Farm Photos

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Traditional Foods

In recent years, a fad has hit American dieters. It’s the caveman diet or the ancestral diet, the Origins diet, Paleo diet or whatever you call it. It is based on the theory that what our ancestors ate has shaped our physiology and therefore will be the best diet for us. Through genetics and Darwinian evolution we have developed evolutionary feedback loops that exist between us and the plants which provide our food. According to Gary Paul Nabhan, an award winning author at the forefront of ethnobiology and nutritional ecology, 

“Statistically speaking, most of us are mutts rather than blue bloods, so that it is getting ever harder to select one ethnic diet that may speak most directly to our genes, the diet to which our metabolism is hardwired. This dilemma is especially evident for the 7 million Americans who identify themselves with more than one “races” – whatever a race is considered to be today.
                Accordingly, it may be more comforting for most of us to eat our way farther back in time, loading our plates with the very same foods that our great-great-great-great ect. Grandmother Lucy once served in her camp near the Olduvai Gorge thousands of generations ago. Hundreds of thousands of dieters have chosen to do just this, pledging to spend their budgets on calories, cures, luncheons, and literature that pursue a Paleolithic prescription, one that ignores ethnicity in exchange for a sense of antiquity.” – Why Some Like it Hot, page 39.

Nabhan goes on in his book to demonstrate how our relationships with our ethnic foods really have shaped us. The DNA of Lucy and of Java Man within each of us has itself been shaped by generations after. Some ethnicities have long backgrounds of agriculture, farming, animal milking, and vegetable breeding. Other ethnic backgrounds include mostly foraging, wild cultivation and hunting. These different pasts shape drastically different genetic relationships with our food. Nabhan also focuses on how central food is to cultural identity. When a culture is removed from the place where its food comes from, the people of that culture suffer both psychologically and physically. In contrast, when a people maintains its food culture, it also maintains traditional knowledge of growing, gathering and cooking it, and a healthy lifestyle seems to emerge. He uses the island of Crete as an example,

“Residents have not simply kept many traditional foods in their gardens and on their plates. They have somehow retained the traditional knowledge of how to seasonally seek out and prepare the wonderful range of wild and managed foods placed before us on the tables of the tabernas and ouzeris of Spili...As nearly everything we ate in Spili that week: delicious and dowsed with olive oil…by the third day, my gut microbes asked for disaster relief because my GI tract had been hit by an oil spill—I was suffering from stomach cramps simply because my fat consumption had tripled in a matter of days…After their faith in Jesus, Mary and the menagerie of Orthodox saints, Cretans believed in olive oil.” – Why Some Like it Hot Page 101.

Nabhan himself is Lebanese and not so accustomed to the high-fat consumption of a Greek diet. When the average elderly Greeks’ consumption of 50 grams (or more) of virgin olive oil per day was proven to improve their HDL/LDL and lower triglyceride levels, olive oil became the new fad. However, when the same olive oil drenched meals were served to northern Europeans during studies, the results were not the same. It seemed that for Cretans, blood lipid levels after meals showed rapid returns to fasting concentrations of triglycerides and apolipoprotein B, thereby reducing their risk of heart disease. Though no scientist was willing to say yet that ethnicity shapes how we react to food, it turned out that carriers of different lipoprotein alleles have markedly different responses to high-fat diets. Meaning that there is a direct connection between our genes and how our bodies process certain compounds within foods.

Overall I think the Paleo diet has helped people because it gets them off of a diet based on processed foods. If you're eating only whole foods and whole grains, without any additives or treatments (because that's how Java Man would have had it), then you are eating healthier than most other Americans. The subtle message is: paying attention to your cultural background and incorporating traditional foods into your diet may improve health.

But, it wasn’t just the physical effects of the diet that were interesting. He is giving an example of a group of humans who have developed an interactive relationship with their place and to the food of that place; in the world of plants we might say they’re ‘well adapted.’ 

“In the Squaxin Indian Tribe of the Medicine Creek Nation it was common for our people to live beyond 100 years old. Tribal elders attribute this longevity to knowledge about traditional foods and medicines that was passed down from generation to generation. Their powerful traditional science included techniques for gathering, knowing when plant was most potent for harvest, how food was processed for everyday use and how plants were used for ceremonial purposes. This knowledge was highly regarded as a sacred gift that contributed to living a long and fulfilling life.” – Our Food, Our Right, Page 40.

As we think about land, place, culture and belonging it’s useful to back up this intuition with some physical manifestation of it. Through investigators like Nabhan and the knowledge of indigenous people, we are uncovering a complex interconnection between ourselves and the Earth. This point of view abolishes some colonial assumptions:

a.       That people living ancient traditional lifestyles didn’t live as long as we do today.
b.      That a lack of infrastructure in agricultural traditions means a lack of knowledge about nature, plants, growing and propagation.
c.       That there is a fix-all perfect diet for every human.
d.      That a people can thrive just as well on any land as they can on the land from which they came.

The longhouse at the Evergreen State College with our Native Species Garden in front.
What does this mean for me, an unknown old-world mutt, as I begin to farm a piece of Pacific Northwest Land? I’m not entirely sure yet but it makes me very aware of what I plant here, what I eat here and what is already here on the land. Interesting that what may be the best diet for me, may not be what is native to this region…so this is a strange dance. But, after visiting the Squaxin Tribal Museum and learning about traditional foods, and visiting the ancient dig sites of salmon traps and butter clam fires at Ralph Munros farm, , I feel reassured that I can respect the land and build myself a garden. However, it does become very evident that we need to think of new ways to approach Pacific Northwest sustainability on a mass level and that the keys to doing this lie in the indigenous traditions, people and culture.

The spirit of Grandfather Cedar reminds me each time I catch the aroma. I was born in Washington state and my heart, if not my genes, tell stories of these rivers and these forests. If I respect all of the spirits of this place, they might teach me how to live here.

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