We live in a crazy, beautiful world.
The entire world astounds me, even with its chaos and suffering, confusion and bad processed food. Trying to find our way through it all without losing our minds feels walking through cotton batting most days. But there are moments when the sun starts to burn away the fog and everything feels clear.
That’s how I felt, standing in Jo Robinson’s garden, here on Vashon, surrounded by growing vegetables and fruits.
Danny and I both feel lucky, every day, to live on Vashon. It’s a wild place, full of characters. Island life isn’t right for everyone. Neither is small-town living. But the sheer number of people who love good food —— growing it, cooking it, and writing about it —— on this island keeps us grounded here.
However, when I first started reading Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, and looked up after bounding through 50 pages, I was astounded to find that the author lived on Vashon. I needed to meet her right away.
As she led us through her incredible garden, Jo joked, “Yes, I don’t think most folks on Vashon know who I am. I’ve been in my study for a decade, working on this book!”
She’s not likely to be attending many community events soon. Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health is a huge bestseller, which makes me happier than I can say. Who knew that a long book, based on thousands of scientific studies, about choosing the best vegetables and fruits for good health would be a bestseller? Jo has been in her office for months, doing interviews with The Splendid Table and answering questions for Bon Appetit. Who knew that a science geek with a desire to teach the world to eat more fresh artichokes, kohlrabi, and green onions would become a bestselling author?
Honestly, this makes me feel pretty good about this world right now.
The basis of Jo’s book is this: our world has changed dramatically in the last 1000 years but our bodies have not. As a species, we were much healthier when we ate wild. A world of powdered doughnuts, chicken nuggets, and slurpees has done nothing good for us. We’ve put so much stock in convenience and fast flavor that we have sacrificed our health. (I read today that sales of Lunchables over the course of one year exceeded $1 billion dollars. Seriously? What are we doing to ourselves?) Jo Robinson is certainly not the only one saying this. So many of us are singing this chorus now.
What she has done is extraordinary, however. She spent ten years studying the state of modern vegetables and fruits, to investigate why they are lower in phytonutrients, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants than they were 100 years ago. (Heck with 100 years ago. Why are they less nutritious for us than they were before we began agriculture?)
The answer is far more complex than I can convey here. (Besides, I want you to buy her book.) Let me give you a hint. Sweetness. Did you know that the ancestor of modern corn was 30% protein and 3% sugar? The supersweet corn you find in the grocery store right now is now 40% sugar and 4% protein.
And of course, we want our vegetables and fruits to be pretty. Tomatoes in season are a revelation of taste and juice running down our chins. Tomatoes available in the grocery store seem like nothing more than pink water balloons. They have about as much nutrition as well.
We also want to do less work than we did before. Imagine having to forage for all our food. (Jo told us that in the days before agriculture it would take people half a day to forage enough wild wheat to make 1/2 cup of flour. Probably not many cupcakes back then.) We ate what fed us. Now, when everything is convenient, we seem to loathe any work involved in our food. Did you know that baby carrots “…are misshapen, mature carrots that have been whittled down to a smaller and more uniform size. The outer part that’s thrown away, food scientists have learned, is much more nutritious than the inner core that remains.”
How hard is it to peel carrots and cut them up? We live in a culture that tells us it’s just too hard. Maybe we’re ready for a change.
One of the parts of Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health that I liked best is that she offers her readers solutions to this frightening mess.
With Lu right now, when she freaks out about something as a 5-year-old does, we say, “Lu, take a breath. And then find a solution.” It’s easy to find doom and gloom books that decry our modern culture. What is far more comforting is a book like this, one that gives practical tips about how to shop for food that truly feeds us.
Each section of the book is about a particular family of vegetables. Robinson gives you varieties to buy (and grow, if you have a garden). And then she offers storage tips to keep the vitamins as long as possible.
Since reading the book, I’ve been picking lettuce from the garden — or buying it at the farmers’ market — soaking it in cold water, and tearing up the leaves right away. “If you tear up the lettuce before you store it, you can double its antioxidant level. The living plant responds to the insult as if it were being gnawed by an insect or eaten by an animal; it produces a burst of phytonutrients to find off the intruders. Then when you eat the greens, you benefit from the added antioxidant protection.…Eat the greens within a day or two, because the tearing also hastens their decay.”
We have bags of lettuce, with little pinprick holes to let the oxygen in, waiting in our vegetable drawer now, ready for us to make salad.
I loved seeing this enormous tuft of lacinato kale in Jo’s garden, which is her demonstration space for growing the varieties she talks about in the book. Kale has become one of my mainstays. (Danny asked for a kale break a few weeks ago, since we eat it all winter long. I agreed. But I felt a little adrift without those bitter chewy leaves.) Thankfully, kale has not yet been hybridized to match the sweet tooth of Americans raised on processed food. Just wait. It probably will be, however.
I’ve thought often this summer about a story Jo tells in the opening of the book. In 2009, a study asked men with high cholesterol and triglycerides to keep their diet but add one Golden Delicious apple a day. Produce is good for us, right? An apple a day keeps the doctor away? Would you be surprised to find that these men’s cholesterol and triglycerides rose during those two months? Why?
The Golden Delicious apple has been hybridized for so much sweetness that it “…was too low in phytonutrients to lower the men’s cholesterol and so high in sugar that it raised their triglycerides.” Yikes.
(Imagine what a daily dose of doughnuts, cronuts, and cookies does to us.)
To riff on Joni Mitchell, leave the scabs on my apples and leave me the ones that aren’t so sweet.
There’s so much goodness in Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health that I could write all day and not be done. I find it deeply inspiring and practical at the same time. (I haven’t underlined passages in a book since I taught high school, but my copy of this book is striped with green and purple ink.) Did you know that chopping garlic and letting it sit on the cutting board for 10 minutes allows allicin to increase, making that garlic even more effective in working against disease (while also making everything delicious)? As Danny said when I told him this, score one for mise en place again.
I know that it can feel overwhelming sometimes, listening to the dissonant voices shouting opposite truths about food in this culture. But so much of it is not backed up by science. This lovely woman spent ten years studying 6000 scientific studies about the nutrients in produce. (I felt sort of geeky excited when she showed me some on her computer.) She has done good work in the world.
We’re eating more green onions, less corn on the cob, and far more purple carrots around here. That, and cutting sugar, has made a big difference in my health this summer. I owe so much of what I have learned about food and nutrition to this book, and the places it has led me.
Thank you, Jo. I hope we see you around the island more often. Then again, selfishly, I’d like to see another book from you soon.
We’re giving away a copy of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health here. Leave a comment about how you choose the produce you eat for your family here. We’ll choose a winner at random on Wednesday, August 28th and let you know. And if you don’t win, I suggest you think about buying this book.