When I read Marne Setton’s “Natural Woman” Saveur post last week, I felt a pang of nostalgia for my childhood which roused mixed emotions.
Today, I’m a foodie (with a lower case “f,” because I have a budget, and value leaner options over fat-laden ones). But as a child, and even through early adulthood, I maintained a mostly vegetarian diet. And many of the references and experiences Marne shared triggered similar memories and associations for me from my early years.
We didn’t have a Lindberg Nutrition health food store as she did in South Central Los Angeles, but we had an Apple a Day health food “store front” that was in a converted house. And I have a vague recollection of another store in a nearby small town stuffed with shelves of powdered supplements, grains and vitamins. The chocolate and vanilla protein drink powder, canned and frozen Loma Linda and Worthington meat substitute products, whole wheat flour, Weetabix cereal, carob treats and other prized goodies we found there were eked out over time. The funky way those stores smelled was just as Marne described.
I have somewhat fond memories of my Mom’s Johnny Marzetti, an egg noodle, tomato sauce and Granburger meat substitute casserole. But I never developed a taste for her Special K Loaf or Cottage Cheese Patties. Many of her recipes were taken from the An Apple A Day Cookbook – Vegetarian Cookery by Doctors’ Wives (I see there are multiple volumes; we had Volume 1). They yielded dense, nutrient-packed entrees that were relatively quick and inexpensive to prepare. I was a slow eater as a child; if you try some of these recipes, and they are available on the Internet, you’ll understand why I was always the last to clean my plate.
Marne’s post mentions Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, which I remember, and my Dad lived by Harvey Diamond’s Fit for Life II: Living Health. Tidbits from these books and the dietary habits my family maintained – which for years included my Dad’s delicious homemade whole wheat bread – sustained life, nurtured physical growth, and engendered a deep love of and true appreciation for nuts, whole grains, Medjool dates and dried fruit, local u-pick berries, and garden-grown vegetables (minus the parsnips).
As an adolescent and teen, I was very involved in 4-H, and it was through my food projects that I discovered the wonders of herbs that we didn’t use, like basil and oregano, selected meats, and…garlic. The Pollo alla Cacciatore recipe in my 4-H Foods with an International Flavor project manual, along with the Broccoli alla Romana recipe that called for lemon juice, changed my life forever. I distinctly remember eating two meals the night I prepared those recipes.
Over the past year I’ve added more lean meat to my diet: salmon, white fish such as tilapia and cod, shrimp, chicken breasts, turkey breasts, sausages made with chicken, turkey or beef, and extra lean ground beef. These lean meats, prepared in healthful ways and consumed in small portions, help me meet the protein requirements of my current muscle-building exercise regimen. I balance those sources of protein with more affordable black beans and other legumes, unsalted crunchy peanut butter, and sweet potatoes. Apparently, this dietary shift places me in the minority. A few days before Marne’s post, a post on NPR’s Food Blog The Salt on “Why There’s Less Red Meat On Many American Plates” caught my eye.
This survey asked 3,000 adults across the country about their meat consumption as part of the latest NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Poll, and defined red meat as all meat products except poultry and fish. And only 6 percent of the respondents said they had increased their (red) meat consumption in the past three years. The survey didn’t ask respondents about their poultry and fish consumption, so it’s possible that some of those who indicated that they eaten the same amount or less have actually been substituting more poultry and fish for red meat during the time period in question.
Given that my at-home diet growing up excluded meat of any type, I tend to categorically define meat as the flesh of any animal, on land or in water. While I haven’t increased my red meat intake much since I tend to favor poultry, fish and shrimp, I most certainly eat more of the latter now than I have at any other point in my life. But the survey post made me stop and think.
My parents opted to eliminate meat from our family diet for health-related reasons. I would say that there were cost-savings associated with the choice, but I recall that the meat substitute products we purchased were pricey. Animal welfare and environmental issues were cited as reasons other than health effects and cost influencing survey respondents who have limited their meat consumption, with health effects being the most statistically significant motivator.
While I have increased my lean protein intake, I have also altered other aspects of what was my routine diet. I restrict my carbohydrate and sugar intake, which is challenging because I adore artisan bread, crunchy granola cereals, pasta, brick oven pizza, and homemade baked goods. I don’t consume much dairy, although I once regularly ate yogurt and cheese, and enjoyed skim lattes. And I’ve increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables I consume throughout the day. I also drink more water and green tea. And while still bake regularly, and make homemade waffles, scones, coffee cake or pancakes for weekend brunches with my family, I partake only after a workout session or when I can couple the sweets with lean protein.
In an age of fast food, soda wars and childhood obesity, I’m thankful, like Marne, that I was the kid who didn’t eat meat and wore clothes sewn by my Mom. My older daughter told me yesterday her favorite foods are those I make from scratch. Before she could read she thought that McDonald’s was a farm. I don’t make Special K Loaf or Lentil Loaf, but I do take time to prepare healthful foods that my family enjoys, buy the best-quality lean meats and produce we can afford, and share with my own children the flavors, techniques and joys of a wholesome, healthful lifestyle.
By Jenifer Flaxbart. Jenifer writes about food, cocktails, fitness and management best practices for Librarian Lifestyle. She is the Head Librarian for Reference and Information Services at the University of Texas at Austin. Her interests include personal fitness, nurturing healthy habits in herself and others, mentoring staff and facilitating professional development, cooking, baking and cocktails. She tweets @jflaxbart.