Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)
Chapter 10. The Omnivore’s Dilemma
In the early 1970s, my father’s parents came to visit us in Buffalo, New York, en route to Yugoslavia. Then, as now, we ate simple food, always made from scratch: a protein, whole grains, vegetables, a green salad. Sugar was a treat. As they left, my grandfather said cheerfully, “Let’s hope there’s dessert in Yugoslavia!”
It is said that every household resembles a small nation-state. If so, each family has its Department of Health and its food and cooking policies. In our house, my mother (like most mothers) wrote the law. Like most daughters, I left home, founded a new colony of sorts, and wrote my own (vegan and vegetarian) laws. When that turned out badly, I was happy to come home to the foods I’d grown up eating, but I also wanted to know what science had to say about them. Now I am satisfied that butter and eggs are good for you.
It is not easy to decide what to eat. There are virtually no limits today. We are not like foragers, who found a beehive dripping with honey only now and then; we are not like the babies in the Clara Davis experiments, who could choose only from nutritious foods. And things move fast. In the modern food industry, novelty and technical wizardry are the rule. According to the USDA, nineteen to twenty-three thousand new food and drink products came on the market in each year from 2006 to 2010. It seems a new diet is always climbing the best-seller list. Unlike industrial food, real food is fundamentally conservative. It is the food you already know: roast chicken, tomato salad with olive oil, creamed spinach, sourdough bread, peach ice cream. To me, that’s a relief. When you rule out industrial foods altogether, it does simplify things a bit.
The quest for the right diet is not entirely a modern conundrum, however. It is not merely the result of unprecedented variety and abundance or even of the profusion of contradictory nutritional advice. On the contrary, our search for the right food is as old as eating itself. Since prehistoric times, every human has asked: what’s for dinner?
Culture undoubtedly plays a role in how we decide what to eat. Hindus don’t eat cows, for example. But culture is a minor determinant compared with nutritional needs, which traditionally trump all other factors. What will nourish the body for a day’s labor, through a long winter, or to recover from an infection? Survival alone is not enough. For men as well as women, food must also be adequate to ensure fertility. For most creatures, nutrition is simple: instinct rules. Insect or mammal, herbivore or carnivore, the menu is typically short. Parsnip worms eat parsnip seeds, ladybugs eat aphids, koala bears eat eucalyptus leaves, zebras eat grass, and lions eat zebras. But we are omnivores. We can and will eat anything.
Omnivores are highly adaptable and humans especially so. That’s why we occupy not one ecological niche but many, from frozen tundra to moist forest to scorched desert. This is a singular achievement; only bacteria live in such a range of habitats. A penchant for trying new foods in new situations was key to the success of all the Homo tribes, including ours. “When the eucalyptus trees all die in a given place, so do all the koalas,” writes Richard Manning, “but omnivores have options.”
Along with these options comes a unique problem, namely, that not everything that looks like food is edible and some things might be poisonous. In 1976, the psychologist Paul Rozin called this the omnivore’s dilemma. One eucalyptus tree meets all the nutritional needs of a hungry koala, but an omnivore must successfully balance curiosity and caution to survive. Various tactics come in handy. As social animals, we pass the word along that this berry or that insect is to be eaten or avoided. Contemporary hunter-gatherers without formal education in botany or zoology can identify hundreds of plant and animal species and many details about their medicinal or toxic properties, life cycles, habitat, and habits. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls this intuitive biology, and it is surely the product of the omnivore’s quandary. Omnivores also avoid things that smell rotten, and only nibble at unfamiliar foods. Researchers describe another tactic as the “poisoned partner effect.” If a rat smelling of a particular food is looking poorly, other rats will avoid that food.
Even so, omnivores do get things wrong, especially in new situations, and suffer for it. When Americans settled west of the Appalachians in the 1800s, people began to get “milk sickness,” which caused weakness, nausea, thirst, foul breath, and finally, death. In certain Indiana and Ohio counties, the illness was rampant. It was noticeable that where people were dying, cattle with similar symptoms got the “trembles.” The twin epidemics aroused the curiosity of an Illinois midwife, Anna Pierce, who asked a local Shawnee woman for advice. The woman led her directly to white snakeroot, a plant that caused the trembles in cows and poisoned the milk. One doctor who doubted that Pierce had found the cause of milk sickness ate snakeroot to prove her wrong; he promptly died. The active compound of snakeroot—tremetol—was not identified until 1928, but folk wisdom carried the necessary information before science caught up.
In modern life, the risk of unintentional poisoning is greatly reduced. We don’t have to guess which foods might make us sick because the food supply is no longer wild. Botany is now a formal body of knowledge, scientifically tested. My parents taught me that rhubarb leaves contain toxic oxalic acid, while the stems make great pie; they learned that from books, not at the knee of the local wise woman. But the modern omnivore is not out of the woods yet. The risk of nutritional imbalance is great. Rozin writes: “A koala that eats only eucalyptus leaves has no such risk; it is adapted to survive on the nutrients eucalyptus has to offer. Similarly, a lion rarely risks imbalance, because the zebras it eats already contain the range of nutrients it needs. But the generalist happens upon many potential foods that have nutritive value, but are not complete nutrients. Appropriate combinations of foods must be selected.”
There’s the rub. Unlike lions and other specialists, we have to think about which foods are nourishing, and in this respect, life is more confusing than ever. Modern humans face a vast choice of food, far beyond what was ever available before in both variety and quantity. Although traditional diets vary widely, in any given place, humans always ate a limited menu of local, seasonal foods. And sometimes, we don’t have a choice. Before the U.S. government mandated the trans fat label, it was impossible to distinguish between man-made trans fats and natural saturated fats.
Technology and migration have produced an unprecedented profusion of food. Freezing, canning, pasteurization, and other technologies extend the shelf life of perishable foods. Global trade has expanded variety beyond the imagination of any hunter-gatherer. The coffee, tea, spice, and olive oil trades are thousands of years old, but even this ancient commerce is recent in evolutionary time. The scale of modern trade is astounding. When there is snow on the ground, we can eat sweet corn and tomatoes; in cold climates, mangos and pineapples are easy to come by; in most American towns, Italian olive oil, Chilean grapes, and Thai shrimp are not exotic luxuries but staples. Perhaps the most profound contribution of technology is the creation of truly new foods such as canola oil and margarine.
As exotic foods have circled the globe, so have people. Migration has loosened, if not severed, the bonds between people and their traditional foods. For most of human history, a child ate what her parents ate: yogurt in Turkey, miso soup in Japan, cheese in the Swiss Alps. Today, the foods of every culture, from hummus to tortillas, mingle in restaurants, shops, and markets. The United States, a land of immigrants, is particularly diverse—and apt to slough off tradition—but something similar occurs in most wealthy nations: the typical diet is not the traditional one. The modern omnivore’s dilemma is acute.
THE OMNIVORE’S FEAST
✵Eat generous amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables daily
✵Eat wild fish and seafood often
✵Eat meat, game, poultry, and eggs from wild, pastured, and grass-fed animals often
✵Eat full-fat dairy foods, ideally raw and unhomogenized from grass-fed cows, often
✵Eat only traditional fats, including butter, lard, poultry fat, coconut oil, and olive oil
✵Eat legumes and whole grains
✵Eat cultured and lacto-fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, and sourdough bread
✵Eat unrefined sweeteners such as raw honey, evaporated cane juice, and pure maple syrup in moderation
For three million years, we were skilled fishermen and hunters, able to kill giant animals such as wooly mammoths and fast ones such as wild horses, not to mention lions, sloths, bears, moose, giant lemurs, and camels. We hunted with a powerful combination of tools unique in the animal world: sharp spears, binocular vision, hand-eye coordination, and teamwork. We filled up on fish and game when we could, and in between we made do with every berry, tuber, and insect we could find. This dietary strategy—mostly predator, part forager—was simple and effective.
Then, in the blink of an evolutionary eye, something catastrophic happened. About thirty-five thousand years ago, the megafauna (big game) dwindled and then disappeared. “They became extinct in every habitat without exception,” writes the historian Jared Diamond, “from deserts to cold rain forest and tropical rain forest.” We humans were the main predator of these wild animals, which had thrived for tens of millions of years before we arrived. Now most scientists agree that the big game were not doomed by an ice age or drought, but by spears and clubs: a once-ridiculed theory called the “overkill hypothesis.”
Having depleted our chief source of nutrition, we did what only omnivores can do. We went looking for other foods to eat. We hunted less big game and began, gradually, to domesticate smaller wild animals for meat and milk. We foraged more and began to nurture wild crops like yams. The result was amazing variety in our diet. When an Iron Age man slipped into a peat bog in Denmark twenty-two hundred years ago, his stomach held the remains of sixty species of plants. Our brains are wired and our bodies are built to hunt and gather. Hunger is our motivation, variety is the result, and health is our reward.
Perhaps this explains my urge to forage. At the farm, I loved nothing more than picking vegetables for dinner, finding nettles behind the barn, or cutting watercress from the footbridge over the creek. Browsing the farmers’ market always makes me happy. Even rummaging in the fridge in search of inspiration for dinner is a little adventure. In March 2014, someone asked me to keep a food diary. To my surprise, I consumed fifty-nine unique foods in one week without changing my habits in any way.
Variety is the hallmark of the human diet and perhaps its greatest pleasure. At our house, there may be ten different foods—from beef to bacon, olive oil to butter, kohlrabi to zucchini—at one meal. I am not ambitious enough to put sixty vegetables, much less sixty species, on the dinner table, but when I am shopping for food or cooking dinner, I try to remember the rich array of life in the last supper of the Iron Age man, and I feel lucky to be an omnivore, blessed with a thousand ways to eat well and be well.
I am grateful to my agent and friend Jennifer Unter, who found me in the New Yorker long ago. She worked hard to make the first edition of this book possible. I would like to thank Cindy Embleton, who provided ironclad research, and Kathy Belden, my much-missed editor at Bloomsbury, for her astute suggestions. For this spectacular tenth-anniversary edition, I am in debt to my editors Rachel Mannheimer and Laura Phillips, and to Patti Ratchford and Katya Mezhibovskaya, who designed the beautiful new cover. Last but not least, I thank the many readers who have written to me about Real Food and spread its gospel.