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The Skinny on Fat: an opinion

June 12, 2011

The Skinny on Fat: an opinion
I used to work for this guy who had a habit of saying, “Pork Fat Rules.” Coming from up north, when he “discovered” the glories of pan drippings at some point in his culinary career, it probably came as a revelation. In the South we consider a coffee can of bacon drippings kept at the back of the stove our birthright; we are nurtured by it from the cradle to the grave. I’m not a nutritionist, but I consider myself something more along the lines of a “foodist;” that’s what I want to eat, that’s what I advocate on behalf of. It is only since we’ve coined the term “nutritionist” that our collective health has seemed to go downhill. We’re focusing on the parts that make up food and losing sight of the fact that, as Aristotle said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Back when we just ate “food”, we were healthier. Now as we try to outsmart our bodies, we aim to consume nutrients in lieu of foods so that we can have our cake and eat it too. If the label says Nutrasweet and Smart Water, it must be good for us.
Which brings me to the greatest disconnect of my current professional life. People are afraid of fat, whether it be locally-rendered lard, pan-drippings or butter. They don’t see the harm of vegetable shortening or margarine because that is what they grew up eating. We collectively forget that those are man-made substances popularized in the last fifty years. Prior to that, butter and lard (and other animal fats like suet) were the standard for cakes and pies and cooking mediums. Butter and lard taste so indulgent, they must be harmful. Is that our inner Puritan speaking? If something is “good” tasting, must it be “bad” for you health wise? Must we deny ourselves pleasure to be “healthy” and therefore “happy”? Where’s the logic in that?
Then there’s the elephant in the room; according to Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad calories, “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.” In his recent New York Times Magazine feature, he re-asserted that fructose (refined sugars, in general) is the true cause of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and other Western-lifestyle diseases, because it is broken down primarily by the liver instead of by all of a person’s cells, like other sugars are. A sudden liquid influx of fructose (in the form of a sweetened drink, for example) cannot be adequately metabolized by the liver and the excess calories are converted to fat to be stored in the body. What we have here is a semantic problem: folks confusing body fat and fat accumulation with dietary fat, and the resulting cognitive dissonance between avoiding the intake of fat and witnessing an expanding waistline. Don’t even get me started on what ingredient is used by food scientists to replace the fat in “low fat” and “non-fat” convenience foods: sugar. Do you suspect that we may have a problem here?
A good friend of mine, when he caught a whiff of the validation I found in reading about Gary Taubes, said, “He’s totally changed my life and diet — and if he’s wrong, shortened the former.” It’s all theory until it’s proven, and that may be problematic, since we have yet to “prove” that smoking tobacco even causes cancer. Aren’t you interested in various viewpoints, so that you can determine what you believe? Instead of being told what to think? The difficult part in all of this is reversing fifty years of programming by government agents, scientists, and dieticians about what causes obesity; apparently what we’re doing now to combat these Western lifestyle diseases is not working. Perhaps because we’re going about solving this problem the wrong way: Taubes notes, “The hypothesis favored by Bray [ Dr. George Bray of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana] and a half century of authorities on human obesity is that fat accumulation is fundamentally caused by positive energy balance.”   Taubes responds, “The alternative hypothesis begins with the fundamental observation that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation and then asks the obvious question, what regulates fat accumulation.”

What we need to learn is moderation.  It’s what we eat that is killing us, how much and in what proportions.  If we recreate the diet of two hundred years ago in the Piedmont of North Carolina we’d see that at every meal, meat was a flavoring, not the center of the plate.  The bulk of our calories came from vegetables, fresh when the weather was warm and canned when it wasn’t.  All of this was accompanied by lots of physical toil.  The diet was moderated by the seasons, by circumstance and by the size of the families.  They cooked with butter and lard, trans-fats weren’t even invented yet, and refined sugars in the form of sodas and additives to convenience foods were non-existent (sugar itself was an expensive luxury item).   We need to take clues from the way people have been eating for thousands of years. The safest bet is eating foods that are closest to their original form.  Eat apples instead of drinking apple juice. Use fat that you’ve rendered (like bacon or chicken) instead of something produced by a scientific process like vegetable shortening.

Working in professional kitchens, most folks share an attitude toward food as something to be celebrated, a way to connect with other people and other times.  We cook in lard and finish with butter and salt, because it makes the food taste better; we want you to be happy as a diner because we love you and want you to return.  And most people that work in kitchens go by names that are not necessarily what their mothers gave them.  I used to work with this guy who was born and bred in the South; he was 5’ 6” and 250 pounds.  Know what we called him? “Skinny”

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I just delivered an essay that edible Pi

August 5, 2010

I just delivered an essay that edible Piedmont will consider for publication entitled “What is “sustainable”? Really?” Watch for it!

Why does Southern Food matter?

July 16, 2010

Why does Southern Food matter?
Southern food matters because it is who we are. It represents our past (all of the various ethnic food traditions that exist here) and it represents our future (the way these different traditions meld into an accepted cuisine). All traditions (as cuisines are) began somewhere. Upper Midwest cuisine owes much to Scandinavian immigrants and Southwestern cuisine is indebted to the aboriginal tribes of the area as well as the Spanish who subsequently settled there. In the south, the traditions did not progress as linearly, they are more accurately likened to a stew, gumbo or purloo; a melting pot, if you will, where the result is greater than the sum of the ingredients. Piedmont cuisine in particular, and Southern Foodways in general, are the products of generations of people from disparate backgrounds taking advantage of Mother Earth’s bounty and coming to terms with her capricious nature. The African, Native American, Scots-Irish, German, English Quakers and subsequent peoples who’ve settled in the Piedmont have all transposed something from their culinary traditions onto the ingredients that are indigenous to the climate here and onto those ingredients that were imported and prospered here. Piedmont cuisine is greater than the sum of its influences as evidenced by the dishes that owe their heritage to particular ethnic traditions, such as liver pudding from German immigrants, succotash from Native Americans, and okra from Africans, that are now universally claimed by all of the folks who inhabit the Piedmont as their own. The dishes have outlasted the ethnic divisions. As written by John T Edge in a recent NYT article about saving the po-boys of New Orleans, “Dr. Mizell-Nelson believes in the power of public history. He believes that if people know their history, they’re likely to be better stewards of their present.”
“You are what you eat;”cribbed from Brillat-Savarin is the truth that lies at the center of each person’s identity. We’ve all heard that quote utilized to promote whatever point someone was attempting to prove to us; “I yam what I yam!”(to borrow from Popeye) is more of the Southern corollary. To build on the idea that RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions is an organization within Slow Food USA) is promoting, “To save a food that you love, you must eat it,” we can extend this idea to encompass the attitude that in order to preserve our identities and those of our forefathers we must continue to grow, cook and embrace the foods that they held dear. Those comestibles that our ancestors felt distinguished them from others, through necessity or choice, like biscuits, cornbread, pinto beans (with chowchow or onions), cushaw, liver pudding, and collard greens, have begun to disappear from our dinner tables and with them, some of our identity. In this increasingly global village that we find ourselves inhabiting, where sushi can be had in Mocksville, and horchata in Asheboro, who are we, what is our identity, how do we differentiate ourselves from the billions who are not Southerners. As such, we are not content to be a number, part of the faceless masses, we believe in identity, individuality; we believe that our unique pasts make us singularly qualified to make a difference in the world of the future. What is our anchor, what keeps us rooted in the South, what preserves our identity? Is it the humidity? I’d rather not believe that; I believe our common heritage, what defines our Southern-ness, is our love of good, down-home, finger-lickin’, roll-up-your-shirtsleeves, lip-smacking, soul-filling food; always with a nod to their origins. We love to eat; whenever we gather around food, the topic of our conversations is inevitably meals past and meals yet to come.
I am a Cajun living in North Carolina, what do I know about Piedmont traditions? I used to be intimidated by North Carolinians, not because of who they are or what they represent, but because I am not…

Hello world!

July 14, 2010

I don’t know where I’ll find the time to do this.  I guess that it is just a diary.