Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The American diet

One blogger, who shall remain nameless, put up a label of a can of soup with the sodium number circled and said "See? That's what's wrong with the American diet! Look at all this sodium, it causes heart disease and hypertension! Our forefathers who ate natural foods didn't eat like this."

Uhm, no, young lady, what, exactly, do you think was used to preserve meats in the time before refrigeration? I'll give you a hint. It was salted and smoked to the tee.

For those of you fortunate enough to never have lived the subsistence life, I'll give you guys a little primer. Yeah, growing most of your own food is great and all. But healthy? Not really. My mother grew up in a four-square tar-paper shack in the hills of North Louisiana where they did not have electricity until 1957 or telephones until 1959. I will describe how they ate to you. I have read letters sent back home to their families by Union troops who marched through the same general area back in 1864, and it was pretty much the same.

First of all, no steak. The only cow they had was a milk cow. The fresh milk came into the house and was drank immediately before it curdled. Any that remained was allowed to sit and the milk fat skimmed off the top and put into a churn for making butter. The butter was heavily salted to help keep it from going rancid. The heavily salted butter was then put into a container and dropped in the well (at the end of a rope of course!) to keep it somewhat cool. No electricity, remember? Remember, *salt*. Lots of salt.

Breakfast was generally fried eggs (fried in saturated bacon drippings) and hominy (corn) grits with some fried cornbread or biscuits. Sometimes they had bacon. That's because they grew corn and had chickens. and while they preferred the biscuits, the biscuits required a lot of store-bought flour as well as a lot of fuel to bake so often it was a case of forming up corn mush balls with flour (and SALT) and frying them in the hot bacon fat instead. Bacon fat because hogs don't require as much land as cows, just corn, and they grew corn remember? They also sometimes had sausage. But by the time I came along store-bought flour was a sufficiently cheap commodity that the fried cornbread was only used on mornings where there was no time to bake, such as Sunday mornings, where you had to get ready for Bible school. The biscuits were heavily buttered with that heavily-salted butter. Yum, saturated fat and salt.

Lunch was the big meal here. That's because it was way, way too hot to do any real cooking in the afternoons here in the American South. Lunch varied according to the season. In the winter, dried or pickled or preserved vegetables were used. So here's a winter lunch:

(Dried) purple-hull peas (sort of like black-eye peas, but grew better in the Southern soil and climate), cooked with a hunk of dry salt pork or pickled (in salt brine) hog jowl or pig foot for flavoring and fats and salt. A big pone of cornbread. Some canned (in jars, from their own garden) okra-and-tomato pickles or canned "chow-chow" (a somewhat spicy cabbage and onion pickle). Some boiled potatoes (boiled almost to a mush) maybe with some turnips. Occasionally for a treat there would be a pecan pie, or a peach cobbler. Made with that real butter of course. And pecan pralines. Which are almost 100% sugar and butter with a little milk. Yum, saturated fat and salt!

Spring lunches got fresh turnip and mustard greens boiled to a mush in place of the pickled vegetables. Radishes added a nice little bite. In late spring, cabbage came along. Turnips were raised mostly for their leaves, because the long turnip roots don't work right in the heavy clay soil. Same deal with carrots. Potatoes only barely work, and only in certain places where you can turn a lot of leaves into the soil, and they often come out looking rather weird if allowed to grow to full size around all the rocks in the soil so "early" potatoes are the most common, but "early" means "mid-summer" here. In early summer tomatoes started ripening. The green tomatoes were battered with a salty batter and fried in bacon grease. Yum, salty fried green tomatoes! Fresh salad wasn't eaten. No lettuce. It doesn't grow well in the Southern climate, which is too humid and too much sun. No fresh greens salads. Turnip and mustard greens both have pungent tastes which they found distasteful and needed to be boiled to death before they were deemed edible.

In summer, it got too hot for the fresh leaf greens, they all bolted and died under the fierce Southern sun. The collards were still too young to get a lot of greens off of, but there was poke salad and dandelion and other natural greens that could be scavenged. The collards were boiled to death with a hunk of salt pork. Cabbage was harvested in early summer, and it too was boiled to death with a hunk of salt pork just for general principle, and pickled along with onion for the upcoming summer. By mid summer the over-ripe tomatoes were cooked down with the early okra and made into okra and tomato pickles, and fried okra (fried in bacon fat, very salty) hit the menu. If it wasn't fried or boiled to death, it wasn't food. Cucumbers came around and were the sole exception to this, they were merely pickled in vinegar brine or salted and served fresh.

Fish hit the menu from time to time, mostly in the fall after the harvest was in because spring and summer were too busy turning dirt. It was battered and pan-fried in salty bacon fat, of course, to make it healthily fat-filled and salt-filled. Also in fall and early winter was hunting season, and thus game. Deer, rabbit, dove/quail and squirrel were the most common targets. Small game went into soups and stews, deer got turned into a salty/spiced/smoked sausage mostly and served along with meals because it was too much meat to eat all in one setting and that was the only way to preserve it for a while. This was pretty much the only time salt pork wasn't a major component of the diet. Also a fall harvest of turnip and mustard greens was accompanied by melons and revitalized tomatoes (which quit making in the depths of the summer heat, but if the plants are watered and allowed to survive until fall will make lots more tomatoes before the first freeze kills them off). The collards are now waist-high. The peaches and pears and plums are bearing and preserves are being made left and right. Peach cobbler is a yummy delight. Made with lots of lard and butter and sugar, of course.

Anyhow: fat and salt were enormous parts of this diet, which was pretty much constant from the 1860's to the 1950's. The other major component was corn -- corn grits, corn bread, fried corn patties, hush puppies, corn, corn, corn. Beyond that, it was whatever was in season, or whatever could be dried or preserved, salt being an important part of preserving things (salt and vinegar brine helped keep pickled vegetables from spoiling even before pressure cookers). Other than in the spring (blackberries) and fall (tree fruits), fresh fruit wasn't on the menu. Fresh green salads were not on the menu either, due to the fact that salad greens without a pungent taste don't grow well in the hot climate and thick clay soil (carrots? Nope. Lettuce? Nope). Collards need to be immediately dropped into *boiling* water else they are bitter. Same treatment also helps the taste of mustard and turnip greens, the other two main greens grown in the garden, and makes cabbage taste a little less bitter too. Other than spring and fall, fresh vegetables generally were not on the menu either. It was pretty much beans and cornbread, peas and corn patties, corn grits and corn hush puppies, all with healthy dollops of bacon grease and butter fat. They didn't starve -- it was hard to starve as a small subsistence farmer in the rich soil and rainy climate of Louisiana -- but the climate imposed its own limitations on what would grow (e.g. leafy veggies simply won't grow in the heat of the summer, and tomatoes won't fruit), meaning the diet got pretty darned monotonous other than in the spring and, especially, the fall.

As for the notion that they ate less salt than we eat today... hah! *everything* was heavily salted, either as a preservative, or else because the preserved foods had adjusted everybody's palate to think that if it wasn't salty it wasn't any good.

In short: We have a poor diet today because we choose to have a poor diet today. We have far more choices for a healthy diet than my grandmother and mother did while growing up... but we choose not to exercise those choices. The "good old days" were not so good, when you know the real story.

-- Badtux the Elderly Penguin

Labels: , ,

Posted by: BadTux / 5/24/2007 08:35:00 AM  


Amen to that. I grew up with friends who's families often had nothing but beans and tortillas (made with salt and big fat gobs of the cheapest lard you could get)3 meals a day, 6 days a week. Sunday they'd get some meat, usually chicken, with their beans.

Half of our "forefathers" probably starved to death or died of food poisoning. Screw "the good old days".
# posted by Not Your Mama : 24/5/07 5:33 PM  

The young lady didn't read my favorite books, The Little House books. Even in the northern states, there was SALT.

Thanks for the collard greens info, now I know why mine are always bitter.

not your mama,

Yep, the best cheap beans are made with lard. It's more expensive to add bacon, oregano, onion, canned tomatoes and green chiles.

Damn. Why did I decide to read this at dinnertime?
# posted by nunya : 24/5/07 5:42 PM  

Yeah, Not Your Momma, my mother was lucky to grow up in the rich soil and relatively wet climate of rural Louisiana, where they could grow a larger variety of food as well as raise hogs (hogs don't need a lot of land, which means more land to use for corn, and will eat almost anything). So they were luckier than your friends who grew up eating lard, beans, and tortillas because that was all that could be afforded. But it still wasn't all that healthy a diet, especially with the lack of fresh fruit (and thus a dangerous shortage of vitamin C) for most of the year.

And Nunya, the collard greens have to be put into *boiling* water. Put a bit in, let it come back to a rolling boil again, put a bit more in. Repeat until the collards are all in the water. Add a hunk of dry salt pork or pickled hog jowl and boil them to death and you have a staple of the Louisiana subsistence diet in the late fall / early winter (collards are quite cold-hardy and would generally survive several light freezes before finally succumbing to the first hard freeze of January). And collards are also tenderer and less bitter after the first light frost of the year, so that was something to look forward to, though by that time everybody was sick of collards and cornbread (the dry beans and other storables were being kept aside for later after the collards were gone).

- Badtux the Culinary History Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 24/5/07 5:58 PM  

What a hoot! America (North of the Mexican border) was fueled on SALT PORK! In Colonial times pigs could eat the mast on the forest floors and they were salted down in a dozen ways and that was the meat that people ate. Sometimes they were lucky and got salt beef. Many people practically lived on salt cod all throughout Europe and the Americas. ALL SALTED down in casks and later boiled to get some of the salt out. They managed to do a lot in those days so I guess it wasn't such a killer food after all!
# posted by Betsy : 24/5/07 7:21 PM  

The good old days where great, I loved them and have fond memories of them even though we where poor.

As for what you eat, it doesn't matter, one day you get dead anyway, so eat what you like to eat.

All that health food crap is just a lot of bullshit. It doesn't matter, you are just a speck of dust in time and space.

Yup, you are soon dead.

Unless of course you are omnipresent. :-)
# posted by BBC : 24/5/07 7:38 PM  

If you had to pick one item of Evil to blame- it ain't salt. It's sugar. Sugar is the addictive Evil.
# posted by georg : 24/5/07 8:42 PM  

Sugar is also an important preservative. Their peach and pear and plum preserves were packed in sugar brine. Their jams and jellies had as much sugar as pectin. There are bugs that'll grow in sugar brine (yeast, anyone?), but generally they're not the kind of bugs that'll kill ya.

And oh, because this is Louisiana, mollasses syrup was a big deal. The small sugar cane growers in South Louisiana would boil down the cane juice from the crushed sugar cane into a viscous liquid similar to but not identical to the stuff sold as "mollases" outside of Louisiana, then spread out across Louisiana selling this all-natural product out of the backs of their trucks. One common supper was to take biscuits from breakfast, pour some butter and syrup on your plate, mix them together well, and eat your biscuit with butter and syrup. Yum! Also hardly good for you. Not exactly lots of vitamins in that biscuit, lots of saturated fat in that butter.

One of my great-uncles, aside from farming, was also a carpenter. He worked hard all his life. Hard physical work. He died of a heart attack. All the exercise in the world can't offset a poor diet. It's a matter of genetics and diet, in the end. James Fixx, the dude who started the jogging craze in the late 1970's, died of a heart attack after all.

- BT
# posted by BadTux : 24/5/07 11:09 PM  

Yes, but these days, they add sugar to *everything*. Honey has preservative qualities, but I can't believe that plain sucrose has any. Neither does "high fructose corn syrup". In the older days when you worked really hard from sun up to sun down, you *needed* those calories- sitting in front of the computer or the boob tube all day, we certainly do not. Jam was a treat as well as a staple. Cane sugar was hard to come by and expensive, but it's hard not to find many things that don't have it added.
# posted by georg : 25/5/07 3:47 AM  

You had sugar cane molasses? All we had were sorghum molasses (usually labeled just as "sorghum"):

# posted by Anonymous : 25/5/07 7:42 AM  

my housekeeper sent me into waves of nostalgia and ecstacy this week. she made a stack of tortillas with bacon grease instead of lard . . .

healthy? nope.

delicious? yep.

i got a few comments on the food i packed into the hills, hardtack, elk jerky, dry cure (heavily salted bacon no refrigeration unit on the pack saddle), home canned peaches, some lemons and saliditos (which will help you fight the rapid dehydration that occurs in the desert sun)

mre's taste like fucking cardboard. this halfbreed needs him some food.
# posted by The Minstrel Boy : 25/5/07 9:15 AM  

This area where I hang my hat has been labeled as one of ... if not "the" ... the fattest parts of the US of A. We're talking morbid obesity here. Sure, healthy food is available, but the apparent choice leans toward the cultural tastes handed down for generations. Unheathy food is also cheaper for the short term.

It would be interesting to know the net tonnage of ass around here.
# posted by Falco : 25/5/07 10:34 AM  

I agree that salt and sugar have been overused in our foods overlong.

However, IMHO, what we aren't taking into account is the activity level of those folks in the 1950's and before.

What with gardening, canning, farming, plowing, walking, cleaning, carrying water, kicking out a new young 'un every year or so, etc., our forefathers and foremothers were much more active than we are today.

Of course, even with our heinous eating habits and lack of exercise, the average lifespan today is still much greater than it was back in the day.

As for this thing called life, I agree with BB. Nobody gets out alive. Might as well enjoy what we have until we're gone. ESPECIALLY that Tex-Mex dinner preceded by several baskets of salty chips with LOTS of salsa and followed by a pint of Hagen Daz, any flavor!

Some comic said long ago something to the effect of: does eating nothing but rice cakes and exercising hours a day really make us live longer? Or does it just SEEM longer?

I think it just seems longer.
# posted by Dee : 25/5/07 3:51 PM  

Dave, not only did my ancestors have sugar cane syrup, they even made some themselves, growing sugar cane in the wet hollow down the road from my house for a few years then crushing it down and boiling it down. Of course sugar cane didn't grow all that well in the relatively cooler climate of North Louisiana, so once paved roads came around in the 1930's and the folks down in South Louisiana could make it up to North Louisiana to peddle their cane syrup, my relatives quit growing sugar cane.

Another thing to remember is that this was all pretty much wilderness until the late 1890's. It was not until the railroad came through in 1899 that things really got civilized in the area. So really they only made their own cane syrup for about 40 years. The oldest graves in the family graveyard (which is the oldest graveyard in the area because our family was the first family in the area) date to the 1880's. The 4-square school building (square building, 4 rooms square, think of it as a double-shotgun) stood in front of where the graveyard is, where the Baptist church now stands. The old wood-frame Baptist church was in front of the school, the new brick building was put up in the 1950's on the site of the old school and a parking lot put where the old wood-frame church was. My family donated the land for the church, the school, and the graveyard, and when the school board closed down the school the terms of the donation meant the land reverted back to us and we granted it to the church instead. The legal wranglings if the church ever shuts down will likely take decades to untangle, because the actual title to that land (it is under "perpetual lease" actually) now rests with about a thousand different relatives. I shudder just thinking of it...

As for the "actual lifespan" thingy, I'm pretty familiar with the contents of the family graveyard. There's primarily two classes of people buried in that graveyard if you look at the graves from 1880 to 1950: children, and old people. There are row after row of tiny little graves with no marker or with a marker saying basically 'Baby Tux born April 1 1899 died April 3 1899'. Basically if you survived childhood, you pretty much lived as long as anybody today lives. Which is why the bullshit about how we have to raise the Social Security retirement age because people are living longer today is just that -- bullshit. The average lifespan of the average American who survived childhood has been relatively constant for the past hundred years.

Ah yes. History. The real thing, not that bullshit taught in schools, which has nothing to do with what people actually did or how people actually lived. History. It's a wonderful thing.

-Badtux the History Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 25/5/07 4:22 PM  

Super Size me, right?

We have the option to eat as much as we want, and hey, why not?

That seems to be the attitude anyways. I would definitely agre...there is so many more options in regards to food, and that encompasses good choices along with the bad. Diet are constantly perfected to have the most taste with the least fat/carbs/salt ;D/whatever.

But then, we choose the golden arches.
# posted by Jonathan : 25/5/07 4:31 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

 My Photo
Name: BadTux
Location: Some iceberg, South Pacific, Antarctica

I am a black and white and yellow multicolored penguin making his way as best he can in a world of monochromic monkeys.

April 2004 / December 2004 / January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 / August 2005 / September 2005 / October 2005 / November 2005 / December 2005 / January 2006 / February 2006 / March 2006 / April 2006 / May 2006 / June 2006 / July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / October 2006 / November 2006 / December 2006 / January 2007 / February 2007 / March 2007 / April 2007 / May 2007 / June 2007 / July 2007 / August 2007 /

Bill Richardson: Because what America needs is a competent fat man with bad hair as President (haven't we had enough incompetent pretty faces?)

Cost of the War in Iraq
(JavaScript Error)
Terror Alert Level
Honor Roll
Technorati embed?
Liberated Iraqis

"Keep fighting for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce." -- Molly Ivins, 1944-2007 "The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."

-- Plato

Are you a spammer? Then send mail to my spamtrack mailbox to get permenantly banned! Remember, that's (hehehhe!).

More blogs about bad tux the snarky penguin.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?