Honoring the Ancestors through Food, Part Two

Third question–Theoretical Application

[Disclaimer #1 before the next section:  While I think some traditional ways are preferential to modern ones, I also think that inspiration from traditional ways is more valuable than trying to emulate them wholesale.]

[Disclaimer #2: Yes. I know. These are broad generalizations. “Traditional culture” can mean anything from the milk-and-blood eating Masaai to the largely-meat Inuit to nearly-vegetarian-except-for-bugs. There are similarities though, and restrictions that would have been temporally based. For example, all livestock/grazing animals/game back in the day would have been grass-fed–no CAFOs in the Mesolithic.]

But using food to connect–what does that mean, in particular? I can think of several things:

1. That food be grown and tended traditionally. Pastured-based dairy, poultry and beef has been shown to be higher in CLA, vitamin K2 and other nutrients that our bodies need. Also, land needs animals (there, I said it), especially prairie and grasslands. I’m not going to make outlandish claims about the superior health value of organic produce, as I think those claims are still contested, but growing produce traditionally is low-impact, creative and when done best can be restorative to the soil and surrounding natural systems. Having a part in these processes connects us to the past and to the future, much like picking up your Granny’s knitting needles to make a baby blanket.

2. Eating traditional ingredients. Many pre-industrial diets are pretty healthy, especially with the addition of fresh meat. Think about it: soured oats and an egg for breakfast, a ploughman’s platter of meat, cheese, greens, chutney for lunch, then for dinner is a stew. Emphasizing fresh vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, soured grains and reducing white sugar and flour.  Also, these cultures ate all parts of the meat and used the bones for broth as well–important in traditional cuisine and full of vitamins A and D, as well as minerals and gelatin. Making sure dairy sources are fatty and greens are cooked with fat is also important.

There are some traditional ingredients that are controversial, to say the least. I’m thinking particular about raw milk. Raw milk is what any culture who drank milk drank before the pasteurization process was invented. In modern times, if you haven’t heard, some groups claim that the health benefits of grass-fed raw milk outweigh the risk of maybe consuming harmful bacteria. If you’re going to consume milk, they claim, you should only consume raw. Governmental agencies and other safety advocates say nonsense, if you’re going to consume milk, raw milk could kill you. I’m doing more research on this at the moment, so I don’t have a firm conclusion yet.

3. Preparing traditional dishes. Some of these are harmless enough, such as Colcannon. Who doesn’t love a huge pot of mashed up potatoes, leeks, kale, ham and scandalous amounts of butter? Soured oatmeal seems fine to me; I love fermented foods. Gotta love a big pot of stew, as well! Other dishes…well…I can’t say I’m raring to try oat-stuffed cod heads.

Conclusions

The Weston A. Price Foundation pioneered the traditional food-culture trail in the 1940s, and with the popularity of farmer’s markets, eating locally and the Paleo/Primal diets, traditional foods are coming back in vogue. Pagans as a whole have been on the tradiotionalist train since the beginning of the neo-Pagan movement in the ’40s and ’50s. I’m thinking in particular about the Patricia Campanelli who wrote The Wheel of the Year and Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions. So, not exactly groundbreaking territory. It really isn’t even a new idea for this blog, I’ve explored it in most food philosophy posts.

Still, I find the idea of ancestor work through food compelling. It has so many nuances. One could connect to ancestors of place by eating seasonal foods, and buying local meat, honey, alcohol and produce. Blood ancestry could be explored through growing cultural ingredients and using them in different recipes. Also, of course, since culture is fluid, one shouldn’t feel trapped in “I’m Scottish so I must eat kippers and bannocks”, and instead experiment with traditional (and non) ingredients, methods, etc. and see how they can be incorporated.

Personally, our family already does some of this, but I would like to incorporate some low-stress daily/weekly dishes and methods into our rotation. Tea, while more modern, is one aspect of this. I’m thinking about starting a soured porridge pot and a sourdough starter. I’m also tentatively exploring raw milk, more for the culturing possibilities (yogurt, cheese, clotted cream) than for drinking. We’ll see.

Much to my husband’s dismay, we’re also now taking regular spoonfuls of ghee and Cod Liver Oil. At least it’s not it’s not fermented.

(Yet.)

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Honoring the Ancestors through Food, Part One

I’ve always been curious about how our ancestors ate. I love the whole realm of food and beverage, from anthropology down to history. One of my favorite aspects of being in the wine business is that it is a traditional industry steeped (fermented?) in history and culture.

So I began pondering: How would eating traditionally connect me to the ancestors? Not just my temporally near ones, but what about my deep, genetic ancestors?  I honor the ancestors in my daily prayers, but it feels important to cultivate that connection in other ways.

My favorite aspect of all the holidays and Sabbats is definitely the food. I make butter on Imbolc, Colcannon on Samhain, soda bread for the Vernal Equinox. Not to mention the feasts of Yule, Christmas and Thanksgiving. So, if I like that connection so much, what about starting to extend it to daily life?

One of my favorite blogs, Hunt Gather Love, got me to thinking about food anthropology, and piqued my interest even more when she posted about a traditional Scots diet (basically, bleeding venison and kale).

So–first question–who are my ancestors? And where are they from?

Thanks to extensive genealogical research done by my maternal aunt, I know that my bloodline contains ancestors who arrived in America from France, Austria, Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. I also have one flaming genetic marker for Celtic ancestry: I’m a red-head (and freckled).

Question two–That’s a lot of different cuisines and regions.

Sure…well, kind of. And it’s not like I’m trying to be a purist here. Hello, I’m an American whose family has been here since the 1700s. I could also add in Scots-Appalachian food (redundant, perhaps?) and traditional Southern into the mix. But since I’m mostly referring to deep ancestry, I think those more modern distinctions are less important.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from research into a traditional Scots diet:

Grains: barley, rye, oats.

Vegetables: kale, cabbage, Allium crops (garlic, shallots, leeks, onion), turnips,  sea vegetables, wild vegetables (nettles, watercress), marsh plants (sea beans).

Fruits: berries, apples

Dairy: cream, milk, butter, cheese, whey

Meats: fish (especially salmon and trout), shellfish, game meat (especially venison), lamb/mutton, eggs, sometimes beef.

Sugars: honey

A traditional Irish diet would have looked much the same. In researching the topic I found more references to milk products, ducks, geese and beef in the Irish diet–but that doesn’t mean that the Scots didn’t enjoy these foods as well.

A more continental European diet would include beans and legumes, more grains (wheat, though not much, and millet), and a more diverse set of vegetables and fruits.

Traditionally, grains would have (most of the time) been soaked or fermented, which makes them easier to digest and shortens the cooking time.  Think of soured porridge, sourdough, and soaked oats.

Something else to think about–after the hunter/gatherer period of history, fresh meat would have been the province of the nobility, except for feast days. Food of the lower classes would have been grains, dairy and vegetables, supplemented with blood sausages and the like. It’s interesting to note that because of the emphasis on dairy, some of the dietary practices were similar to the traditional diet of the African Masaai tribe (like mixing raw blood, raw milk and butter together).

[Part II will discuss Application and will have a list of my resources and the Wish List Cookbooks]

Sugar (Oh, Honey, Honey)

You are my candyyyyy girl! And you’ve got me wanting you!

Right. Sorry. Now that song is stuck in your head, I’ll continue.

Being intelligent readers, you have probably properly surmised that this post is going to be about sugar. To the point, my relationship with the stuff. I’ve done quiet a few posts on my food philosophy, but I haven’t done one in a while.

For the past year, I’ve had a pretty decent and moderate relationship with sugar (and by proxy, white flour). By that I mean that I’ve cut down my consumption to one of super-dark chocolate and occasional gluten-free treats.

In December that changed. It started with a box of gluten-free cookies that I purchased because I went to the store so damn hungry. The irony of it all is that I was talking to my mom about how! good! I! felt! not eating sugar and eating primarily a Primal-ish diet. Well, half the box later I shoved it off onto J, who took it to work. Problem solved.

Except, not. Except Christmas. A vacation. New Years. Etc. More and more, little bits of sugar began to creep into my life. Until, for the past week, I’ve been in a loop of mini-binges and mini-fasts.

Not. Good. If there is a slippery slope in my life, it is that of my eating disorder. When I’m eating well, exercising moderately and being a productive person I don’t even think of myself as having an eating disorder. But when that one bite becomes two becomes secret cruisin’ to eat…well. Then I have a problem, again.

On a positive note, I haven’t had this problem in exactly a year. Last January was when I stopped the craziness and started moderating my carb, grain and sugar intake. It was an experimental year, and a largely successful one.

Over the past week (yes, the same binge/fast week) I’ve been trying to moderate my sugar by doing things I KNOW WON’T WORK. Exercise (specifically, cardio! That’s right! Get back into that cycle!). Fasting (but now we call it intermittent fasting.) And my favorite: moderation (just one…no two…no three…Fuck! Who ate all the Girl Scout cookies?)

Moderation may work for some people. It does. not. work. for. me.

This is when the rubber meets the road when it comes to change. I have to accept that who I am is a person who cannot eat sugar and flour. I just can’t. I can hardly even have the stuff in the house before I eat it. This has always been the case, even when it featured prominently into my ‘healthy whole-grains’ quasi-vegetarian diet.

But what makes change attainable? It’s tricky, that’s the only thing I know for sure. I used to have these grand ideals of purity and perfection (um, hello, eating disorder). Extreme idealistic positions intrigued me, veganism and evangelical Christianity being the most prominent examples. Juxtaposed to this was the way I lived my life as a failed perfectionist. Since I couldn’t–who could?–live up to these arbitrary perfect standards I set for myself, I would just accept my inevitable failure. Enter binge/purge cycles, shame/judgment complexes, etc.

This changed, drastically, when I left the church. I eschewed notions of purity and perfection as completely unworkable and unproductive. I embraced sensuality and pleasure, and found my place in the pagan spectrum of belief.

I eventually (last January) changed my diet to reflect my new sensual/pleasure paradigm: lots of good meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit, dairy, fat and wine. Occasionally high-quality chocolate and desserts (but not often). I largely nixed refined sugar, flour and most grains. I cut the cardio, opting instead for walking, yoga, heavy-lifting and occasional sprinting.

Life was balanced. I became productive. My moods moderated. I didn’t binge. I became strong and healthy, more creative. Life seemed to open before me. Food and body-image issues took a backseat, for the first time, to life.

(Amazing what getting your nutrition in check can do, right?)

Since I’ve put myself back into this cycle, I’ve also begun veering back into the unworkable idealistic extremes that defined my late teens and early twenties. First, intermittent fasting was the answer! (No.) Then, a complete sugar detox! (It lasted two days–and everything got worse). Then, a sugar challenge! Five pounds of sugar, one year! (Siiiiighhhh).

So, here I sit, thinking about the ‘answer’ when really, it’s not hidden from me. It’s the answer I know. Meat, vegetables, full-fat dairy, limited fruit, dark chocolate, wine. Walking, heavy-lifting, sprinting, yoga. Good sleep, good books, writing, sewing, sunshine and sex.

A life of pleasure is my answer to not eating sugar. A life of decadence, indulgence and productivity. But my mind still goes to the grass is always greener line–well, those people can eat a cookie! I want a cookie!

Goddamn, what is so special about a fucking cookie when I enjoy all of the above? Without guilt, without thought? With much pleasure and satisfaction? When said cookie introduces bad moods, excess weight and binging back into my life?

I guess it’s the human condition. Rather, my condition. My child-brain wants what my adult-brain has restricted. Right now, I have to educate my child brain like I’d educate my child.

No. You cannot have a cookie.

Instead, go out and play. Write a story. Read a book.

And don’t be late for dinner!

To Be Inspired…

Whether you’re mercy killing your tomatoes because of drought (what you’ll catch me doing in a few hours after it cools off!) or if you’re seedlings are just popping up, here’s a video I found inspirational this afternoon:

 

It’s from 2009, but I’ve never seen it. Hope you enjoy!

I Love a Good Dovetail

This post by Ruby Sara over at No Unsacred Place begins a series on food and earth-centered ritual.

Her first footnote really resonated with me: food is complicated. And sacred.

“Well, I think it’s important that whenever we talk about food and its relationship to notions of sacrality and earth-centered religion, it’s important to note that it *is* a complicated issue, so that we can continue to hold that reality in our minds when we consider the simultaneous reality that food is sacred, and that there are legitimate questions we as earth-centered religionists can and should be asking when we consider the food we eat and how we approach it spiritually.”

There is no answer to this question that suits all of us, but I whole-heartedly agree that these questions deserve thought. See the past week’s worth of posts 😉

Food Philosophy: Seasonality

So, we come to the end. Finally. I’ve felt it necessary to recite this story and conclude with my food philosophy, because food will be a major part of this blog. Like I said, I love it.

To be noted: I’m not set out to convince anyone to eat the way I do. A lot of Pagans think deeply about the food choices they make and come to very different conclusions than I. That’s great. Fodder for debate later, I’m sure.

You can read Origins, College and Pregnancy. Also, my Moon Card Musing ties in as well.

——–

I am not an expert. I’m not a nutritional biochemist or a molecular biologist. I’m not a nutritionist, a dietician, a cardiologist, an obesity researcher or a physician. Primarily, I’m a reader. I read. It’s what I do best.

After that night at Target I began to read. Slowly. First I picked up the South Beach Diet (SBD). It was on sale at our local used book store and though I wasn’t looking for a diet I had heard that his concept helped some fellow bloggers of mine. It was interesting–I’d characterize it as moderate-carb, moderate-protein, low-fat. I tried it, again, curious.

I noticed something interesting as I reduced my carbohydrate intake–specifically refined sugar and flour–that my cravings became less constant. If I partook in dessert, say during a party or something, cravings would come back. But even then I was able to resist them. It was encouraging, no doubt.

I began to think about where I had gotten derailed. For someone always so interested in food I had certainly taken to eating a lot of crap. Crap that I in no way condoned on an ethical, environmental level: processed snacks, desserts, fast-food. A binge is certainly an altered state of mind, not unlike being drunk, but eating that left me feeling gross on more than a physical level.

After reading South Beach and kind of trying it, but ultimately not agreeing with its condoning of processed food I rooted around for some information. Most of the nutritional research I had done had been geared toward vegan/vegetarian sources, so in my mind ‘healthy’ eating couldn’t include animals (though I did). Friends batted around titles like The China Study and Skinny Bitch. They cited environmental statistics (which annoyed me, being a Natural Resource Studies major…I know, I get it, and guess what? It’s not quiet right…so…that’s another post).

But it seemed to be a given that if I wanted to be healthy then I’d at least need to be a strict vegetarian/vegan, again, or even moving towards high-raw. However, on these diets I gained weight and still struggled with cravings/binges/mood problems. I never felt satisfied, and I just didn’t like the food.

One day while reading my usual blogs someone mentioned how reading Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes had changed her life. Mmm, I thought. Interesting title. So I bought it and gobbled it up. Then I purchased Good Calories, Bad Calories by the same author and Protein Power by Michael and Mary Dan Eades. I started to read blogs on the Paleo/low-carb diets. Diets that promoted high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb. I had, of course, heard of Atkins but had this image of a plate of double-bacon-double-cheeseburgers. As I read I found a paradigm of eating that really fit with what I liked and the positive effects I saw on SBD.

The low-carb/Paleo diets are varied in their details but mainly involve eating a variety of fats, animal protein, fresh veggies, fruits and (here they vary) dairy products. Ideally, all animal proteins and fats (including dairy) would come from pastured, organic animals. Carbohydrate allowances range widely depending on what your individual metabolism can handle; most carbs are composed of fruits and starchy vegetables like winter squash.

Finally all the threads of what I desired in a diet began to come together. As I began to eat that way my cravings really did vanish. I’m just not that interested in carby-sugary-fatty desserts. Even if I don’t lose another ounce being off that rollercoaster is worth it. Absolutely. My mind has more space for my daughter, my family, my spirituality, etc. It’s incredible.

To this baseline I’ve added my own values of seasonality. We eat differently during the winter than the summer. We eat differently during times of grief and times of joy. That’s appropriate. Food is social cohesion and it can serve to comfort us, to energize and fuel us, to pleasure us. In Pagan traditions it serves to ground us after a ritual; we offer it to our gods. We serve it to those around us and use it as a very primal bond. We prepare it, weaving in bits of magic and prayer. It’s sacred to us. As it should be.

I also take note of tradition. Traditional foods, foods grown and processed by hand, are something of value. They contain so much intention and love that I think that including them in a diet is almost necessary. I’m talking about a slice of bread from a loaf kneaded by hand, artisanal made chocolates, cheese and beers, home-made jams and preserves. To me those foods are worth their weight in gold. Consumed with prudence? Certainly. But works of art meant to be delighted in.

And, a note: do I eat ‘perfectly’ (what does that even mean?)? Well…I mean. No. There is no ‘perfect’. There’s what works for you. Do you feel good being vegan? Have energy? Good mood regulation? Good health? That’s great. Keep doing it. Do I make choices that I know aren’t the best–say, the piece of cake for my brother’s birthday I had this weekend? Yes, of course. What’s life without it? But with my history I probably have to keep a tighter reign than most on treats like that. For a long time I railed against that fact, but now I’ve accepted it (made easier now that I don’t crave it).

So there you go. My food philosophy: good food, real food, practical food. Yes, please!

Food Philosophy: Pregnancy

You can read the first part here.

You can read the second part here.

[I realize that there is more story than philosophy in the past entries, but the story is crucial to understand how I approach eating…which will come in the next installment.]

Becoming pregnant threw my life in to a tail spin. I had a history of depression but the emotional and hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy (felt like it) jettisoned any progress I had made since 18.

To deal with my vacillating I binged. Secretly. And, subsequently, I gained weight. Way more weight than I should have.

I felt disgusted with my lack of willpower and with my depression. I felt shame that I could feel so sad, so empty about the prospect of new life. A baby. A baby who had done nothing wrong!

I know now that I should have gotten help, but I felt that I could deal with it. I had been managing my depression and binge eating for years now. I had (have) a good amount of self-awareness and the ability to analyze. I just didn’t want to admit (what I perceived to be) my failure to anyone. It was too crushing to be on the cusp of motherhood and admit that maybe…maybe I didn’t want it.

(And, these are other topics to explore…paganism and motherhood, paganism and depression.)

So I ate. And ate.

C’s birth (hah, I’ll tell you that story someday…) didn’t change much on the depression front. After three days of labor (yes, three) I was so tired that I didn’t feel connected to her at all. It stayed that way for months, until I finally got some rest (and so did she).

But still I ate.

I tried to lose weight. I went on Weight Watchers and lost some, but I could not stop obsessing about food. I fought for every pound, but in the end, I plateaued after just losing five.

In this time, we ate “well”. I’ve always been big on whole foods, minimally processed. We ate a lot of whole grain pasta, meats, veggies. We drank (drink) wine on a regular basis. I’m an avid baker and so there were also sweets in our diet, but in moderation (unless I binged on them).

It never occurred to me that with all of this ‘healthy’ and ‘whole’ food that it could be something I was eating that was throwing me for a loop. I always thought that it was me. Me, my lack of willpower, my tendency toward depression, my fat genes. My fault, always.

So that continued until January. In January I lost it.

I was so, so sick of being overweight and increasingly unhealthy. My depression still lay under the surface, a murky darkness under a smooth pond. I was becoming very anxious. I still over ate. I still struggled with dieting and the pounds just absolutely refused to budge.

So, one Saturday night I found myself at Target, hand stretched out to a bottle of diet pills.

I stopped, fingers a few inches away. A thought entered my mind: If C was five and she found these in my purse…what would she say? What if she was ten? Fifteen?

And I turned around and walked out of Target. From that moment, my quest for health hasn’t been the same since.