Wendell Berry is a literature professor, a successful writer, and a farmer. But overarching all, he’s a man of ideas. More than a farmer, Berry is the thought leader behind the local, sustainable farming movement. He wrote a famous 1981 essay titled, “Solving for Pattern” that introduced a new approach to problem solving.
In his essay, Berry observed how solutions to problems often bring unforeseen consequences that are worse and more intractable than the original problem. If you live in the South, you know about kudzu, an imported grass that became a terrible weed. There are many examples in modern corporate farming, but we also find such disaters in nutrition.
Here’s an example: The rise of heart disease in the ‘50s and ‘60s was linked to fatty plaque that blocked coronary arteries. This led to the false idea that saturated fat caused heart disease. It was logical in a way, but it was wrong. In fact, heart disease is multifactorial—meaning there are many causes—and dietary saturated fat is not a major risk factor. Truth be known, our consumption of the main sources, butter and lard, had been declining while heart disease was increasing.
Anyway, heart disease was blamed on saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, a form of fat, and it was recommended we eat margarine, which had polyunsaturated fats. We now know this made the problem worse in two ways: First, margarine was hydrogenated and contained trans fats later shown to be a significant cause of heart disease. Second, the reduced-fat movement caused Food Inc. to add more sugar to processed foods to improve taste and sugar is also a significant cause of diabetes and heart disease. So a serious problem was worsened by the proposed solution which demonstrates how in dealing with complex problems, the most obvious solutions are often wrong.
Solving for Pattern
Wendell Berry’s essay, “Solving for Pattern,” introduced new criteria for finding solutions to complex problems. Both farming and nutrition are examples of complex problems. Berry sought solutions, if I can condense his criteria, with these characteristics:
- Solutions must be widely applicable, meaning they can be applied to related problems.
- Solutions share a common technology that anyone can apply.
- Solutions should be robust, working effectively in varied environments.
- Solutions harmonize with Nature and are sustainable over time.
- Solutions enhance the underlying economies.
- Solutions blend with traditional practices; they take advantage of the lessons of history.
The Pattern of Healthy Changes
Clever readers have likely noted that our Healthy Changes nicely comply with Berry’s solving for pattern criteria. The Healthy Changes have broad application, can be done by the weakest person, are robust, harmonize with Nature and tradition, and are affordable by all. Two examples:
- The Healthy Change rule of “more natural fiber than added sugar” was first applied to packaged breakfast cereals, but it also works with bread, crackers, and other grain products. It’s a universal rule for processed foods that leads to the correct idea that it’s best to do your own cooking.
- Eating more homemade soup is another Healthy Change and there’s a simple pattern for making soup. Think of soup as five components: 1) the main plant (legumes, potatoes, etc.); 2) liquid (usually homemade stock); 3) mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onion, the aromatic vegetables); 4) a little meat (for texture and flavor); and 5) seasoning (traditionally bay leaf, thyme, parsley, salt, pepper, and perhaps garlic). With this recipe pattern you can make soup from whatever’s on hand.
The Gout Pattern
Sometimes it’s better to learn from the experience of others. Take gout, for example—an unbearably painful joint condition that afflicts 6 million in the US. Gout is usually the logical consequence of a food pattern heavy in meats and alcoholic beverages. Frank Bruni, past N. Y. Times restaurant critic and serious eater, recently wrote about his gout experience in an article titled “Red Meat Blues.” The pain of gout compelled Bruni to give up his favorite man foods: meat and booze.
In Bruni’s new dietary pattern he eats whole grains and nuts, even vegetables and fruits. When he does eat meat, he keeps it under a pound in a week—as in sparingly. There’s a benefit: he sleeps better, feels healthier, and he’s keeping the gout at bay. In the end of the article he shares an important thought:
There are times, crazily, when I’m almost happy about the gout . . . . It provided a dietary shove where the gentle pushes of a vague desire for self-improvement hadn’t sufficed. I always sort-of meant to kind-of get around to paring down the meat in my meals, and I always sort-of meant to kind-of get around to decreasing my drinking. But it wouldn’t happen. I lacked the proper motivation. Illness and the threat of extreme pain have provided it. . . . . My pivot hasn’t been as joyless as I’d feared. Old hankerings fade; new pleasures dawn.
The Salad Pattern Recipe
For Bruni, and all those who secretly want to eat better, here’s the answer: salad. Rather than a recipe for one salad, we offer a pattern for making salads that can be as varied as what’s in your refrigerator. Salads can be like a kaleidoscope; varying the mix of ingredients gives a different taste every night. Actually, now that I think about it, women are like salad—the same dish but each day interestingly different, and unpredictable, though always enticing. This salad pattern has six parts:
- Greens—more varied these days, and darker. To spinach add romaine, kale, or buy the packaged blends to get variety. The best value is old-fashioned spinach in a bunch that you wash yourself (but do a thorough job).
- Protein—nuts, seafood, chicken, bacon, ham, or grains, it’s all good.
- Cheese—there’s such a variety today; a good subject for a future post. We usually stock cheddar (Tillamook), feta, goat, and gorgonzola or Jarlsberg.
- Fruit—so many choices, including pomegranate seeds, grapefruit sections, pears, pineapple, apples, or Mandarin oranges. Meat sometimes competes with fruit; you don’t always need both.
- Vegetables—they add color, texture, and interest to the salad. The beautiful wife enjoys peapods, broccoli, carrots, radish, bell peppers, and, always, green onions.
- Dressing—best with a healthy fat, like olive oil. For a long time I ate my salad without dressing to save calories; then I learned it makes the fat-soluble nutrients more bioavailable. Now I enjoy it, in moderation.
Please comment: To get five daily vegetable serving you need to eat salads. Please share your favorite salad combinations or dressings.
Top photo: Guy Mendes