Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nourishing Traditions

Hi Marjorie!

I laughed ruefully at your reports of the holiday feeding...and I definitely agree with you that the older generations are way more relaxed. My only moments of being on the receiving end of harsh disapproval about my kid's diet have been at the hands of "well-read" mothers my age and medical professionals. On the topic of reading, I thought I'd post a review of a recent book that shares some common ground with the themes of this blog.

I know that both of us are readers of the culinary magazine Saveur, probably the best mainstream media source of food anthropology. Every January the magazine publishes a "Top 100" list of all things food-related: selections range from ingredients, to techniques, to geographical regions. I was surprised to see the inclusion of a book that recently came on to my radar screen: Nourishing Traditions by S. Fallon and M. G. Enig. I had recently checked it out of the library in the interest of research for this blog, after having noticed it cited as a source several gardening manuals and cookbooks.

The essential argument of the book is that we need to reject the modern wisdom of "nutritious food" and go back to eating the traditional foods that nourished our ancestors. The authors describe many worthwhile kitchen techniques (i.e. making yogurt, stock and salad dressing) and make some compelling arguments against highly-processed foods. One of their more interesting literary flourishes is to include sidebars featuring a laundry-list of ingredients and asking you to identify the various store-bought products that they represent (i.e. granola bars, whole-grain crackers). I was quite interested that they champion animal fats over processed vegetable oils, arguing that animal fat is a traditional "whole food". My eyebrows began to rise when the authors promoted meat eating to the point of hostility: at one point the text insinuates that children of vegetarian mothers have lower IQs!

Let me warn you that the writing can be gimmicky and intentionally provocative -- just look at the subtitle: "The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and Diet Dictocrats". For all of their many claims to be rejecting mainstream wisdom, the authors also endorse several heavily marketed health food store products (i.e. Noni juice, blue green algae) that have little science to recommend them. Overall, I struggled with the credibility of the text: the citations are old, often circular (i.e. citing an article previously written by the authors themselves) and usually not from a peer-reviewed source. Some of the health claims (both original and cited) verge on the offensive: the authors argue that "the deadly AIDS virus" emerged because we abandoned lacto-fermented foods, and they cite another author who reports that the doubling of the teenage suicide rate is largely due to soda pop and spaghetti.

The section on the feeding of babies shocked me. After emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding, they include two recipes for homemade formula in case it becomes necessary. One of the recipes is meat-based and the other one features raw milk! Now, am I a "Diet Dictocrat" for being concerned about feeding a newborn raw cow milk? I am uncomfortable that they advocate feeding a product potentially loaded with pathogens to a vulnerable and weak immune system. Of course, these concerns are dismissed as the work of "public health propagandists" and the reader is confidently reassured that "your nose will tell you if raw milk is contaminated".

Finally, I couldn't help but roll my eyes when I read yet another sentence admiring the healthy "native" practices of "African tribes" or extolling wise "Oriental" cultures. These continents of wise natives seem to exists only in the netherworld of self-help books -- I'm sure you noticed that pregnancy and childbirth manuals are littered with similar references. Where is the reality of famine, of crop failure, of poverty and epidemics? I shudder at the image of myriad American mothers earnestly "going native", blithely ignorant of the horrifying industrial food practices blossoming all over the globe, usually at the expense of a majority of the population. Lest you think this cultural reductionism is aimed only at our darker-skinned brethren, there is also a passage admiring the"stalwart physical development and high moral character" of "sturdy Alpine mountaineers" who have "developed on Nature's primitive foods". Is there a way to be interested in traditional cultural practice while avoiding this dangerous naivete?

As we have learned from our attempts at research, there is scant first-hand knowledge in the published literature regarding baby feeding practices. Most of what I have found is similar to the dreck published in Nourishing Traditions: second-hand reports of the aforementioned "African native" or the "sturdy Alpine" ancestor. Do you and I believe in this mythical healthy ancestor? We must, if we believe in going local and emphasizing unprocessed foods. Or maybe it is less about health and more about frugality and the ecosystem and general daily simplicity. Again, I ask you, can we be interested in this without pigeonholing "native" cultures into this static box of traditions? I hope so! Part of this is just recognizing that traditions can morph and that traditional practices occur in the context of modern realities. There must be a way to preserve varied regional practices and avoid converging on a monolithic new "tradition" of Gerber!


P.S. You asked about my son's favorite foods. At two and a half years old, he loves pasta with pesto or tomato sauce, rice and beans, homemade pizza, vegetable potstickers, and anything involving fruit. He won't go near a potato or shellfish, and only agrees to meat every now and then. And, lest you think that he has no vices, even this young he has a serious love of chocolate and ice cream.

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