Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Breaking Radio Silence

January 14, 2013 - 10:49 pm 15 Comments

Oh, this thing is still on? Hey, sorry about that*. So 2012 pretty well sucked crusty green donkey whangers, we’re all on the same page there, right? Well, a whopping two weeks in, ’13 is already a mixed bag but trending positively. LabRat has unfortunately spent the majority of the year thus far sick as a dog, hence a good chunk of the lack of content, but it has now been a whole couple hours since she attempted to hack a chunk of lung across the room, so we’ll take what we can get.

I know there have been some** requests for dog pictures as easy filler content. Good news! I have dog pictures! And you can just wait patiently for them because today’s story is about a pie.

See, during the Rama-mas-zwa-inox-ukah-years down time, longtime friend and part time dogsitter Indy was spending a good chunk of her grad student winter break here at Nerd Ranch. This meant that I had Help available in the kitchen. I know it’s odd, but LabRat and I mostly just get in each other’s way, despite many years of marriage, but Indy and I dance like Fred and Ginger*** in the kitchen for reasons unknown. So with little to do and help available, a recipe was floated before me leading to the phrase “Why not? It’s not like there’s anything else going on.”

If you ever hear me say that about a recipe again, just shoot a tranq dart in my neck right then and there and be done with it, mkay?

Now the actual recipe comes from the ambitious but excellent A Girl And Her Pig. The fact that the cover of the book pisses so many crybabies off is reason enough to buy it, but despite the aftermath of this particular misadventure there’s a bunch of stuff in there that still looks awesome and will be tried later. The culprit today, however, was “Beef and Bayley Hazen Pie,” a concoction of rib meat, blue cheese, and some other strong flavors.

Cutting to the chase, this is a multi-day cook project, involving a from-scratch crust and a couple hours of stove time and still a long bake. This is not a fire-from-the-hip recipe. Regardless, Indy and I set about it and made steady progress. Right up until the final step of putting the shell together. See, in the book the final product is supposed to look like this:

The sphincter was prophetic.

I’m sorry, no. I am not making a giant asshole pie. I don’t care that the woman uses the whole pig or if she gives to charity or what, I simply will not serve a giant sphincter. But you all know what a classy motherfucker I am. And it’s pie dough, not marble, so I’m pretty sure I can figure something out. And I did.
Slightly nsfw below the jump.

Just So You Know

December 11, 2012 - 12:49 am 12 Comments

Little Debbie brand hot dog buns are highly fire-resistant, at least when stale.

Further experiments to follow.

I Declare Jihad

October 10, 2012 - 9:49 pm 53 Comments

Look, you hopped up pretentious fuckskids of inferiority masquerading as trendy, there is one goddamn thing that has been utterly fucking pivotal to the advancement and continuance of human progress in the history of the fucking world, eclipsed in importance only by beer, and I am utterly fed the righteous fuck up with every half-wit with an art history degree and a pot of boiling water fucking it up.

Coffee is not this fucking hard, people.

I may be biased by a recently uninterrupted string of bad experiences, but the continued existence of Starbucks backs my claim that shit-awful coffee is still way too common. What’s worse, Starbucks has been the model for every hipster-filled pretentious nouveau-trendy hole in the wall with shitty parking designed only to be accessible to people who’s job consists of carrying an ipad around all day and pretending they’re worth a tin shit in a gold mine. Over the last few months, I’ve been to more than a handful of coffee establishments, ranging from “Gimme some fuckin’ bean juice and get me out the door” to “Our organic free range fair trade cruelty free salmon bagel won best of the block for food served next to a tattoo parlor!” and a good chunk in between.

You know who had the best coffee out of the lot? The goddamn Obligatory Cow Reference in Secret Location, CO at Blogorado. The greasy fucking spoon. Was it great coffee? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s pretty damn good. Fellow coffee snob MattG insists that a good portion of this is due to the company we always have at the Obligatory Cow Reference, and I’ll allow that does bring a good bit of leniency to the standards, but that aside, the coffee is still pretty un-suckful.

The reason for this trend of bad coffee is that, probably thanks to the Seattle Shit-in-a-cup, burnt beans and overextracted brew has become way too accepted as “good coffee,” and it absolutely ball-shreddingly cunt-staplingly IS NOT GOOD.

Let’s take the first problem first: burnt coffee. Unless you fell out of the monkey tree yesterday, you’re probably aware that coffee beans have to be roasted before they can be ground and brewed. A few special cases aside, this happens between 375 and 425F, and can take from 90 seconds to 15 minutes. It will be a smoky process regardless, but apparently every goddamn roaster with ironic glasses has decided that more is more in terms of smoke, and the ideal output product from a coffee roast should look more like the trash can from Auschwitz than a small brown pellet. The fucking goal is to cook out the moisture, and break down the proteins, sugars, and phenolic materials into something complex and delicious. It’s fundamentally a Maillard reaction. That’s an art to do well, I will grant, but it’s not fucking rocket surgery.

Sugars go first, into formic, acetic, and lactic acids, which are responsible for tart flavors. As the roasting continues, acids and astringent phenolic stuff (like chlorogenic acid) are broken down to reduce overall acidity (this can be fucked up later even if done correctly here, don’t worry aspiring trendwhore baristas). This is, counter-intuitively, also where the bitterness starts to ramp up, and where we start running into that choking on a burnt log flavor, since the byproducts from the Maillard that cause the browning of the bean start to ramp up as the bean darkens- or in layman’s terms: IT’S FUCKING BURNT YOU GODDAMN BOIL ON THE ASS OF DECENT CAFFEINE DELIVERY. Body is shot like a car in Fallujah, and the only flavors left are hate and failure.

There’s an argument to be made that I should be pissed off about how they’re grinding the beans, but really, the brewing process is more at fault in any of these cases than grain size, from what I can tell, so I’m going to skip it. Ideally, you want to extract about 20% of the overall coffee solids to make a full, balanced cup of brew. To do this, you have to first get the proportion of coffee to water correct (Hint: You need more coffee than you think!) and second, you need the correct fucking temperature of water. Amazingly, we have had the technology to heat water to specific thermal levels for… let me check here… ah, right, THE LAST FUCKING CENTURY OR SO. Coffee water needs to be heated to between 190F and 200F. DO. FUCKING. NOT. FUCKING. BOIL. THE. FUCKING. WATER.* Higher temperatures extract more bitter compounds. Hence, over-extracted. Some drip machines are slapdash affairs, and compensate for inadequately heated water by leaving the water in contact with the coffee for longer. This is popular with conical filter machines. This also leads to over-extracted coffee.

The starting point for coffee to water ratios should be no lower than 1:15. Most of the old Better Homes and Fuck Dens from The Good Ol’ Days are actually not terrible on this point- one of my grandmothers of the “It was good enough before the darkies could vote, it’s good enough now!” mold insisted on 1.5 Tbs coffee per mug in the pot (using the average 11 oz mug). This gave a ratio better than double the starting point for standard American drip coffee to not suck, and it has served me well. Remember, it is always better to use MORE coffee in the brew; you can dilute if it’s too strong, but you can’t fix too weak.

The Obligatory Cow Reference has an old(er)-school basket type jumbo brewer. It’s got enough ass to get the water hot enough, they use enough coffee for the water, and the basket filter doesn’t leave the water in the grounds for too long. End result: Pretty damn good coffee, unfucked by some shitskid with a fixie.

Look, good coffee is a high art. It does take some practice. But you know what it also takes? Having a fucking example that wasn’t made from the ashes of Juan Valdez’ donkey brewed for half an hour at 212F as a starting point to judge your own output by. Are clove cigarettes really that damaging to the palate? Jesus, people.

So with the explanation out of the way, here’s what I’ve come up with as a rule of thumb. Call it Stingray’s Law of Brew Selection, or Stingray’s BS: If you see more pump bottles full of flavor shit by whatever brewing device is in operation, just get a glass of water and snort a rail of ground-up No-Doz, because I swear on a stack of dead civets that if I get one more shitty cup of mud from a fuck-leaving with a neck tattoo and a hole the size of a golf ball in the ear** I’m going to solve the problem with ten gallons of diesel and a fucking road flare.

*Unless you’re at an altitude where water boils pretty close to 200F instead of 212. Here at 7200′, small quantities will boil around 203F, larger batches where the weight of the water brings some pressure to the party will go higher, up to the 206-208 range. If you try to use a pressure cooker to get the temp higher without boiling, I will hunt you down and do violent things to you. Like make you drink your own coffee. There is a specific style that does this, and brews around 230F, but, uh, damn.
**Some days I’m really tempted to keep a nice, super-heavy Masterlock in my pocket for these special snowflakes, and then when the coffee sucks, beckon them in close, lock it through the ear and run like hell.

Warfare In Food, Fat, and Class

August 15, 2012 - 4:34 pm 28 Comments

Via Chas Clifton, an article by Rod Dreher on the intersection between food, class, politics, and culture, and some of the weird eddies and patterns thereof. His article is specifically about the breed of “fuck you, nanny liberal” conservative that takes perverse joy in eating the opposite of what the “blue elite do”- junk food rather than arugula and organic grass-fed beef. I agree with Chas: read it all, and some of the comments for good measure (they remain surprisingly civil, or have for as far as I’ve been reading), not least because it’s resistant to excerpting and this post will mostly be a collection of thoughts in reaction.

- Several of the commenters brought up a point Dreher didn’t, which is that our food culture- and that of many other nations- is a relic of a time when the average citizen would spend most of the day on his or her feet, sometimes working so hard as to require two or three times the calories to get through the day at “maintenance” that the average citizen with a desk job does. The diet associated with the South and Midwest isn’t saturated in fat and starch because Southerners and Midwesterners are particularly more stupid or indulgent than other regions, it’s because they were the agricultural center of the nation and eating the greens without the pork fat or broccoli instead of mashed potatoes would have been about as productive to the average eater as eating steam. There were still sedentary people, and for that matter fat people (including fat people doing just as much of the physical labor as the skinny people), but the average working life was still not one that primarily involved sitting still.

- A common strain of thought I saw in the comments (firmly to be expected from something aimed squarely at a conservative audience), was the idea that obesity is running rampant because we’re moving more and more to more government- and insurance-funded health care, and thus obese people don’t bear any “costs” for being obese. I regard this as utter bullshit. Being obese IS a cost, and a steep one; insurance and Medicare aren’t funding liposuctions or any sort of magical fat-loss, or even doing anything more than somewhat mitigating the health problems associated with morbid obesity. You can’t pay your way out of crippling arthritis, runaway diabetes, sleep apnea, or doing ordinary errands being a giant and daunting physical challenge, even with someone else’s money. These aren’t inconveniences, being very obese is miserable compared to being thin or even moderately overweight. That isn’t even going into the social costs, which…

- …Dreher doesn’t seem to believe exist. I know it’s pretty much standard for conservatives to see themselves as standing athwart a wholesale abandonment of personal responsibility, but the degree of divergence between the America I live in and the one he apparently does is so great as to make me wonder if we’re inhabiting parallel dimensions. In the one I live in, being fat is regarded as not just undesirable but essentially sinful- perhaps the fact that Dreher agrees with that view in a classic-Christian sort of way is why he doesn’t see it as standout or as another cost associated with obesity. Being fat is like extending a blanket invitation to the world to remind you that you are, and usually accompanied by either a lecture on self-control akin to the one Dreher delivers or instructions that seem to assume that you were raised by wolves and have absolutely no idea that cake is fattening or that you should move around some. Befriending or being family to someone who is noticeably fat is like having a permanent ticket to a movie consisting solely of the world’s rudest people offering the most gratuitous abuse or obvious advice. For whatever reasons obese people are obese, because that state is not sufficiently unpleasant as to be discouraging is clearly not it.

- Speaking of cake, a brief pause for a minirant: What IS it with the cake? I eat cake on exactly two occasions, my own birthday or the birthday of someone sufficiently intimate to me to want to include me in that night’s meal. The vast majority of other people that I know, fat or thin, do pretty much the same. Literally the only person of my acquaintance who has such a sweet tooth they eat cake on a semiregular basis isn’t fat. Is there a secret town in America whose population consists of fat people who subsist solely on cake, donuts, and bacon?

- Moving on to the actual topic at hand, one observation I had is that not only did we essentially lose a generation or two of Americans in which knowing how to cook a variety of nourishing foods from scratch was a bog-standard adult life skill that everyone acquired in the family home, we did a switcheroo on the class associations of this skill. Immediately postwar during the prosperity and technology boom of the fifties, cooking became associated with the lower classes and immigrants who couldn’t afford food that was largely pre-prepared or prepared by someone else- or at least, not having to do much or any cooking for yourself became associated with wealth and status. Sometime around the eighties, yuppies kicked off a home cooking boom in which the type and cost of ingredients scaled up a good deal (setting the origins for those Whole Foods shoppers in the class-warfare game), and cooking from scratch for yourself became associated with wealth and higher class in itself. Knowing how to turn a bag of rice, beans, and maybe one dubious piece of meat into a hearty meal for six became a lower-class thing; then later knowing how to turn the same ingredients (with the price of the meat much higher for its new associations- have you seen what oxtail costs lately?) into a delicately spiced meal for two became the mark of the food snob. Meanwhile relying largely on preprepared or processed food remained the middle norm.

- It’s easy to focus on morbidly obese people who have flagrantly excessive and calorific diets and damn well know it and are suffering dramatically from the physical consequences, but in my experience this actually consists of a very noticeable minority. Most of “fattening America” seems to eat pretty similarly to the America that hasn’t gotten all that heavy. Maybe all the fatties are hiding in closets at night eating boxes of bacon-donuts, but most Americans who have a weight problem and don’t fall into the “fuck you Michael Bloomberg, I’m taking this 20-piece chicken bucket to my grave” camp seem to be if anything more conscious of what they eat, and that it should be smaller portions of not-cake, than folks who aren’t carrying around a gut. (This effect is perhaps only apparent to anyone who has been on a diet and watched lots of perfectly normal-looking folk eating things the dieter’s doctor has told them will make them physically become the Death Star.) Again: “eat less, move more!” and “you just need to be shamed more/told not to eat giant gobs of sugar and butter because clearly you don’t know” do not seem to be working.

- …Which is not to try and claim that diet, class, or our cultural eating patterns DON’T have anything to do with it. Being obese is miserable and you will catch hell for it, but eating is something very basic you have to do several times a day, and the habits we form with respect to what reads as “food, yum” to you, how often you eat and in what contexts, and where you get your food form very early and are tremendously ingrained because eating and drinking are the most basic things organisms MUST do to get on. They are difficult habits to change because evolution favors doing what worked well enough the last time to get fed, and novelty-seeking in times of abundance (which are now a more or less permanent feature of life for first-worlders) carries a lot more costs than benefits.

Which is ALSO not to say that we can’t lose weight because hardwired evolution brain is controlling everything we do, but changing our eating habits is actually pretty difficult. The background desire to do so is low to begin with, which then doesn’t help when you also have to cope with doing something radically different three or more times a day to satisfy a basic physical need, every damn day, for results that are slow to appear and give positive feedback. Throw in the fact that our appetites tend to calibrate around “the usual” as opposed to “what we actually need” (which can lead to undereating as easily as overeating- the habit matters most) rather than what we actually need and it can take a long period of new habits to recalibrate, and “fuck it, I’m having some chicken nuggets” becomes a pretty understandable temptation, even absent the class warfare.

Oh, and all the usual sources trying to give us advice on how to diet and exercise and lose weight are also full to the brim with bullshit it’s hard to recognize unless you already have a pretty good background in nutrition and physiology, so even if you make a superhuman feat of self-control you may not get good results anyway if you were following bad advice. (Free hint: one weird tip will never work.) To make it even more fun, some of those people giving out ludicrously terrible advice have M.D. after their name. A type I diabetic of my acquaintance was told after diagnosis in adulthood to eat a low-fat diet, to spare their heart, a low-carb diet, to keep their blood sugars under control, and a low-protein diet to spare their kidneys. Pointing out that this left literally no macronutrient options on the table for consumption in abundance enough to keep a young adult alive did not seem to register.

- I’ve done a lot of bashing on Dreher here, but I actually agree with much of what he wrote- just not with his fat sinners, thin moderates paradigm. He’s dead bang on that cooking is a disappearing skill, and that cooking quality ingredients from scratch is actually much cheaper than primarily living off fast food and preprepared and processed food, because the base ingredients are pretty cheap and the ones that aren’t aren’t meant to be the bulk of the meal unless you’re throwing a luxury feast. The treatment Jamie Oliver got in Huntington DID have a lot more to do with class warfare than with what was actually benefiting or hurting the schoolchildren. (Saying this makes my teeth grind, because Oliver makes my teeth grind and I happen to think his own attitude of re-educating the ignorants is part of the problem… so inconvenient when people respond with spiteful ignorance right back.)

Overheard at Breakfast

June 2, 2012 - 8:15 am 4 Comments

And, as usual, presented without context:
“It’s like crawfish bukakke. And, y’know, ‘Crawfish Bukakke’ would be a pretty good name for a band.”
{laughter subsides}
“You’re determined to ruin everything I enjoy, aren’t you?”
“….you enjoy crawfish bukakke?”
{longer period for laughter to subside}
“I’m visualizing the little eggs squirting. You got roe’d!”

(And if you insist on putting names to everything…. here ;)

Make Food, Minimal Skillz, Go

March 8, 2012 - 6:53 pm Comments Off

We’re either running around like chickens with our heads cut off or brooding in our lair like miffed dragons. Time for some easy content. In honor of friend Spear, who is learning to cook from the basic bachelor chow style on up, some relatively easy, fast weeknight recipes.

Turnip and Skirt Steak Ignore the description, this is nothing like risotto except in that it fills its basic ecosystem niche of a creamy buttery thing to go next to meat. Dairy fat is what elevates turnips from the bitter cousin of the potato to more-ish. This would also be spectacular with venison in place of the skirt steak.

Baked Grits and Eggs More in the vein of comfort food than healthy food. Really quite easy and straightforward if a bit time-consuming. Best on cold drizzly weekend days when the world is threatening to tell you to fuck off in general.

Beef and Broccoli Fast, good for you, good. Use avocado oil or even just flat vegetable oil in place of the coconut oil if you’re not too sure about the coconut oil.

Cauliflower with Horseradish and Bacon Side dish, but what a side dish. Perhaps next to

Pan-Roasted Pork Chops With Mustard Caper Sauce Name is fussy as hell, but pan sauces are dead easy. This one took me all of about fifteen minutes. Pan sauces in general are a good way to turn meat from ordinary to fantastic quickly and easily.

Pork Chops With Garlic and Wine So good here’s another basic pan sauce pork chops yum recipe. Tip: take the softened garlic cloves and mash them onto the pork. Cuts the sweetness and is very good.

Smashed Rutabagas and Turnips With Parmesan I love root vegetables. I want others to love them as well. All they need is love and animal fat.

Shrimp Rolls Just remember to thaw the shrimp when you get up and you are good to go. Can be spooned over salad greens/lettuce leaves or into portobello mushroom caps instead if you want.

Roasted Garlic Soup What you do with this is, you take the cheese and you grate it into the soup at the end instead of screwing with crostinis, and you brown up some Italian sausage and you also put that in. The cream makes it very, very thick if you go that route. Some grocery stores with an antipasti/olive bar offer roasted garlic cloves, which saves on fucking with that step as well.

Golden Brussels Sprouts More side greens, since there’s not much easier than brown up meat, brown up veg, hit with seasonings, plate it and swallow it. Stingray likes cheddar with these, I think it’s too heavy and prefer it with grated Parmesan.

Vegetable Pancakes …Never omit the “squeeze dry” step. Otherwise, you’re golden. Again, serve with “meat, cooked”.

Egg Salad The basis for my egg salad recipe, which I’m told is pretty good. I do different stuff with this, but always return to this point before I start screwing around again. I like to put in diced fresh cucumbers instead of celery, but then again I don’t like fresh celery very much.

Green Bean Artichoke Casserole It’s here, it’s not hard. Sadly I have had to use canned for the artichoke hearts in the past.

Skillet Chicken Florentine Make, eat, done. Believe it or not we don’t usually bother with the bacon, it’s rich enough as is.

Bucked Stars

February 19, 2012 - 11:44 am Comments Off

So apparently there was something or other involving a burnt coffee superchain and something about gun folks, and no doubt a plethora of not only “guns r evil ’cause bad” opinions, but for icing on the mocha ventilated, plenty of back and forth on the pro gun side between our own that has slid far enough into stupid that I’m not even going to describe it. I was going to just let this whole thing slide as just too “Really? No, really?” to comment on. But I’ve seen one place too many trumpeting this as a victory to refrain comment further.

Moreover I would’ve bet that the overwhelming and deafening corporate “Meh” from last year wouldn’t lead to a repeat. I forgot that the overlap ratio between internet gun people and borderline-Asperger’s “You’re trolling me, right? No, really this is a troll.”-reaction generators is nearly 1.

So the sum total of all the hoopla for this year’s titanic victory? “LEAVE US THE FUCK OUT OF YOUR GODDAMN CRUSADES, WE MAKE COFFEE.“*

Yeah, we knocked that one out of the fuckin’ park.


Michelle Obama Manages To Make Sensible Policy Overbearingly Irritating

February 13, 2012 - 6:52 pm Comments Off

Or at least, that seems to be the real title of this article about the military looking at expanding its mess hall options and including more vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and lower-fat options.

Now, stripping away the political-tribe warpaint and chest-beating, this is an entirely sensible thing for the military to do. There’s a massive amount of difference in the calorie and nutrient profile needs of a 20 year old in infantry training and a 50 year old driving a desk (or for that matter a destroyer), and this isn’t *replacing* the high-octane fuel those soldiers under intense physical demand need, it’s *widening the available options*, to which the only drawback will be the expense during a time when the military is rather strapped for cash.

But oh man does the first lady manage to make it annoying.

The first lady toured a gleaming cafeteria line, then announced the program in a dining hall filled with service members whose plates were overflowing with salad greens, broccoli and whole grains.

“You all look really good, really fit,” she told the airmen. “Thank you for eating your vegetables. We need you strong.”

She encouraged healthy habits during a visit with individual airmen at their tables.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be a vegetable guy soon,” she reassured one airman.

She stressed that it’s not just about giving members of the armed services a more svelte profile: There are big national security and budget implications.

Eat your vegetables like a good little boy! You half expect her to pick up a spoon and make fighter-jet noises as it heads toward someone’s mouth. After all, we’re paying for your ass!

I like vegetables, genuinely and truly, and this makes me want to have a tub of deep-fried popcorn in butter and lard sauce with bacon bits for dinner. (In actuality it will be tri-tip roast and turnips sauteed in butter and herbs, but the preparation of dinner began before I found this article.) There’s just something about having someone come along and congratulate you for making a choice as though you were a seven year old who’d spontaneously taken her plate to the sink after dinner that grits the teeth and inspires spite.

As a side comment from the “vegetable guy yet” remark, there is also a very weird sort of gender war going on in a lot of the comments I’ve read on other articles/posts talking about this story. Apparently this is somehow emasculating, and or we have to have fruit and green leafy things because we have female soldiers now and they require salad to survive.

OK, look. Men need meat and fat and protein to build and maintain their physical base, including bone and muscle mass. Women need meat and fat and protein to build and maintain their physical base because they also possess muscles and bones, and additionally to maintain the ability to become pregnant and sustain it. Children of both genders need meat and fat and protein because they are growing. Men and women and children need fruit and vegetables because they need the vitamins and possess lower digestive tracts. There is absolutely nothing biological about food types as gender signaling, it’s a very bizarre kabuki dance that sometimes involves people getting way more or way less of what they need* and occasionally produces the specter of diminished masculinity via imposed cruciate vegetables. Real hunter-gatherers (usually) have division of labor, not division of food**.

*Ladies, if your diet involves losing basic reproductive function, IT IS BAD FOR YOU.

**There are exceptions to this, but it’s usually in societies with a deep misogynistic/patriarchal streak. Their fecundity outcomes tend to be a lot worse as a result.

Spring Fever, With Recipes

January 13, 2012 - 7:17 pm Comments Off

It’s not really been a bad winter here at the Ranch, as winters go. We’ve had our cold spells and warm spells, and while I find it vaguely irritating that our yard is currently a very small scale version of an interglacial period, it’s not so bad now that Tank is old enough to go outside without an escort to mark the exact last point at which he went to the bathroom. I’m a lucky first-worlder and thus my grocery store is stocked with all sorts of out of season things, though being a small grocery store in a small town, both space and supplies are limited, especially when it comes to fresh food. Thus it comes to pass with the democracy of the market that I can much more easily lay my hands on honeydews or cantaloupes than the hard winter squashes I’m so fond of, cherries are easy but kale is a question of if the store felt like stocking it that week, and the same goes for beets. Somewhat more exotic veggies such as celeriac and okra are totally out of the question, and eggplants tend to be obtainable but only if you don’t mind that it looks as though it was used as the ball in a game of rugby before hitting the store shelves.

I was brooding specifically on the subject of sugar pumpkins and how much it irritated me that they were only available for two weeks out of the year: the week of Halloween, and the week of Thanksgiving. This galls me, because they are a base ingredient in two* recipes I REALLY enjoy in cold weather, and tend to be good candidates for serving guests. I was bitching about this to Indy, who tends to be the default listener to my bitching about many things (lucky her), who responded by linking me to this article on heirloom pumpkins. There was a thought; eating pumpkins, only much better than even the pricey ones the hippie mart up on the hill has. Hmmm. She linked me to seed savers, because she’s helpful like that**.

I spent some intensive time contemplating vegetables, most particularly the scrawny and missing sorts on our local produce shelves. Time passed.

The two kinds of pumpkin, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and beet seed arrived today. The kale, okra, other two kinds of tomato, lemon cucumber, and Thai chiles will probably get here next week. Spring fever being what it is, I have spent my time planning ways to cope with the results of success.

Only one minor problem with that: beyond the hops vines, which are natives- our non-native vines all died- we’ve never successfully grown anything. In fact as a gardener I’m only slightly better than Agent Orange, because I do not care much for messing with plants, only eating them.

Well. I’ve got some time before the soil warms enough to do anything with… and the seeds were only $2.50 a pack. If you don’t hear anything from me for three months, you’ll know why.

*That is not our pumpkin and bacon soup, which doesn’t have potatoes and does have a number of other things, but I don’t feel like writing the thing down and then linking that. Suffice to say pumpkin and bacon soup is more of a genre than a specific recipe.

**Translate “like that” to “you will technically end up with what you wanted, and you will have willing help, but your project will be six times larger than originally planned and have many children”.

Anthro vs. Paleo

October 31, 2011 - 3:12 pm Comments Off

Via NPR blogs, an article by a biological anthropologist concerned about the growing-in-popularity “paleo diet”. She makes some very sound points, some that I think are a bit misleading, and overall it provides a fantastic show-and-tell framework for a blog post.

In a few days, the world’s population will reach 7 billion. Only a tiny fraction of this number still makes a living by hunting and gathering, the way all our ancestors did before about 12,000 years ago.

True this. And it’s entirely possible that that ancestral population wasn’t all THAT much larger than the one that still makes its living hunting and gathering now; we came from a pretty small and spread-out initial population, when we appeared as a distinct species. There’s no question agriculture is what allowed us to number in the billions in the first place.

According to a set of claims relentlessly pushed in some books and blogs, as many modern humans as possible should adopt a hunter-gatherer diet. That is, we should eat lean meat and vegetables because our Paleolithic hunting-and-gathering ancestors did. At the same time, we should refuse dairy, grains and sugars because our hunting-and-gathering ancestors didn’t eat these items.

Well, to be fair it’s a bit more complicated than that- the exact claim is that as many modern humans that lead modern lifestyles should adopt such a diet if they wish to remain lean and metabolically healthy, because a high fraction of grains and sugars leads to an overdose of insulin and blood sugar, causing an array of metabolic ills. Ultimately, high fractions of grains and sugars are said to do so because they were much scarcer in the ancestral diet.

Granted, a depressing number of “paleo” adherents really do seem to think it’s possible to re-enact Paleolithic life in modern times and that we really should eat just the way our ancestors ate, so it’s still a fair ding.

You might think that, as an anthropologist, I’d greet this embrace of the human prehistoric past with unalloyed delight, especially in a country where a high percentage of our population is evolution-averse. Like most anthropologists, though, I don’t think there’s good science behind these claims…It’s best to clarify right off that leaders of the paleo-diet movement don’t think monolithically. Lean meat and veggies take center stage, but the emphasis may vary in details such as how much seafood to eat. A look at the current issue of Paleo — a magazine devoted to “modern primal living” — indicates that, in addition to food, paleo-faddists think hard about exercise and lifestyle choices.

“Faddist” dismissal or no, this is fair. “Don’t think monolithically” is if anything an understatement- there’s a huge amount of variation in what people think is “paleo-acceptable” (dairy deserving its very own Thunderdome as a subject), and even faddist isn’t an entirely inaccurate claim. But there’s also a pretty strong backbone of people who start from biochemistry and then go to what imagined cavemen’s dietary patterns must have been like.

Some of them, in fact, take a paleo-lifestyle to startling lengths. In profiling this “modern-day Stone Age subculture” and its leaders, Arthur de Vany and Loren Cordain, the German magazine Der Spiegel interviews disciples who run through the undergrowth and eat wild boar in explicit emulation of their Paleolithic forebears.

Wild boar is delicious and sprinting down game is about as rigorous an exercise program as you can find, should you be able to hack it. Tongue out of cheek, I agree this is a bit extreme but given hobbies like base-jumping don’t exactly see why it’s all that hair-raising. Humans do far stranger things, up to and including in the game of healthfulness.

When I’ve interacted online with paleo-diet fans, though, I’ve found the great majority to be measured and thoughtful. With them, I worried aloud about the consequences of urging even more carnivory than we’ve already got. Largely, but not 100 percent, a vegetarian, I don’t tell others what to eat. But the paleo-movement seems to doom (even if unintentionally) more animals to life and death in factory farms. A greater percentage of grain crops would also be diverted to rich countries’ animals and away from poor countries’ people.

This is both fair, and not. She goes on to clarify a bit…

What I learned is that some paleo-dieters reject the eating of animals from factory farms. Some don’t eat much meat at all, focusing instead on avoiding grains and sugary foods.

“Some” makes it sound like a minority, but just about every source I’ve ever read is pretty firm on the point that factory-farmed meat is not just ethically questionable, but actively nutritionally worse than pastured, humanely raised meat. You are what you eat, and grain-fed and factory-farmed meats tend to have a much lower proportion of omega-3 fatty acids than their freer and happier cousins, with game meats being even better.

Caveats aside though, she has a valid point. There really isn’t enough meat to go around to feed everyone on the planet a meat-rich diet, not farmed meat and most certainly not wild meat. Our ancestors lived at far lower population densities than we do. There’s more than a little privilege inherent in being capable of entertaining living mostly off fresh meat and vegetables at all, especially the more expensive (because it is less efficient to raise) organic, grass-fed, free-range, hormone and pesticide free kinds.

There’s also more than a little privilege in presuming to decide what kind of diet people should eat based on the global population. One reason poorer areas of the world do well on a primarily farmed, primarily grain-based diet, at least in terms of measures like obesity and diabetes, is that they can’t afford to eat as much as they may want, and besides that they spend huge portions of their day on hard manual labor; it isn’t a paleolithic pattern, but it is a pattern that demands massive amounts of glycogen to sustain the activity level. They need dense carbohydrates to get through life. Data entry technicians do not, and they can afford all the food that is satiating and extra treats besides.

Many nutrition scientists give the paleo-diet a thumbs-down. They worry about its dearth of carbohydrates, its cost, its impracticality, and the fact that its boasts for good health are medically unproven.

It’s worth actually reading the article she linked to support her “thumbs-down” claim. It’s actually pretty inconclusive- it notes that there’s very little robust, long-term research on this eating pattern (perfectly true), acknowledges that it’s actually quite good for getting as much or more of your recommended dose of many nutrients as you need, and identifies as its primary concern the amount of fat you’re likely to take in. Which, a valid criticism of our current understanding of the role of fat in various negative health outcomes is that nutrition studies have traditionally been extremely poor at controlling for other variables- a study of “people who eat a lot of fat” versus “vegetarians”, for example, is highly likely to include a lot of people who eat a lot of junk food versus a lot of people who are very conscious of their health. A number of studies that have attempted tighter controls have found a far less tight link between fat intake and negative health outcomes- but again, this is a big area of just not enough research. We don’t really know.

For my part, I’ll focus on the paleo-anthropology.

Our ancestors began to eat meat in large quantities around 2 million years ago, when the first Homo forms began regular use of stone tool technology. Before that, the diet of australopithecines and their relatives was overwhelmingly plant-based, judging from clues in teeth and bones. I could argue that the more genuine “paleo” diet was vegetarian.

She could, but it would be disingenuous. Australopithecines were not modern humans, and there is plenty of evidence that their diet was radically different from ours. Two million years is a lot of time, and our jaw and tooth morphology especially changed dramatically from that of the australopithecines- away from that suited for tons of fibrous plant foods.

More worrisome are persistent attempts to match a modern diet to an “average” Paleolithic one, or Loren Cordain’s insistence that “we were genetically designed to eat lean meat and fish and other foods that made up the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors.”

Here’s where science most forcefully speaks back.

She’s right. There is no single ancestral human diet. We specialized in adaptability, and the available anthropological evidence is all over the map regarding what we ate. This is by far my biggest problem with the paleo movement as a whole. See John Hawks’s archive of posts on the diets of ancient humans and hominids for a picture of just how varied that could be.

First, ancient hunter-gatherer groups adapted to local environments that were regionally and seasonally variable — for instance, coastal or inland, game-saturated or grain-abundant (eating grains was not necessarily incompatible with hunter-gatherer living).

This is, again, a bit disingenuous. Grains period may not have been outside the paleolithic experience, but there’s little question they had absolutely nothing like our domesticated, starch-stuffed cereal crops. Paleo people who act as though any grain seed will kill them are silly, but an ancient hunter-gatherer’s seeds weren’t pretty much just like a plate of pasta, either.

Second, genes were not in control. People learned what worked in local context for survival and reproduction, and surely, just as in other primates, cultural traditions began to play a role in who ate what

Still a few degrees off what I’d consider straightforward truth. Genes don’t control us, especially in cultural foodways, but they sure as hell influence us- the most dramatic example is the persistence of lactase into adulthood that is widespread in some cultural groups but absent in others, and apparently new but rapidly on the rise in still others. Less dramatic but still most definitely there are differences in how well and efficiently we produce amylase, an enzyme that handles the starches found in grains, as well as genetic differences in insulin sensitivity.

Humans vary biochemically as much as they do physically, and some of it absolutely has to do with evolved adaptations to different dietary strategies.

I’m left wondering what’s the payoff to be had for pushing a popular diet as rooted in a mythically homogeneous, predictable human past. The lure of a good story may play a role. It’s a mighty powerful image: our ancestors roaming over the landscape, perfectly in tune with their bodies and the environment. Some of my anthropologist colleagues refer to this pining for a pristine past as a paleo-fantasy.

On this point I’m in absolute agreement with her. I’ve seen some damn bizarre ideas put forth as what our pure and natural ancestral state was- most especially the idea that that was ever a single state to begin with- and I find equally amazing the idea that “cavemen” were all fantastically healthy and athletic. Modern hunter-gatherers aren’t- it’s a very hard lifestyle, and it will wear your body out even if heart disease and diabetes aren’t among your problems.

It’s not paleo-fantasy that’s going to help us negotiate a healthy future, the 7 billion of us together, on this environmentally-endangered planet.

No, but all 7 billion of us don’t and won’t live in a unitary culture, lifestyle, or diet any more now than we did 50,000 years ago, and it’s pretty high-handed to tell a wealthy first-worlder in a northern climate with a sedentary job that he should eat like a third-world subsistence farmer- or, for that matter, to tell the farmer that he should stick with that lifestyle because it’s better for his health and cheaper to sustain. I don’t think there’s any particular danger that the whole world is going to start eating “paleo” and endanger the environment any more than I think there’s a particular danger that spinning classes are going to take the planet by storm.

I seem to have spent more time agreeing with her than not, but the areas of not are still pretty nontrivial. Paleolithic peoples’ diets may have been much more varied than Loren Cordain thinks, varying by season and locale, but that still doesn’t mean that because some populations ate a lot more tubers and wild seeds than others, that’s pretty much just like a diet based on bread, pasta, and potatoes is good for any modern human that doesn’t burn off all the extra glucose going through hours and hours of strenuous daily activity. Because australopithecines were primarily vegetarian, doesn’t mean the hominids that we became didn’t become much more dependent on animal flesh, whether on land or sea, and that those changes aren’t reflected in our morphology and our biochemistry.

Genes may not determine our destiny, but that likewise doesn’t mean that someone whose ancestors had been eating cereal grains for nine thousand years and has three times the amylase production of someone whose ancestors had been hunting, fishing, and dairying somewhere frozen for the same length of time will have exactly the same metabolic experience eating a bowl full of rice- or for that matter a glass of milk and a bear steak.

We can’t sustain the entire planet on wild boar and fiddlehead ferns, but that doesn’t mean that an individual person whose primary concerns are his serum triglycerides, waistline, and blood sugar numbers should consider himself identical to someone whose primary concerns are the monsoon season, his subsistence income, and the early arthritis in his elbows and knees when it comes to deciding what he should eat or how he should move.