We awoke this morning to a wonderland of white, from snow falling quietly in the night. We live near the beach in California but traveled Saturday to the small town high in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah where my wife’s father, John Huber, grew up in the years between the World Wars. This home has been in the family for over a century; we are its keeper now. Built in the Victorian farmhouse style, its thick stone walls are a storehouse of family tradition. The Hubers had been farmers for as long as anyone could remember. John’s grandparents brought their farming traditions when they emigrated from Switzerland in the 1860s. Here, they planted apple and pear orchards, and built a creamery cooled by water from a mountain spring. The males of the family kept cows and planted wheat, oats, potatoes and onions. The women tended a large kitchen garden, helped in the fields when needed, and baked bread twice a week using their own wheat (ground at the local mill). This was the life of the traditional farming family.
You’ve heard of the roaring ‘20s? Not so for the farmers—those were hard times. In the post-WWI recession, crop prices were terribly low. In the ‘30s, recession turned to Depression and prices fell even lower. There was seldom any money in the Huber home; they raised what they ate or bartered with the person who made it. The Johnson family kept the local mill for grinding wheat; Uncle Cooney across the way smoked their hams. (My wife has a childhood memory of him yodeling as he called his cows from pasture.)
Did I say hard times? I wrote John’s memoir just before his passing. The childhood he recalled had a warm and golden glow. His grandparents were founders of his town and his closest neighbors were all related. Forty-three first cousins lived within shouting distance of his home. At the end of his life, John still missed the breakfast groats his mother cooked (a hot cereal of oats and wheat with unpasteurized cream from their cow), the hearty homemade breads, and the fried trout that the boys caught in the creek by their farm. He remembered the comforting sight of the root cellar packed full in the fall with the crops that would carry them through the winter. They worked long days in the summer but in the winter they spent quiet evenings around the wood-burning stove that cooked their food, heated the water, and warmed the house. It was a treat, he recalled, to get an apple out of the root cellar, dip it in the teakettle to warm it, and then remove the peel in a single piece with his pocketknife.
John was the last in his line to grow up on a farm; when he came of age he sought his fortune in the city. It was the modern thing to do; the world was changing and ambitious young men didn’t want to get left behind. If there was one dish that marked the shift from traditional farm food to the modern diet, perhaps it was the Angel Food cake. The Angel Food cake, in contrast to the whole-grain breads John had grown up on, was light, white, and ever so sweet. The ingredients came from distant factories not the local mill, so had to be purchased. The cake required equal amounts of powdered sugar, granulated sugar, white refined cake flour, plus an eggbeater to whip the egg whites. Welcome to the modern diet.
John, in his lifetime, saw all the phases of the modern diet: cheap sugar and refined flour; hydrogenated shortenings, margarines, and vegetable oils; processed foods easily prepared in your kitchen; and finally, take-out and fast foods that made your kitchen redundant. Setting aside chronic disease, there is another result of modern food—we gain weight. From weight gain, a new fad evolved—the diet. The word now meant a temporary deprivation where you lost enough fat for your friends to notice, before returning to what you were eating before. You could write a book about all the diets that have come and gone. As noted in the post The Skinny on Being Overweight, eating less refined carbs lowers both blood glucose and insulin, which reduces stored fat. From this concept came the Atkins Diet, which was a redo of England’s Banting Diet of the 1800s.
The French have a different approach to food. Though they enjoy sweet buttery sauces and pastries, they are blessed with trim figures and a low rate of heart disease. This is called the French paradox. What was missed in our understanding of their diet was a strong discipline about food: The French eat multiple courses but small servings; they don’t have the American disdain for whole foods like vegetables; and there is little between-meal snacking. Well that has been changing—there is now a McDonald’s on the Champ-Elysees in Paris and the French are gaining weight and resorting to a most American mistake: le diet.
Last week the N.Y. Times wrote about the French take on the Atkins Diet—the Dukan Diet, the creation of the latest diet millionaire, Dr. Pierre Dukan. The article was pimping a new book about Dukan’s diet. What I found most fascinating about the story (“The French Diet You’ve Never Heard Of”) was the reader’s contempt, as shown in their comments. The Times readers, at least the ones writing, are totally done with diets. They recognize the absurdity of a temporary change to solve a long-term problem. They were angry—with the N.Y. Times for recycling a discredited concept—and were calling, I thought, for a return to wiser food traditions.
This brings us back to the Huber home, and their food tradition. The table where I write is in the old parlor. Before me (because of the thick walls) is a beautifully trimmed window. Still standing in the distance, under a mantle of snow, are the sheds where they kept the milk cow and chickens. In the foreground is the area where the kitchen garden once grew. Close by is the root cellar. Writing John Huber’s memoir was hard because it was my first book. But there was a hidden blessing: He shared with me all the charming details of how people ate before food was made in factories. As noted, the source for Word of Wisdom Living is the three-legged stool of science, food tradition, and scripture. Our quest is not a diet to lose weight, but each reader’s discovery of how to eat and be well. This is a journey best made together, though our answers will vary as we do.
Please comment and share your best healthy food discoveries.