Many years ago, I used to barbecue for my parents and my aunt and uncle, on summer weekends.
I used to make simple roasts on a Weber kettle, which turned out good, even back then.
My uncle by marriage was a very wealthy dentist. He had grown up so poor that he had often been hungry, and his stomach had actually shrunk from hunger. He could only eat small quantities at one time, and was always hungry. While he was wealthy, he was very frugal, to be polite. He was usually friendly, but sometimes he would get very upset for reasons that no one else understood.
One day, just after I finished cooking, and was about to put out the fire, he showed up with a potato clutched in his hand. He smiled and asked if he could use the fire. I was astonished, as my uncle had never been known to cook anything. I agreed, and watched with fascination, as he buried the potato in the burned down coals, carefully arranging each coal with the tongs as if he was painting a portrait. This procedure took a long time, until he was satisfied that the arrangement of the coals was perfect. “Don’t touch it!” He snarled, then walked off.
Sometime later, he dug the potato out of the coals, and put it on a plate. It was burned totally black. “Is he actually going to eat that?” I wondered.
Well, he did eat it, with nothing else. He broke the potato open, and slowly ate the inside of the potato, with an expression of pure bliss on his face. The rest of us watched in wonder, unable to understand why he was enjoying it so much.
Being curious, I asked him if I could have a taste. His face twisted in the instant fury that sometimes came over him — “Get your own potato!” he shrieked. I backed off.
The next weekend, I barbecued again, and he showed up with his potato again, after the cooking was over. He went through the same procedure, and blissfully ate the scorched potato as we quietly watched him. This happened week after week. I did not dare ask him for a taste.
His potato antics became a subject for family discussion. Everyone agreed that the potato must taste terrible. But why did he go to so much trouble, and why did he enjoy it so much?
One week, when he appeared to ask for permission to use the fire, I asked if he could make one for me. I braced for the explosion, but he smiled, and cheerfully agreed. He returned with another potato. When the potatoes were done, he placed my potato on a plate. It was burned black, as usual. The potato skin broke open at the touch of the fork. I tasted some of the inside, expecting it to taste burned and bad. I was wrong. It was wonderful, easily the best vegetable I had ever tasted. It was soft, hot, with a surprisingly complex and utterly delicious flavor, somewhat sweet and smoky. I began to eat it slowly, enjoying every bite.
I tried many times to make potatoes like that, but they were never anything special. Nothing like the masterpiece he made. He had a knack, or he knew something, a way of doing it, that he never shared.
I asked him a couple of times, but he would never answer.
There is so much traditional cooking knowledge that we have lost, countless treasures that used to be passed down from generation to generation. They are worth saving.
We are taught to think of our modern, high-tech civilization as being much more advanced, wiser, and richer than anything that existed in the past.
When it come to machines, weapons, travel, and other mechanical areas, this is true (at least to the extent of our culture’s knowledge). We are much richer in these things than our ancestors were.
But when it comes to food—the real food that our bodies need to thrive—we are paupers. Our ancestors were the rich ones. They regularly ate hundreds of varieties of meats, vegetables, nuts, fruits, grains, milk products, and other foods, but we have far fewer to choose from. And where our ancestors’ food was chosen for taste and nutrition, our food is usually chosen for profit, cheapness, appearance, and shelf life.
I have studied the traditional cooking of our ancestors from all over the world. I have read hundreds of books and many articles, and I am still learning.
And one of the most important things I learned was how much our ancestors valued diversity in the foods they ate, whenever they had a choice. People did not limit themselves to factory beef and chicken breasts, but ate many different kinds of meat, heritage varieties of pigs, chickens, duck, geese, squab, cattle, sheep, lambs, calves, water buffalo, bison, rabbits, a vast variety of fish and seafood, and a huge variety of wild game. Produce was only eaten in season. There were dozens if not hundreds of varieties of almost every fruit and vegetable, that were regularly eaten. During the winter, people relied on certain root vegetables, such as cabbage.
Traditional meals included a huge variety of ingredients. For example, the traditional English breakfast included a number of different kinds of meat and fish, often fermented (such as sausage) or salted, along with eggs, breads, and a variety of condiments. The Russian custom of serving appetizers before a meal could include dozens of different items, all kinds of meat and fish and vegetables and small dishes, as did the Scandinavian Smorgasbord. And this was not just the custom of the rich, but also the practice of middle class families and prosperous farmers. Even ordinary working folks enjoyed a great variety of seasonal foods.
The different varieties of food were prized for their taste and nutritional qualities. Food that looked good tasted good, and tasty food was widely believed to be healthier.
Modern food was developed for profit. This meant focusing on the foods that had a long shelf life, and foods that looked good so people could buy them. The replacement of small farmers by huge factory farms meant concentrating on only the most profitable foods, that had the longest shelf life.
The chemical industry became a crucial part of this change, as chemicals could preserve the appearance of food, and chemicals could make even mediocre quality food taste good. The number of varieties of food available to us is now but a tiny fraction of the bounty available to our ancestors. These factory varieties are available all year long, but their taste and nutrition leave much to be desired.
My father grew up in Canada, before its food system was industrialized. He enjoyed a huge variety of the wonderful natural foods raised on the Canadian Prairie—wonderful meats, an endless variety of berries, fish, and vegetables—all grown and served in season.
After he immigrated to the U.S., he was delighted to see beautiful tomatoes available all year round in the supermarkets. Until he tasted them. He could never understand how something that looked so good could be so tasteless and have such a horrible texture—like soggy cardboard.
I could go on for a thousand pages, or more, but I will simply say that our ancestors were much richer in real, life-sustaining food than we are, in endless varieties that we no longer have.
What we can do is support small farmers raising traditional foods like grassfed beef, heirloom vegetables, real milk, and by buying as much as we can from them. As much as possible, avoid purchasing factory food.
This may be more trouble, but the taste of heirloom vegetables and fruits and pastured meat is superior. And the wonderful benefits I and my family have enjoyed in improved health and nutrition—are more than worth it.
Some years ago, there was a small Korean grocery near my home. I wandered into it one day, and was fascinated by the traditional fermented foods it contained. There were beautiful jars of colorful fermented vegetables, called kImchi, not just Napa cabbage, but all kinds of vegetables. But my attention was drawn to glass jars of another condiment, in the refrigerator section, whose beautiful red color drew my eye.
The labels were in Korean, which I do not read, but as I looked at the thick, gorgeous paste, with its deep color, I began to get hungry for it, even though I had never tasted it before.
The owner, seeing my interest, told me this was gochuchang, which was a fermented paste of hot chili peppers, a special rice, and other ingredients, which were mixed and left to ferment in huge clay jars for a very long time, sometimes years. He said it was very spicy, but it kept people healthy. He said making it was a very old tradition in Korea, passed down from generation to generation.
He pointed out many other fermented pastes to me, and explained how making these fermented mixtures was a very important tradition in Korea, one that went back to the very beginning of the Korean culture.
I could not resist. I bought a couple of the jars, beautiful from the rich colors of the fermented paste, and used them as a cooking ingredient and as a condiment. The paste was very hot, but over time I came to welcome the heat. And it gave a rich, luxurious hot flavor to all kinds of stews, stir-fries, and braises. It was great in barbecue marinades. Yet my favorite use was to eat it uncooked, right from the jar, as a condiment. Sometimes I would just eat a teaspoon or two because it felt so good to me. I began to start doing this when people around me at work had colds or flus. And, for whatever reason, I did not catch those colds or flus when I regularly ate this wonderful gochuchang.
Years passed, and I moved. I began to miss the benefits and taste of the wonderful fermented chili paste, so I planned a trip to the store to stock up. I was truly disappointed to find it was closed. I tried to find another source, but did not, and eventually forgot about it.
Many years later, when I studied the food wisdom contained in the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation, I learned that traditional fermented condiments had many health benefits, and were used by traditional peoples. I remembered gochuchang, and decided to do a thorough search and find it.
My search ended in another Korean grocery store. There were no jars of gochuchang. When I asked for it, I was led to a selection of solid plastic tubs, colored red. They were not refrigerated. I asked for gochuchang in glass jars. There was none. These plastic tubs were all there was, and I was told the same was true in Korea. I began to feel some real doubt, but I bought the tub which the clerk told me was the best and most traditional.
At home, with a mixed feeling of anticipation and dread, I tasted this “modern” gochuchang. At first, it seemed to taste good, but I soon became aware of an unpleasant texture, a slight but nasty aftertaste, and a somewhat repulsive hot flavor. It tasted nothing like the gochuchang I remembered. And the only feeling I got from it was a slightly scorched mouth, and a slightly upset stomach.
Maybe some of the other chemical brands taste better, but I am not inclined to try them.
I did some research on the Internet, and found out that traditional Korean condiments were being made in a much quicker and cheaper way, with most of the ingredients from China. Instead of placing the ingredients in a clay jar to ferment for many months, or even years, chemicals were used to achieve quick “fermentation,” and factory ingredients and flavors were added to the mix.
No matter where I searched, I could not find the traditional, naturally fermented paste.
One day, I talked with a filmmaker from Korea, who explained to me that all the traditional condiments were being made by chemical means, in factories. His mother still made the traditional fermented pastes, and he and his brother would drive to her farm each year to pick some up. He said that when her generation was gone, no one would be left who even knew how to make them.
I find this sad beyond words. These naturally fermented pastes, made from traditional local ingredients, are disappearing, replaced by inferior factory products made possible by chemicals and technology. Products that have no soul, no tradition, and do not contain the traditional mix of nutrients relied on by our ancestors. This has not only happened in Korea, but is happening all over the world .
If we do not take action to preserve traditional foods, we will lose them, and their many benefits.
With the current controversy over medical insurance, our nation seems fixated on drugs and medical treatment as being the only way to maintain health. No doubt drugs and medical care can be necessary under certain circumstances, especially trauma.
But they are not the only way to stay healthy, under normal circumstances. The most famous and successful physician of ancient times, Hippocrates of Kos, had a very different approach.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Modern medicine has a one-size-fits-all approach to disease. Every patient who is diagnosed with a particular disease is supposed to receive the same treatment. One size fits all. Often the same dose of drugs is prescribed with no regard for the body weight of the patient.
Usually, food is never even considered when treating illness. Drugs are the treatment of choice, though surgery is often used. The majority of treatments used for most illnesses are not even designed to cure the disease, but to help the patient “manage” the disease, by suppressing the symptoms. Many people have bad reactions to various drugs, called “side effects.” This can result in the prescription of yet another drug, which could have bad effects on the patient, which could lead to the prescription of yet another drug.
According to the Mayo clinic, and to CBS news, 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug. And many of these people take several prescription drugs. This statistic does not even consider over the counter drugs, which are also widely used.
Yet this huge amount of drug use has not resulted in good health for the American population.
Let me make this clear. Modern medicine can achieve some amazing results, such as reattaching severed fingers and limbs, and saving the lives of those who have suffered trauma. Yet in many instances, it “manages” rather than cures.
Hippocrates had a very different approach. Greek medicine of his time was far more advanced than most people realize, and did use drugs and surgery. Contemporary Greek writings show that Greek citizens led long lives, often recovered from serious wounds, and were expected to put on heavy armor and fight in brutal hand-to-hand combat when needed, even into their seventies. Great emphasis was placed on personal cleanliness, and Greek doctors were very skilled at disinfecting and treating battle wounds, and many other injuries. They had many medications, compounded from plants and other substances, and were skilled at performing many kinds of surgeries.
Hippocrates was the most successful doctor of his time, and became famous. He became so famous that he was asked to come to Athens to stop a plague that was killing many people while the city was under siege. Hippocrates cured the plague, and ended the epidemic, by, among other things, getting the people to boil their drinking water.
Yet Hippocrates believed in treating most illness with what he called “regimen,” using food, exercise, massage, sleep, and relaxation as the treatments of choice. Only if these methods failed, or if the patient was incapable of using them, would drugs be used. Surgery would be done only if there was no alternative. Each patient was considered to be a unique individual, and the treatment would be customized for the unique condition of each patient. Hippocrates had great success in using these methods.
Many Greek physicians resisted his methods, because, then, as now, it was much more profitable to use drugs and surgeries.
This led Hippocrates to create new moral standards for physicians, placing the welfare of the patient before the profit of the doctor. These standards were set forth in the oath he created for doctors, the famous Hippocratic Oath.
In the 1930s, Dr. Weston A. Price studied many peoples who were eating the traditional diets of their ancestors. In every case, these people had perfect teeth, and none of the chronic diseases that plague our culture. This research is direct proof of Hippocrates’ belief that food was the best way to prevent and treat many illnesses.
What We Can Learn from Hippocrates
Modern medicine is too focused on drugs, radiation, and surgery as the only way to treat illness. I believe we could greatly drive down the cost of medical care, and be a much healthier nation, if doctors were actually trained in the Hippocratic methods of healing, and were required to be just as familiar with the healing effects of real food as they are with drugs. In fact, our whole society needs to relearn and use the benefits of eating real food, rather than modern factory foods.
Many individuals have reported enjoying good health and curing all kinds of illness just by eating the right foods, and avoiding the wrong foods.
We can still use modern medical methods when needed, but I believe they would be needed far less often, if our population was well nourished, and if doctors used Hippocratic regimen as the treatment of choice (when possible).
We would also have more success if we abandoned the “one-size-fits-all” approach, and treated each patient as a unique individual.
Finally, we need to return to the moral standards set down by Hippocrates. The main motive of doctors should be to heal people, not to make money. People who are mainly concerned with making money should go elsewhere. People who truly want to heal should be the doctors. The welfare of the patient must come before the profit of the doctor.
Many view cooking as a boring chore, to be done as quickly as possible, with as little effort as possible. Others never cook, living on prepackaged meals, takeout, and restaurants. It has been reported that two-thirds of the American people do not even know how to cook.
I view cooking as an absolute necessity. Real food, the food of our ancestors, does not come in a plastic package you can nuke in a microwave. Sadly, real food rarely exists in restaurants, and when it does, it is extremely expensive.
So, if you are going to enjoy the vital benefits of real food, someone in your family is going to have to cook ,and it might as well be you. But I do not view cooking as a chore. Yes, it can be a lot of work, but it can also be an art form, one that brings health as well as joy, when done well. And the very act of doing it can be a lot of fun!
The key is to be engaged in your cooking.
Some people just go through the motions when they cook, mechanically following the instructions in a recipe, just wanting to get it over with. This attitude leads to boredom, frustration, and usually results in a meal that is mediocre, or worse.
Not me. Every meal is an adventure, every time I cook it is different, and I have many rewarding experiences.
Here is why. Every food item is unique. I mean every single item of real food is somewhat different than any other. In other words, the T-bone steak I cook today is different from the one I cook in a week, even if it is from the same ranch, is cut the same way, and weighs the same. This uniqueness is true of every item of real food. No two grapes are exactly alike. every teaspoon of a particular spice tastes and behaves a bit different, even if it comes from the same bottle. Every individual onion has unique qualities, even from the onions that grew next to it and were harvested at the same time. The same is true of every individual bit of real food.
Nothing remains exactly the same, as change is the nature of life.
The same is true of the inanimate manufactured items we use in cooking. No stove cooks exactly the same, even if they come from the same manufacturing lot. Each oven has its own hot spots, and cooler spots. The size and shape of the oven also has an impact, as does the altitude. Burners, even on the same stove, vary in how much heat they give off, regardless of the setting. Every pan conducts heat a bit differently. No stove is perfectly level, and the tilt of the stove and oven also have an effect.
Climate, moisture, temperature in the kitchen, and other factors we are not aware of, change every time we cook.
This is true not only of appliances, but of barbecue fires. No two fires, even if made in the same barbecue, adjusted the same way, with the same fuel, will be alike, or will behave alike.
Everything matters, and everything is unique. And everything changes as time goes on.
What does this mean in cooking? To me, it means I pay attention to what actually happens when the cooking begins. Every cooking experience is unique. I pay attention to how the food is cooking, to how hot the oven or pan seem to be, to the smells of the cooking food. I make adjustments as I go, trusting my instincts. If something seems to be burning, or a sauce seems too thin, or the smell seems off, I take action. I make little adjustments, sometimes major ones. When you do this enough, there is a message in the sounds of the cooking, the smells, the look of roasting meat, the way the fat sizzles in a pan, that tells you things. This sense can only be developed by experience. But responding effectively to these messages is an art, and extremely enjoyable, exciting, even inspiring.
Now, this does not mean that I spend every moment a dish cooks staring at the dish, waiting for something to happen. For example, if I place a covered pot in a slow oven to cook for three hours, I will not stand by the oven for three hours. But I will peek into the pot once or twice, just too make sure that the simmering is taking place as it should. And I will come into the kitchen a couple of times, to make sure there are no smells or sounds that are out of place. And if all is going well, I know that I have done what I need to do, that meal, that time, that day.
The instructions in my cookbooks, Tender Grassfed Meat, and Tender Grassfed Barbecue, are as detailed as I can efficiently make them, and the recipes have been cooked by me multiple times, with success.
Yet even the most clear, detailed recipe is a road map. You still have to take the journey. If you follow the recipes, you can expect success. And, as you become an experienced cook, and begin to recognize things, you will begin to understand the magical messages of smells, cooking sounds, the look of the food, and you are in for a lot of enjoyment. And your food will get better and better.
Finally, cooking a great meal of real food is one of the best things you can do for your family, your friends, and yourself. The joy of a great meal brings happiness, and the nutrition provided by real food gives health.