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I am forced to eat homemade food

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1151265230/gallery_29805_1195_15624.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">from Real Food: What to Eat and Why

by Nina Planck

Special to the Daily Gullet; part one of two

My mother was a natural if amateur scientist with an interest in biology, nutrition, and babies. She read about the pioneering experiments of Clara Davis in the 1920s and 1930s. Davis set out healthy, whole foods for infants and let them eat anything they wanted for months at a time. The smorgasbord included beef, bone marrow, sweetbreads, fish, pineapple, bananas, spinach, peas, milk and yogurt, corn meal, Toatmeal, rye crackers, and sea salt. At any given meal, the choices babies made could be extreme: one baby ate mostly bone marrow; others loved bananas or milk. One occasionally grabbed handfuls of salt. Over time, however, the babies chose a balanced diet, rich in all the essential nutrients, surpassing the nutritional requirements of the day, and they were in excellent health. The nine-month old boy with rickets drank cod liver oil (rich in vitamin D) until his rickets was cured; then he ignored it.

The Clara Davis experiments were limited, and to my knowledge, never repeated. Proven or not, the idea made a deep impression on my mother. She believed that anyone, even an uninformed baby or child -- perhaps especially a baby or child -- could feed himself properly on instinct alone if you gave him only healthy foods, and that was how we ate -- at home anyway. There was some leeway for junk food on car trips (Oreos were a treat) and on the rare occasions when we ate out, we could order anything we wanted. At home, however, there was only real food, and my parents never told us what to eat, or how much or when.

My mother’s other nutritional hero was Adelle Davis, the best-selling writer who recommended whole foods and lots of protein. Before dinner, Mom put out carrot, apple, or turnip sticks so we would eat raw fruits and vegetables when we were hungry. Main dishes were basic American fare: fried chicken, tuna salad, spaghetti, quiche, potato pancakes with homemade applesauce, meatloaf. There were many frugal dishes, such as chicken hearts with onions, and we ate a lot of rice and beans. At dinner we always had several vegetable and a large green salad.

Most of our food was local and seasonal. I fondly remember the exceptions, such as the boxes of oranges and grapefruit we bought each winter. We drank fresh raw milk from our Jersey, ate bright-orange eggs from our free-ranging chickens, and a couple of times we slaughtered spent laying hens for soup. Our honey came from a local beekeeper. Occasionally, there was venison or blue fish when we let local people hunt or fish on the property. In those days, few farmers nearby were raising meat and poultry for local markets, so we had to buy those foods at the store, but today our beef, bison, lamb, and chicken come from farmers we know.

Above all, we grew truckloads of vegetables. The simple act of picking vegetables for dinner -- a pleasure known to all kitchen gardeners, one that feels maternal and generous to me -- is positively extravagant on a real farm, where there are acres of fresh things to choose from. In June I might set out from the kitchen with a basket and a rough plan of attack -- to find lettuce, zucchini, and young fennel -- and come back with a wheelbarrow-full, seduced along the way by the old spinach patch (abandoned in the hot weather) or by a head of green garlic, still too young to sell but irresistible. If I’m feeling lazy, there’s no need to go to the fields at all. In the cool, dark basement, beans, eggplant, and peppers sit in baskets, ready for market.

Our berries, lettuce, herbs, and vegetables made a feast of every meal from April to November. In the old, strict days when every penny counted, the first picking, however tiny -- a dozen spears of asparagus or two pints raspberries -- went to market, not to the kitchen. But once each crop was in full swing we ate as much as we wanted. We grew only the best-tasting varieties, such as Earliglow strawberries and Ambrosia melons. What we didn’t grow, we bought or bartered for at farmers’ markets. In the winter, we ate canned tomatoes and frozen red bell peppers. We all ate huge amounts of vegetables -- four ears each of buttered corn, giant plates of sliced tomatoes, enormous green salads -- and still do. I’ve never met anyone who eats more vegetables than my family. To me, a half-cup serving of cooked broccoli is silly, a doll’s portion.

Everything we ate was homemade. We made whole wheat bread and buckwheat pancakes from fresh flour ground in an electric mill, and apple, beet, and carrot juice in the juicer. Making granola was a weekly chore for us kids. On winter car trips we packed our own food, typically large pots of beans and rice, bread, apples, and peanut butter. The everyday dessert was apple salad with yogurt or mayonnaise, walnuts, coconut, and honey. When we had proper desserts such as vanilla pudding, cherry pie, and strawberry shortcake -- which was not often -- they were always made from scratch. Portions were big, leftovers prized, and nothing wasted. Egg shells and vegetable scraps went in a bucket for the chickens.

It all sounds perfect now, but jars filled with blackstrap molasses and homemade granola did not impress me. I wanted American food, the kind normal kids ate. By far the biggest taboo in our house was junk food, and for that very reason it was deeply compelling. When I had stand duty in the town of Purcellville, I made a bee-line for the High’s convenience store to buy ice cream sandwiches -- and told no one. On my 11th birthday, my parents said I could have anything I wanted for dinner and I greedily ordered a store-bought cake. I can still taste the faintly metallic neon frosting. Yet I ate it gamely, unwilling to admit that my hideous cake was inferior to the dessert my mother always made on our birthdays: chocolate éclairs with real milk, butter, and eggs, and good chocolate. The first time I laid eyes on an all-you-can-eat salad bar, at the Leesburg Pizza Hut where my mother waited tables that first winter, I ate a bowl of tasty-looking bacon bits with a spoon. They made me very sick -- and embarrassed, too. No one told me you don’t eat bacon bits -- the lowest form of pork, if they aren’t imitation bacon made of soy protein -- straight.

These wince-inducing memories suggest that the Clara Davis experiments -- sometimes referred to as proving “nutritional wisdom” -- work only when all of the choices are good ones. Sure, the baby cured his rickets with cod liver oil, like a little instinctive scientist, or a wild animal self-medicating by eating certain plants. But Davis gave the babies only good foods to eat. What if the babies could have eaten ice cream sandwiches, neon pink cake frosting, and bacon bits? To my knowledge, no one has tried such an experiment -- unless you count our daily exposure to all manner of cheap junk food -- but the evidence is not encouraging.

In the short-term, at least, availability seems to determine what we eat, rather than instinct for health. Squirrels, given the choice between acorns and chocolate cookies, take the cookies. The natural diet of sheep is grass, but when offered dense carbohydrates -- the ovine equivalent of store-bought cake -- they will binge until they are listless. Even a modern hunter-gatherer will drink honey until his teeth rot, if he can get enough.

“As stupid as these choices seem, one can’t really blame them on a lack of nutritional wisdom,” writes Susan Allport in The Primal Feast. “During the course of evolution, squirrels, sheep, and humans have rarely encountered large quantities of concentrated, high-energy foods. Why should the food selection mechanisms of animals include protections against overeating these things? Our human tastes for foods evolved and enabled us to survive in the forests and the African savannas where animals were lean and fibrous, food shortages were a fact of life, and sugar came only in the form of ripe fruits and honey, foods that were available only on an intermittent, seasonal basis.” It seems that animals and humans both lack brakes for runaway junk food craving.

Once you grow up, of course, you have to take responsibility for what you eat, and my parents believed in Emersonian self-reliance. When I was ten or so, they decided that Charles and I should learn to cook, and drew up a dinner and dishes schedule. We all cooked the same way, building simple meals around our abundant, gorgeous vegetables. The ingredients weren’t fancy and the recipes weren’t sophisticated. I loved my night to cook, especially the grown-up feeling of providing for my family, and here and there I made a stab at something original. Once I invented Chinese noodle soup by boiling vegetables and pasta in water with lots of soy sauce. My mother wasn’t impressed -- it probably tasted terrible -- but I was proud of my creation and the memory of her reaction hits a tender spot. Another time I baked chicken with rosemary. “It’s good,” said Charles, “except for the pine needles.” My cheeks flushed with shame for introducing a fancy -- and risible -- ingredient to plain old chicken. Simplicity was a virtue, and culinary experiments weren’t much encouraged.

<a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1596911441/egulletcom-20" target="_blank"><img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1151265230/gallery_29805_1195_21783.jpg" align="right" hspace="8"></a>What was prized was the idea of the farm as physical paradise. We were encouraged to sigh with delight over the sound of the spring peepers, the flash of the fireflies, the scent of honeysuckle, and -- most of all -- the flavor of our own melons and tomatoes. I was a little nature-lover, and took huge pleasure in our beautiful farm and unsurpassed vegetables. But I never understood how appreciation of nature conflicted with making dinner a bit different -- tastier, fancier, sexier. Wasn’t nice food also a gift of nature?

Now it’s obvious that I lived in a kind of paradise about food. My mother’s philosophy -- provide good homemade food on a budget and then leave your kids alone to eat what they like -- was working. Her children were healthy, physically active, never picky eaters like other kids we knew -- and looked down on. As for me, it all seemed simple. We grew the best vegetables in the world. At home there was only good stuff, which I ate happily. From time to time, there were treats -- like Danish butter cookies -- or compelling, but quite possibly regrettable, stuff in restaurants. Mostly, I was ignorant about the big world of food and therefore unashamed. When the school principle sent me home with a free turkey for Christmas, it seemed like nothing more than a stroke of good luck. If my parents didn’t care that we didn’t have a lot of money and ate simple food, why should I?

Above all, I wasn’t neurotic about food or my body or my appetites. An untroubled child with lots of energy, I ate what I wanted, when I was hungry for it. Naturally, it didn’t last.

How I became a vegan & my virtuous diet made me plump & grumpy

A typical teenage girl, I was anxious about all sorts of things, and placed my anxiety squarely on -- what else? -- food. The experts said that many of the foods I grew up on -- like Yorkshire pudding topped with a pool of hot butter -- were unhealthy. The smart advice was to be a little bit more vegetarian: eat less meat, less dairy, less saturated fat.

The medical wisdom began to dovetail with our somewhat alternative subculture. Our farming friends and the college students who worked on our farm each summer were health-conscious and green. In those circles, being a vegetarian -- better yet, a vegan -- was environmentally, nutritionally, and ethically correct. In the worker kitchen down by the little pond, the famous vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook was the bible, and communion was rice and beans. Times have changed. Now the workers buy raw milk, eat local venison, and dream of keeping chickens, goats, and cows on their own farms.

The ecological and political arguments for a vegetarian diet came to the fore in 1971, the year I was born. In her seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé argued that modern beef farming was ecologically unsound (it wrecks natural habitats), politically unjust (you could feed more people on the grain cattle ate than on the steaks), and nutritionally unnecessary (we don’t need all that protein). The idea that a vegetarian diet was healthier clinched it for me, and I became a vegan in high school. It was perhaps my only act of rebellion against my stubbornly tolerant parents. My state of mind is still vivid. With all the bad press animal foods were getting, the quickest route to salvation seemed clear: eat only plants.

The summer of 1989 was the last season I lived and worked on the farm. In late August, still the height of the season, my parents drove me to Oberlin College, with the stereo shelf my mother built and my other things in the back of a pick-up. Later I transferred to Georgetown University and set up house with my boyfriend in Washington, D.C. In my own kitchen, I was free to invent my own philosophy about food. But I’d lost my instincts and didn’t trust my appetite. Eating became an intellectual question. How many people could you feed on the grain it took to raise one steak? If saturated fats are dangerous, why eat any? The vegan experiment ended fairly quickly -- I liked yogurt -- but for many years I was a vegetarian.

Fear of fat and cholesterol dominated our kitchen in the row house on 27th Street. Even a hint of slippery, creamy food on the tongue sent me into panicky disapproval. Peering at labels, I stocked the pantry with low-fat foods. In those days, I believed the conventional nutritional wisdom: that unsaturated fats were good for cholesterol and saturated fats were not. Monounsaturated olive oil -- star of the Mediterranean diet -- was the only fat I trusted . . . but not much of it. The taboo on cholesterol and saturated fats meant no beef, eggs, cream, chocolate, or coconut. Our only dairy was non-fat yogurt and there was plenty of rice milk and soy ice cream.

Today it’s hard to picture what we ate. I loved to cook, but most foods were off the menu -- no beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, milk, or eggs. We ate lots of fresh local vegetables, large green salads, burritos, and bean soups. I ate mountains of rice, beans, and pasta. For dessert there was fruit salad, but without the mayonnaise of my youth. A well-used recipe for non-fat oatmeal bars with pineapple springs to mind, and on special occasions I made fruit pies with butter crust. Now and then I grated low-fat cheese over salad or treated us to grilled shrimp from the D.C. waterfront.

Now it’s clear why my boyfriend gave me a cookbook on my 19th birthday: the poor fellow was desperate for variety. It was Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook Menus and I read it from cover to cover in one sitting, fascinated with the fancy foods she touted, like balsamic vinegar, crème fraîche, and homemade mayonnaise. Now Martha Stewart is famous for all the domestic arts (and more), but in those days she was a champion of simple, seasonal meals -- and her recipes always work. Quick Cook was my first cookbook, it bears the marks of many good meals, and I still use it.

As for my health, I felt terrible. My digestion was poor, and I was moody, tearful, and tender in all the wrong place before I got my period. In cold and flu season, I got both. I was depressed, too. Partly to stave off the gloom, I ran three to six miles a day, six days a week. On this virtuous regime I also gained weight steadily -- and before I knew it, I was plump. How plump? Well, women and weight is a treacherous topic: no one agrees on the definitions and people get touchy, so I’ll try to be objective. I’m almost 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh 119 to 125 pounds, much of it muscle. In my vegetarian days, I was 147 pounds and soft all over. That’s a body mass index of almost 25, squarely in the “overweight” category.

Back home on the farm in Wheatland, meanwhile, my omnivorous parents were the healthiest people I knew, lean and cheerful as they tucked into fried eggs and pork chops. Something was wrong with me, but I certainly didn’t suspect my perfect diet.

Excerpted by permission from Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck. The Daily Gullet thanks Nina and her publisher, Bloomsbury USA.

Nina Planck created farmers' markets in London and Washington DC, and ran New York City's famous Greenmarket. The daughter of Virginia vegetable farmers, she wrote The Farmers' Market Cookbook and hosted a British television series on local food.

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Excellent piece. I'd love to read more about the Clara Davis experiments. Instinctual food choice is a fascinating topic.

Beyond that, this is a great article all around. While I've never gone down any of the virtuous dietary paths myself, I know plenty of people who have meandered that way and come back to the omnivorous middle.

Food should not be scary or a source of anxiety, and sadly in our culture it appears to have become both. Sadly :sad:

Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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This was great. I have also gone back and forth on the ethical issues of eating meat, although I know that I could never be a vegan. I also know that I feel my best when eating meat. Maybe it's different for everyone? I have known many, many vegetarians, some of them very healthy, and some of them in terrible shape. The most unhealthy individual I have ever known was a self-proclaimed vegan, whos diet consisted primarily of french fries and fried tofu. Ick! She was horribly overweight, had terrible skin, was sick all the time, and couldn't figure out why the vegan thing wasn't working for her. :rolleyes:

All rambling aside, I really enjoyed your piece. I totally envy your childhood among such a remarkable bounty of wonderful food.

-Sounds awfully rich!

-It is! That's why I serve it with ice cream to cut the sweetness!

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I had a somewhat similar (although on a smaller scale) upbrining, with plenty of fresh vegetables, delicious homemade meals, and open space to get to know nature. I just chimed in to add an anecdote, which my parents still laugh at. You never know how good you have it at the time, do you?

Me: "Mom! You'll never guess what they have! Its this bread! But its really soft! And its white! And its soft!!!"

Mom: "Do you mean Wonder Bread?"

Me: "Yes!! And it comes in this colorful bag!!! And...."

Well, fortunately I never really liked it, with the lone exception of a foundation for grilled cheese.

(Okay, another anecdote.)

We were always given the choice of several different cereals for breakfast; mostly what I still call "horse food" as well as Cheerios or something. When we stayed overnight at a friend's house, the best part was breakfast, where we could eat as much sugary, marshmellowy, colorful goodness as we could. However, that only happened a few times before I got really, REALLY sick at school. Talk about an easy cure! I cannot eat any of that stuff now. Just give me Cheerios! (Ok, Honey-nut please!)

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My mother is a great cook, and she and your mother's kitchens would share many things -- she is a faithful shopper at Ottawa's Byward market during the growing season -- tragically shorter than what your family had in Virginia, but a local, sustainable market nonetheless, and open every day for the season.

Ottawa is a backwater capital city of a great democracy, but the population, compared to New York, Chicago, Boston or LA is modest. As I remember, the farmers must farm within thirty miles of Ottawa, but my best memory of the Byward Market is civil servants stopping in every day with string bags to buy fruit and veg for dinner. Butchers, fishmongers and cheesemongers with their year-round shops.

And I stop every year at Christmas at my personal maple syrup man and load up on syrup and maple sugar, proudly labelled and addressed from his farm.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that a real Farmers Market, open every day, shoudn't be a luxury or a frou-frou thing. If your Dad can buy a few local tomatoes, strawberries and green beans on the way home from work, at a good price, from a local farmer, everyone benefits. Why can't this work in Chicago or LA as an everyday place to shop? You have made a superb case for eating our veggies.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel


A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites


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What a wonderful set of responses from eGullet readers every time. Many thanks to the editors and publishers for your interest in real food, not to mention Real Food.

Today I was on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC and the callers were similarly informed and thoughtful.

There are several questions I'm asked a lot, such as

Can Poor People Afford Real Food?

What do you think of Whole Foods?

...and other topics of interest to me, such as what's wrong with baby formula and what a lot of nonsense there is out there on asparagus (the too-brief season having just passed).

You can find these under ARTICLES or JUST A PINCH at NinaPlanck.com.

HEAR NINA SPEAK is also there, in case you're in NYC, Nola, Seattle, DC, Hamilton, NY, or any of the dozen or so cities where this little book is taking me. Events in Tampa, Austin, and San Francisco are in the works.

Keep up the good conversation.

Best wishes Nina

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I'm just getting off the "fat is bad for you" train myself and returning to omnivore status after about two years of insanity with my food habits and I've never felt or looked better. No more crazy sugar cravings or being in a constant state of hungryness.

This was a fantastic excerpt. Eating natural whole foods is just as cheap if not cheaper than the junk you can get on the run. I can't wait to read the whole book.

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I have your book and I'm in the process of reading it now.

I find it fascinating so far.

I'm also trying to move toward more "real" food and leave the processed stuff behind. I'm not totally successful yet, but I'm getting there. :)

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