Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Kitchen Mouse on Nutrition

Originally published July 16, 1984

Many of The Kitchen Mouse’s friends have repeatedly asked that a column be written about nutrition and perhaps a few secret recipes “which are sure to satisfy hunger without adding additional tonnage.”

We Americans are now so concerned about our health that our foods are advertised at least as much for their nutritional  values as for their qualities of taste and pleasure. Much of our nutrition consciousness has developed in the past 40 years.

People who never knew a calorie from a vitamin, if indeed they had ever heard those words, learned in the mess halls of World War II - or from young men returned from military service - that there is more to eating than corn pone, fried pork and hot biscuits.

Millions of Americans in the 1940’s shifted from fats and carbohydrates to foods with higher protein content. More grown men drank milk and orange juice and ate leafy green vegetables, even if they did go on eating creamed chipped beef on toast, a dish well remembered by servicemen for its earthy nickname.

This awareness of good nutrition has been a useful thing for the country. But America’s interest in the health aspects of food has had its less fortunate side.

The country has often been swept by the campaigns of food faddists. We have no monopoly on such faddists. In their own ways, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Zoroaster (Persian religious leader 600 A.D.), Siddhartha Gautama (who became Buddha) and Moses all promulgated extreme views about food and nutrition.

One of the earliest and most persistent food mystiques has been vegetarianism, which can be based on the sort of sensibilities that prevent Hindus from killing any living thing or from attitudes about health.

Hindus are vegetarians, due to the principle of non-violence of Hinduism, as applied to animals and the belief meat is harmful to the mind. Trappist monks are vegetarians too, and so are various occult groups, and small Protestant sects, some of whose members operate a large U.S. corporation active in producing meat-substitutes.

The poet Shelley published a treatise in 1813 which claimed the human digestive system was suited only to plant foods. Shelley’s thesis was taken quite seriously by George Bernard Shaw, who gave up eating meat when he was 35. Some of Shaw’s statements suggest, however, that he was more motivated by conscience than science. “A man of my spiritual intensity,” said Shaw, “does not eat corpses.”

Another long-lived vegetarian, 82 when he dies in 1910, was Leo Tolstoy. The Russian novelist and social critic proclaimed a new religion when he was 48: it rejected sexuality, war, violence, alcohol, smoking and the eating of animal flesh.

Some vegetarians insist on eating raw vegetables, not cooked ones. Some call themselves “fruitarians” and eat only fruit. More permissive are the lacto-vegetarians who include milk, eggs and cheese in their diets, but other vegetarians say these are forms of meat and will not touch them.

Sensitivities aside, there are no convincing nutritional justifications for vegetarianism. Some vegetarians have, it is true, lived to ripe old ages, but so have many meat eaters; more than one food fad, in fact, has recommended eating great quantities of meat. A 1948 book by Daniel C. Munro, “You Can Live Longer Than You Think,” claimed that Methuselah lived 969 years because he ate mostly meat. And then there was Dr. J.H. Salisbury, who sometime about the turn of the (twentieth) century recommended ground steak three times a day for a whole list of ailments.

One of America’s first homegrown food faddists, and we in America have had our share, was the Rev. Sylvester W. Graham, whose name survives in graham flour and the graham cracker.

Graham, a former Presbyterian preacher, was a temperance lecturer, vegetarian, dietetic “expert” and a self-styled doctor of medicine. Born in West Suffield, Connecticut in 1794, he launched an attack in his mid-30’s on meats and fats (which he said heated people’s tempers and led them to sexual excesses). Condiments like mustard, catsup and pepper, he charged, could cause insanity.

Mostly, he propagandized for a diet of eating bread made from coarse unsifted flour and eaten slightly stale. The important thing was to keep the bran in the bread. Graham declared war on white bread, which had long been a symbol of good living and of western civilization. He had no knowledge of the vitamins and minerals in the bran, but like so many of his successors he was obsessed with bowel regularity.

Graham’s philosophies of nutrition led, by way of the Adventist Church (whose spiritual leader, Mother Ellen Harmon White, promised God-given health and happiness to all who shunned tobacco, salt, spices and spirits, drank only water and ate two meatless meals a day) to the whole modern breakfast food industry.

Mother White founded the Western Health Reform Institute at Battle Creek in 1866. Some years later, Dr. John Harvey Kellog was hired to manage the institute, whose name he changed to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, or the San, as it was called.

Patients at the San ate a lot of bran in the Graham tradition. If they had high blood pressure, they were fed nothing but grapes - up to 14 pounds a day. If thin, they were fed 26 times a day and forced to remain motionless lest they waste calories; they were not even allowed to brush their teeth.

Dietary apostles have appeared on the American scene regularly ever since. No doubt some have made valid contributions, if only by spurring scientists to find some solid refutations to their claims.

In the Kitchen Mouse’s house we do not follow a formal diet, however we do have some house rules which we find helpful in the continuing battle of the bulge.

1. Save desserts for special visit from royalty, heads-of-state or grandchildren.

2. Limit your use of salt.

3. Serve fresh green vegetables every day.

4. Limit the size of all portions.

5. Begin lunch and supper with a fresh green salad.

6. Broil instead of frying.

7. Drink plenty of water.

8. Drink only low calorie whiskey.

9. Never skip a meal.

10. When you feel the need to snack, enjoy fresh fruit or celery.

11. Think of some good reasons for inviting company for dinner, as an excuse for planning a nice dessert.

The Kitchen Mouse regrets to announce that he has no secret recipe which will result in a loss of pounds. He has lost 30 pounds, and the doctor has recommended losing 20 more, by following the house rules outlined above.

Today’s recipe:
Russian Salad

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