Friday, November 4, 2011

Acceptance of anomaly

Here in the eastern seaboard, we neatly avoided a big - and definitely freakish - snowstorm a week ago. The autumn was mild for weeks, so not only did the leaves not fall, they barely turned the colors we all know and love. When some cold hit a large patch of precipitation, snow resulted - quel surprise! And when that snow accumulated on all those un-fallen leaves, many, many trees died from the damage.
My friend in NY city said about 1000 trees in Central Pk died or had to be pruned down to just about nothing.
We, here, have large areas of green trees among the gold and red. When the temperatures plunge further in the next few days, I hope the air remains dry, or the same calamity may befall our precious trees.
With increasingly frequent freak occurences, abnormality may be the new norm. At what point will the general consensus be that something just ain't right? How many anomalies does a person have to witness before the idea of "right" starts to shift?
Everyone knows how difficult it is to change a food habit. (We can thank the omnivore brain for that.) Perhaps all resistance to change comes from this most basic one. The omnivore brain evolved to deal with an embarrassment of riches, food-wise. Our metabolic needs require dietary variety - yet a measure of conservatism is necessary to prevent or minimize accidental poisoning. Foolhardy gourmets die young.
But people tend to cling to other notions - plenty of them, in fact - not only what kind of breakfasts works best. The tendency to stick to something once it works ("bacon and eggs - what's not to love?") can lead to inflexibility when it comes to abstractions such as climate change.
It would be interesting to do an experiment in which opinions on controversial and fairly abstract environmental problems were measured along with the person's dietary range. My hypothesis is that those who eat the most conservative diet (i.e., least open to novelty) are also conservative thinkers.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Three Sisters Soup

The end of summer/beginning of autumn is the time to reap what we sowed. Harvest. Such a comforting word! No better reminder of eating locally can be had.
I really like old recipes that were very locally inspired. What choice did they have back then but to be local? It was a necessity not a fad.
One such recipe is the soup composed of the tres hermanas: squash, beans, and corn, the mainstays of Mexican diet and culture. That native diet works due to a delightful confluence of factors.
  1. The plants grow together well. The corn grows tall, providing a "pole" for the climbing bean vines, and slight shade for the creeping squash vines below. The beans' roots also provide nitrogen in the soil for the other two species.
  2. The vitamins and amino acids in the three products complement each other. Adding rice makes for an even healthier meal.
  3. The flavours and consistencies combine superbly in a single dish, or several dishes eaten together.
  4. The plants ripen around the same time - or can be stored easily until it all "lines up."
  5. All plants are indigenous: adapted to a long growing season and very hot, dry conditions.
Although the conditions where I live in Canada are fairly different, during the summer they can resemble Mexico's - especially lately. I never had the space to grow the three sisters together (where they are happiest), but I certainly have enjoyed putting them together in soup every August and September. The local farmers' market can provide all three ingredients. If not, I buy a local squash (delicatas and acorns are best) and add frozen corn and canned beans, all organic. [About 100% of non-organic corn is genetically modified, so I avoid it.]
To make Three Sisters Soup, bake a squash (cut in two and de-seeded) until it is nearly entirely cooked. Remove the skin off and cut into small pieces. In a medium pot, put the cubed squash, 2 cups of vegetable stock, herbs to taste, about a cup of corn kernels, and about a cup of small pre-cooked beans. (I prefer navy, cannelli, or baby lima.)  Cook for about 20 min. on a moderate heat. Add a dollop of butter and stir in before serving. For a creamier soup, purée the squash before adding to the stock, and add a bit of organic milk or cream. Serve with a green salad and garlic bread - all locally sourced, of course!
!Buen provecho!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Holding onto Summer

It's still warm outside, but already the sun is winking over the mountain (where I live) a little later every morning, signalling to my deep brain that the summer is edging away. Soon, the days will be significantly shorter. In their "deep brains," plants will start shutting down and birds will prepare for migration. The science of such signs - day length, mean daily temperature, flowering rates, animal sightings, etc. - is called phenology. The deep brain, of which I speak, is the part - call it instinct, if you prefer - that learned long ago to respond to nonverbal signs in the environment (and probably branched out to pick out cues from other people, too). It's only a few years ago that I noticed how a certain time of year would bring on a mood: the phenological data were reminding me on a visceral level of an event (sad, bitter, regretful, whatever) that had happened at the exact same time, years before.
[This year, I am remembering several happy-sad experiences I had exactly a year ago. Even if I am preoccupied with other duties, the very act of going outside in similar weather brings those experiences back to the surface. And the emotions that accompanied them come rushing back as well.]
Spring is a special season because of its association with rebirth, but summer's a virtual synonym for leisure, fun, relief from school or work, time with people we care about, and - most of all - bountiful food. Most people in western countries might not think of the food aspect too much; after all, air transport has wiped out much of the seasonality of most food stuffs for us here. If you can get something in January as easily as you can in July, that plus side of summer is less noticeable.
But there's no denying that local, seasonal produce is best. Even before the locavore movement, or the 100-Mile Diet, people extolled the qualities of June strawberries, July tomatoes, and August blueberries.
Is there some way of holding onto that taste, that delight? Is it possible to extend the shelf life of a summer's day?
The most prosaic answer is yes: dry, freeze, or can the produce at its peak and enjoy it in somewhat degraded but still delicious form throughout the year, even in deepest winter, when the only tomatoes, peaches, and strawberries available taste like cardboard. 
Here's one set of instructions to start:
I have never canned anything - a series of small kitchens (including the present one) put an end to any such ideas. But I have had a lot of fun making soup ingredients with a food dryer, and hope to do so again soon. I also freeze wild blueberries, red and black currants, and my own black raspberries. I held off the last batch as long as February, and served them at a special meal. The fact that I had picked most of them myself made it even more special.
I will embrace autumn when it arrives, and even enjoy winter, but I am not ashamed of holding onto summer as long as I can.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer BBQ

In the depth of summer, the natural impulse would be to eat cool, refreshing food, not hot and dry stuff. In addition to drinking all those glasses of water (ha - more likely beer, ice tea, lemonade, and pop) to replace fluids lost to evaporation from skin and breath, we need to eat water-rich food. (Watermelon is something like 98% water, but lettuce and other vegetables are also good sources of H2O.)
Yet the smell of roasting meat fills the air, not during the cold weather - the precise time you'd think most appropriate for hot, fatty food from a very hot fire - but in the summer.
Instead of sticking to a menu full of no-cook or low-cook fare, e.g., salads, sandwiches, tacos, sushi, and cold soups, in North America, at least, people love BBQ. They fire up the gas or charcoal grill. They set up a grill over a campfire. They - usually the males of the group - drag out massive amounts of red meat, raw cuts or semi-cured (e.g., hot dogs) to throw on the barbie.
Occasionally, seafood and vegetables will join or replace the cow, pig, and chicken parts, but classic BBQ means something bloody. It's as close to our so-called Original Diet as you can get without tearing something off an animal with your (inadequate) teeth and non-existent claws.
There's the clincher. Common sense may tell us to reach for the water in this weather. But an atavistic streak seems to be driving us to open-air meat fests, where the sight, sound, smell and later taste of fat (not protein - that comes much later) is critical. The fat in salad is very modest - zero in most fruit.
Why would we "need" fat in the warm weather? Isn't it crazy to overeat when it's already too hot to move?
It would be interesting to see if the craving is purely biological, or if something cultural - a favored way of male bonding, perhaps, carried down through the generations? - is at play.
If biological, there are several sides to the question. The brain is a very fatty organ, and it tends to slow down when fat is reduced in the diet. (Perhaps that's why supermodels tend to be just as super-grumpy as they are super-thin.) Maybe the craving for fat is a way of compensating for all the water and other fat-free fare we are forced to consume in the summer. (We don't have to drink quite so much in the winter.)
But surely, surely, the idea of cooking outside and delivering the results to your family and tribe is a very deep (and gratifying) memory in most men's brains? It became incorporated into culture, and then culture reinforced whatever appeared in individuals: a positive feedback loop.
That is something I will return to again in this blog.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Welcome to my blog about the way brain and diet have "interacted" over millennia, each driving the other to greater complexity.

I have been a long-time student of all things related to the brain. For the past ten years or so, I have become fascinated with food and the human diet. Only recently have I seen how intimately food and brain are connected.
We wouldn't be who we are as a species if not for all those higher cortical functions (e.g., language and facial recognition). But we would be very, very different if we ate only plants (herbivorous), only animals (carnivorous), and certainly if we focussed on one species the way a koala or panda does. You don't need to be a biologist to know somehow that a bamboo-eating panda is quite different from a black bear in behavior, and you'd probably be aware that the bear is far more intelligent. Like us, all bears (except perhaps polar bears) are omnivores: they can subsist on a diverse diet; indeed they must have a wide variety of foodstuffs in a given day. It is no surprise that bears and other non-human omnivores (e.g., raccoons and crows) are among the smartest creatures on the planet.
In coming posts, I'll be discussing academic and mainstream news on the evolution of the human diet - and the many features our brain has developed in response to the environment which provides the incredible array of (more or less edible) materials we call food.
I am planning to write a book about this subject next year. All comments welcome. You might even make it into the acknowledgements!