aBrill is not the harshest month – January is. There’s no other time of the year when we’re prone to navel stares, often literally, like this time. In this period of worrying about how big our waists are and what we’re consuming, simple dietary rules are appealing. “All like our ancestors” is a particularly attractive mantra to live by, at least outwardly.
But who exactly are these ancestors that we are supposed to emulate? Are our great-grandparents’ great-grandparents cooking useful things from scratch? Or are they that mysterious group of low-haired monsters we imagine “cavemen”? The popular Paleo diet has pinned modern health problems on the birth of agriculture, claiming that we should stick to eating meat, nuts, and berries. A strict Paleo diet is forbidden to eat beans, as well as potatoes and cereals.
However, this type of Stone Age reenactment has a loose grip on history. For starters, it’s based on the false premise that all Paleolithic peoples ate the same food, regardless of their location. The 9,000-year-old Cheddar man, who scientists tell us is disappointingly lactose intolerant, wouldn’t have eaten the same foods his contemporaries did in the Kenyan savannah. Geography, climate, and culture shaped human food choices in the past as well as today. How much meat people eat, and how much was obtained by hunting versus scavenger, is also up for debate. Founded on what Giles Yu refers to as the “Fred Flintstone and Bronze Rib School” of prehistory, the Paleo fad has a streak of indulgence as well as arrogance and imagination. It focuses almost exclusively on what is seen as beneficial our bodies, without any concern for the rest of nature, including other humans whose livelihoods are threatened by excessive Western consumption.
Conversations about how to eat well and recreate the habits of the past are often characterized by selective skepticism in science and technology. What is supposed to be “normal” – A category that includes polio, death in childbirth and poisonous mushrooms – mixed with what is good or right. Professor Heidi Larson has noticed a host of identity tags on social media — “paleo, gluten-free diets, home births” — with anti-vaccine sentiment. Underneath the thought, there is a gnawing sense of alienation from our bodies, and disillusionment with modern lifestyles.
However, attempts to recreate the past are not only misguided, they are impossible. The fruits and vegetables we eat today are the result of many generations of tampering with the genetics of plants that were once wild. Cultivation of grain crops is essential to feed the population whose lifestyles of hunting and gathering cannot sustain them. Processing food in some way, whether by cooking, fermenting or drying, has allowed us to get more energy out of it, made it safer, and helped us preserve it for smaller times.
This does not mean that some of the changes we make to our food and the way it is produced are not harmful to our bodies, other animals and the environment. As we live longer than ever, modern life can make us sick. Eating a lot of ultra-processed foods — which contain salt, extra sugar, emulsifiers, invert corn syrup, flavorings and colorings — is associated with an increased risk of a range of diseases. Foods like this are often designed to be overcooked, hitting the sweet spot of sugar, salt, and fat making them even more devilish. Michael Pollan’s suggestion that we should be wary of things our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food is a reasonable but blunt tool to help avoid it. I would surely be puzzled by a foul-smelling bishop’s wedge.
If I were to eat like my great Punjabi great-grandparents, I would have breakfast at dawn on a cup of fresh lassi and hot chapati with a fist-sized block of cultivated butter, lunch on seasonal fruit, and dinner on lentils and roti. Wild honey from a forest beehive will be a valuable treat, often intended for sick people. On the rare occasion an ox broke its leg, it is slaughtered and the meat is distributed throughout the village. This diet is based on wheat and the staple dairy products that people in Punjab have probably relied on for at least the last two millennia – Sanskrit hymns in the Rig Veda are infused with references to milk and butter. But as delicious and “authentic” for me to follow his lead, the ethics of industrially grown dairy products in the 21st century are muddiing the waters.
We crave power, and we look to the ancients to tell us what to do and how to live. Ancestor worship is more ubiquitous in human culture than belief in a Creator God. The romance of eating like our ancestors, whatever that means, can obscure moral considerations in a haze of nostalgia.
Now, perhaps more than ever, what we eat connects us to the fate of other beings, both human and non-human, and to the fate of our planet. With this in mind, choosing to be deliberate about what we eat, and cook it ourselves if we have that privilege, can only be a good thing. But a dogmatic approach to this would be wrong. It’s better to keep what’s worth keeping, leave what isn’t and stay clear about our culinary past – much of it is unknown, unethical and impossible to replicate anyway. As we resolve once again to live better this year, neither the savage noble Rousseau nor Aunt Ethel need to dictate what to have for dinner.
Cook As You Are: Recipes for Real Life, Hungry Chefs, and Messy Kitchens By Ruby Tandoh (Snake Tail, £19.99)
Why Not Counting Calories: How We Got Weight Loss Wrong By Giles Yu (Orion Spring, £14.99)
In Defense of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasure of Eating By Michael Pollan (Penguin, £9.99)