I love food. I love to cook. I have always found eating and preparing food to be among the profoundest pleasures available to humans, like music and sex. Food is a never-ending source of obsession in our society, yet one which receives surprisingly little attention as a topic of sociological or psychological research. No matter; my loved ones have made it into a religion. I have harvested my food from the fields and forest, have cultivated it in my garden, and, yes, I have killed for food: with arrows, with hooks, with lead shot. I have eaten venison and squirrel; smelt and carp; hickory nuts and nettles and wild strawberries. Thanks to a rather rustic upbringing which I took for granted at the time, my childhood was rich with episodes of hunting and gathering. I also learned traditional cooking methods from the Celtic and Italian branches of my family, though sometimes only watched in horror as they ate eels, squid, Yorkshire pudding, olives and all kinds of slimy things that lived in shells.
Our relationship to food echoes our connection to the earth; knowing where our food comes from strengthens our bond to the flora and fauna we live with. Sadly, in countries as technologically advanced and as far removed from nature as this one, our relationship to food is ambiguous, even hostile at times. Our meat arrives in cellophane packages, free of offal and feathers but not of antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticide residue. Our fruits and vegetables are sprayed, waxed and dyed, and sometimes treated with radiation. Our grains are stripped of their nutrients, our milk is pasteurized, and both these "natural" foods have additives to restore the original nutritive value which is stripped away in processing. Is it any wonder many of us choose to eat tasteless, packaged, artificial foods when the "natural" alternative isn't much better? What on earth would happen to us if we had to forage for food?
Native Nutrition offers a fascinating look at cultures of the world who subsist on foods given to them by the earth and largely unaltered from their natural state. Ronald Schmid, a nutritional researcher and scientist, has studied robustly healthy peoples like the Masai of southern Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, the rural peoples of Japan, and Scottish fishermen. Time and again, his research shows that diet and nutrition are crucially important to the collective health of a tribe or community. In the U.S., some studies would have us believe that excessive meat consumption is responsible for our ridiculously high rates of heart disease, arthritis and colon cancer. But among the Masai, where these conditions are non-existent, we find daily consumption of meat, milk, blood and marrow: the Masai are nomadic cattle herders. They also run constantly, herding their flocks, and the flesh they consume is lean and free of hormones and drugs.
One shocking example Schmid gives of the danger of processed foods like those consumed in "advanced" countries occurs among North American Eskimos. In this culture, when foods like white flour and sugar were introduced, the occurrence of previously rare conditions like diabetes increased dramatically. Tragically, tooth decay also became common and, since the Eskimos lack the dental care to combat this problem, some have commited suicide to escape the unbearable pain of their rotting teeth. To introduce sugar to a community without fluoridating the water or setting up a few dentist's offices is tantamount to homicide, in this example. Photographs of people from other countries show a dramatic contrast in dental health, before and after the introduction of refined foods.
Such problems are not confined to the so-called "Third World." On our own continent, the television news reported on a Native American tribe in the Southwest that subsists on a high-fat diet riddled with processed foods, that is experiencing alarmingly high rates of diabetes, sometimes as high as forty percent of the adult population. In Mexico, a tribe genetically identical to this one has little or no incidence of diabetes; the difference lies in lifestyle. The second tribe is very physically active, whereas the first is sedentary. The second tribe eats a traditional Mexican diet of corn tortillas, beans and vegetables, but the first eats large amounts of refined, deep-fried foods. The main difference? The first tribe's access to refined foods, American-style. We may lead the world in information technology and military capability, but as purveyors of nutritious foods we are sadly deficient.
Native Nutrition not only documents dietary practices throughout the world, but also offers advice for integrating sound eating practices into our own lives. Schmid believes we are perfectly suited to eating meat if we choose to do so, as long as that meat is raised in a healthy and humane manner, and as long as we consume small portions (the current meat industry produces huge amounts of meat at great expense to our environment and health). The dollar is a powerful tool; if we demand humanely raised animals from our local farmers, the supply will follow.
Schmid also suggests we eat what is native to our living areas: this includes cutting down on imported produce and enjoying indigenous plant foods (here in New England this means plenty of apples, peaches, summer berries, asparagus, fiddleheads, greens, potatoes, corn, tomatoes and other treats). This advice extends to locally raised animals and dairy products. This is not only healthier, since foods travelling a shorter distance need not be irradiated or otherwise treated to retard spoilage; it also promotes local commerce, very likely benefitting a family farm rather than an "agribusiness" corporation. By eating close to home, we gain a greater understanding of how the lives of animals and plants are connected to our own and, perhaps, a greater appreciation of the sacrifice made when we consume them. This book is a refreshingly sober look at what we eat, and why it should concern us.
Reviewed by Peg Aloi
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