This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
This blog wouldn't exist if food wasn't important to me, but it amazes me how I can continue to have experiences relating to food that change my view of things. That's one of the reasons I haven't written a book. I'm just not there yet in terms of experience, even though I've made great improvements in my life and maintained them, there is still much to learn. How could I ever put the pen to the page knowing that my words would be a static representation of my views for months and even years?
Last year when I lived in New York City there was a little tiny diner on a remote corner of Long Island City, one of my favorite parts of the city. It's so close to Manhattan, but oddly desolate. Standing alone amidst the glittering lights of the city, with the roar of the highways in your ears, is a surreal Blade-runner esque experience. One that many people miss out on because of an irrational skepticism towards Queens, which has some of the best food in the city.
But M. Wells, that little diner, was special. And I ate there at exactly the right time. It's hard to explain, but it was during a time when I was trying very hard to make myself someone I wasn't for the sake of a relationship. I have an unfortunate predilection towards this whole "destiny" thing, perhaps that is just the way my mind works. It helps me craft narratives, but it also makes me try to craft my own life into a story sometimes, with signs and wonders guiding me. Doubts that don't fit the story often get ignored in the name of these destinies.
And there were many doubts about all kinds of things in this relationship, one of the major ones was that I had to adopt a particular religion in order to go forward with it, a religion that required very regular fasting from almost all animal products. There were many beautiful things about this religion and I felt drawn to it in many ways.
And I thought, well, I can do this. With all I knew then, compared to when I was vegan, I could make it work for me. But I was miserable. One priest told me I could try vegetarianism instead, but it didn't seem to help.
I might never know why. I was reading The Meat Fix recently, which is the story of a man who was vegan and suffered from terrible health problems which went away when he added meat to his diet. Why does this happen? There are so many potential explanations, but for me even supplementing with carnitine, taurine, b12, and DHA didn't make a difference. I was depressed all the time. I started having menstrual irregularities. My list of food sensitivities seemed to just keep growing and growing. All the sudden, for example, I was sensitive to shrimp, one of the few animal products legitimately allowed. One thing I have been proud of with my dietary experiments was that they have allowed me to travel. But here I was throwing up violently in a bag on the train to Manhattan. And missing work because my period cramps had become crippling, so painful that they brought me to tears.
I felt more socially isolated than ever too. Why me? Why this? Why can't I just make this work like it's supposed to? Why does my body seem to rebel against me after even a week without meat? I was told to pray harder.
FAUST. The pain of life, that haunts our narrow way,
I cannot shed with this or that attire.
Too old am I to be content with play,
Too young to live untroubled by desire.
What comfort can the shallow world bestow?
Renunciation! - Learn, man, to forgo!
This is the lasting theme of themes,
That soon or late will show its power,
The tune that lurks in all our dreams,
And the hoarse whisper of each hour
And then one day I read about M. Wells, opened by Hugue Dufour and his partner Sarah Oberatis. I found myself there almost as if in a trance, I found myself there at the counter, eating bone marrow, brain, liver, and butter...lots and lots of butter. I was eating everything I wasn't supposed to eat, dusted with gluten, cheese, and irrevocably impious in its decadence, but I felt so energized, so alive again. I continued to cheat on my destiny there, becoming more bold to live the life I really wanted to live, powered grilled cheese sandwiches layered with liver.
At the same time, I was also reading the book Blood, Bones, and Butter, the autobiography of chef Gabrielle Hamilton. I never reviewed it here. It was so well-written, but her relationships made me intensely uncomfortable. I saw in her tense relationship, what my own could become if I continued to try to make myself into someone I really wasn't. Mired in doubt and contempt, irrevocably tied together by children.
I gave up on my "destiny". I ended my relationship, quit my job, and moved to Chicago. I have never regretted this.
Now I am wise enough to realize that I should only be with someone who accepts me for who I am now, whether then what I might be. And now I really do feel like I'm living rather than just coughing under a constant miasma of doubt and misery.
M. Wells tragically closed when the landlord doubled the rent. I would have felt worse about leaving Queens though if it had stayed open. But I had fallen in love with that ridiculously fatty food from Montreal. And looking up the Dufour online, I found he was once involved with a restaurant in Montreal called Au Pied Du Cochon. I made it my mission to someday eat there despite my inability to pronounce it correctly.
I added Joe Beef to the itinerary after reading it about it in Lucky Peach, which was fortunate since Au Pied and Joe Beef are "friends" if restaurants can be friends. The staffs share ideas, friendships, and meals together.
I ate there first, with fellow blogger Easy as Pi, one of the few dietetics students in the world who could enjoy such a meal. The thing about Joe Beef is that there is only one menu in the entire restaurant. And it is written, in French only, on a chalkboard we were facing away from. It was also really dark. So we asked our bald tattooed waiter for a recommendation. He said "no." I was a bit miffed, but just named two random things I had heard the restaurant is good at: bone marrow and horse. He said we also needed the guinea hen. OK...
It is only lately that I have been learning to appreciate meat as it really is, not the meat that most of us are used to, bland and standardized, but the meat of animals that have had varied, often long, lives. In Sweden earlier this year they had on my menu at Frantzen/Lindeberg tallow and tartare from a 7-year-old dairy cow. I thought it was intoxicating, earthy, and maybe just a bit eccentric. And then I met Magnus Nilsson, a renowned Swedish chef, on a book tour here in Chicago. His cookbook is a revelation to me, especially since I help my family with our relatively new farm where we are raising our own beef. Old cows, I thought, were not much good, except for ground beef that maybe you could turn into chili. But Magnus explains in his book that he prefers older cows because of their deeper more complex flavor which he enhances through dry aging. According to him, this meat has real marbling caused by the use of the muscles as the cow ages, interspersing it with fat, whereas corn-finished young cattle marbling "is just blubber."
Joe Beef's Bathroom Bison
I think Magnus would have loved the horse at Joe Beef. It had so much savoriness and character that it tasted much like an aged cheese. The guinea hen was also very powerful, with the dark meat tasting almost livery, amongst wild mushrooms with their own characteristic umami flavor enhanced by the gamey fat. What can I say about the bone marrow? It was perfect. We were stuffed, like the giant bison head that startles you in the bathroom.
Breton buckwheat wheat with butter, cheese, ham, and mushrooms
The next day I ate a Breton buckwheat crepe at La Bulle au Carré and then we had coffee with the awesome people of Eating Paleo in Montreal, at secret paleo hangout The Knife/Le Couteau, which serves amazing coffee and properly-brewed tea, as well as very good "paleo" treats from Almond Butterfly. Joshua, the organizer, compared it to Bierkraft in Brooklyn, which also serves a paleo crowd despite being a beer store (my kind of paleos).
Unfortunately I had a little too much coffee and felt like my heart was beating out of my chest when I ate my wild boar and mushroom risotto at Bistro Cocagne, which has a nice late-night tasting menu that is pretty cheap for the quality.
The next day I knew I had to eat lightly in order to prepare for my meal at Au Pied. I ate some little treats at the Jean Talon Market, where I mostly bought things to take home. I love that Quebec has a wild food movement that is all about reflecting the local northern boreal terroir. There were a variety of places selling things like cattail shoots, birch syrup, Labrador tea, and spruce beer. I wish I had known about Les Jardins Sauvages, because I would have loved to do one of their wild food dinners. I was interested, as I always am, in local cider, but was skeptical when I found most of it was "ice cider." When I lived in Sweden, I visited a vineyard there that made ice wine, which is created from grapes left to wither on the vine in the frost, the sugars concentrate as the fruit shrivels. It wasn't far off from very very oversweet mead. Ice cider is largely made the same way, with frosted apples, but the ones I tried were really nice and dry, so I actually brought some home.
Mushrooms and ice cider
I had a light lunch at Omnivore, a Lebanese spot that uses locally raised meats, and then a perfect afternoon tea with Japanese snacks at Maison De Thé Camellia Sinensis, a peaceful little tea house with a large variety of very good teas, as well as a nice boutique.
It rained much of the time I was in Montreal, which I don't mind, but later that afternoon the rain broke. And as I walked to Au Pied there was a perfect double rainbow arcing between the fiery autumn leaves. And one end led right to Au Pied, where the staff joyfully gathered outside to see it. And I try very hard not to believe in destiny now, but this was hard not to notice.
I was very lucky to be seated at the bar far end of the bar where the drinks are made. I'd heard some complaints from friends that service is bad at the tables. The service I had was excellent, from Florant, who came from the border of France and Italy. He stopped me from ordering several things, urging me to order things that were the most distinctive about the restaurant and that also wouldn't be impossible for little folk to eat. I started with the half order of the duck fat poutine, which is a signature dish there. It was good, but of course it was good, it's duck fat poutine after all. It's covered with gravy and cheese and fatty liver. The real skill was displayed in the second dish I had, which was fresh eel wrapped in pastry with potato, apple, and sage. The dish wasn't beautiful, but in all other respects it was perfect. I had their own beer, which was only so-so, but Florant gave me resinous spruce beer, which was amazing and I only regret I didn't bring any home, but I've made my own before and when spring comes and the spruce shoots are out, I'll have to make it again. Amazingly, the whole trip I was able to tolerate alcohol, even my arch-nemesis red wine, which normally gives me leg cramps. Maybe it was the sheer fattiness and richness of the food? I don't know.
Food at Au Pied was not photogenic, but it was delicious!
It was interesting that the people there seemed pretty svelte, not much different than the people in Sweden, despite having such meaty fatty food. It is also a place where you can get non-aged raw milk cheese. If the FDA's pronouncements were true, it's amazing that Quebec isn't a wasteland of food poisoned zombies. Either way, I ate plenty of it.
And when it came time to leave, I was sad and I hope to go back, maybe to visit Au Pied's Sugar Shack or Les Jardins Sauvages. And to see all the amazing people I met again. I also connected through Toronto and from the Porter lounge stared out at that glimmering city. I'd like to visit there some time too, and Porter seems to fly there from Chicago 17 times a day. A bonus for being a cold-loving creature is that I didn't encounter many tourists at all and none of my flights were full.
It was an adventure, and adventure I might never have had in another less happy life. Sometimes I imagine there are parallel universes, that versions of me from them reach out, to tell me even there I would have made similar decisions. That this is why the pilot mistook me for someone for Toronto, that a man at a coffee shop there told me "hello again," that someone had checked in under my name before me at Joe Beef. But these are once again my brain trying to make a grand story out of a mundane life. The word "mundane" comes from the Latin root of "belonging to the Earth", and if my life is about that which comes from the Earth, that is the home of apples, mushrooms, wild geese, birch and all I know that is good and green, then I don't mind.
One of the most interesting conversation I've had about food was with a Pirahã. It occurred when I ate a salad in the village for the first time.
Rice, beans, fish, and wild game, smothered under copious amount of Tabasco sauce, can keep one's culinary drive satisfied up to a point. But if you like the crunch of fresh lettuce, then after a few months you might begin to dream about eating a salad.
The missionary plane visited us every eight weeks in the jungle to bring mail and supplies. It was our only contact with the world outside the Pirahãs. On one trip, I sent out a note to a fellow missionary and asked if he would do me the tremendous favor of sending some salad makings on the next flight. Two months later, our salad arrived.
That evening I sat down to my first taste of lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage in six months. Xahopati walked up to watch me eat. He looked bemused.
"Why are you eating leaves?" he asked. "Don't you have any meat?"
The Pirahãs are very particular about foods, and they believe, as we do to some degree, that the foods you eat determine the person you become.
"Yes. I have a lot of canned meat," I assured him. "But I like these leaves! I have not had any for many moons."
My Pirahã friend looked at me, then at the leaves, then back at me. "Pirahãs don't eat leaves," he informed me. "This is why you don't speak our language well. We Pirahãs speak our language well and we don't eat leaves."
This is from Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. I first heard about him through this New Yorker article. He was sent as a missionary to convert the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon by learning their seemingly-impossible language. In the process he was turned from a pious missionary to non-theist linguistics professor. To a linguist, the Pirahã are fascinating because they have no numbers or recursion in their language. To anthropologists they are also fascinating because their culture values immediacy and first-hand experience above everything. They are resistant to Christianity because they do not believe in anything that they themselves have not experienced. They have no formalized religion or religious rituals, but they firmly believe in spirits and often consort with them.
The Pirahã are no longer hunter-gatherers, though they were until very recently. Their diet is still mainly wild fish and game, but it's amazing how far foods of civilization have traveled into the depths of the Amazon. Wheat, sugar, and whiskey in particular seem to have had a large negative effect on this tribe. Socially they have some elements of the tribe in The Continuum Concept, but Everett seems less prone to romanticization, though some is definitely present. I personally find it strange that he would describe the tribe's social structure as being non-coercive when there are mentions of murder, gang-rape, and marginalization of women. It's impossible to say much about whether those are "natural" for humans based on this tribe and other tribes that represent the last of the world's foragers. Almost all such tribes have been removed from their original homelands, pushed into the world's harshest habitats, and subject to the negative effects of trade for things like alcohol.
But that doesn't mean they should be dismissed. Everett recognizes negative aspects of their culture, but is eternally grateful for what he learned about life from the Pirahã.
Reading the book, I took away most lessons about what we don't need. The title itself is what Pirahã say as a greeting at night and alludes to the fact that for them a good night's sleep is a dangerous thing. People sleep lightly at night and there is always someone awake by the fire, sometimes many talking and laughing. People in the US act like a good night's sleep is essential, but perhaps it's not. However, one major difference is that the Pirahã have the ability to nap whenever they want during the day.
The Pirahã also scoff at the idea of regular meals. They have no food preservation methods and simply eat when they have made a kill. Apparently being hungry is no obstacle to exerting themselves: "I have seen people dance for three days with only brief breaks, not hunting, not fishing, or gathering -- and without stockpiled foods."
Children are kept close to their mothers during the nursing period, but after weaning they are treated as full members of the community. According to studies by psychologists, the Pirahã spend more time than any other known culture laughing and smiling. This is despite the fact that loss and hardship are a daily part of life. A breech birth or an infected wound is a death sentence.
Reading this book and its descriptions of how different the Pirahã mindset is from the Western, it reminded me that paleolithic hunter-gatherer cultures would have been more diverse than we give them credit for. We have these stereotypes of chieftains, ritualized dances with painted faces, elaborate myths, trading using shells... the Pirahã have none of these things.
In a world of homogenizing agents like trade and monotheistic religion, the fact that the Pirahã exist is amazing. Most such tribes have simply been wiped out. The paleolithic was a world of fairly isolated tribes that may have had cultures completely different from anything around today.
Outside Magazine recently had one of their reporters try the Paleo Diet for Athletes. His cholesterol improved, but he felt hungry and irritable, which caused him to ultimately dismiss the diet. I think one of the problems with The Paleo Diet for Athletes is that is doesn't do a complete paradigm shift. Eating lots of lean protein and continuing to fear fat is actually not a paleo diet.
I don't believe that paleo diet is a magic diet that I want everyone to follow. However, I do believe thinking about diet in terms of human evolution is extremely valuable. Many of my close friends and family members aren't going to be paleo any time soon either whether it's because they oppose eating animals or because they can't imagine breakfast without oatmeal. Luckily, I think there are simple steps anyone can take to improve their diet using evolution as a lense.
I write this from personal interest. While my boyfriend is interested in health, he doesn't see the need to go paleo and he really doesn't like eating meat. But it's very easy for us to eat nourishing meals together with things like pumpkin soup, sauteed mushrooms, buttered yams, pickled carrots, and garlic kale. Admittedly, I try to steer him away from things like Boca Burgers/soy milk and towards alternatives like homemade fermented dosas, properly soaked beans and farro, and traditional sourdough bread, but those things are delicious, so it doesn't take much convincing.