you a lot of lard, but that was precious and often had to last a year. These days, many families in the South use a deep fryer daily, mainly reliant on cheap processed reusable oil. In the Virginia Housewife, frying seems to mainly refer to pan frying.
I'm looking forward to exploring more about true traditional Southern cooking. I'll probably need to take a trip down South to see some family, including some distant relatives of mine who live mainly off of local fish and game.
Killer whales are one of the three known animals that experience menopause, with females ceasing reproduction in their 30s or 40s and living beyond that into their 90s. Some have said that evolution doesn't select for longevity because it only cases about you living long enough to reproduce. Nonsense. In species with complex social structures like ours and like the killer whales, every individual matters and the elders can play important social roles. In a new study of killer whales, scientists found young males were three times more likely to die the year after their mother’s death. Older males over thirty were eight times more likely to die if they lost their mother. Young females didn't seem to be less likely to survive after losing a mother, but older females were 2.7 more likely to die.
This doesn't surprise me. I couldn't help thinking of the Game of Thrones books, which are very roughly based on The War of the Roses, and the roles that women in those stories play in promoting the interests of their sons. Crafty Olenna Redwyne, Cersei Lannister, Lysa Aryyn, Catelyn Stark...all women of varying ages who go to great lengths to promote and protect their sons, with varying amounts of success.
Like the world of the killer whales, the world in Game of Thrones is one of war, in which day to day life is a struggle for survival. Killer whales inhabit diverse habitats and have many different cultures known as clans. Relatively pacifistic resident killer whales are sometimes preyed on by the more martial transient whales, much as the Iron Islanders in Game of Thrones raid and kill.
Killer whales, like us, evolved hunting diverse difficult prey in order to fulfill our requirements for high-quality protein and fats that our large brains need. Humans hunting elephants and killer whales hunting sperm whales require cooperation and complex knowledge. It is not surprising that killer whales have been known to assist humans in hunting. Killer whales are also known to pass knowledge on to their kin. Perhaps this is behind the development of complex social systems in which elders play a vital role in passing down knowledge and promoting the interests of their offspring. Interestingly, killer whales, like humans, have been known to kill other animals for recreational, rather than survival, reasons.
On reddit people were speculating about Rory's really really nice boots in the episode A Town Called Mercy:
They look fairly minimalist and flexible, as if they would allow the foot to move somewhat naturally, unlike many western-style boots which are built for riding, not walking and have a clunky stiff sole with a pronounced heel. Unfortunately, such boots seem to be hard to find. Seems like every boot has a cement block glued on to it as if you are going to be working on construction, not walking around. The Japanese, with their flexible split-toe tabi boots worn in construction, which they believe are MORE safe since they allow you to sense the ground, show that such boots are unnecessary even for that.
the picture on the right is from a catalog that used real workers as models...they are so stylish!
I've blogged about some women's options, but I get inquiries about men's shoes too. Some options that remind me of Rory's boots include this Quoddy handmade in the US Grizzly boot. Expensive, but seems like it would last a long time and the company will repair it for you.
I've blogged about Footskins before and they have a nice men's boot option. Also handmade in the US, you can also inquire in order to get a thinner sole or for them to be built without padding on the bottom.
I bought the Cushe boots, which have a thick, but flexible and zero-drop, Vibram sole, and most importantly for me in Chicago, are very water resistant. They have a nice men's option called the After Ride boot. For women who like Rory's style, the Blowfish Ryder and Hatfield boots are similar.
Any other similar options? Let me know in the comments!
Sometimes low-fat blogs, like Dr. Fuhrman's, publish some interesting posts. Like this one on low thyroid activity being tied to longevity. He cites several studies like "Low serum free triiodothyronine levels mark familial longevity." Basically they show that in families with a large amount of unusually-long lived individuals, average TSH is higher.
But wait...don't we want to boost our metabolism, lose weight quick, OMG111!!!? Depends on your goals perhaps. If the only problem you have with a underactive thyroid is more weight than you would like, perhaps it's not worth altering.
Looking at my family tree, average age of death for women even in the 1700s was 70. Currently I have several nonagenarian (over 90) female relatives. My maternal grandmother at over 90 has zero health problems. She's never been a skinny gym rat, but she's always walked places as much as possible. I remember my mother always giving her a hard time for not eating breakfast and she has confessed to me that she sometimes eats a chocolate bar in place of a meal. Growing up during the depression, her diet did include organ meats and raw dairy. I suspect that genetics accounts for some of my grandmother's health, but early childhood nutrition is very important too. As far as I can tell that's what separates the healthy people in my family from those who struggle with health problems.
I hear it all the time: why not just eat a diet like the Okinawans, the healthiest and longest lived people in the world? Traditionally they ate rice, tofu, and almost no meat! Unfortunately after WWII Americans introduced bad foods like pork and now disease rates are increasing.
That's the conventional narrative at least. Honestly, I'm not sure about the Okinawan diet. Most of the people discussing it are Americans with some sort of ax to grind. I would love to hear some Okinawan voices tell us what they actually ate, but those are few and far between.
Americanized nonsense "Okinawan Diet"
The picture that is painted from the actual studies available is pretty murky, but shows that what is being promoted as an Okinawan diet is cultural misappropriation for profit, with American nutritionists making $$$ passing off what ends up being a Mediterranean diet with rice as the secrets of Okinawan elders.
The real traditional diet seemed to consist of yams, goat, pork, tofu, seaweed, and seafood harvested from the island. It seems like it was pretty similar to the diet of Kitava. After the devastation of World War II, importation of food increased and oils, sugar, flour, white rice, and other processed foods became staples. The narrative of fat consumption increase only takes statistics starting from World War II, so we really don't have much of an idea of how much fat was in the traditional diet.
We do know the the consumption of traditional foods like raw goat, yams, and seaweed decreased dramatically. Also, that domestic meat production didn't really change much after WWII and much of that increase was probably recovery from devastation of the war. The increase of meat consumption came mostly from imported animals that were probably factory-farmed...or SPAM, which is now hugely popular there.
It does seem that their traditional diet was high in carbohydrates from yams, but its nonsense make up an Okinawan Diet plan including foods that are nothing like what pre-WWII Okinawans consumed such as whole grain bread, olive oil, soy milk, apples, and yogurt. The traditional Okinawan diet doesn't seem to be far from my own paleo diet, except for the soy . Fortunately, the harmful effects of that can be mitigated by fermentation. I occasionally consume some fermented soy since I am an Asian food enthusiast and I adore the taste of miso and ssämjang. Yam are controversial on the paleo diet, but personally I enjoy them without ill effects. I would say my own paleo diet is heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine and benefits from it tremendously. I could never tolerate a diet of just eggs and ground meat...I'm too much of a foodie and an omnivore for that!
Here is a recent paper on the importance of the yam, kombu, and pork offal in Okinawa. Paleo dieters could definitely benefit from the consumption of kombu, which is rich in iodine, and pork offal (feet, ears, blood, intestines), which is delicious and contains many important nutrients. The problem with this paper is that they assume that people threw away pork fat...I don't know of any agrarian culture that exhibits that kind of waste. They say akunuki is removal of fat, but it also seems to mean removal of astringent taste.
Speaking of Japan, I was just reading this editorial by Swedish scientist Uffe Ravnskov:
In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food.4
I think it's possible that the issue here was that they thought fat wasn't traditional for Japan, but it sheds light on the fact that fat doesn't seem to cause heat disease.
The argument often heard about primitive people living on average less than 30 years ignores distribution around such average --life expectancy needs to be analyzed conditionally. Plenty died early, from injuries, many lived very long --and healthy --lives. This is exactly the very same elementary "fooled by randomness" mistake, relying on the notion of "average" in the presence of variance, that makes people underestimate the risks in the stock market.
Also see Stephan's take.