Mama is right! Always has been. We never should have doubted her (ourselves).
You can apply that statement to just about anything, but I’m specifically referring to food. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, flipped everything I thought I knew about food upside down. Like most women in their 30s, I read a fair amount of women’s magazines and always perk my ears to new scientific findings about food. I considered myself to be well-informed and even offered nutritional advice as a personal trainer at one point in my life. Little did I know that the whole idea of garnering scientific information about food to shape eating patterns was just another -ism. You know, like communism, Catholicism, optimism. American’s current relationship with food is called nutritionism: the belief that science can, should and does dictate what we eat.
This idea instantly rang a bell of truth inside of me, while simultaneously making me feel the fool. Educating myself about food, trying so hard to eat the right amount of the right food was just a farce. I, like many others, have been duped by the food manufacturers and our complicit government agencies into believing that they knew what was best for the past 30 years or so (pretty much, my life span). Not coincidentally, this is the time during which heart disease, obesity and diabetes have sky-rocketed. Shouldn’t that failure alone be enough to warrent a rejection of nutritionism? Pollan goes into great detail about history of this movement and how good intentions went dangerously array. He also outlines the severe obstacles and miniscule knowledge base that the “science” of nutrition has yet to overcome. Another must read, so please do so. But even without all the facts, it’s easy to remember how often nutritional advice has been blatantly contradictory. Remember when fat was reviled? Later, carbs became the evil nutrient. Now we hear that sugar is toxic. Toxic!?! What foods will play the next role of hero and villain? I am sure we’ll hear all about it on the morning news shows as they have at least three hours of airtime to fill everyday.
So if we can’t rely upon the latest nutrition findings about food, how do we know what to eat?
How did we ever know what to eat?
Before the modern food era– and before the rise of nutritionism– people relied upon guidance about what to eat from their national, ethnic or regional cultures…. Of course when it comes to food, culture is another word for mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways of the group– food ways that endured, by the way, only because they tended to keep people healthy. (Pollan, In Defense of Food)
Again, I ask, what do we eat now?
Now that we, the mothers, have been raised and educated by a faulty science, where do we turn to for advice, truth, the what of what to eat?
My answer is: backwards, inwards and all around. We look backwards to our grandmothers and great-grandmothers (sorry, our own moms were also duped by nutritionism). This was part of the idea behind my Making Groceries Column. We have lost contact with the recipes and skills to make our own food. Reclaiming that knowledge is not a trivial exercise, but a critical archive of our culture. Dust off old recipe cards and cookbooks. Take the time to think about how women have fed their families for millenia without the aid of a scientific expert or a food manufacturer.
Look inwards to trust your instincts. We are bombarded with nutritional advice from our current culture, whether we like it or not. When you hear something, do a gut check. Does it sound right? Does it sound reasonable? Does it coalesce with what we know about traditional food cultures? Remember until the age of nutritionism, food was never thought of as mere nutrients for physical well-being. It was nourishment for body, soul and society. Food should bring family and friends together. It should be a source of pleasure. It should never be reduced to either a fuel, a numbing drug or a tool for gluttony.
Look around to other traditional food cultures. We don’t have to go back to churning butter like Little House on the Prairie. We live in a global civilization. Look, my ancestry is Irish. I’m a pesco-vegetarian. There isn’t all that much in my ancestral cuisine for me. But I can look to Italy and Greece for fantastic Mediterranean dishes. I can go south to Peru or Costa Rica for amazing Latin flavor. I can turn to India for wild, spicy dishes or Japan for clean pure tastes. Give your tastebuds an open passport, but be sure to look backwards in those cultures. Experiment with them holistically. Many nutritional studies looked at different cultures and tried to isolate the magic ingredient to health. It doesn’t work that way. The French consume large quantities of fat and wine, but they control their portions and never snack. When you eat globally, keep an eye towards the grandmothers of that culture.
It’s not easy. I certainly don’t exclude any fathers from taking a leading role in their family’s diet, but usually the responsibility for filling plates lands squarely on mom’s plate. So, after all the thinking, planning, educating, shopping and cooking, don’t flinch for a second when your kid whines about having to eat his vegetables. Smile and say, with the pride of history on your side, to eat all of them
because I said so.