Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet?!

A recent article on Mother Jones made the rounds: "Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." The article is, itself, based on almost an hour of podcast interview. I haven't listened to the interview, which I suppose makes me about as guilty of ignorant pontificating as Michael Pollan and Mother Jones's Cynthia Graber are when it comes to Paleo. But what the heck--they started it, so I'll offer a first reaction, which is that this article says almost nothing important about Paleo, because neither Pollan nor Graber seem to understand Paleo in any detail. Unfortunately, getting only the basic gist of something really only qualifies you to tell us what's wrong with the strawman you've created for the purpose of criticism.

First, I think it's important to note that most of the most prominent proponents of Paleo have some reservations about the term "Paleo Diet." Partially, the term is problematic because it puts too great an emphasis on Paleo as a list of rules: eat this, not that, period. And to be fair, a lot of people who are practicing Paleo do view Paleo that way. That's why we have recipes for "Paleo" foods that aren't particularly healthy but that adhere to the letter of the "law" of "The Paleo Diet." But the people who are propagating Paleo at the highest levels (by which I mean the people who have done the most to define and refine it in the years when it's become popular) view it more as a set of principles for figuring out what a person should eat for optimal health. Listen to what Robb Wolf has to say about Paleo--he's about as far from dogmatic as you can be, and he's widely considered to be one of the most prominent proponents of "Paleo." Chris Kresser's ultra-recent Your Personal Paleo Code makes this explicit, the idea that it's less a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription and more a framework for figuring out what's best for any particular person (while I'm linking to books, I would say that Jason Seib's The Paleo Coach also does a great job of laying out the principles rather than prescribing rules). Although early on in the Paleo movement, there were a lot more absolute statements along the lines of "this is what ancient hunter-gatherers ate" or cut-and-dried food prohibitions, this just isn't true of the current versions of Paleo that are central to the movement.

So, with that out of the way, let's see "what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." After talking about how much humans love meat, and basically saying that early humans probably would have eaten as much meat as they could get, we get the "criticism" of Paleo:
In any case, says Pollan, today's meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.
One problem with the paleo diet is that "they're assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there," he argues. But "unless you're willing to hunt your food, they're not." 
As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.
First, is there any Paleo advocate who isn't aware that factory farmed animals are terrible for our health? Is there any Paleo advocate who isn't favoring pastured animals? Second: really? They're "nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate"? Really? Sure, they're not mastodons, and cattle have certainly evolved through human selection over the centuries and millennia, but just as Paleo practitioners are looking for the diet that's healthiest for human beings, pasturing ruminants like cows is giving them the diet that's healthiest for them, which makes the meat of those animals the healthiest it can be for us. And, I should add, more like what our ancestors would have eaten.

Oh, and let's add one more caveat to the whole Paleo thing: as several Paleo proponents have noted, "Paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment." To say "we don't really know what Paleolithic people ate," or "Paleolithic people ate different things in different places," or "the foods that Paleolithic people ate have changed so much that they don't really exist any more" all miss the point. They're all true, but so what? The answer isn't "I might as well have bagels and doughnuts for breakfast."

Which kind of leads to the second point in the article: "Humans can live on bread alone." Well, okay, you can "survive" on bread alone. But you're not going to be all that healthy. And if you're going to eat bread, you're definitely better off eating sourdough bread, because the fermentation process breaks down quite a few of the problematic constituents of bread. But the fact is that gluten is still problematic to a lot of people, even beyond the portion of the population that has celiac disease. Some of us tolerate it better than others, but there's still a legitimate critique of grains coming from the Paleo folks. And most people who are still eating bread and grains are not eating sourdough anyway.

"3. Eat more microbes." There is absolutely nothing in here that most Paleo advocates would argue against. Sort of. I mean, Paleo generally advocates fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as pickles, for the same reason: beneficial microbes for our gut health. Although Paleo starts from a position of skepticism about dairy, proponents often suggest adding in dairy if you tolerate it and seeing how you look, feel and perform when consuming it--and when they do, they generally recommend starting with fermented dairy like yogurt and cheese (preferably from grass-fed animals).

"4. Raw food is for the birds (too much of it, anyway)." Okay, this point really has nothing to do with Paleo. Paleo is certainly distinct from raw-food vegan as a dietary strategy, and Paleo advocates have nothing against cooking food. In fact, a good understanding of Paleo principles (which derive from an understanding of evolution) actually feeds into the importance of cooking certain vegetables that can cause problems if they're not cooked. And why do they cause problems? Because those veggies have evolved defense mechanisms that make them hard on the digestive system, particularly when consumed raw. So yeah, this point has nothing to do with Paleo (and everything to do with Pollan selling his book on cooking). Which is also true of his fifth point.

So, in the end, here's what this article looks like to me: Pollan gives an interview to push his latest book. He makes a few under-informed comments about Paleo, and because Paleo is very popular now, Cynthia Graber cobbles together an article that pits Michael Pollan against the Paleo diet, to drive traffic. And I suppose it worked, but as a critique of Paleo, it's critically flawed.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Praise to the Lard, the Almighty

Saturday, when I wasn't making sauerkraut out of cabbages, spiced with shavings of my thumb--and we're talking after the thumb, here--I made lard.

Earlier in the day, I took the girls and went to pick up our half-hog from the butcher's. It was 2:00, and apparently they closed at noon, as the guy there grudgingly informed me. Every word seemed grudging. He was pretty surly about the 2 minutes I cost him to bring my meat out to my car, but I'm sure glad he did, since it took me, like, an hour and a half to get there. As requested, they also gave me a bag of fat from our pasture-raised pig (or maybe more than one, but I wasn't asking Surly McSlaughterhouse for details).

I was actually inspired by this post from Mack Hill Farm back in December to give lard another try, and Lisa's advice was very helpful. I made lard before (I recommend reading/re-reading that post--it amused me),  but it came out with a bit of a porky taste. This time, I hoped to do better. Nay, I resolved to do better.

I made sure to start making the lard well before Lauren got home, since I knew she would not be thrilled with me rendering pork fat in the house. Following Lisa's advice, I cut the fat into chunks and ran it through the food processor before putting it into the crock pot. I added water and let the teamwork of crock pot, pork fat and water do its collective thing. And then I added more water, so I could let it go overnight.

I wasn't really sure how to know when the water had all boiled off. I mean, it sank to the bottom (right?), because water is more dense than fat. So... yeah, no idea. But I just went ahead and started ladling it out, straining it through a coffee filter, and putting it into pint jars.

I have to say, it turned out great. It was the most beautiful, creamy white color when it cooled (as opposed to the stuff I made three years ago, that had a bit of a brown tinge to it), and it had none of the pork-ish flavor. I ended up with a little over 4 1/2 pints of lard, but that was from only about half of the fat, which means I've got some more rendering in my future.

It's a little crazy to me that I can end up with something like 18 cups of high-quality cooking fat just for the cost of some time. And yes, lard--especially from pastured pigs--is a high-quality fat. It's gotten a bad rep, but it's all kinds of good-for-you. Chris Kresser names it one of the five fats you should be cooking with, but probably aren't. Need I say more? How about The Washington Post? I found several mainstream media outlets that gave lard at least a gentleman's C for health, and the Post article came closest, but most of them miss the point, which is that the evidence for saturated fat being bad for us, the evidence for saturated fat causing heart disease, is extremely weak. So some will say that it has high levels of monounsaturated fat, like olive oil, and less saturated fat than butter, but will caution that it still has quite a bit of saturated fat, which misses the point. It's also the second-most dense source of dietary vitamin D. If it's from pastured pigs--as opposed to feedlot pigs eating corn, soy, and other junk--it has a favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

All this and it makes things taste better. All in favor, say oink!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Moments


That moment while running cabbage through the mandolin to make sauerkraut when the assessment that I was being "pretty careful" had to be revised to "not quite careful enough."

That moment, moments later, considering how I might manage a trip to the ER to stitch up the tip of my thumb, either getting someone to watch the girls or bundling them into car seats and taking them along. See if our amazing nanny is available on a Saturday? In the midst of a bit of a snowstorm? Our teenaged babysitter? In the snow? The neighbor guy who mows our lawn? Seriously?

That moment where the fact that I'm only halfway through the first of four cabbages is at least as important to me as what I should do about my thumb.

So I staunch the bleeding with a paper towel, douse with hydrogen peroxide, secure some gauze with duct tape, and carry on slicing cabbage. The thumb's probably going to be fine, and there's stuff to do.

Stuff like half-filling this 10-liter crock.
Then there's that moment as I go to sleep when I wonder if the burning sensation in my thumb is just because I tried to shred it into kraut or because I have an infection working its way from my thumb to the rest of my body. I consider that if I die in my sleep, I won't get the chance to blog about the way that I stupidly sliced the tip of my thumb nearly off. There's a moment where that seems like a relevant consideration.


That moment when I bang my injured thumb into a hard surface, and I realize that I haven't look at it yet today to see how it's doing, and now that I may have reopened it... but what am I really going to learn by looking now?
But okay, here it is, just over 24 hours post-mandolin-ing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve 2: The Eve Strikes Back

As noted Monday, our guests and we rang in the new year with the residents of King Edward Point (all 30 or so of them, not counting seals and penguins). We had no doubt it would be an epic celebration.
I'm pretty sure this guy is singing "Auld Lang Syne."

Here in Indiana, meanwhile, 10 adults and 6 children gathered in our house to share fondue (a veggie broth and chicken broth fondue to cook steak, chicken, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms; a cheese fondue to smother anything and everything in Gruyere-and-Emmenthaler goodness; and a chocolate fondue for marshmallows, cake balls, and anything else that got in its way), Mesir Wat (Ethiopian lentils) with pita bread, salad, brownies, and homemade ice cream (our friends made honey-cinnamon and chocolate ice creams). We had a wide variety of drinks, including make-your-own Italian soda (and make your own whatever else you wanted--it's not like we have a bartender on staff!).

Things were going smashingly well until I started making the chocolate fondue for the dessert course, when the lights went out. I'm presuming there's no causal link there, despite the darkness of the chocolate. Fortunately, the gas stove kept melting chocolate and we were able to locate our camping lantern and a bunch of candles (and, of course, it's 2013-going-on-2014, so everyone has a phone or two that can double as a flashlight).

So the fun continued with chocolate fondue and ice cream cones, and even if we couldn't pull up the video countdown that Lauren spent roughly three hours yesterday tracking down and selecting, that was okay. One of our friends brought a variety of noisemakers to distribute among the children and adults, and I myself grabbed a suitable pot and an equally suitable wooden spoon to do my share of the annual making of the noise.

It brought to mind the years in high school when a friend of mine would have a massive New Year's Eve party, and as midnight approached we would line up from oldest to youngest and then spill out into the neighborhood banging pots and pans to ring in the new year and scare away the old.

After "midnight," which our neighbors might have referred to as "t-minus three hours and counting," our guests filtered out and left us to our dark house. Since our upstairs is underheated in the best of times (even with electric heaters up there), we made arrangements to sleep downstairs.
We have one of these downstairs--during the day, it's basically a couch in our kids' playroom, but at times like these it pulls out and we slap another mattress on it and it's basically a king-sized bed. The unfortunate circumstance here is that we only own one decent twin-sized mattress, which I dragged downstairs for our use--we basically slept with our upper bodies on the good mattress and our lower bodies on the lousy one--overall, it was fine, though I did seem to wake up a lot during the night.

Starting with about five minutes after we lay down, when the lights came on. We had turned off a number of the lights in the house, but--of course--not the overhead light in the room where we were "sleeping." After a bit of running around the house turning off lights, I turned in for the  night.

The night that will always be "the New Year's Eve the lights went out."