Back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when my dad was a kid, most of the people he knew were subsistence farmers, like his own family. Milk, eggs, and meat were available because they raised the livestock themselves, and as my dad remembers, after butchering a cow or pig in the fall, they’d hang the carcasses in the smoke house where they’d stay all winter. When the family needed meat for supper, Papaw would go out and saw off a piece to be roasted with vegetables.
Vegetables and fruits grew plentifully, with lots of hands needed to harvest it each summer and fall. But harvesting wasn’t the only work involved. They also preserved everything they could through drying, canning, and eventually freezing so the family could eat in the winter and early spring when nothing else was growing.
What they didn’t grow or raise themselves, they found in the woods, ponds, and fields near their home, hunting for squirrels and rabbits, fishing for catfish and trout, and foraging for morels, berries, and nuts.
When I was a child, my brother and I occasionally spent the night at my Mamaw’s and Papaw’s house, the same house (both drafty and without air conditioning) my dad spent all of his growing up years in. As if I were there right now, I can still see Mamaw in her housecoat and slippers rocking on the front porch swing, and I can smell the mingling of hard well water and lavender soap in their one full bath. But the memories that have endured most poignantly are the ones involving food.
For breakfasts, Mamaw would fry eggs over easy in an iron skillet coated with bacon grease and toast slices of white bread, which we’d slather with butter and honey that always sat out on the table. Only Papaw could mix the butter and honey just right, using his fingers and his pocket knife to measure, stir, and spread. For lunches, we’d have fried baloney or toasted cheese sandwiches, often with a can of tomato or chicken noodle soup.
A block of moldy cheese usually sat out on the table next to the butter. When I’d point out that the cheese was bad, Papaw would just smile.
“It’s still good, honey,” he’d say. “I’ll just cut off the bad spots ‘fore we eat it.”
I don’t remember all the meals we had, but I do remember there were plenty of vegetables from the garden: fried cabbage, sliced tomatoes, and boiled green beans and new potatoes with a slice of bacon floating in them. During the early summer, we’d come in from picking strawberries to eat bowls full of the fruit sprinkled with sugar, usually the bruised or misshapen ones Papaw couldn’t sell from his patch. During the fall there were always apples and peaches to pick, and chestnuts to gather and shell.
This is the indigenous diet of many people in my region, especially those in rural areas, established, as physician, professor, and author Daphne Miller explains, “when a group of people use their traditional knowledge to make a complete diet using local foods.” As I’ve thought about the principles of indigenous diets in Miller’s book, The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from around the World—Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You, it was helpful for me to start with my own family’s food roots. True, there are specific disease cold spots around the world today where an unusually low number of people are afflicted with many of our modern chronic diseases. And as Director of the Center for Indigenous People’s Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, Harriet Kuhnlein, says, we have a lot to learn about the ingredients, nutrients, and food preparation techniques from those places.
But Kuhnlein also says that all indigenous diets are “nourishing because they rely on fresh, in-season ingredients. All foods in an indigenous diet are either produced locally or purchased (traded) within a limited geographic area.” Which sounds exactly like the food story of my own family just a generation ago.
As farming and manufacturing have advanced and as food distribution has become more mobilized, very few families in my neck of the woods live subsistently anymore. While a good many people garden, most of them also regularly shop at chain supermarkets, buying processed food and ingredients made all over the world. While this shift likely happened over time, it appears to have taken place mostly between my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation, as evidenced by a quick cookbook perusal.
When my mom downsized into a skilled nursing facility last year, I kept several of her cookbooks, including two “contribution” cookbooks. One was my grandmother’s copy of The Farmer’s Guide Cook Book: Tested Recipes Contributed by Readers of the Home and Family Department of the Farmer’s Guide. Published in 1927, it predates many of the convenience foods we now take for granted. While it does assume readers will have access to boxes of lemon jello and canned salmon, it also offers recipes for making mayonnaise and boiling dandelion greens, one of my Mamaw’s favorites. And most of the recipes called for fresh cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, dried beans, and other foods you might grow or raise yourself.
The other cookbook is my mom’s copy of “Redin’ Ritin’ Recipes,” a fundraising cookbook for Belle Union School from 1976, where my brother and I attended elementary school. In this book published just 50 years later, many of the recipes call for canned vegetables and meats, canned cream of mushroom soup, and for my mom’s contribution, “7-Up Party Salad,” a bottle of 7-Up, a bag of mini marshmallows, and canned pineapple, among other things.
But local and fresh are not the only components of an indigenous diet. Miller lists eight other characteristics:
- Food cultivation techniques and recipes passed down through the ages
- Food traditions, like eating together and observing food rituals
- Sugar from whole foods such as honey, fruits, vegetables, and grains
- Salt from unprocessed sources such as fish, sea greens, and vegetables
- Naturally raised meat and dairy as a precious commodity
- Non-meat fats from whole nuts, seeds, grains, and fatty fruits
- Fermented and pickled foods
- Healing spices
As I think back on my dad’s growing up diet, I find evidence of each of these components, from the large family meals I remember to the honey on our toast; from the dandelion greens wilted with vinegar to the ginseng my Papaw foraged for, eventually raised himself, and always chewed to keep himself healthy. Even as I work toward a healthier diet myself, I can start with what worked for my ancestors and learn from their both their tastes and techniques.
Of course, there also were signs in my family story that food production was changing and my own family’s indigenous diet was being transformed. For instance, Dad says they always had hotdogs on hand, and if he or his brothers needed a snack, they’d grab raw hotdogs out of the refrigerator. As my grandparents aged and were less able to grow what they ate, more and more of their food came in boxes and cans and was purchased at the store.
Such is the fate of most indigenous diets, though not the five Miller discusses. Next week, we’ll look at some of the specifics of these five disease cold spots.
For Your Consideration
Take some time to think about the indigenous diet of your own family or area. What family members or local elders could you talk to? What are some examples from that diet for each of the nine categories above? Tell us about one of them in the comments.
Want to join us? Here’s a schedule for upcoming reading and discussing:
Week 2 (January 29): Chapters 5-9: Specific Indigenous Diets and What They Have in Common
Week 3 (February 5): Chapter 10 through Appendice G: How to Find an Indigenous Diet that Works for You
Make Plans for Other Upcoming Winter Book Clubs at Tweetspeak
In 2020 we embark on our Year of Wisdom journey at Tweetspeak, and just as we approach everything we do here in a multi-faceted way, looking at any question from myriad angles—from the serious to the mischievous, from the forthright to the nuanced, from the erudite to the whimsical—our broad range of book clubs will help guide us in that journey from a variety of vantage points.
February will take us to the magical land of Narnia where we will be reminded that what we put to heart can rescue us when what we know is put to the test during the darkest days. Read The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis with us beginning February 12.
And in March, the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky in Deaf Republic will guide us in a reimagining of what it means to be a hero, of disability, of the movements that compel us to survive. Join us starting March 11.
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