Eating Like Your Great-Grandmother

The big news this week on the food-and-healthy-eating front was the release of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine proving something that's been long suspected: that a Mediterranean style of eating, rich in vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts, legumes, fish, and red wine can reduce heart attack and stroke in people at risk for those diseases. Throw in some whole grains, stinky cheese, and yogurt, and remove most red meat and sugar, and you've got a recipe for health. Not weight loss, but health -- and that's what's important, right? What fun! All the good things that I know I should be eating -- and, frankly, love eating -- are now to be consumed guilt free! And with relish! With gusto and with pleasure!

As I was reading about this happy news, and trying to figure out if there was a catch I should be aware of (all food must be eaten before 11 am, nothing but water after that? portions are measured with teaspoons? must be accompanied by an additional 3 hrs per day of intense cardio workout?) -- there are none, unless you consider having to cook a catch -- I came across Mark Bittman's succinct summary of the premise of the approach: "You could say that the Mediterranean diet prohibits nothing that was recognized as food by your great-grandmother." This made me laugh. I'm fairly certain, in fact, that many of the things advocated by the Mediterranean diet wouldn't have been recognized as food by my great-grandmother, olives and olive oil above all, and a lot of things my great-grandmother ate would be met with horrified looks by the people of the Mediterranean. While Bittman implies that this is the food of our forebears, for me it's ethnic food all the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are European.

But, to be fair, Bittman was probably saying something else -- something that Michael Pollan has made a strong case for, too -- which is that the foods we were all eating three or four generations ago, wherever we come from, were so much healthier for us than the ones we consume now, especially in the US where so many of us, as immigrants, are severed from our families' traditional cooking. This is, to me, an utterly convincing argument: our ancestral forms of eating -- largely seasonal foods cooked with care and eaten among loved ones -- are often more satisfying on a number of different levels (familial, pleasurable, nutritional). How couldn't that be better for us? Yes, well, it's also important not to romanticize the past as some golden age of healthy eating: the range of foods we ate may have been healthier but our diets weren't necessarily better three or four generations ago. Relative poverty and famine meant that for many of our ancestors some level of undernutrition or even malnutrition was common. Not to mention the fact that my great-grandmother probably spent much of her lifetime squatting by a hot stove to get all that "slow food" on the table. I mean, there were reasons that frozen dinners started looking pretty attractive to women of our mothers' generation.

Bittman's article got me thinking about what, exactly, my maternal great-grandmother would have eaten. In a way, it probably wasn't that much different from what great-grandmothers in the Mediterranean were eating, save the olives: fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, legumes, yogurt, eggs. No wine, though, and ghee instead of olive oil -- this last is a heresy, of course -- and only a very small amount of chicken and mutton if any at all (I don't actually know if she was vegetarian) and no beef, ever. Milk condensed down to syrupy sweetness to be (very occasionally) transformed into teeth-numbing desserts. I watch what my aunt Raju cooks in her house -- she and my uncle eat in a way that I perceive to be very "old school," in the best sense -- and what do I see?: animal protein very, very rarely; dahi (दही homemade yogurt) at every meal; main meal at lunch with a hearty breakfast and small dinner; whole-wheat chapatis with most meals, along with rice; almost no sweets but endless cups of tea. Fruit always on the table. Fresh limes squeezed into a glass, seasoned with salt and topped up with water, as a refreshing and soothing digestive. It is clean eating. I always feel like I've been through some sort of detox after a few days with them, despite the fact that they deep-fry their tikkis (potato fritters) and use a decent amount of oil for their bhindi (okra) and generally make food that tastes very, very good.

Of course, for most people who jump on this latest nutritional bandwagon, the difference between the foods we should be eating and the ones that the food industry tries to foist on us will never become entirely clear. I came across the Good Housekeeping menu plan for Mediterranean dieters today, and among the foods they recommended on their plan are "light" maple syrup for breakfast (aspartame and chemicals), bottled fat-free Italian dressing for lunch (junk oil and chemicals), frozen convenience foods for dinner (fillers and junk oil and chemicals), and powdered strawberry drink mix mixed with milk, aka Quik, for a nightcap (just plain old chemicals); in a breathtaking display of literalism, eating out should be confined to Greek restaurants, we're told. Wine may be consumed in 2 oz quantities "if you drink it at all," the caveat casting a familiar, American, puritan disapproval at the suggestion.

I can't tell you how sad it made me to read this. All pleasure taken out of what should be a pleasurable -- even sensual -- way of eating. But what's worse: the fiction that one can eat healthily and eat pre-packaged, processed foods at the same time. The idea that this can be done in half measures, with a few Lean Cuisines thrown in. It doesn't surprise me that a magazine like Good Housekeeping would be promoting this garbage; they are addicted to the ad revenue that comes from the food industry, and so they work hard to hook us on junk. What could be worse for them, and for the companies that support them, if people started shopping in the outer ring of the grocery store, or -- even worse! -- at farm markets and CSA's?

Well, I can certainly break my habit, since I really was only ever a recreational user of food crack. (And it really is addictive! There's a whole science behind making it so.) The hardest part -- for real! -- will be drinking the glass of wine each night, not because I dislike wine but because it feels so strange to open a bottle just for myself. I did tonight, a lovely, easy Côtes du Rhone, and poured myself a healthy glassful. I dished out some pistachios, and settled in with my daughter to watch a movie. She looked at me sideways. "Wait. Are you drinking WINE?!" She was shocked, as if she'd never seen it before. "What? Don't bug me," I responded, feeling sort of sheepish, as if I had been caught playing grownup by my parents. I was so self-conscious I probably downed it a bit too quickly, but I felt warm and relaxed afterwards. Like I had done something good for myself.

Of course, no way in hell my great-grandmother would have been able to drink red wine. Or any alcohol. But no need to be purist about it, right?

In that spirit, two recipes that combine the best of the Mediterranean with the best of Indian flavors.

Roast Winter Squash with Chili
Serves 4

1. Preheat overn to 400 degrees. Peel and cut 1 small winter squash into 1" cubes. I used a buttercup squash, but kabocha  or butternut would be terrific, too. Something sweet and dense. Peel and cut into half about 5 or six shallots, and peel and slice thinly 4-5 garlic cloves. Cut in half and remove the seeds from 2 red fresh red chilis, and cut crosswise into thin strips. (If you can't get your hands on fresh red chilis, you could substitute around 1 TB Sriracha chili sauce or to taste).

2. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl; add 2 tsp herbes de provence (substitute a combination of thyme and rosemary if you'd like), season with a large pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper, and drizzle over about 3 TB good olive oil.

3. Place vegetables on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through. The squash is done when it's tender and slightly browned on the edges. Remove and serve hot or warm.

Chickpea and Potato Chaat-style Salad
Serves 4 generously

1. Pour boiling water over 1 c dried chickpeas that you've placed in a medium bowl. Let sit for 1-2 hrs. Cook in a pressure cooker for around 17-20 minutes (use the shorter time if you've left the beans to soak longer). Cool down the pressure cooker under cold running water and release the pressure. Drain the cooked chick peas and place in a medium bowl. (If you don't have a pressure cooker, just boil in a pot with plenty of water until tender; this will probably take around 45 minutes depending on the freshness of the chickpeas.)

2. Boil two medium, waxy potatoes (white, red, Yukon gold -- not Idaho or baking potatoes) till tender.  Drain. When cool enough to handle, peel off the skin and dice into 1/2" cubes. Put into the bowl with the chick peas.

3. Peel and dice finely one red onion. Cut in half and remove the seeds from one red chili and slice crosswise into thin strips. Add to the salad bowl.

4. Add to the bowl 1.5 tsp garam masala, the juice of 1 lemon, a good pinch of salt, and 3 TB olive oil. Toss gently and taste for seasoning; you may well need to add salt. If the salad seems dry, add 1 TB additional olive oil. (The amount of oil and salt will depend very much on how much the potatoes absorb when they're dressed.) Serve, garnished with chopped cilantro if you'd like.


marinagp said…
Wonderful combination of ingredients. Squash with chili, great contrast and potato and chickpea salad is just perfect, again complimentary flavors.

I agree with you:
'It doesn't surprise me that a magazine like Good Housekeeping would be promoting this garbage; they are addicted to the ad revenue that comes from the food industry, and so they work hard to hook us on junk. What could be worse for them, and for the companies that support them, if people started shopping in the outer ring of the grocery store, or -- even worse! -- at farm markets and CSA's?'
I love your writing... even talking about food and cooking you frame it in a larger context, always informative and interesting...
Kat said…
I got over the 'save the wine for a special occasion' mindset...especially when I realised that I'm always planning cocktail parties and never having them. I even bought and opened a bottle of pinot grigio tonight, which is why I'm feeling I'd better stop while I'm ahead.
EndlessRiver said…
>Some of my best friends are European

I lolled! The Good Housekeeping encyclopedia has been my turn-to reference guide for cooking for years now so it saddens me to hear that they seem to have moved so far away from their at home, do it yourself, real food beginnings.

I am not sure exactly how healthy the British diet was in my great-grandmother's time (I remember my grandmother favouring red meat, lard, processed beef and short crust pastry with jam filling) but think that Britain has actually benefitted greatly from incorporating other cultural cuisines in its diet. That said, she probably grew lots of her own veg and got eggs from a neighbouring farm. That is something I can strongly get behind.

Lovely post as ever, Aruna-la.
Marina -- thank you for the kind words.

Kat -- enjoy the wine!

EndlessRiver -- Yes, I think probably Northern European diets are not ideal, even in the olden days. ;-)
judith said…
My British grandmother lived until a healthy 89 or so, on Devonshire cream she got from the farm down the road, rue grue, sweetpeas from her own garden, and so on.... Not quite Med diet. But I'm replicating this chickpea recipe tonight, which was delicious! I don't have the chilis, but may drop in some cilantro; I do have a black bean salad I made a while ago that has been macerating in the fridge...
The cilantro will be good. If you have red chili powder around a pinch of that will be good, too.

What are the black beans macerating in?
Anonymous said…
Love this blog!
Paul S.V.II said…
Saving the salad recipe! <3