I have been thinking about “food ways,” both because it is a hot topic in the field of early modern studies, and also because I am in Italy, learning from the experts. For the most part, traditional Tuscan food is locally grown, available at colourful markets, and prepared simply, without added ingredients. I love to order spinach as a contorni at a restaurant because it tastes exactly like spinach with a hint of fresh olive oil and maybe some garlic. There is no need to disguise that wonderful flavour. Yet the most important part of Italian food is not the items grown and consumed; it is the culture of food, which includes a great respect for preparing and enjoying meals in social settings. Italians typically take hours to have lunch each day with their friends and families. Much to the surprise and shock of North Americans, shops and businesses will close between noon and 2 or 3 pm (sometimes for the entire afternoon). “How can the Italian economy survive?” I have heard North Americans exclaim loudly in the streets of Cortona, apparently thinking that 24-hour 7-Elevens provide a sound business model. The answer is this: people simply shop later in the day, after having a nutritous meal with company, putting personal and communal well being ahead of profits. The Italians clearly have a superior and more complex relationship with food than do (we) North Americans. But I am not writing this post only to praise Italian food culture. I am also interested in the recently published Brazilan food guide, which Anne Pratt (http://lattitude50.blogspot.ca/) drew to my attention. It is genius! http://www.foodpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/Brazilian-Dietary-Guidelines-2014.pdf
The Brazilian publication is refreshing because it defines “diet” broadly, moving beyond an emphasis on nutrients and vitamins to consider how food is grown, cooked, and eaten, while reflecting on the ethics of agricultural practices. The document does not blather on about calories: “there is no emphasis on the amount of each food or the total calories in each meal. This omission is deliberate since the nutritional needs of people, particularly with regard to calories, are very variable depending on age, sex, size (weight and height), and level of physical activity.” Nor does the Brazilian guide provide any kind of pyramid, like the Canadian food guide. Instead, it argues that people—everyone, not just Brazilians—should follow basic principles to pursue health. First of all, everyone should eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods, avoiding like the plague ultra-processed items. Vegetables, tubers, eggs, and fruits are the primary elements of the ideal diet, along with such minimally processed ingredients as cultured plain yogurt and milk. Minimally processed cheeses and breads are also all right. When cooking, adding a small amount of oil and salt is permissible, for it improves flavour and pleasure, key elements of nutritious eating. This focus on pleasure resembles some aspects of early modern diet advice (1450-1600), which insisted that each person should eat what tasted good to them, following the inclinations of their own dispositions. Lke the Brazilians, moderation was also key when using this approach.
The guide is not prescriptive and does not ban any foods, though it encourages Brazilians to eat more veggies and less red meat. Good luck with that! It also provides reasons to avoid packaged snacks, confectionery, soft drinks, and sweetened breakfast cereals. Most people know that these foods are unhealthy and can promote illnesses, but the Brazilian guide offers other reasons to steer clear of them. Ultra-processed foods diminish social bonds because they are eaten quickly and mindlessly, often while watching TV or walking around; they are environmentally unsound because they support destructive industrial farming methods, sabotaging independent local producers. Ultra-processed foods thus promote social inequality while undermining traditional forms of agricultural knowledge. The guide argues that being a good citizen means partaking of thoughtful food consumption. It offers an easy trick for food choice success: if there are more than five ingredients listed on a label, chances are that you are harming yourself and others by consuming that item. Such dietary recommendations “take into account the impact of the means of production and distribution of food on social justice and environmental integrity.”
My favourite part of the Brazilian food guide is its recommendation to pursue health by eating in appropriate settings with others. That means no gobbling fast food in orange-coloured chains by yourself. Eating in a pleasant atmosphere in a relaxed manner with others is crucial to your well being. How great is that? At the same time, cooking your own high-quality but not necessarily expensive food is encouraged, with various recipes included in the guide. The featured foods are traditionally Brazilian, indicating that those who produced the food guide wish to defend and protect the food heritage of their country. I have found the same appreciation for longstanding culinary customs in Italy. I was delighted to discover that cooking is a standard feature in children’s story books and even cartoons. Take a look at this youtube video showing the animated character named Cuocarina, a goose who teaches children to prepare recipes (2007): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6WAcqMoJQ0). I enjoyed many episodes on Rai Yoyo TV in Cortona at 3 am, while my jet lagged son was wide awake, shouting and playing. Sigh. In any case, the Brazilian food guide has given me inspiration as well as a good kick in the ass. It is time to change my ways, and I am already implementing most of its principles. Gelato is not ultra-processed, is it?
This is great food for thought. It’s interesting to see how other cultures approach nutrition. I often cook Sunday dinner with the help of my 17-year-old son, at his request. He likes cooking and wants to learn more–his junior high school Foods teacher was a Red Seal chef and got the kids doing Iron Chef competitions and creating their own recipes. It’s a great time for us to talk and hang out in our tiny kitchen. He works in one of the Remedy cafes in Edmonton and now has his own food ideas to contribute. We’re vegetarian and make pretty much everything from scratch.