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Food, Recipes, and Health

2008-09-21 4 min read marco

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and I decided to get myself a homemade dessert. I looked up recipes for mousse au chocolat, wanting one that is original both in time of creation and inventiveness.

I got in one of my baking books that I shlep around from move to move, without really having a good reason for them. I started writing down the list of ingredients and found something that puzzled me: it called for egg yolks and whipped cream.

You’ll ask me, what’s odd about that? Well, the deal is that to make things fluffy, people used to use beaten egg whites. That’s how we got baiser, macaroons, and all other marvelous, deliciously fluffy goods from French cuisine. A recipe that calls for beaten egg yolks and whipped cream leaves an important item open: what happened to the egg whites?

The problem was easily resolved in my cooking: I just took the egg whites, whipped them over a bain-mairie and got the fluffy stuff to replace the whipped cream. At the same time, though, I started puzzling about why someone would make a replacement like that.

At first, I thought the replacement may be due to the problem of egg whites losing their texture if they are added to fat – and both egg yolk and chocolate have plenty of that. But that couldn’t be, since that’s true only for egg whites that haven’t been boiled.

I eliminated all possible reasons, until I was left with the only one I could think of: that the whipped cream had the sole purpose of making the whole concoction “richer,” a euphemism for fatter.

I read up a little on the matter, and there seems to have been a time, around the middle of the 19th century, when indeed fattening dishes were all the rage, and restaurateurs and chefs alike would outdo each other in the preparation of the most disgusting (from today’s perspective) recipes. I am a little puzzled, since the fashion of the time called for tight waists for both women and men.

But my thoughts started soon drifting in a different direction. I started realizing how much of what we eat is not a reflection of what we like eating, but of what we are used to eat. In particular, plenty foods we consider delicacies are simply preparations that make particular foods more durable under conditions that don’t allow for refrigeration.

We have plenty examples of that. Cheese is nothing but milk that can be stored for longer periods of time. Salami is meat that is made durable for the long run. Jams, preserves, marmelades – fruit for the long run.

Now, the question is: why do we still eat things the way we did when we needed to eat them that way? Why do we continue eating horribly unhealthy double cream brie with 60% fat content, when milk is so much healthier? Why continue ingesting enormous amounts of salt in the disguise of cured meats, when the original, grilled, is much healthier?

The answer, of course, is that we like the unhealthy version better. As I know from having lived in a host of different places, food preferences are mostly tied to upbringing. In other words, we like what we are used to. Since we know that, we might as well get used to things that are healthy for us.

Let’s face it, whatever we think, humans evolved to eat a diet of things that occur in nature. Processed meats, milk, or tubers don’t quite belong in there. If those things improved the nutritional value of the food, more power to them. Since they were invented for the sole purpose of storing foods for longer periods of time, it’s quite unreasonable to expect they’d do anything else.

What do nutritionists think a healthy diet sounds like? Well, it has plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetable. It has meats in moderation, preferably nothing red. Essentially, it’s the same diet that our forebears would have eaten (out of necessity, not of choice).

Alcohol, for instance, doesn’t really occur in nature. Indeed, despite the fact we like it a lot, it’s a poison for us. And, again, it was a way to make calories portable and storable. Interesting, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, that means that pretty much everything we got used to today is not good for us. The oddness that is the spray-on cheese is just a descendant of the equally unhealthy brie. Did you know that the English word, “cheese,” comes from the Latin word “caseum?” It’s really that old.

Not all we got used to eating, not all prepared foods, are meant to be replacements for refrigeration. Some foodstuffs are just plain unpleasant and need preparation, for instance grains. We grind grain and corn to flour and bake bread and cornbread because the original is too hard (although perfectly storable in its original form).

I think that going through the list of food we eat these days and eliminating those that are processed for storage is an excellent way of getting back to a healthier diet.