She wasn't spoiled for choice like we are today, and yet she still made one of the best dishes I've ever tasted. These days we tend to idealize this simpler culinary time, imagining our foremothers gathering fresh herbs into their aprons plucked from sunny gardens and cooking up glorious feasts with food cultivated and produced by their hands or their neighbors'. They didn't count calories or go to the gym or think about blood pressure. They worked hard and ate well, but simply.
But, to be honest, Great-Grandma was fat.
Maybe it was all that bacon. Or maybe my memory is flawed, and she was an early fan of Coke and Doritos. Who knows? The point is, the simpler time wasn't necessarily better. If my foremothers reflected upon food, it was most likely along the lines of "Do I have enough food to feed my family?" not "Where does this fall on the Glycemic Index?"
In any case, we cannot go back. We can try to replicate their restrictions by focusing on local, organic, seasonal vegetables and sustainable protein sources, but it must be a conscious choice and a deliberate effort, because the reality is, we are flooded by choice.
Our grocery stores, practically warehouses themselves, overflow with the products of infinite combinations of manufactured flavors and newly invented textures to entertain your tongue. Fitness experts urge people to steer clear of the interior aisles and concentrate on the periphery, but even the periphery bulges with fruits and vegetables of all seasons, suspect fish and hormone-injected meat. We're obliged to be informed consumers, reading books on the proper way to eat for the planet and for ourselves. For the first time, we, not just our cultural or socio-economic reality, are responsible for our health, and if we are lucky enough to have the means for making knowledgeable decisions, we should try to do just that.
In our idealized past, our mothers ate what their mothers gave them and they brought those lessons to us. But, in reality, our grandmothers discovered the joys of convenience food and our poor moms suffered the resulting stomachaches. Our mothers began the search for a healthier way to live, a better way to eat.
My mother does not have an idealized culinary childhood. She remembers getting excited when a rare vegetable, canned of course, made an appearance on the dinner table. She remembers stomachaches, day after day. And, she remembers the nuns. At Catholic school pupils would bring in their bagged lunches and eat them at their desks in the classroom, and every day, my mother would unwrap her bologna sandwich on white bread with dread. So she began hiding them inside the convenient desk among her pencil box and notebooks. Of course the stashed sandwiches were found by the Sisters, and they charged ahead in a daylong campaign of shame that only ended when she had to carry home the moldy sandwiches in a sack to her parents.
It's no wonder that she began looking for something better, and in her early twenties her health guided her to principles that she has maintained for the last 30+ years: no meat, very little processed sugar. She has stayed lean, healthy and stomachache-free ever since (except for that time I took her to Paris and introduced her to crêpes and fondue). She created her own habits from research and experimentation; it was not passed down from generation to generation, if anything it was a break from tradition. And that is what many of us have to do today. We must examine our assumptions about food, from our childhood and culture, and find out what works best for us.
We all have different traditions, and it's up to us to keep and honor them or reject them. Food can be a pleasure, a poison, a comfort, a cure and a hobby. It can sabotage our health or deliver us into wellbeing. We feed our cells with our chosen nourishment, so how do we choose? Do we let our tastes guide us? Do we let convenience dictate our diets?
This is where wacky diets are helpful.
I agree, the concept of a diet is kind of a downer, especially in the traditional sense of restricting food in order to lose weight. But, what if a diet was just a way of paying attention and trying new things in order to find your body's preferences. Unlike my mother, I haven't easily or quickly found my own perfect principles. It's a much more haphazard, scattered endeavor, one that careens toward one principle "Eat to live rather than live to eat!" then toward another, "Everything in moderation, including moderation!"
If left to my own devices (which, to be honest, I often am), I would be a full-blown, full-time culinary hedonist, indulging in every pleasure known to the palate. I simply don't get bored eating. I find it endlessly fascinating and fun, from meal to meal. Because we are inundated by choice, we have to set some limits from time to time. People might argue that wacky diets set us up for failure, but to me wacky diets are simply self-experiments used to discover what works best for us. Try it out! See if it works! Something might stick, like vegetarianism for my mother; others might get crossed off the list (myself, I can't give up chorizo). What makes you feel good? What gives you the most pleasure? What's your body telling you? It was on a cleanse that I discovered that what I had assumed was an inbred anxiety was just my natural reaction to caffeine.
Diets are a way of tuning into your body's subtle reactions, flipping on a light switch and seeing what's been present all along. I've done cleanses, tried Paleo, taken breaks from sugar, gluten, dairy and alcohol. In every case, yes, that pizza at the end tasted even better than I remembered, but I also came away with a new awareness. The pizza is delicious, but it does make me want to take a nap. Such an experiment can be a tool for mindfulness.
The point is, eating must be done consciously these days. Perhaps our great-grandmothers were less neurotic about food than we are. They ate what they had access to. Obviously, it's a highly privileged position to sit at the foot of an entire world of choice now. Centuries of tradition, mountains of information and almost limitless food availability are our blessed burden. We must take our time, learn and choose well. And, when we do, it helps to maintain a spirit of exploration rather than restriction. Reflection and eating can both be celebrations.