Archive for October, 2012

A reader sent me this message yesterday:

Hello, Tom!

I had a great find at the used bookstore today. It was an old copy of the White House Cook Book, which was copyrighted in 1887! It’s not in the best condition, but it includes photos of the first ladies as well as rooms in the White House. I perused some of the recipes and as expected, they have lots of fat – heavy cream, lard, you name it!

She also informed me that the book is available online courtesy of Project Guttenberg.  So I perused the text, and while there are recipes for breads and cakes and other sweet or starchy goodies, there is indeed a heavy emphasis on meats, butter, lard, suet, etc.   Here’s a quote from a section on proper frying:

Many French cooks prefer beef fat or suet to lard for frying purposes, considering it more wholesome and digestible, does not impart as much flavor, or adhere or soak into the article cooked as pork fat.

What, no soybean oil?  No Crisco?  No canola oil?  Of course not.  Nobody cooked with that garbage back then.  The technology required to extract garbage oils hadn’t been invented yet.

Since this book was written before refrigerators were common, there’s also a section on preserving eggs:

There are several recipes for preserving eggs and we give first one which we know to be effectual, keeping them fresh from August until Spring. Take a piece of quick-lime as large as a good-sized lemon and two teacupfuls of salt; put it into a large vessel and slack it with a gallon of boiling water. It will boil and bubble until thick as cream; when it is cold, pour off the top, which will be perfectly clear. Drain off this liquor, and pour it over your eggs; see that the liquor more than covers them. A stone jar is the most convenient—one that holds about six quarts.

Eggs can be kept for some time by smearing the shells with butter or lard; then packed in plenty of bran or sawdust, the eggs not allowed to touch one another; or coat the eggs with melted paraffine.

Butter and lard again.  Who even keeps lard in the house these days?  (Besides me, I mean.)

The book includes a brief section on how to handle common ailments:  figs for constipation, alum and brown sugar for whooping cough, and so forth.  But my favorite was the treatment for asthma:

Sufferers from asthma should get a muskrat skin and wear it over their lungs with the fur side next to the body. It will bring certain relief.

I was diagnosed with mild asthma some years ago, but it disappeared when I stopped eating wheat.  If only I’d known about muskrat skins …

Amusement value aside, clearly people back then weren’t worried about butter, eggs and lard clogging their arteries and giving them heart disease.  And why should they have been worried?  Heart disease was rare.  Yes, some heart attacks probably went undiagnosed, since the EKG wasn’t commonly used until the 1920s.  But even after doctors could properly diagnose heart attacks, the rate of heart-attack deaths didn’t take a sharp rise until the 1940s – when consumption of butter and lard was dropping.

When I’ve pointed that out in previous posts, I’ve heard from lipophobes who insist that the only reason few people died of heart disease back in our lard-powered past is that they didn’t live long enough to die from a heart attack.  “Of course people weren’t dying of heart disease!” they tell me.  “Most people died before they turned 40!”

What they apparently believe is that most adults died sometime around age 40.  That’s simply not true.  They’re citing (without understanding) the average life expectancy in the 1800s.  Before antibiotics were developed, lots of children and teens died of infections, which dragged down the average.  But the people who survived into adulthood had a very good chance of living to a ripe old age, despite the lack of drugs and surgeries available today.  You can get a clear sense of how dramatically childhood deaths affected the statistics by visiting this site, which shows not just average lifespan, but average lifespan starting from different ages.  For example:

In 1850, the average lifespan from birth for boys was only 38 years.  But for boys who had already reached age 5 in 1850, the average lifespan was 55 years.  For young men who were already age 20, the average was lifespan was 58 years, and for men who were already 40, the average was 66 years.  Keep in mind those figures would include violent deaths, not just deaths from diseases.

By contrast, the average lifespan for a boy born in 1950 is listed at 65, but for a young man who was already 20 in 1950, it’s listed at 68 — just a few years older.   In other words, by 1950 antibiotics were saving a helluva lot of kids who otherwise would have died from some disease.   That’s why the average life expectancy shot up, not because adults went from routinely dying at around age 40 to dying at around age 70.  There have been 70-year-olds in human societies for a long, long time.  Even in the Bible — hardly a modern work — there’s a reference to our lifespan being three score and ten years.

I recently finished reading Killing Lincoln (which I enjoyed immensely) and was reminded again of how common childhood deaths were in the 1800s.  Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had four sons.  Eddie Lincoln died at age four.  Willie Lincoln died at age 11.  Thomas “Tad” Lincoln died at age 18.  But Robert Lincoln lived to be 82.  The average lifespan of the four Lincoln sons:  28 years.  But Robert, the only son to survive into adulthood, certainly lived long enough to develop heart disease – as did most people who saw their 20th birthday.

When answering the “people died before they turned 40!” crowd, I’ve occasionally pointed out the longevity of some of the country’s founders:  Thomas Jefferson died at 83.  John Adams died at age 90.  Benjamin Franklin died at 84.  (One of Franklin’s legitimate children died at age 4.  The other died at age 65.  Average lifespan of his legitimate children:  34.5.)

Curious if I was cherry-picking the few old-guy founders who came to mind, I looked up brief biographies of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence.   This was not a group of old men — their average age in 1776 was 46.  I excluded one who died in a duel and another who disappeared at sea when he was 30.  Of the remaining 54, the average age at death was 68 – old enough to develop heart disease.

But again, that’s just an average.  Of the 54 remaining men who told King George to stuff it, 43% lived past the age of 70, and 26% lived past the age of 80.  In other words, there were plenty of very old Americans back in the day and therefore plenty of potential candidates for a heart attack.  But heart disease was rare.

So here’s the history lesson:  Cook like your great-great-great-grandma and don’t be afraid of meat, eggs, butter and lard.  Follow the recipes in the White House Cook Book of 1887.

I predict you’ll like the squirrel soup in particular.

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Last week the disappointing outcome of a major study made the news.  Here are some quotes from an article in the Washington Post titled Moderate weight loss alone doesn’t lower heart disease risk in diabetics, study shows:

Losing a small amount of weight doesn’t appear to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people with diabetes who are already getting good medical care, according to a long and expensive clinical experiment whose results were announced Friday.

While modest weight loss has benefits in how overweight diabetics feel, sleep and move, whatever benefit it may confer in preventing cardiovascular disease — which is what most diabetics die from — is too small to measure, the study found.

“We were hoping that a weight-loss program would help reduce cardiovascular disease, but now we have the answer that it doesn’t,” said Mary E. Evans, a physician at the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which paid for the study.

The researchers recruited 5,145 people with Type 2 diabetes, which is the form that generally comes on in adulthood and is strongly associated with being overweight. Type 1 diabetes, an auto-immune disease, is the opposite. It comes on in childhood, and its sufferers are usually thin.

Half of the people were randomly assigned to get intensive dietary counseling on how to limit their calories. They were provided meal substitutes such as Slimfast drink. They were also urged to exercise more and instructed how to do so safely. They met weekly in support groups and once a month with a counselor, although that amount of attention was eventually reduced to a monthly visit and a monthly phone call.

In the first year, the people with the intensive counseling lost 8 percent of their weight. They gained some back, but over the decade of the study maintained an average 5 percent reduction from their starting weight — about 10 pounds. The people in the less-intensive “arm” of the study lost, on average, about 1 percent of their body weight.

By the end of 11 years, there was no difference between the two groups in the rate of heart attack or stroke.

When I read this story, I of course immediately wondered what kind of intensive dietary advice these people were given.  I followed some links and eventually found a copy of the study protocol online.  Here’s the section on diet:

Restriction of caloric intake is the primary method of achieving weight loss. In order to aim for a weight loss of 10% of initial weight, the calorie goals are 1200-1500 kcal/day for individuals weighing 250 lbs (114 kg) or less at baseline and 1500-1800 kcal/day for individuals who weigh more than 250 lbs. These goals can be reduced to 1000-1200 kcal/day and 1200-1500 kcal/day, respectively, if participants do not lose weight satisfactorily. These calorie levels should promote a weight loss of approximately one to two lbs/week.

The composition of the diet is structured to enhance glycemic control and to minimize cardiovascular risk factors. The recommended diet is based on guidelines of the ADA and National Cholesterol Education program and includes a maximum of 30% of total calories from total fat, a maximum of 10% of total calories from saturated fat, and a minimum of 15% of total calories from protein.

BINGO!  It wasn’t losing weight that failed to prevent cardiovascular disease, it was losing weight on the ADA’s crappy low-fat, calorie-restricted diet.  If participants were indeed consuming 30% fat and 15% protein, that leaves 55% of their calories from carbohydrates – just what a diabetic needs, eh?  Hope Warshaw would approve.

Diabetics are three to four times more likely to die of heart disease than non-diabetics.  Thanks to the arterycloggingsaturatedfat theory, this sad fact causes so-called experts like the medical wizards at the ADA to recommend exactly the wrong diet.  The logic goes like this:  Well, since we know a fatty diet causes heart disease and diabetics are prone to heart disease, they need to eat a low-fat diet.

They can’t seem to bring themselves to consider an obvious alternate theory:  What if diabetics are prone to heart disease because high blood sugar causes heart disease?  What if heart disease begins with damage to a coronary artery and high levels of blood glucose can cause that damage?

If you look at it that way, then it’s clear that diabetics absolutely, positively should not be eating the kind of high-carb, low-fat diet the ADA recommends.  They should be eating a diet that keeps their blood sugar down – every day, every hour.  Since fat is the only macronutrient that doesn’t raise blood sugar, that would be a moderate protein, high-fat diet.

I found this section of the NIH press release about the study interesting:

“Look AHEAD found that people who are obese and have type 2 diabetes can lose weight and maintain their weight loss with a lifestyle intervention,” said Dr. Rena Wing, chair of the Look AHEAD study and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. “Although the study found weight loss had many positive health benefits for people with type 2 diabetes, the weight loss did not reduce the number of cardiovascular events.”

Why was a psychiatrist chairing the study?  Probably because the NIH believes overeating is a psychological problem.  People are gluttons, being gluttons makes them fat, and being fat turns them into diabetics.  Then they get heart disease because they’re diabetics.  Cure their gluttony with intensive dietary counseling, and they’ll lose weight and suffer fewer cardiovascular problems as a result.

Except it didn’t work out that way, did it? After 11 years and $220 million spent, this large study failed to show that the diet promoted by the ADA, the USDA and countless doctors prevents heart disease in a population prone to heart disease.  With that in mind, perhaps the psychiatrist can come up with an explanation for this quote in the Washington Post article:

The results will probably surprise many physicians and patients but are not likely to change the advice they give and get.

Well, of course not.  You wouldn’t want failure to inspire a change in your beliefs, much less in your strategy.

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Ahhh, there’s nothing like the autumn colors in Tennessee.  Last year the house was still being renovated when the leaves turned, so we had to drive out to the farm to enjoy the colors. This year I was able to just walk out to the pastures.  Here are a few pictures I snapped over the weekend.

Playing disc golf out in the pastures is a great way to enjoy the fall scenery and weather.  My work buddy Jim Taylor (who hosted what my daughter Alana dubbed “The best Thanksgiving ever!” last year) drove down on Saturday with four of his kids to join us for several rounds.  Jim rarely plays, never practices, and doesn’t even own a set of discs … so of course he tied me on our last round of the day.

Okay, this part of the land doesn’t look so wonderful at the moment.   A crew came by last week and told us they’re required to cut all foliage 20 feet back from the electric wires that cross over one of our pastures.

They’re not leaving this mess for us to clean up, fortunately.  I asked what they do with all the downed branches, and the foreman told me they chip ‘em up and haul ‘em away.  Well, it so happens Chareva was planning to create a wood-chip garden next spring.  She was inspired by the documentary Back To Eden, which explains how a wood-chip garden smothers weeds, soaks up water, forms new topsoil, etc.  We’ve even talked about buying a wood chipper for the project.

So she asked the foreman if perhaps they could haul the wood chips to our back pasture instead of out to some dump.  No problem, he replied, you’d actually be doing me a favor, making it an easier job.  Well in that case, she asked, how about bringing us a few loads of wood chips from the other nearby areas you’re clearing?  No problem, he replied.  So our wood-chip garden project just got a whole lot easier.

Now that  autumn is here we’ve had some chilly nights, perfect for a fireplace or wood-burning stove. The last time Chareva’s parents visited, they brought us an old wood-burning stove they weren’t using anymore.  A couple of weeks ago, Chareva hired a local company called Sweeps & Ladders to install the stove in our dining room.  I applauded her choice of contractors because Tommy Nelms, the owner, is a firefighter with the Franklin Fire Department.  You can bet he made sure the charming brick hearth he constructed for the stove is fire-safe.  The bricks are actually an inch in front of the wall, with vents at the top and bottom to provide air flow and avoid transferring heat to the drywall.

Last winter we experienced a power outage and had no way to cook or heat the house until I ran out to buy a kerosene heater.  Now that our fireplace is working and the wood-burning stove is installed, we’re a little better prepared.  When Chareva’s brother and father got the stove going for the first time on Friday night, it put out so much heat that we ended up opening a window to cool down the room a bit.

Autumn is my favorite time of the year.   All within 2 ½ months, we have Chareva’s birthday, Halloween, Sara’s birthday, my birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas.   Now that we live in the sticks, I’ll also be celebrating the end of the bug season.  I haven’t seen a tick in a few weeks now, but one bug decided to give me a going-away present.

As I was standing in our kitchen, I felt something land on my neck.  I swatted at it, thinking it was probably a mosquito.  As soon as my hand touched it, I knew it was too big to be a mosquito.  My hand-swat launched whatever it was into a wall, which it struck hard before falling behind a short bookcase full of cookbooks.  A few seconds later I was aware of a sharp little pain in my neck.

What the heck was that thing? I wondered.

So I got out a flashlight and looked behind the bookcase.  There was a wasp crawling in the gap between the bookcase and the wall.  (I have a bit of a history with wasps, which I’ve recounted on my other blog.)  I grabbed a board we use as a barrier to keep the dogs out of our living room and slammed it behind the bookcase, flattening the little winged demon.

Later I noticed an open window in Chareva’s office.  I turns out Alana had opened that window to have an important conversation with the dogs as they romped in the back yard.  I explained to Alana that Daddy really, really doesn’t like being stung by wasps and would prefer she not invite them into the house anymore by leaving windows wide open.  She agreed to honor the request.

I only swelled up a little bit, and the sting wasn’t nearly as painful as other wasp stings I’ve had the misfortune to experience.  I think the wasp probably started to sting me just as I was in mid-swat, then got slapped away before the stinger could penetrate very far.  I hope the first frost comes soon and the wasps go away until next summer.

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Chareva’s father loves bagels in the morning but isn’t allowed to eat them anymore because of his type 2 diabetes.  After we made the almost-paleo bread recipe last week, Chareva suggested we try making bagels from the same recipe when her parents visited this weekend.  (Her parents and brother were here to celebrate her 40th birthday, which was Tuesday.)

Last night I whipped up the bread recipe and made it more bagel-ish by adding about a half cup of finely chopped onion and a pinch of garlic powder to the batter.  I poured the batter into a donut pan and sprinkled more onion and a bit of coarse salt on top before baking.  Since this wasn’t a big ol’ loaf of bread, I only had to bake each batch of six for 30 minutes at 325 degrees.

The experiment was a success.  We got 21 bagels from the mix, and they toasted up nicely this morning.  By the time we spread butter and cream cheese on them, they tasted just like the jack-up-your-glucose bagels Chareva’s father can’t eat anymore.

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When we bought our little farm, we told the elderly woman who’d been living there she could leave behind any junk she didn’t want to move and we’d deal with it.  In addition to quite a few tools and farm implements, she left behind two shelves full of books, including some old, faded cookbooks published in the 1950s.  Chareva looks up recipes in those books now and then and noticed some interesting entries recently.

The first was the opening of the section on poultry in a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook.  The section was titled To Clean Poultry:

Pick poultry dry or dip into hot, not boiling, water until water penetrates the skin.  Grasp feathers close to skin and pull in the direction they grow, not against it.  Cut off wing tips if desired.  Singe by holding dry bird over direct flame, turning to expose all parts of the body.  Remove pinfeathers with tweezers, or use the dull edge of a knife.

Cut around vent and make slit almost to the breastbone.  Insert hand and carefully loosen entrails from back and sides; pull out, making sure lungs are removed.  Push back skin of neck; cut off neck close to the body and remove windpipe.  Separate gizzard, heart, and liver and cut away gall bladder attached to liver, being careful not to break it.  Cut through thickest part of gizzard; open and pull out sac.  Remove oil sac from tail.

Gizzard?  Gall bladder?  Lungs?  How many cooks these days would even know what those look like?  I don’t think I could identify a gall bladder.  We’re so far removed from our food these days, it’s actually surprising to find a cookbook that describes how to clean a chicken.

Another interesting section in the same cookbook is titled Your Daily Food Plan.  Here are the recommendations:

  • Leafy green and yellow vegetables:  one or more servings per day.
  • Eggs:  preferably one each day, at least four per week.
  • Milk and cheese:  Children through teens, 3 ½ cups to one quart of milk.  Adults, 2 ½ to 3 cups.  (There are conversions listed for cheese.)
  • Potatoes and other vegetables: two servings per day.
  • Citrus fruits:  one per day.
  • Meat, poultry, fish:  one serving every day.  Include liver, heart and other organ meats.
  • Breads, cereals:  some each day.
  • Dry beans and peas, nuts:  one or more servings per week.
  • Fats and oils:  some every day and as needed in cooking.

We went from those recommendations in the 1950s to being told to avoid eggs, butter and whole milk and to consume 6-11 servings of grains per day in the 1970s.  Boy, that sure worked out.

In an old Betty Crocker cookbook, Chareva found this introduction to the Meat section:

Meat has been the backbone of man’s diet from the beginning of time.  Wild fowl and fish were devoured with the deer and wild boar which the caveman brought from the hunt.  The great feasts of medieval times were made up of meat and very little else.  It is not strange that food in those times was referred to merely as “meat.”

Less than fifty years ago in our own country, any dinner or banquet worthy of the name included a separate fish course, a main course usually referred to as “the roast,” an “entrée” or made-dish such as creamed sweetbreads or chicken patties.

Family and guests in a famous Washington mansion at the beginning of this century started Thanksgiving Day with a Porterhouse steak and codfish balls for breakfast.  The dinner a few hours later began with oysters on the half shell, followed by cream of chicken soup.  Next came fried smelts with tartar sauce.  All this was the prelude to the roast turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, baked squash, boiled onions, and parsnip fritters.  Following was chicken salad, then a venison pastry.  The traditional mince and pumpkin pie shared honors as dessert with ice cream and hickory nut cake.  Fruit and cheese topped off the meal.  In the even, a supper was served including cold roast turkey and scalloped oysters.

Today we are content with a serving of meat, poultry or fish for dinner.  Without one of these three, it is an unsatisfactory meal for most people, undoubtedly because they miss essential nutrition elements. All three give adequate amounts of high quality protein and B-complex vitamins.  Only fish also gives some vitamin D, and fish is a good source of vitamin A.  Meat is particularly rich in iron and phosphorous for blood and bones. Shellfish and salt-water fish contain more iodine than other common food.  In addition, the fat of these foods is a rich source of energy … it also adds flavor and eating enjoyment.

That’s what your grandmother or perhaps your great-grandmother knew about cooking and how to feed a family.

Too bad we decided Grandma didn’t know as much as all those experts in the 1970s.

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“Too Good” Bread

School kids have been complaining about the tasteless lunches mandated by the USDA. Meanwhile, at least one school in Sweden had the opposite problem:

A talented head cook at a school in central Sweden has been told to stop baking fresh bread and to cut back on her wide-ranging veggie buffets because it was unfair that students at other schools didn’t have access to the unusually tasty offerings.

Annica Eriksson, a lunch lady at school in Falun, was told that her cooking is just too good. Pupils at the school have become accustomed to feasting on newly baked bread and an assortment of 15 vegetables at lunchtime, but now the good times are over.

The municipality has ordered Eriksson to bring it down a notch since other schools do not receive the same calibre of food – and that is “unfair”.

From now on, the school’s vegetable buffet will be halved in size and Eriksson’s handmade loafs will be replaced with store-bought bread.

Setting aside the health ramifications of serving “too good” bread to students, this incident underscores an attitude among some people (including many voters in the U.S., unfortunately) that drives me nuts: If some people are better off than I am, that somehow makes my situation worse, so I don’t want them to be better off. The kids in other schools who don’t have access to Ms. Eriksson’s good cooking aren’t being harmed, but somehow it’s more “fair” to them if the kids in her school don’t get to enjoy her meals anymore.

I don’t know anything about Swedish politics, but it would be interesting if food fairness became a campaign issue. I can picture some burly Swede named Joe the Baker confronting a Swedish candidate (one who has never baked anything and has no idea where bread comes from or how the baking business works) and demanding an explanation.

“Look, I don’t have anything against you,” the candidate will answer. “I just think we need to, you know, spread the bread around.”

“But it’s my bakery. I saved for years and worked 80-hour weeks to get this going.”

“You didn’t build that. Somewhere along the way you had some help.”

Almost-Paleo Bread

I didn’t mind giving up bread when I went low-carb, but I do occasionally miss tuna melts, patty melts, BLTs and other sandwiches, so I’ve kept an eye out for grain-free bread recipes.

We tried this one last week and thought it was pretty good, although the loaf only rose to about half the height of sandwich bread. So we tweaked it and tried again. This time the load produced sandwich-worthy slices. Here’s the tweaked recipe:

  • 16-oz. jar creamy almond butter
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons baking power
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup warm water

1. Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Mix the ingredients in a mixing bowl.
3. Pour the batter into a 9 x 5 greased bread pan.
4. Bake until firm. (In our oven, it took one hour.)

While watching Sunday Night Football, I decided to taste-test the bread by making one of my long-ago favorite sandwiches, a grilled cheese with ham and a fried egg. (Yes, I know cheese isn’t paleo.) I’m pleased to report that the almond-butter bread held up well. Chareva also informed me the bread holds up to being toasted in a toaster.

I took a ham and salami sandwich to work today and it was quite filling, no doubt because the almond-butter bread has a very high fat content. Since Chareva’s parents are visiting later this week in honor of her 40th birthday and her dad loves bagels, we ordered some bagel pans. With any luck, the recipe will work for onion bagels.

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