A different way of looking at food ...

Our month in Villefranche-ser-Mer while studying at the Institut de Française fundamentally changed our thinking and approach to food, food shopping and eating.  We felt healthier eating the way we ate in Villefranche, we enjoyed the experience of food and eating more, and were determined to preserve that feelings once we returned home.  In doing so, we had to confront the differences between the US and France, cultural, agricultural, epicurean, attitudinal, emotional, and just plain shopping.

I have already revealed myself as a tomato fanatic; you can add baguettes to the fanaticism.  Upon our return to the US our first trip to the grocery store was like landing on another planet.   The tomatoes had no smell and were tasteless; the baguette was a mediocre shadow of the everyday ones in Villefranche.  Clinging to our newfound way of eating was going to be harder than we thought, but we were determined.

We immediately researched local farmer’s markets.  There were three in close proximity, at least they were in close proximity late May to early October; it was now November.  Those would have to wait for the end of the ski season.

Next, we looked for specialty markets, stores that claimed to carry the kinds of meats, fruits and vegetables we wanted.  Luckily, after visiting a number, we found a store that really did sell heirloom tomatoes, yes, hothouse grown, but with aroma and taste.  It also sold grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products.  We had discovered a path upon which to walk in our desired direction.

I was spending considerable time researching recipes and ingredients like the ones we experienced in Villefranche.  I don’t remember what led me to Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure (Vintage Books, 2007).  Mireille tells her story of coming to the US as a 19-year-old exchange student Senior in High School and eating her way through Weston, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, gaining weight in the process.  Back in France her summer at home was stressful, and in the Fall Mireille moved to Paris to study at the Grande École and became a pastry glutton, gaining even more weight.  At home for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Mireille had a visit by a family physician, Dr. Meyer, later to be known as “Dr. Miracle.”  Dr. Meyer told Mireille that getting back into shape would be really easy and just a matter of a few “old French tricks.”  “Tout est une question d'équilibre.”  (“Everything is a matter of balance.) He promised Mireille that she would be swimsuit-ready by June.

So, what are the “old French tricks” and what are their implications for the way in which we want to eat?  The trite answer is French women “… eat with their heads, and they do not leave the table feeling stuffed or guilty.”  

Now to the practicalities of the prescription; … eat at regular times … get to know the local farmers’ market, not the supermarket … eat what’s in season … identify and gradually reduce your “offender” foods … introduce and experiment with new flavors … prepare your own meals and shun prepared foods with artificial anything … have a real breakfast … sit down for every meal and eat slowly … no eating in the car … introduce two daily servings of homemade yogurt as a dessert, breakfast or snack … drink at least two more glasses of water daily … take breaks in your day and move around … meals are for eating, not for reading the paper or looking on the Internet … meals are for social contact … no do-not-eat list; no eat-only list … do not keep “offender foods” in the house … develop a list of and stock “pacifier foods” … keep a few raw almonds in your pocket for the in-case hunger attacks … watch portion sizes … the main course should be a protein and two vegetables … no “Big Gulps” while driving … choose and enjoy weekend food rewards … measure your progress by how your clothes fit … don’t be a weight scale slave ….  [Sorry, but that 2-pound ribeye is 5 to 7 portions, not one meal.]  Beer and wine are ok, just not in usual skier proportions.  Even that bag of chips is ok occasionally, just not every day.  Eating treats, those special highly desirable foods, play a role in any eating regimen; to quote Dr. Miracle, “[it] is a matter of balance.”  (My interpretation and apologies to Ms. Guiliano for any overstatement, understatement or misstatement.)  Mireille’s program may sound complex, but is actually quite simple once you get into its routine, and it works just like we ate in Villefranche.

Breakfast, petit-déjeuner, in French, “little lunch,” each morning at the Institut was baguettesles fromages and yaourt (yogurt).  Mireille encourages her readers to make yogurt at home and avoid the preservatives in virtually all store-bought yogurt, even the “organic” and “all natural” ones.  Somewhat skeptical, we invested $50 in a EuroCuisine yogurt maker and quickly learned how easy it is to make yogurt at home.  Heat and cool the milk in the morning, add the culture packet, put the bottles into the yogurt maker, set the timer and come home to freshly made, additive-free yogurt; alternatively, start after dinner and wake up to fresh yogurt. Whether you prefer traditional yogurt or Greek-style or others, instructions are included for all varieties.  We experimented with different milk varieties and maker times to arrive at our go-to recipe; whole milk from 100% pasture-raised cows and eleven hours in the yogurt maker.  Wonderfully creamy and tastes great; add fresh fruit, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, apricots, or my personal favorite, blackberries, and its breakfast or a snack.

By the way, Ms. Guiliano has two follow-on books; French Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes, & Pleasure (Vintage Books, 2009), and The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook (Atria, 2010).  All three of Mireille’s books include easy to prepare recipes and menus.

In her cookbook Mireille presents a recipe for “the perfect complete breakfast [that] will keep you from getting hungry until late lunch,” called “Magical Breakfast Cream” with no “cream” in it.  Works wonders for those hectic days, skiing or otherwise.

Magical Breakfast Cream (reproduced here with permission)

4 to 6 tablespoons yogurt (about ½ cup)

1 teaspoon flaxseed oil

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice (Meyer or organic preferably)

1 teaspoon honey

2 tablespoons finely ground cereal (with zero sugar such as Post Shredded Wheat)

2 teaspoons finely ground walnuts

1.     Put the yogurt in a bowl and add the oil.  Mix well.  Add the lemon juice and mix well.  Add the honey and mix well. (It is important to add each ingredient one at a time and mix well to obtain a homogeneous preparation.)

2.     Finely grind the cereal and walnuts (I use a small food processor).  Add to the yogurt mixture and mix well. Serve at once.

TIME-SAVER: You can do a week's worth of grinding cereal/nuts mixture and keep it refrigerated so in the morning it will take just a few instants to mix the yogurt with the oil (have no fear, you will not taste the oil in the final creamy blend), add the lemon juice, honey, and your daily dose of cereal/nut mixture -- et voila.

NOTE: I use Post Shredded Wheat Original made from whole grain wheat, adding to this recipe a "health-friendly" mix of 0 grams sugar, 0 grams sodium, and 6 grams of fiber per cup (and I use only 2 tablespoons per serving).

I was telling my son about how we were trying to maintain the way we had been eating in Villefranche, and mentioned reading Mireille’s book.  Brian said, “Dad, you need to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan,” which I did (Penguin Books, 2006).  What an eye-opening read, especially in the context of having just read Mireille’s books and enjoying success with her prescription!  Thank you, Brian.

Michael Pollan raises the question of even if we eat a “healthy” diet, is the food we eat contributing to our overall health.  (Again, my interpretation and apologies to Mr. Pollan for any misinterpretations or misstatements.)  

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about the three principal food chains that sustain us today: the industrial, the organic [pastoral], and the hunter-gatherer.  Different as they are, all three food chains are systems for doing more or less the same thing: linking us, through what we eat, to the fertility of the earth and the energy of the sun. …

 … there exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized.  Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures.  This is something nature never does, always and for good reasons practicing diversity instead.  A great many of the health and environmental problems created by our food system owe to our attempts to oversimplify nature’s complexities, at both the growing and the eating ends of our food chain.  At either end of any food chain you find a biological system – a patch of soil, a human body – and the health of one is connected – literally – to the health of the other.  Many of the problems of health and nutrition we face today trace back to things that happen on the farm, and behind those things stand specific government policies few of us know anything about. …”

Industrial agriculture is based on corn, generically No. 2 Field Corn, which the human body cannot easily digest without commercial pre-processing.  Field Corn is primarily grown for livestock feed, whether as whole cobs for hogs, whole or ground kernels, and ethanol production.  Animals also have difficulty digesting Field Corn but have been forced to adapt.  It is also used for cereal products including but not limited to corn flour, corn meal, hominy, tortillas and cold breakfast cereals, and for other processed human food products such as corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup.  Think about how many snack foods are made from No. 2 Field Corn … Fritos, Cheetos and all tortilla chips to name but three of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands?  Not to be forgotten are alcohol and corn whiskey, made famous during Prohibition; revenuers today are little different from those then.  Field Corn is also used for adhesives, plastic, gels and starch thickeners.

Why so much corn?  So much that we put the “excess” in our gas tanks?  In the calorie competition, corn is king; corn yields the highest “energy density” of any farm crop.  Corn is also the least expensive crop per unit energy to grow.  The invention of chemical fertilizers, the ability to fix nitrogen, made corn king.  Visit any garden store and you will hear about “NPK” (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), the three nutrients that compose complete fertilizers.  From what are these “miracles” made … petrochemicals … and let us not forget the insecticides that are also manufactured from petrochemicals.  The fertilizers and insecticides are absorbed or on the outside of the plants when harvested and pass up through the food chain to us.  

Ironically for farmers, the economics of No. 2 Field Corn are such that the farmer is increasingly incentivized to plant more only to find that by planting more bankruptcy approaches all the quicker both as a result of competitive economics and government policy.  Our summertime corn-on-cob corn is sweet corn, not No. 2 Field Corn.

It is no stretch to say that by eating the ubiquitous corn-based food products we are eating oil, that black stuff that comes out of the ground and gives us mobility.  Furthermore, when we eat beef from cows fed corn in feedlots, pork from hogs fed corn, and poultry that is fed corn, we are again eating oil.  That fat marbling you so look forward to in your steak comes from the corn fed to the cows (but is all that marbling really good for us).

“The traditional practice of finishing cattle on corn may not be the only way to achieve high marbling, a desirable characteristic of quality beef.  Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered that high-quality beef and big per-head profits can be achieved by starting early-weaned cattle on corn and finishing them on a diet high in co-products.  ‘The goal is to get the highest quality beef product in the most profitable way,’ said U of I scientist Dan Shike.  ‘If you can initiate marbling at a young age with corn, calves are smaller and they eat much less, so feeding them corn for 100 days early saves on feed costs. This system will use considerably less corn and achieve the same effect.’” 

“High-quality beef: Start cattle on corn, finish on co-products, researchers find,” Science Daily, May 11, 2010.

Read the ingredient labels on processed foods of all types; despite the long, unpronounceable names, most of those ingredients are derived from No. 2 Field Corn … more oil eaten.  Yes, our food scientists have made petroleum appealing and delicious; just walk the snack aisle of any grocery store.  Not nutritious, however, despite widely varied claims to the contrary.

Americans suffer from an epidemic of food-related diseases, such as obesity; type 2 diabetes; cardiovascular, liver and kidney diseases; some types of cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.  The U.S. government estimates that about half of all American adults -- 117 million people -- have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity, and rates of these chronic, diet-related diseases continue to rise.  Food-related diseases are caused, in part, by a food industry that promotes processed food packed with unhealthy ingredients, including high-fructose corn syrup, added sugars, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives and other additives … mostly derived from No. 2 Field Corn.  Dietary guidance issued by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are often politicized and polarized, with industry influence trumping science and the government’s own health advisors.

QUESTION? Would you rather be eating “oil” or “sun energy?”  The alternatives to No. 2 Field Corn are plants and animals raised the way nature intended.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan describes Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA, in considerable detail. 

“Polyface Farm raises chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbit, and pigs, plus tomatoes, sweet corn, and berries on one hundred acres of pasture patchworked into another 450 acres of forest, but if you ask Joel Salatin what he does for a living (Is he foremost a cattle rancher? A chicken farmer?) he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms, “I’m a grass farmer.” … undergirding the “farm of many faces,” as he calls it, is a single plant – or rather the whole community of plants for which the word “grass” is shorthand.

“Grass,” so understood, is the foundation of an intricate food chain Salatin has assembled at Polyface, where a half dozen different animal species are raised together in an intense rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis.  Salatin is the choreographer and the grasses are the verdurous stage; the dance has made Polyface on the most productive and influential alternative farms in America. …”

What makes the “grass” grow? … Sunlight … What is sunlight? … Energy from the sun (you know that big yellow thing that gives skiers burns from spring skiing without skin protection).

So, analogous to the argument above, if we eat meat from beef raised on grass, or pork from pigs raised on grass, or poultry raised on grass, we are eating “sun energy.”  Likewise, eating fruits and vegetables grown in the same way, truly organic instead of marketing-hyped, that is, no petrochemical enhancers, you are eating sun energy.  It goes without saying that eating sun energy is “healthier” than eating oil; it is certainly more natural.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of us live nowhere near Swoope, VA; Snowshoe Mountain, WV, and Wintergreen, VA, are the closet ski areas.  We can and should, however, pay more attention to where our food comes from and how it is “raised” or “produced.”  There are, in fact, many Polyface-like farms today, and the number is increasing.  You have to seek them out, however.

Michael Pollan has other books on food in which you may have an interest, including In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin Books, 2008) and Cooked (Penguin Books, 2013).

Having come full circle, we are back to working to maintain how we ate in Villefranche-ser-Mer.  The local farmers there may not have Salatin’s notoriety but they farm to the same effect … naturally raised beef, pork and poultry, organic fruits and vegetables.  It takes some effort, but you can improve your eating.  Start by reading ingredient labels.  If there are lots of unpronounceable words, it is probably not very good for your health.

Go to your local farmer’s market; get to know your local farmers.  Ask them how they grow their vegetables, how they raise their farm animals.  Taste their foods.  Enjoy learning about them and their crops.  Support them by purchasing.

I remember as a kid how excited my dad was to be able to buy “corn-fed beef.”  The marketing mavens were successful.  Now we know “corn-fed” has clay feet just like most idols.  Whether your market sells “prime” or “choice” beef, and even if it is labelled “organic,” ask yourself about its origins; did it come from cattle in feed lots eating corn?  You remember feed lots … those enclosed piles of cow dung upon which lay the resting cows that you can smell long before you see them … like along WA 26 in Royal City or Harris Ranch on Interstate 5 where “up to 100,000 cattle at a time are crowded on top of their own excrement into one square mile of what can be euphemistically called mud (winter) or dust (summer).”  

Barry Estabrook, “Feedlots vs. Pastures: Two Very Different Ways to Fatten Beef Cattle,” The Atlantic, December 28, 2011.  Harris Ranch sold its feedlot, slaughterhouse and processing facilities to Central Valley Meat Company in 2019.

There is change afoot in grocery stores and supermarkets.  Every grocery store has an “organic” produce section; you are seeing more and more “grass-fed” meats and poultry … all an indication that portions of the population are increasingly focused on their health and wising up that marketing assertions of “healthy” are not necessarily accurate.  Skiers and snowboarders can often be found at the forefront of this movement … self-interest, the healthier we are in life the longer in life we can ski.