Eating like our ancestors--or like very sensual rabbits
by Michelle Auerbach Brode
t is January as I am writing this. My gym is splitting at the seams with people who feel they are splitting at the seams after an over-indulgent holiday season. Everyone is on a diet. Diet Centers make a killing this time of year. New Year's resolutions and Christmas cookies come together to send us into a tailspin. After all, over fifty percent of us Americans are overweight.
Now, I do not believe in dieting. I am a hedonist (when I am not being a Puritan). Diets just don't work. The statistics show that the only thing that works to make us healthier, leaner, and more energetic is those "lifestyle changes." Not eating 900 calories a day and being miserable. Anyhow, it is the time of year to address these issues so I went looking for new books on diet and nutrition that might have something useful to say. And of course cookbooks to support them.
I was in that bookstore I swear I will never buy anything from, using it as a library, and I found a book, The Origin Diet by Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D. that looked promising. It turned out to be better than I could have imagined. The premise is that if we eat and live like our Stone Age ancestors we will be lean and healthy like they were.
First off, the anthropology in this book is fascinating. It traces the origins of prehistoric man from small insect eating animals through Australopithecus afarensis to homo sapiens. How they lived, what they ate and the advent of agriculture and how all of that affected health and longevity.
Somer is a bit kitschy. She talks about "designer genes" and the like. This strangely does not detract from the impressive accrual of data and theory. She is a self-proclaimed scientific study junkie and that is just who I want giving me my diet advice.
What she comes up with is a 12-point plan for how to live like a pre-agricultural human. Diet (increasing vegetable consumption and eating cleaner leaner protein sources that simulate free range mastodon etc) and exercise (run like you are chasing a mastodon and also lift weights to simulate carrying it home. Really she just says "cross train" but the book lends itself to these flights of fancy.) And lifestyle management, i.e. stress reduction, being active, getting outside and bonding with your clan.
I won't give it all away. Somer has so many fascinating facts, like that our prehistoric progenitors ate 100 grams of fiber a day and we eat 15 grams while we eat 150 grams of sugar a day and they ate less than 10. She also discusses the current hot topics of nutrition: Free radicals and the importance of anti-oxidants in maintaining health and Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids interaction with brain development. If you take away the whole anthropological overlay Somer provides good solid advice. It is worth reading to keep up your resolution to take care of yourself in this new year.
Once you have committed to eating better and taking good care of yourself, you need a genius kitchen guru to help you along. I have one for you. Myra Kornfeld, author of The Voluptuous Vegan is your woman. Myra is a genius. A true culinary genius. Partially because everything she makes tastes so good. The other part of Myra Kornfeld's genius is her uncanny ability to explain in her directions and sidebars and notes exactly what to do to follow her recipes. She seems to sense where people go wrong following directions and gives you the guidance you need to avoid most mistakes.
Back to how good it all tastes. Don't be scared off by the "V" word. It is daunting and reeks of doctrinaire food philosophy. Actually the book should have been called "Voluptuous Food That Won't Make You Fat." As my hamburger-eating espresso-drinking husband pointed out, "Everyone agrees that red meat, saturated fats, caffeine and alcohol are not good for you." "The Voluptuous Vegan" helps you find delicious ways of eating without them.
I happen to know just how good Myra Kornfeld's food is. When she was a chef at Angelica Kitchen in New York City I worked for her. Everyone, both customers and employees, wanted to eat her specials. When she made chocolate cake, twice a year, we fought over who got to help. Helping meant one, tasting, and two, getting the recipe. Not that it did us any good. So, I have a recipe for 40 chocolate layer cakes. I have yet to cut it down to a recipe to make one cake. This was seven years ago.
The Cream of the Harvest Soup is so good I watched her give away several gallons at a book signing. I probably had one of those gallons myself. I still went home and made it a few times that week. All the desserts are healthier than you'd expect and even Elizabeth Somer and her Paleolithic standards would approve. Some of the recipes take more effort and advanced planning like home made tamales and hot and sour soup with wontons. Many are easy and I guarantee that every single one you make will be delicious. And no, she has no idea I am writing this nor did she pay me to say this nor was there an exchange of chocolate cake or fruit crisp to coax me into this beatification of Ms. Kornfeld. But I thought it best to come clean that I know and worship her.
"The Voluptuous Vegan" includes sections on soups and desserts. The heart of the book is the main course menus with a few dishes each. For example: Succotash, polenta with chili paste and guacamole or Amaranth studded Cornbread, Cranberry Relish with Apples and Pears, Sweet Dumpling Squash with Chestnut Stuffing and Lima Bean Gravy, Sautéed Haricots Verts with Horseradish, and Fennel, Orange and Pomegranate Salad. There is authentic Mexican food from Oaxaca, Jewish food, Asian food, and some healthier versions of American standards.
Dessert a la Myra is heaven. Chocolate pudding tart, Date-pecan coffee cake which I lived on when I was pregnant with my first child, Apple Walnut Crisp, and of course Chocolate Mousse Cake which is THE cake.
These two books fit together like white on rice, something you won't find much of in either book. Both books do have a sense of humor. That is the underlying similarity between these books beyond the diet they support. You can feel both authors egging you on to be good to yourself without becoming an automaton. They have beliefs without ever once cramming it down your throat. So go out and spend the money you would have put into ice cream this month on these books and sit by the fire in your fire pit with your Neanderthal buddies eating your root vegetable soup and gloat. You are on your way to being leaner, stronger, longer-living, and a culinary genius too.
Michelle Auerbach Brode was a professional chef. Now she is much happier cooking at home for her family and talking about food incessantly. If you need to talk to her about food or anything else she can be reached at Michelle.Brode@pobox.com.