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.
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