Cheeseslave wrote a post titled Top 10 Reasons I'm Not Paleo. Not surprisingly, it upset a lot of people. Which is funny, since it didn't exactly bother me. I'd love to see that furor directed against woo-bearing charlatans who call themselves "paleo" and mainstream media publications that make anyone who doesn't eat garbage look like a weirdo.
Either way, I don't need to write a long post about why I'm not paleo. I just need one bullet point. So here it is: the Top 1 Reason I'm Not Paleo:
- The Paleo diet was a tool I used to learn about applying evolutionary biology to modern health problems. It doesn't define me as a permanent lifestyle that focuses on identity and demonizing so-called "neolithic non-foods" like grains, which distracts from the real enemy, the processed industrial food industry that churns out nutritionless garbage designed to be addictive with no consideration for human, animal, or environmental welfare. I'm not "paleo," though I eat in a way informed by our evolution as a species.
I think defining your identity based on a diet is a bad idea. I had enough of that as a vegetarian and a vegan. And absolutism means your diet doesn't degrade gracefully. In web development, the concept of graceful degradation is an important one. It means you can develop fancy widgets for websites that are snazzy in the latest best web browser, but designed in a way that they are still functional even in an older or less capable web browser. Being committed to real whole food is a better rock to stand on than adherence to a "diet." It means that if I go out to eat I order home-made tamales or tacos rather than binging on processed pizza, soda, and candy.
Plus, I end up eating meat, fruits, seafood, and vegetables most of the time anyway. My favorite thing to say to people who say "Well, people have been eating bread for thousands of years!"
"Great! Got any three-day fermented einkorn bread? I'll gladly eat that."
Most of the time, the bread they have is store-bought and made with industrially processed bleached flours and tons of additives. Not healthy, not delicious, not worth it. Of course, I make exceptions. I suppose the 80-20 rule has fallen out of vogue, but for me it works quite well. Given I have none of the alleles associated with Celiac, do not test positive for it, and self-experiments show that gluten per-se has no effect on me, I do indulge in so-called "bad" food sometimes. But it's not a staple of my diet and I'll generally only have it if it's at a nice restaurant or in a foreign country.
I love that this is the entire dessert section for Zakary Pelaccio's Eat With Your Hands cookbook:
I think I've mentioned his restaurant Fatty Cue in several posts. It is where I ate my first pig's head. And where I learned that if you boil fingerling potatoes in shellfish stock, smash them, bury them in Kerrygold, and assault them with large amounts of freshly ground black pepper, you get something that is economical, but absolutely decadant and delicious.
Speaking of decadent, I am not always so great about keeping up with my inbox, but I was grateful to receive this:
Thanks a million for your post, "Paleolithic Post Modernistic Cuisine."
It is far and away one of the pivotal reads that helped to brighten up my whole evolutionary adventure.
Granted, I'm on a shoe-string budget and live on carrots, ground beef, round-eye steaks, and a revolving selection of broccoli, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. Exposure to El Bulli and the Adrias has opened my eyes up to how beautiful food can be. A win since I once deemed myself as simply a "functional eater.
More than anything, following Anthony Bourdain has reawakened a strong wanderlust, and gotten me excited about eating my way around the world. In a clean, healthy, whole way, of course.
Speaking of which, I feel I'm not the only one who thinks a primal life-way can potentially help Anthony extend his television career, and get him off that wretched Lipitor. I think the fact that he loves pork as much as he does is actually what's keeping his heart still beating.
Adieu, and keep fighting the good fight... or something like that ;)
Aw thanks! Speaking of Bourdains, I love this interview with Anthony Bourdain and carnivore martial arts badass wife Ottavia Bourdain:
Anthony Bourdain: We go to Japanese restaurants and ordering yakitori, and we're ordering these things on skewers like 16 at a time. They're doing double takes, especially when she says, 'The chicken hearts were good, I'll have 12 more.' There's this look of mute horror, and this expression that polite Japanese get when they're trying to conceal their shock and disgust at what's happening. It's a lot of fun [laughs].
Ottavia Bourdain: I always get checked out and make sure my cholesterol is fine and my blood sugar is ok. That's always really low. My blood pressure is also super low, so I haven't encountered any problems with my crazy diet. I wouldn't advise it to anybody else, but it works for me.
I think she wins a lot of hearts because notice she never demonizes other foods or insists her way is the best way. I would say that super low blood pressure is not always a good thing. Doctors aren't really that used to seeing it I guess, but I and several other athletic lean relatively or very low carb women I've known have developed absolutely frightening syncopes. My blood pressure is one of the reasons I can't do a very low carb diet.
A week or so ago I got an email advertising a new "paleo" product. I've written several times about various products parasitically riding the "paleo" bandwagon. Most of them suck.
We are about to launch a AMRAP Nutrition Paleo Refuel Bar and would LOVE it if you guys would help us out by being a taste tester and possibly write up a review in your blog regarding your thoughts about the bar. Our bars are completely raw and and in our opinion, the most nutritious and delicious paleo bar available:) The ingredients include the following: almond butter, egg whites, almonds, coconut, honey, sesame seeds, flax seeds cinnamon and sea salt.
I was genuinely curious, but I also have a troll streak and so I responded
Thanks for the offer. I have a few questions. Are the egg whites raw too? Are they sourced from pastured hens?
No reply so far.
Just because I'm not a vegan anymore doesn't mean I don't care about what happens to animals. In fact I care about it even more because I need good animal products for my diet.
In Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, he notes that the egg industry is definitely one of the worse of all the industrialized forms of animal agriculture. Feedlot cattle at least enjoy some of their lives outside, whereas the average factory laying hen will never see the light of day, crammed into a tiny cage. Male chicks are discarded, often ground up while still alive. Animal factory farms also often do not discard waste properly, polluting their local landscapes. I don't like supporting this. I don't think it's a good way to produce animals and I sincerely doubt the finished product is as good as a true free range egg.
Who knows where they get their eggs. Even if they are from truly pastured hens, I would wonder how they keep them fresh in bar format. The form of a product often can determine food sensitivities. I react to powdered milk, but not to fresh milk, for example.
Flax is a hilarious example of what happens when people demonize specific foods. Soy is soooo bad because it has phytoestrogens. Man boobz amirite? Turns out flax seed has even higher levels of phytoestrogens than soy! Also would you like an enormous amount of omega-6 fat? Because you will get them from the almond butter.
Either way, I'm sure this company would say that some people need a bar because people are so busy and would you rather have them eating McDonalds. Luckily there are already plenty of good products on the market. Even if some aren't completely transparent with their sourcing (baby steps, I suppose), they at least are using grass-fed and/or organic animal ingredients. Nearly every locality has a grass-fed jerky company at this point. In NYC I sometimes bought from Kings County Jerky. In the Midwest we have Grassfed Gourmet (and several others). You can get pastured bison Tanka bars at a lot of places. Lara Bars are a decent on the go snack, though carrying a fair amount of sugar and sometimes omega-6. Same goes for delicious Hail Merry pies and macaroons.
But I do think there is definitely room for innovation. There are lots of things I'd love to see in the grocery store for when I'm traveling or busy. There isn't really a good non soy/canola mayo on the market right now for example. What would you like to see at the grocery store?
I've had some incredible meals lately, despite being very busy. I have a bunch of books I need to review, but you know how that goes. I think things will calm down for me after my work gets a real office and I also move into a new apartment. And stop traveling so much.
I have a bunch of new cookbooks I've been trying out. The first is April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig. I only ate at her famous restaurant, The Spotted Pig, once. It was quite an ordeal since they don't take reservations. I remember waiting for four hours and being very very very hungry. Luckily she is known for her fatty British-style food. Later she opened up the Breslin. Back then I wasn't exactly rolling in money, so I lurked outside at the Ace Hotel and ate the snacks at the coffee shop there, which included homemade pork rinds and fried lamb belly.
The most memorable dish I had at the Spotted Pig was a parmesan custard with asparagus and prosciutto. I was thrilled to find this in her book. I had only made custard once and that was probably two years ago when I was an idiot and didn't understand that there was a reason for cooking it in a hot water bath/double boiler. I was unfortunately making frozen custard. What resulted was a terrible ice cream with bits of scrambled egg throughout. If you ever want to make ice cream that you aren't in danger of overeating, this is an excellent method of food unreward.
This time I actually followed the instructions. The result was delicious and it tasted good on everything I put it on.
Farm egg + parmesan custard + grilled asparagus
I also used another of her recipes as a complement to one of my own. I've been in love with fresh pork belly for several years, ever since having it at Momofuku. I think I love it more than I love bacon. When the Momofuku cookbook came out, I started cooking it at home, riffing off their recipe. I use less sugar than Chang and more umami. I'm now quite happy with my method, which involves just putting a cube of it in my crock pot, drizzling it with a little honey + lots of tamari + a few drops Red Boat fish sauce + a bit of lime juice and leaving it on low overnight. Then I chill it and slice it (it is easier to slice when chilled). Because it's pork belly you get fat to sear it with accumulating at the bottom of the crock pot. I sweat some chilies in that and sear the belly a little. Then I season to taste with salt and pepper.
It is rich though, so it's nice to have something to cut it. This night I used a crispy and bright radish salad from April's book, which involved a nice technique of rubbing the radishes with herbs and flaking parmesan on top + some delicious pickles that my guest brought me. Pork Belly's bonus, which is the rendered pork fat and jelly, is absolutely fantastic for cooking everything. So I cooked some fingerling potatoes in it and dressed them with little tiny lumps of farm butter and freshly ground black pepper.
The fun doesn't stop there, because what doesn't taste better with the flavored pork fat? These shrimp that I cooked in it were incredible.
Another cookbook I bought recently was Beginnings by Chris Cosentino. I first encountered him in college when I was writing about food law. He was an ardent critic of the foie gras ban in Chicago (which was later overturned) and received death threats from animal rights activists. He is also known as "Offal Chris" because he promotes the use of offal. I credit him for piquing my interest in the subject. So when I heard he was coming to one of my local favorite restaurants, the Publican, to cook for a night, I took out reservations immediately. The meal did not disappoint.
Every dish was really really good, but a standout was the spaghetti. When it came to the table I was not very happy because to be honest it looks like it was pasta made out of onions. And to be honest I don't like spaghetti very much and never have. But our waiter told us it was actually pasta made out of pork skin! Don't ask me how he does it, the recipe is not in the book. The sauce was amazing, it had some kind of oceanic element in there that worked really well with the briny olive flavor and the bright tomato. Chris needs to perform a valuable public service and tell the world how to make this.
Another dish I really want to learn how to make is his pork belly with clams. The sauce tasted very much of egg yolks, but I have no idea how to make it. Maybe some kind of light bearnaise-like sauce with stock?
The next day I tried my hand at one of his recipes for a sardine "iron chef" party. This required fresh sardines, which I got at Issacson and Stein, an excellent place to get cheap fish. The cost is that they are not going to baby you and help you with things. And while I sometimes fry smelt, which is a whole fish, this recipe called for fileting the fish, which I had never done in my life. I had some help, but he didn't know anything either. We followed some instructions from youtube and the result was some mangled, but passable, filets. Cosentino's recipe calls for just marinating them in olive oil and serving them raw, but this isn't San Francisco, and we pan seared them. And then layered them on sourdough crostini with Cosentino's Boccalone nduja, which is a delicious rich spicy sausage that spreads quite luxuriously. I don't know if I will be doing fresh sardines again for awhile, since I live in a studio apartment that reeked for days, but I definitely could stand to have some more nduja, which can be found at Publican Quality Meats.
But one of the most innovative dishes at the party was from my friends Nick and Shannon. I told Nick he could make a zillion dollars if he had a stand selling this. Nick made his own katsuobushi from sardines. I can't explain how, but they have their own blog and hopefully they will post on it. But katsuobushi is a umami flavor goldmine, which he grated on to braised pork belly and spread on pickled ramp aioli. But the amazing thing was that the bao bread here was made with just baking soda + bright yellow farm fresh egg yolks (from Paulie's Pasture), which is somehow steamed in a pressure cooker. The original method is described here.
I was at Belly Shack and I noticed they have gluten-free items, but they are all also vegetarian and somewhat miserly considering the rest of the menu is so decadently fatty. I definitely did not order them. I notice this pattern at other restaurants, where anything non-standard, vegan/XYZ-free/etc, is relegated to some low-fat bland "healthy" ghetto. How much awesome would it be to be able to get something that normal people want to eat, like these delicious bao?
Apparently if I wear almost no makeup and a cute ruffled shirt, I look very young. At a party the day before my birthday, two people told me I looked 12-13, which I thought was hilarious. I turned 26 the next day and went out to the last night of One Sister, an underground supper club. It was the last night because chef Iliana Regan is opening up a restaurant called Elizabeth in Lincoln Square. I'm very much looking forward to that, because I love her style of cooking. It reminds me a lot of the New Nordic movement. Lots of foraged goods and naturalistic presentations.
Where else can you get a cured Alaskan wild bear wild rice crispy treat with Wisconsin cheddar?
Or chocolate covered chicken liver mousse? If only I could eat such things every day. You can see much better photos of her menus at Jen Moran's photography page.
It was an amazing birthday dinner. As I've written before, Iliana is a chef to watch.
Unfortunately the weather here in Chicago has been quite hot lately, which coupled with low air quality ratings I have trouble tolerating due to lung damage that occurred when I was younger. Perhaps I need to move away from the city (or at least far away from anywhere with a real summer), but for now I am heading to visit my cousin in CA, to read and eat oranges. Food recs in the South Bay area are welcome!
If you are really into healthy eating, a trip to the grocery store can be kind of depressing. It often seems like most of the food they sell isn't even really food. A couple of weeks, in a lazy mood, I combed the grocery stores shelves for a mayonnaise that didn't have high omega-6 vegetable oil. I even would have accepted an oil with high-oleic vegetable oil, but none of the mayos fit the bill. My time already wasted in that futile search, I cracked open Ferran Adria's Family Meal cookbook and made my oil aioli with an immersion blender, finally managing to hit the emulsification without splattering the walls and my hair with olive oil and egg.
I find these days I get some raw ingredients from the grocery store, but increasingly I find myself purchasing from the food underground, tiny businesses that could never find their way through the monolith of regulations. They are foods, god forbid, cooked in people's kitchens. You know, kind of like the food mom made, but for some reason it's OK if mom does it, but not OK to sell it to other people. It seems kind of strange to me that the bagged raw chickens that a farmer slaughtered in his backyard are legal for me to buy (small farm poultry exemption), but not the craft beer or the kombucha made in someone's kitchen. Raw chicken is way more dangerous than beer could possibly be and what if I don't cook it right? With the craft beer, even if it's made in a licensed kitchen, there are all kinds of weird licensing loopholes to jump through. I thought it was hilarious when in NYC some native Wisconsinites were busted for selling New Glarus beer because it's not licensed for sale in NYC. What is the purpose of busting people for that? Is New Glarus beer more dangerous than Six Point beer? I don't think the government even pretends it's protecting people from anything anymore. Once something is a law and a bureaucrat is on the payroll, it tends to stick around.
Some people have tried to come up with creative solutions for complying with government regulations, like shared licensed kitchen spaces, but not surprisingly, the government often isn't terribly supportive. That's what happened with Logan Square Kitchen in Chicago. Some people have focused on the food safety regulations that LSK struggled with and there are legitimate arguments about that, but the fact that they had to deal with business licensing, which often doesn't have anything to do with even pretending to protect people, surely compounded these struggles. Maybe you should need a license to operate some kind of dangerous machinery, but why does anyone need a license to have a business?
Over and over we heard, “you did everything right.” See the Alderman before building purchase. All City Depts approve us through Green Building Permit Program. Go to BACP in advance of applying for license, completely disclosing the business model. Spend 3 months talking about what licenses we needed. Apply as directed. Told we ‘misrepresented’ our business. Told we can’t have license caused we’ve failed our “furniture inspection.” Correct that, and get licenses contingent on conditions we can’t meet. Then the Zoning folks try to shut us down. 20 health inspections. 18 months wrapped in red tape. Enduring intimidation and harassment, the resources we set aside to ramp up the business were instead used to pay lawyers and our mortgage while we were denied the right to operate.
It's not about safety, it's about control. Another depressing case has been in the news lately, that of noted tea expert David Lee Hoffman, who is possibly going to lose his farm and home because the buildings he has on his properly are "unapproved."
Life is always so full of strange twists and turns and usually happen with unpredictable spontaneity. Forty years of labor on my property have left me with a tired back, two bad shoulders, and thirty or so unpermitted structures. The finish of my laboring career was so close I was even pondering the location for a hammock that I’ve been keeping for just that occasion. But rather than living out days of leisure retirement in the garden, I find myself in another realm, something akin to a tragic Greek Fable when I’m told after four decades of hard labor, rather than receiving an award for accomplishment, I am ordered by the Great Power to now tear it all down!
I remember a farm I worked on that had "unapproved" buildings. They were gorgeous and innovative experimental structures. They couldn't get permits for them because codes didn't exist for strawbale buildings or composting toilets. In a rental building perhaps I am happy to have some building codes, but experimenting on your own property in buildings you live in should not be illegal.
Some localities are trying to put into place "cottage food" ordinances that would allow for some exceptions. I actually don't think this is a good idea because it draws the attention of bureaucrats who will want to extract their "rents" somehow. Or as in Illinois the local cronies can decide they just don't like the law and tie you up in paperwork forever.
Thank god for the internet, where people are just not bothering trying to get legit in the first place. These days you can find cottage businesses through social networking sites, send an email, and have your homemade kombucha/raw milk yogurt/home-brewed beer delivered to your apartment. I have to admit here that at this point I buy much of my food this way. It's immensely freeing in so many ways. I get to know each producer personally and can interact with them in a way that allows me to get the best products possible. I can even custom order things to my liking. It requires I be somewhat engaged with my food buying and probably takes more time than going to Trader Joes, but sometimes it's cheaper and the food is always better in every way possible.
The best meal I've ever had? It was at an underground supper club here in Chicago. And let's be honest here, I felt more comfortable eating that food, out of a kitchen I could clearly see, than I do eating food from most restaurants. Restaurants get inspected maybe once a year? How is that supposed to even pretend to enforce safety? And what is safety anyway? Why is it OK for a restaurant to re-use frying oil containing trans fats, which slowly kill people? But not OK to use beef slaughtered by the chef on a local farm in full-view of customers?
How do I find these things? Twitter, Facebook, going to food events and networking with people. Crossfit gyms have also becoming powerful networks for this.
Wild boar tacos at Nite Market
Last week I went to a rather large underground market organized by a grad student that featured unlicensed food vendors. It was wonderful to see the variety of microbusinesses featured there. You could get all kinds of delicious things from kiwi kombucha to liver pate to kale chips.
But I suffer from this fear that the small underground businesses I enjoy so much will go the way of the Greenpoint Food Market, a vibrant little fair full of delicious and innovative foods. I've seen increasingly sneaky entrapment-like methods being used against buying clubs, specifically raw dairy sellers. Will there come a day when I have to wrap myself behind three proxies to send an email about picking up homemade yogurt?
I also think sometimes about the situation Americans are in health-wise. I probably wouldn't eat some of the things I eat (the raw meat and dairy in particular) if I were still sick because I was on immune-system suppressing medications like proton pump inhibitors and corticosteroids. Millions of Americans are on these kind of medications.
Whenever there is a food poisoning outbreak we hear so much about people getting sick, but what about the people who eat that same food and don't get sick? Shouldn't we be thinking a little more about them? What does it mean that they didn't get sick? Seth Roberts posted a few days ago about how we are approaching the antibiotic resistance problem the wrong way. Instead of fretting about antibiotics being overused for sicknesses, why aren't we thinking about why Americans are so sick all the time? Why aren't we focusing on boosting immune systems?
If you've been reading this blog long enough, you'll know I have a rather dim view of reporters. Besides a tiny number I count as friends, I've had some bad experiences where I spent a lot of time working with them, only to see the final story had major errors. Getting cut out entirely is better than that.
So I often just ignore them. The stuff I do with food is my hobby and I don't typically see any benefit to dealing with them. But one kept emailing me about my meatshare Chicago group and so I did call him and later provided him with pictures and names of other people he could talk to about the subject. It seemed like he was on a tight deadline so I was surprised how quickly the article went up.
It's not bad, but I was disappointed to see that the paleo diet was described as a fad diet:
Kent Cowgill, a 40-year-old software engineer, falls into the latter category. Two years ago, Cowgill began experimenting with the fad diet known as the paleo diet or caveman diet, which is meant to mimic the diet of stone age hunter-gatherers by emphasizing grass-fed pasture raised meats, vegetables, fruit and excluding grains and processed foods. It was through the website paleohacks.com that Cowgill and became acquainted with McEwen.
As annoyed as I get with the whole "paleo movement" and I myself have settled into a way of eating that doesn't have all that much to do with the original concept, when I did discover it I was so sick. To name a few, I was on anticholinergics, proton pump inhibitors, steroids, antihistimines, leukotriene receptor antagonists, and constantly on antibiotics. I didn't think I could ever travel internationally. I worried I would never find love because I was so sickly. I missed out on things. I can't forget that terrible place I was in and that learning about the "paleo diet" allowed me to make the kind of dietary changes that allow me to live a relatively normal life, though I certainly had to discover many other things before I totally got off medications.
I told the reporter I was disappointed to hear it called a fad since it's not just for weight loss and I feel "fad" is a pejorative. The reporter said that he thought it was a fad because "t reverting to that kind of a diet in a world where we have access to foods beyond that, is what I would call a fad." OK, so I guess veganism and vegetarianism are also "fads?" Either way, it doesn't matter, it's just poor form to call someone's food choices a "fad" while writing an article about something else, unless you intend to make them look trivial.
But I've noticed that in America at least, your food choices, if you choose to eat differently, are always somehow insulting to people. Ask for something gluten-free unless you have a gold-sticker framed certificate that says "Real Life Celiac" and you are a bad person who just follows the latest fads and have "first world problems." Never mind that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a real (and possibly deadly) thing. You are fascist and should be ashamed of yourself (I love Ruhlman, but I don't think anyone's dietary preferences should be such a big deal). Meanwhile in Sweden, when I worked in food there, no one gave a fuck if you didn't want meat or gluten or cheese or whatever. We cooked from scratch, so it was not a big deal, not a source of frustration or judgment. Some of it comes from ignorance of confusing allergies with sensitivities and intolerances. Yes, real sensitivities and intolerances can wax and wane with health status, age, and a host of other factors. For example, when I was much more sickly, I could not tolerate much dairy, but now that my gut is healthier and I'm overall in a much better state, I tolerate quite a lot. However, the commenters on Ruhlman's blog post seem very angry that other people might not be eating things for what they perceive is the "wrong" reason. There is something very Puritan about these kind of attitudes.
That said, I've never expected a restaurant to not use a certain ingredient and I understand some menu items simply cannot be adjusted. Also, when I had to eat a more strict diet, I would bring things like my own gluten-free soy sauce to restaurants and ask permission to use that (I was never denied). Some people do act entitled about their diets, which makes people even more unsympathetic to say the least. Like someone I know couldn't roast a goat at his wedding because his vegan aunt was so offended by the idea, even though there were several good vegan items on the menu. That's a whole different issue, but overall when someone tells me they can't eat something, I don't even bother asking why. It's none of my business and it's usually not a big deal to accommodate.
What do you think?
Something very strange happened to me recently. It was almost as I if was reenacting 2008. It's hard to believe it's been that long, that it's 2012 now and it's been nearly 4 years ago since I hopped on that plane to Stockholm, Sweden. I remember that day very well because that morning I woke up with my eyes all red and very obviously infected. What bad luck. Can you get an eye infection from crying? Because I admit I had been crying. He was going to Hong Kong and I was going to Sweden and he said there was no way we could continue our relationship over those distances. I rushed to the doctor to get antibiotic eye drops and got on that plane. In the distorted half-dreamlike world of my first jetlag and trying to get my legs in a strange country, thankfully heartbreak passes quickly.
Months later he would ask me to come back with him, but I had fallen in love again and I couldn't accept. I had fallen in love with Sweden and I wasn't going back to the dreary plains of Central Illinois. Not for anyone in the entire world.
I lived in a big red house and had a big room. It was a room of my own, which was a huge luxury to me coming from the standard American college dorms. It had big windows so I could so easily track the dramatic death and re-birth of the sun that occurs in such northern latitudes. The kitchen was quite big and there was plenty of room for everything I wanted. It was in that kitchen that I really learned how to cook.
The month I moved there, August, is perhaps the best month to be there. The sun is still lively and sets late, the temperature ideal, and the woods and gardens full of bright juicy berries and apples. I would fill my bicycle basket with every type of apple you could possibly imagine from the Apple Genetics Garden, some tiny and bright red, others that looked average, but had pale pink flesh. And I would bike home through the woods, home to make an apple crisp or some other delicious home-baked treat.
one of the pictures I took in my first days in Sweden
Later I would also live in Stockholm with someone I loved, in one of the tallest buildings in the entire city, where I could watch over it, red, pale pink, and muted yellow. I thought for a time that I would give up my country and my language to live forever in Sweden with him.
When that dissolved, for a long time afterwards I would have intermittent regrets. Particularly when things weren't going so well. Our time together gained a mythical romantic veneer. It wasn't even about him anymore, it became about this entire country, this beautiful perfect life there I wanted back. Except it never existed. Looking through my photo albums, perhaps I predicted that this would happen. There is one photo of Vaksala Torg in Uppsala, taken in February. The muggy sky casts its gloom over a pile of dirty snow. Distant people passing by are looking at the ground. Why would I take such a picture? I remembered then that I had taken it remind myself how much I hated it there at that moment. That I was lonely, unhappy, alienated, and bored then, just as I would be many times after I left.
But it was never that which I thought about when I took the daily journey in the subway, feeling like I was buried between concrete walls. It was the woods, the gardens, the red houses, the Fyris river, Lake Mälaren, and the magnitude and depth of winter there- dark, fresh pure snowfall, with candles in the windows of nearly every house.
But the fact that I knew this wasn't the whole reality of life there was perhaps at the core of why I didn't go back, why I put it off for years. But this year my sister decided to study in Uppsala too, so I wanted to visit her.
On the plane I hoped to sleep, but the man next to me was a giant and kept poking me with his elbow every time he moved. I watched the 2002 version of Solaris, in which people are pulled in and tormented by old memories made flesh by some incomprehensible extraterrestrial life form.
Perhaps it was perfect that I didn't think about the dates of my trip very well and I ended up in Uppsala for Valborg, the quasi-pagan May Day celebration turned drinking binge that engulfs the city for days. I was less than enthusiastic about this, having experienced my first real hangover only a few weeks earlier. I thought I was some kind of immune mutant, but I was wrong. I am still amazed that there are people who tolerate having such a headache every weekend. I was more enthusiastic about fika, the national coffee/pastry past time. Something hilarious has happened on the Wikipedia article for fika:
In contemporary Sweden, where a significant percentage of the population is on LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) or similar carbohydrate restricted diet, you may nowadays be better of staying away from the sweet things altogether; a cheese tray may be preferred, and the traditional "seven kinds of cookies" would probably be perceived with suspicion or almost as offensive.
I certainly didn't notice that and enjoyed my terrible murky sludge-like coffee and Kanelbuller, a cinnamon roll that's actually not too sweet, but wasn't as good as I remembered.
A "fika" at Ofvandahls
I do think LCHF has had an influence on the country though because quite-excellent high-fat dairy products are available everywhere, a far cry from my recent trip to Florida where I had to go to several grocery stores to get anything decent. I stocked my sister's fridge with my beloved gammaldags mjölk (old-fashioned milk), which can be as high as 4.5% fat. It's like drinking ice cream. But better. It tastes fresh and creamy and like spring grasses. I've been many places, even Switzerland where I drank raw milk, but no milk is better than that.
However, sitting there in the cafe, I realized that it wasn't as fun as I remembered. Neither was drinking champagne at 9 AM while sitting out by the river waiting for the so-called Valborg raft race. The rafts are quite amusing, there was a Dr. Who one with the weeping angels and at least two Nintendo rafts. However, it was not a race by any means. The rafts lined up, as well as they could being made of foam and piloted by drunken people, and queued to go down the falls. Divers were standing by for the inevitable raft collapses.
I visited my old home. It looked the same, but it wasn't home anymore. I could see silhouettes of strange people inside. It reminded me of the time I went back to my childhood home. It felt strange to see someone else's cars and decorations all over it. Now, as in then, I choose not to linger. There was nothing left for me there. Everyone I knew was gone. What can you do in such a place, but stand awkwardly? It's less useful for remembering than a photograph. I didn't want to take any now. I didn't want any pictures of this place that wasn't home anymore.
Back when it was home
I also spent some time at my old student nation, Kalmar, which is certainly much nicer than the places where most students in the US hang out. You can join which ever of the thirteen nations you want to and each has a pub, a cafe, a restaurant, a small amount of housing and often hosts balls, fancy dinners (called gasques), clubs, and sometimes plays/concerts/other arts events. They are run a little like the infamous Park Slope Co-op in NYC though, which is that you have volunteers doing everything. Want to be a chef? Just sign up for this list and now you are tonight's chef. Same for baker, waitress, bartending, and just about any type of staffing job. I was a waitress for a brief time, but I was a terrible waitress to say the least. That's how it is when things are run by volunteers. They work OK and are sometimes awesome... sometimes.
Other times it is nice to eat go somewhere and eat something made by an actual chef. Which is exactly what we ate in Stockholm. Back when I lived there, these we places I looked into from the outside, dreaming of the day when I might go to them. So the Stockholm that we went to was a new one to me.
After a morning filled with drinking increasingly bad coffee and eating pastries (I was well-stocked with Pearls IC, gluten-ease, and super enzymes). we went to Dahlgren's Matbaren for lunch. We sat the bar so we could talk with the people who worked there and see the kitchen, where it looked like they were breaking down a lamb and making delicious looking sauces from scratch. We had some incredible bright-yellow butter on home-made Knäckebröd. The fried sole I had was perfect, surrounded by crisp early spring vegetables that I dipped in a lemony dill aioli. My sister's lamb on rye was even better though. The lamb was cooked absolutely perfectly and had a wonderful balance of fat and succulent savory meat.
Our waitress, Jessica, was from Australia and we talked about how different Swedish lamb tastes compared to earthier grassier lamb from her home country. Our meal was filling, almost too filling, and we made the mistake of ordering a plum sorbet, not knowing that we would be presented with a basket of buttery perfect madeleines and peanut-chocolate fudge.
Later we wandered through Skansen, a historical park of sorts where we witnessed some pony and jug-bashing ritual we didn't understand and gaped at various otters and bears. Later that night I took my sister Frantzén/Lindeberg for her birthday, one of Stockholm's Michelin-starred restaurants. I had wanted to try New Nordic cuisine for some time. Of course I tried to go to Noma, but as far as I know, 10,000 other people were also on the waiting list.
Unfortunately, when we started the meal I was still quite full from lunch, which augured poorly for my performance as a gastronome. The meal there also started out uncharacteristically heavy. Even the amuse bouches were a two-punch of onion and liver. Either way, I started feeling kind of overwhelmed by the richness of the dishes. The oyster with cream didn't help much. When a chunk of bone marrow came out, unadorned with anything that would cut the overwhelming fattiness, and in fact covered in caviar. It seemed like everything in the restaurant so far was drenched in it. It reminded me of this one time I thought I got such a good deal on ikura and I ordered more than I could handle, forcing all my friends and my then-boyfriend to endure it in every dish to the point where everyone was annoyed by it. First world problems. But it seems quite common in Sweden, where they sell caviar in a tube so you can squeeze it onto everything, though I can't say it's good caviar and is unfortunately adulterated with a variety of other junk including rapeseed oil.
Then there was a memorable tartare, which they seared with a blow torch next to the table and then dressed with tallow that they said was from an 11-year old dairy cow named Stina (!?), as well as smoked eel and more caviar.
Beef tartare with strong flavored tallow from an older dairy cow + eel + bleak roe + smoked eel
The cow thing took us into "Portlandia" territory, reminding me it is very strange to be in a country where nearly all the young would be classified as hipsters by most Americans and where I feel quite unstylish and clunky. However, none of them were there dining at the restaurant with us. The crowd there was decidedly older. I understand the price deters many young people, but in Chicago you do find twenty-somethings at restaurants like Next. Perhaps this was a testament to youth unemployment or to the fact that Sweden doesn't have much of a "dining out" culture. Indeed, nearly all my old Swedish friends I reconnected with did not have jobs, despite being older than me. The music the restaurant played seemed like it was for young people that just weren't there.
Land of Feeling by Here We Go Magic: A song from the restaurant I've become quite addicted to
Another song from the playlist: Beach House- Norway, a favorite of mine
The tartare was delicious and I knew it, but I couldn't finish it. This never happens to me. I was worried. Then they brought out bread. It was sourdough that had been fermented for three days. With rich hand-churned fresh butter. God, it was incredible, but I knew that if I had more than a sliver, I would not be able to finish the meal. There was also a salad that contained every possible local in-season vegetable you could possibly dream of, a dazzling array of morels, cow-parsley, celeriac, salsify and thirty-seven other ingredients, drizzled with butter. Amazing, but over-stimulating in every way possible, though less so than this really ridiculous lamb dish I had at Alinea recently.
But then I was refreshed by a dish that was possibly that greatest that I have ever tasted, though it was not the most photogenic. Turbot baked slowly for 4 hours with white asparagus and a sauce of pine, lemongrass, and mint. The fish was like silk and it melted in my mouth like white chocolate. As did the asparagus, adorned like a snowy Christmas tree with the flavors of forests. It was absolutely perfect. I used to not appreciate fish much, but these days I think I have been converted. It prepared me for a dish of chicken with something ominously delicious called "chicken butter" which seemed like a mixture of chicken fat and butter. I've also never had cock's comb before and I was pleasantly surprised that it just tasted mainly like fat.
Later the sous-chef, Jim Löfdahl, took us inside the kitchen, which was surprisingly tiny. The music made sense then. It was the music for the people who worked there, chefs, sous-chefs, and cooks all young and handsome. Jim told us that the band Miike Snow, who are fans of the restaurant, put together their playlist for the night.
The next day we flew to Amsterdam on a whim. I don't really know why. To visit my friend Rosanne and to not linger too much in Sweden perhaps? We stayed at a very self-consciously hipster hotel called Lloyd Hotel. It's not just a hotel, it's a "cultural embassy." It really was even more strange than I imagined. The "lobby" for example is a series of lofts. One of them had a "forest" of words with a blood-stained carpet. Another on top of that was filled with strange patchwork chairs, but mostly with a rug that looked like the swamp thing, though on the last day we noticed that loft had been furnished with a large strange dining table with places set up for thirty. Climbing up though the lofts, I started to get vertigo and worry a little. Our room was at the top. I only really care about food, so I had chosen the "1 star" room. The hotel has rooms of every star value and it's up to you to chose your poison. Our room reminded me of the time when I was little and I thought the house was going to be robbed, so I hid in the bathroom and I wondered if maybe I would have to live there forever. Also it was a bit like a mental institution, but thankfully the beds were very comfortable.
Dutch people are very tall and it seemed the designers there had purposefully designed everything in the hotel so I couldn't reach it. Luckily everything bad about the this room was made up for by the restaurant, which served me an epic meal of fried cheese, regular gouda cheese, crispy lettuce, fresh mint tea, pomme frites, and sweetbreads. I am very against hotel food, but this was very good. I also fell prey to the breakfast buffet. It's not easy to find good breakfast food in Amsterdam. My friend Rosanne said this was a meal people eat at home. But Lloyd Hotel had an admirable spread of good coffee, LOTS of delicious dutch cheeses, bloody red roast beef, fresh-squeezed orange juice and something delicious that I later learned was called full-fat quark. I had seen this before in Austria and had avoided it because the name reminded me of an unsavory Star Trek character. That was dumb. It was amazing- tangy and creamy, like icing.
Damn good hotel food
We saw some fancy paintings and some canals, of course. Ate some delicious Indonesian food, which is hard to find in the US. We had a dinner of steak and pomme frites with Rosanne at a restaurant called Pastis. We went to two breweries that made me wish I were in Belgium instead. I also became very picky about coffee all the sudden, which was bad since it led to the sudden realization that nearly all coffee in Scandinavia and The Netherlands is really really terrible. In the case of Sweden this is sad because Swedes have some of the highest coffee consumption in the world. No wonder they need chokladbollar, which are really just giant chocolate butter balls, (or cheese for the LCHC-conscious Swede) to enjoy their fika.
Back in Sweden I met my Swedish friend Jenny at Johan and Nystrom, which I found through reading staff tweets from Frantzen/Lindeberg (a good way to gage the local food/drink scene). It was certainly better than anything else I had drank during the trip.
It was time to re-visit old hangouts. Would they be as I remembered? First stop was Akkurat, which is almost certainly among the best pubs in Sweden and arguably among the best in the world, which is something since Sweden is not exactly known for beer, having had its craft brewery movement stifled by ridiculous regulations. One of the best Swedish craft breweries is Jämtlands. Akkurat was one of the few places with their beers on draft. It was easy to notice that these memorable beers with names like Heaven and Hell were no longer on tap.
Maybe their relationship soured, but that was OK, because while I was in NYC too soured- on excessively hoppy beer. And I started getting into wild beer before I took my year-long beer hiatus since I thought (perhaps erroneously) that beer was causing problems for me (I'm still not sure about this and I"m trying to see if I can get away with certain styles). If you like kombucha, you will like sour beer. And I REALLY like kombucha. And Akkurat, is turns out, has a huge cellar just for aging these "wild yeast" beers. Even I didn't want to buy a $50 bottle of beer, but a vagabond American beer aficionado at our table let us take some of his and I was quite content anyway with my Tilquin Gueze. After 1.5 beers, my terrible alcohol tolerance meant we were required to go to my old drunk-food spot, Soldatan Sveik, which plys a mixture of fatty Scandinavian and Czech home-cooking. I had raggmunk, which are potato pancakes with bacon and lingonberries.
It was all good, but I knew then I wouldn't miss it, at least with the aching I once had. Friends were gone, people had moved on. I saw Martha Wainwright in concert once in Uppsala and came to love this song, which to me is about the people that disappear from your life, perhaps the inevitable result of a world of transients.
I didn't belong there anymore. When I left before it was a waterworks at the airport again, leaving someone I loved behind that last security checkpoint. But this time, I walked through calmly, more concerned with duty-free than tears. Even Chicago, so new to me now, felt more like home. So many things had happened to me in the time since I was there. This was no Solaris, my mind was too changed to even conjure up a simulacrum of my past loves. I had new longings and none of them were in Stockholm. You can love someone and think it's forever, you can think you've found a home, but time takes its tolls on delusions. You just have to wait, and hope, and never stop looking. And also eat whatever the hell you want when you are vacationing in Europe :P
Ugh, I got back from Europe this week and I feel like I have so much catching up to do. Books to review, emails to answer, projects to finish, mad programming skillz to acquire, apartment to spruce up... and somehow every night I go to bed with so much undone. More about my travels later, as there is an interesting new paper out.
I've written about the need to sample gut flora from different cultures before they are "acculturated" to an industrial diet, so I was delighted to see Human gut microbiome viewed across age and geography. The researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of 115 rural villagers from Malawi, 100 Guahibo Amerindians from Amazonia in Venezuela, and 316 people from the greater metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Boulder. They found significant differences between the gut bacteria in these three populations.
Now while you may be familiar with the standard American diet, the diets of the other populations are bit more obscure. The researchers thankfully provided their diet survey in a table in a zip file.
Some common foods the Guahibo ate (24 hour recall) were
- Corn arepas/Bollito
- Cassava cake
- Soup (what was in the soup though??)
- Coffee (haha)
- Sugar (lol) and sometimes sugar cane juice and soda
- Milk (I wouldn't be surprised if the government is providing this)
Consumption of meat and fish seems rare. Sadly this diet already seem significantly industrialized.
In Malawi some common foods (recall over a month) include
- Nsima, Corn porridge, and pigeon peas are the staple foods
- Sweet potato, banana, cassava, rice
- Some fruits like oranges, mango, and papaya
- Greens like pumpkin, mustard, and sweet potato leaves
- Vegetables like onions and tomatoes
- Meat from chickens, cows, goats and pigs pretty rarely, though it seemed that some individuals were eating a lot more meat than others, a few were eating it every day
- Small fish and eggs more common
- A few people were using vegetable oil
I wish they had used a consistent method for food surveys and provided more information about the diet. Perhaps there needs to be more collaboration in this field with anthropologists?
Each different community of adults had its own particular microbiome signatures, but the Malawaian and Amerindians were less distinct from each other than the Americans were from the two other populations. Interestingly the researchers said that the differences in functions parallel those between carnivorous and herbivorous mammals. Malawaian and Amerindians microbiomes contained more genes for glutamate production, whereas US gut bacteria seemed more focused on degrading it. US gut bacteria also contained more genes for degrading other amino acids like aspartate, proline, ornithine, and lysine, as well as the use of simple sugars. Richer numbers of genes involved in synthesis of biotin and lipoic acid, processing of xenobiotics, and bile salt metabolism, which the researchers thought was related to the higher fat content in the American diet. Malawaian and Amerindian gut bacteria produced more amalyse, which is important for degrading starch.
Another thing they found, which has also been found in other studies, is that as people in all the cultures aged, their gut bacterial populations changed. In infants, Bifidobacterium dominate, but their presence declines in early childhood. Functionally, infant gut bacteria had more genes involved in making folate, whereas adults had more bacteria with genes for metabolizing dietary folate. Adult gut bacteria also contained more genes for producing B12, vitamin B7, and vitamin B1, as well as processing of arginine, glutamate, aspartate, and lysine. Not surprisingly, infants microbiomes were enriched in enzymes involved in foraging of glycans from breastmilk.
The authors concluded that "Together, these findings suggest that the microbiota should be considered when assessing the nutritional needs of humans at various stages of development." I think this is another good reason to question the idea that human breastmilk provides some sort of model for how humans should eat.
Some genes involving glycan processing were more common in the Amerindian and Malawaian baby microbiomes, which the authors thought might be related to differences in glycan content of breastmilk. While all the samples used were from breastfed babies, I would be curious to know whether or not the babies were being exclusively breastfed. Supplementary formula could be an issue in the US and many other cultures use carbohydrate-rich supplementary foods even in young infants. But the researchers say these glycan processing genes decreases during maturity in Malawaian and Amerindian babies as they transition to diets rich in complex plant-derived polysaccharides, whereas they increase with age in US infants as they become exposed to diets rich in easily-absorbed sugars. However, the dietary survey says the Amerindians were eating a lot of sugar every day, so I'm not sure of that.
The Malawaian and Amerindian infant microbiomes were rich in urease gene representation, which was uncommon in both infant and adult American microbiomes. Urease can be used to produce amino acids and recycle nitrogen, which is important when diets are deficient in protein.
The supplement contains a comparison of breast and formula fed babies show that formula-fed microbiomes were more focused on carbohydrate (fructose, mannose) and amino acid metabolism, with more genes involved in biosynthesis of B12.
For me this paper raises more questions than it answers. How plastic are these populations? What happens when you feed an American adult an Amerindian diet? Would the gut bacteria be able to shift or is it too late?
There aren't any studies on this that I know of yet, but I did read a study recently that was very interesting: Modulation of fecal markers relevant to colon cancer risk: a high- starch Chinese diet did not generate expected beneficial changes relative to a Western-type diet. The study didn't look at gut microbiome genes or populations, but it did examine many of the products of the gut microbiome, such as short-chain fatty acids, as well as other colonic markers associated with lower risk of colon cancer. The study basically wanted to see if they could shift these by shifting the diet. Would Australians eating a high-starch "low-income" Chinese diet have the same favorable products and markers that the Chinese had? Unfortunately, after three weeks all the results besides fecal PH were worse! Too bad the study was only three weeks though and the diets actually seem kind of weird, but then again I've never been to Australia:
I guess processed oil has been used for long enough in China that most Chinese people I know, even older people, consider it a traditional food...
Furthermore, how responsive are the gut bacterial populations to cultural change? It seems like the Amerindians are now consuming a significant amount of processed sugar, yet this doesn't seem to be reflected in the gut microbiome. They don't seem to be getting closer to the features of the American gut microbiome that the researchers theorized might be related to sugar consumption. Will this happen over generations? Or are the gut biomes of cultures as resistant to change as those of individuals? It would be interesting to study the gut microbiomes of migrants vs. the original population the migrants came from. Also, I'd be curious about the outlier individuals from the dietary survey, such as the couple of Malawaian individuals who reported consuming meat every day. Does their gut microbiome reflect this? What would happen if you compared American vegetarians with American omnivores?
Also, this adds another layer of complexity when looking at traditional diets. Can you get all the health benefits of a particular culture's diet if you don't have their microbiome? How many health differences between populations are explained by different microbiome heritage rather than diet?
In the US, liver has been in the news with the California foie gras ban going into effect. However, I hadn't heard until today that Japan is going through it's own liver debate. If you have asked me to NYC restaurant recommendations, I've probably told you about Takashi, a unique West Village spot that serves the cuisine of Korean immigrants who lived in Japan. One of the best dishes on the menu is the raw marinated liver, which is amazingly fresh and doesn't have the mineraly flavor so many object to in this organ meat. It is the best preparation of normal liver that I've ever had.
I read an article today about raw meat eating in Japan that says that unfortunately Japan may ban the dish due to a food poisoning outbreak that killed five people and recent scientific tests that found pathogenic e coli in some samples of liver. But the food poisoning outbreak involved raw meat (yukko, another delicious dish at Takashi, which is roughly like beef tartare) from a department store that was not graded for raw consumption.
Most of the major food poisoning outbreaks in the past five years in the US have involved produce. So far I haven't heard of anyone calling for a ban on lettuce or spinach. It's funny because I know some older Chinese women who have told me that they view the US consumption of salads made with raw vegetables as being very risky. Of course, I am of the opinion that every food you eat is risky and banning food because of risks is foolish and almost always inconsistent with actual logic. Most of the risk is mainly for certain populations like children, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised.
Another funny story I found when I was googling raw liver was that a Korea pop star named IU apparently relished a pile of raw liver on Korean television. The Korean Vegetarian Federation demanded an apology for the incident. Reading the Wikipedia article on raw meat in Korea, the history of vegetarianism itself in Korea is very interesting, with it gaining in popularity along with Buddhism during the Goryeo Dynasty. Luckily in the Joseon Dynasty, the state favored Confucianism and since it was said that Confucius enjoyed raw meat, it became trendy again. The practice of eating raw meat was said to originally have come from China, where is may have become unpopular because of epidemics in the 11th century.
Korea is still a place where you can get a good vegetarian meal though. One of my favorite chefs, David Chang, toured some of these traditional vegetarian restaurants. The tension between vegetarian and non-vegetarian in Korean food is evident to me in many dishes I've eaten over the years. One memorable one was a rice hearty broth with chunks of both blood and tofu. Or Ssam, which is succulent roast pork with a delicious fermented soy and pepper sauce called Ssamjang.
It was actually at a Korean restaurant that I learned to follow Confucius' saying "Do not shun rice that is well clean; do not shun kuai (raw meat or fish) that is thinly sliced." I was with a group of paleo dieters and one made the mistake of sending the rice away. The cook, a Korean grandmother, was very concerned for our health and sent us a platter of sliced tofu.
Tangentially, Taoism has a very strange relationship with grains like rice, some Taoists claiming they feed corpse demons that lead to death and decay. While that might seem like Taoists would get along really well with Loren Cordain, it becomes clear that the ascetics who wanted to avoid corpse demons weren't exactly eating steak, but miserable-sounding herbs and honey, a diet that seems quite similar to that of the Christian Orthodox St. Mary of Egypt, who was said to have lived in the desert as an ascetic eating various plants of the wilderness. However, her goal was penitence, not longevity, which the Taoist ascetics sought. The Taoist practice seems quite similar to modern practices of calorie restriction for longevity.
Most American Christians are very much unaware of the ancient Christian history of meat-restriction. Possibly because it doesn't fit very neatly with modern conceptions of vegetarianism, which stress lifelong abstinence. Ancient Christians fasted from animal products on specific fast days. An devoted Orthodox Christian in Ethiopia or Greece is going to be essentially a vegan for half the year, with some invertebrates and fish allowed on certain fast days. An interesting research article I read about recently discusses how hyenas in Ethiopia are affected by fasting. If you are vegan and traveling in an Orthodox country you can often get an appropriate meal by asking for "Lent" food. Western Christianity split off and became more and more lax about fasting and at this point most Western Protestants know nothing about it. I was looking up tansy (related to Game of Thrones but I don't want to spoil you all) yesterday and I found it amusing that it was once used in dishes during Lent in order to reduce the flatulence people experienced because of legume-heavy diets. Epazote is used similarly in Mexican cooking.
Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, I played outside quite a bit, but while our neighborhood had some nice creeks and forests, it did not have any sidewalks. When you went somewhere, you got there in a car, even if it was less than a mile away. I remember driving to Eastside Baptist Church, which Google Maps says is .07 miles away from my childhood home. Walking was for the mall.
While there are certainly unhealthy and evolutionary inappropriate aspects of cities, at least many of them allow humans to walk. The ability to walk upright was one of the most important milestones in human evolution and it's estimated that the average hunter-gatherer San woman walks an average of 6.56 km a day. It's frightening how most of the United States has been built up in a way that privileges driving over walking. The result is that people in the United States don't walk very much. Slate put out a great series of walking recently, which discusses why Americans don't walk and what we can do about it.
My maternal grandmother, who is in her nineties and is in great health, gets asked often why she is so health for her age. One reasons she gives is that she walks a lot and has for her entire life. Much of that adult life was spent in NYC, but now she lives in central Illinois, where most people don't walk very much. My grandmother has made a great effort to keep up her walking habit, but sadly her town is built so it's not easy to actually walk anywhere useful. This is a growing obstacle for her since she says she no longer feels very comfortable driving at her age. In her town and in many other towns across the US, that makes her a second-class citizen with little access to amenities.
The choice to not drive is a difficult choice to make in the US. I know because I made it, quite unintentionally, when I was 16. I was never very coordinated and when my driving instructor died of a heart attack, I ended up with a string of rather mean and bad driving instructors that culminated in me failing my driving test and just giving up. My college town, Champaign-Urbana, is pretty decent in terms of public transportation and walking infrastructure, so I didn't feel much pressure to drive. There are some areas there that are pedestrian unfriendly, to say the least, and I the climate there is rather extreme. I got used to being scorched and frozen. With all the thermal hacking buzz in the health and fitness blogosphere, I'm thinking that perhaps it was good for me.
Then I moved to Uppsala, Sweden, which is a non-driver's paradise. Not only are there sidewalks everywhere, there are SAFE separate bike paths that wind through gorgeous forests. They are so unlike most of the so-called bike paths in the US, painted on the road, placing you next to trucks that could (and do) crush people at any moment. Even in the cold dark winter, people would bike since the city would put gravel on the paths to prevent ice issues. And not just young hip people, but mothers with babies, grandfathers, children...people biked everywhere. And the average bike on the market is built for that in mind. The average bike I see on Craigslist here in Chicago is a mountain bike that puts you in a rather bad position for anything but racing. Bikes in Sweden were built to carry stuff. And I did carry lots of stuff all the time. Even if I didn't make it to the gym, daily tasks kept me in pretty damn good shape. The best part about Sweden was that it was pretty easy to get around even in low-density rural areas. I could bike to farms or take the bus if they were really far away. Try doing that in Illinois. You basically can't.
But when I made the decision to move back to the US, I knew that there were only a handful of places I could live as a non-driver. I chose to move to NYC, which is probably the walking capital of the United States. I didn't bike in NYC, but just being a pedestrian was pretty extreme exercise, particularly since the housing I could afford was often a bit out of the way. And lots of subway stations have lots of stairs. That's one of the reasons I started wearing minimalist shoes every day, since it's not exactly easy to sprint for the bus or tackle the stairs to make a subway transfer if you are wearing heels. You haven't understood what it's like to be a hunter-gatherer unless you've trekked 2 miles with a giant bag of meat on your back. I realized that even though I wasn't doing much in the way of the gym or sports in NYC, that I was definitely not sedentary in the real sense of the term.
Chicago is a bit less pedestrian friendly, but I still manage here without a car. I'm planning on getting my license soon since it's unseemly and weird to not have one here and I'd like to actually be able to go to my family's farm and to Chicago's edges without always having to mooch a ride. But I can't imagine going back to the way of life that I was accustomed to as a child, the one in which traffic and driving are such a huge part of life. Walking changes you. I feel more creative and adventurous when I walk more. Nassim Taleb actually has an excellent essay on the subject of walking and the evolutionary lifestyle. I think more and more young people feel this way, which has kept rental prices quite high in urban core areas, as young people flock to them out of college and increasingly stay in them even as they "settle" down and have children.
Unfortunately, I wonder how much the infrastructure can keep up in a recession? Increased numbers of riders combined service cuts was one of most annoying things about living in NYC. One of the good things though was that NYC was increasingly making changes to very-pedestrian unfriendly intersections like Grand Army Plaza. Chicago is riddled with intersections that are basically pedestrian death traps. And pedestrians do die in the US at unacceptably high rates. This is going to have to change if we are to encourage people to live healthy active lifestyles that are evolutionarily appropriate for humans as a species.