Saturday, October 10, 2009

Six Months Out

Some of the most aggravating pleonasms in use today include phrases like "first-year anniversary" or (even worse, and it's not really a pleonasm) "three-month anniversary." Anni is the Latin root for "year," so "first-year" (or second or third, or whatever) is redundant.

The proper way to mark the date is to say, simply, "first anniversary." Since a month is not a year, any "-month anniversary" is just plain wrong. Years ago, our family coined the term "mensaversary" (from the Latin mensa, month) to mark smaller celebratory events--like a baby's "first mensaversary" at age one month.

What brings the topic to mind is yesterday's sixth mensaversary of my valve replacement. Since I was, at the time, pretty sure I'd never get to this point, it probably is something worth celebrating--halfway to my first anniversary of not being dead (again).

Having already fallen off the rehab wagon (first the heat, and then the rain, and always the mosquitoes), I'm trying to celebrate by starting afresh, now that I've got a schedule that allows for a couple of days in which I can spend mornings gardening and taming the carbon sink, and more mornings I can use to get my butt moving.

As usual, however, I seem to have been waiting for a confluence of inspirations, and they've shown up in spades. First was Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, followed by Prevention magazine's September issue, which featured an article on fatty acids, a blog post in NutritionData on the benefits of the "Paleo Diet" vs. the Mediterranean Diet, and finally Andrew Weil's new book Why Our Health Matters.

Catching Fire is the kind of book I absolutely relish (and no, I'm not going to launch into a series of food puns). Its about anthropology and things culinary all at the same time. Wrangham's premise is that what makes us human (or "uniquely unique" among a large family of talented apes) is not using tools to make stuff, or using metaphor (as I once thought was the characteristic, until Koko the gorilla started making them), or acquiring language (since Koko and other apes can do that, too). Rather, it's the fact that our distant ancestors tamed fire and learned to cook their food--opening up a much wider variety of culinary sources than were available before somebody accidentally dropped a fish into the campfire and loved the results.

The cultural significance of cooking was recognized in my generation by Claude Levi-Strauss but, as Wrangham points out, Levi-Strauss and his heirs saw cooking as a primarily symbolic act. But Wrangham, a biological anthropologist, digs into the biochemical changes that cooking introduces and reveals some interesting cultural implications that lead up to modern human behavior.

I've been interested in the subject of food and culture (so much so that I've been busy designing a course on it for years--but have so far only managed a "Taste of Tut" presentation with one of the chef instructors in the culinary program) for quite a while. One of my research interests in graduate school was the relationship between breastfeeding and child-spacing in hunting and gathering cultures, and calorie intake turned out to be a major factor. Wrangham confirms the connection and goes on to explore the impact of cooked food and brain development, along with a plethora of other ramifications. The book is fascinating and a wonderful addition to your culinary history bookshelf.

Every week a bulletin from NutritionData (know what you eat) shows up in my e-mailbox, and its blog is on my weekly path through cyberspace. Monica Reinagel discusses various nutrition-related topics, and one recent post asked "Is Paleo the New Mediterranean?" and noted the results of a couple of small studies comparing the long-appreciated benefits of eating like a Greek peasant to eating like a "caveman" (their word, not mine). The paleo-adherants (who eschew all grains, legumes, and potatoes, among other things) improved their glucose tolerance and waist-circumferences far better than did the pasta-and-fava eaters.

So I looked up the Paleo Diet (the Next Big New Thing, as far as I can tell), which differs from the raw-food diet (a less recent entry in the revolutionary diet pantheon) in that food can be cooked. As is usual with such things, there's certainly something to be said about eating fewer of one item or another, or more of another. But I am always suspicious of "diets" that require one to abandon cultural connections or adhere to a strict list of guidelines that completely eliminate certain groups of food from consumption at all. Increasingly listening to the moderate voice, I'm with the Greeks here: nothing to excess. My days of being a Kosher vegetarian are long behind me.

Which is why I was glad to see Dr. Andrew Weil's new book Why Our Health Matters: A vision of Medicine that can Transform our Future on the shelf of the local B&N. I like Weil, because he's the consummate moderate: a traditionally-trained physician who sees value in many alternative or non-traditional (at least in the West) therapies. I'm not an avid follower of any of them, but Weil's critique of our so-called "health care system" is an eye-opener if you haven't already realized that what we're participating in is really a "disease management system."

Part of our ignorance about what's good for us stems from a lack of good information in the past. But we're learning more and more every day about what causes disease--and what can prevent it--and we're running out of excuses for not working to avoid illnesses rather than focusing on curing them.

My health history is a prime example of how different life could have been with the right information early on. Had we known about the dangers of genetically high cholesterol when I was a child, and had we tested for it; had we known what a huge role diet and exercise play in lowering cholesterol levels; had we known about metabolic syndrome and how to manage it when I was young; had we realized that my heart murmur signaled the possibility of valve disease. Had we known this stuff, could we have in fact prevented the necessity of two open-heart surgeries in fifteen years? A simple combination of diet, exercise, and drug therapy might have saved me and my family a great deal of angst and discomfort, and saved my employer, my insurance company, and me a large amount of money. But prevention only entered the picture after a lifetime of bad habits and lack of information had already taken their toll.

The current debate on health care reform needs to address much more fundamental issues than simply how it will affect The Deficit. Monetary cost is only part of the equation. We're living in a world that can't imagine living without plastics, but seems blissfully unaware of what making plastic costs--in environmental and human terms. We drive like maniacs down the highway, spewing particulate matter willy-nilly, and we use power that adds even more crap to the air we breathe. We just don't think about the health-related consequences of economic choices, but we'll never have really effective health care or disease prevention until we do.

In the meantime, there are probably some fairly useful and effective measures we can take on our own, beginning with diet and exercise. And while I can't subscribe whole-heartedly to the Paleo Diet or to the Raw Food doctrine, they do have something to teach us by reminding us that we havent' evolved our big brains by eating Twinkies and Big Macs. Our technologically infused age has turned the food we eat into complicated hashes of chemicals and monocultural, supermarket-focused uniformity.

Our ancestors lived on combinations of raw and cooked, minimally processed foods, hunted and gathered with restraint and care not to exhaust their sources. Their animals were not raised on feed lots and fed alien diets. Cattle grazed, in fact, on grasses rich in Omega 6 fatty acids, but our lot-fed cattle eat corn--leading (according to Prevention's article) to an imbalance between "spring" and "fall" fats and to our current growing waistlines. It certainly couldn't do us much harm to rethink how we eat and where our food comes from. Yes, grass-fed beef and bison are more expensive than conventionally "finished" beef. But we don't have to eat large amounts of it, and frankly I like the leaner (and ethically more comfortable) taste of a cow that's been allowed to graze instead of made to stand in its own excrement for the last few weeks of its life.

And now, on that happy note, I'll adjourn to the kitchen to try a new variation on Grandma Clarice's Applesauce Cake, full of all kinds of healthful ingredients, and if it turns out well, I'll post the results in the Cabinet of Wonders [linked 18 October]. Food--warm, cooked food on a nippy, dreary day in early autumn--is a terrific mood enhancer, and until I see the sun again, I'm going to need something yummy to add a psychological and/or symbolic lift to my sodden spirits. A nice sweet-potato and bean soup is waiting to be made for supper (haven't decided which Neolithic ingredients to add to the stock I made last spring), so things are looking up already.

Image credit: A stereoscopic card with a photo called "Cooking Supper" by Truman Ward Ingersoll, part of the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views at the New York Library's Digital collection, via Wikimedia Commons. My grandmother had a stereoscope with a box of images that all the cousins loved to look at. Alas, I didn't inherit this bit of family treasure, but I don't begrudge the cousin who did, partly because images like these are so readily available online. The photo reminded me of the many campfire meals I've enjoyed throughout my life, many of them in Western national parks with my family.


Unknown said...

Very interesting post. You're right--we can debate how to pay for trying to fix health problems, but the real issue is the mess our society is in with the host of preventable illnesses we are saddled with. Smoking, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles are all taking their toll.

BTW, I still have my family's stereoscopic viewer. It's cool to see them online, but nothing can match the full stereo effect. Someone should figure out a way to see the pics in stereo online--or maybe they already have.

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for the comments, David. I went back and added in a couple of paragraphs I'd left out, but the overall message is the same.

Someday I'm going to come across a viewer in an antique shop (this town is rife with them), and go home a happy person. It's quite possible that there is a way to do the stereo thing digitally, but I haven't run across it yet. Maybe with those red and green 3D glasses. Astronomy Picture of the Day sometimes posts stereo images, so there must be a way to do it.

Dave Coulter said...

Happy mensaversary!