The New York Times recently featured a depressing story about the demise of “Mediterranean food”* among younger generations, who favor Western-style fast food. I immediately thought of my landlady, a kind woman, who is Lebanese. She has me over for dinner every once in a while, and serves classic Mediterranean food, of the sort that is touted as healthful. (She also gives me cookies, but that’s another topic.) Her meals are always delicious, which makes the shift toward the “Western” diet that much more depressing.
A typical meal at her table starts with homemade hummus, pita, tabouli (the sort that is mostly chopped herbs!), romaine lettuce (to eat it on), radishes, cucumbers, and perhaps some other sliced vegetables. The first time I ate with her, I filled up on the delicious tabouli, and had nearly no room for the next course. The main dish, typically a vegetable meat stew or kefta with cooked vegetables, is served with rice. Afterwards, we have some fruit or perhaps a date-filled cookie or piece of baklava. On the whole, the meal is probably about 50% vegetables, 25% grains and beans, 10-15% meat, and 10-15% fruit or sweets. Pretty healthy. It is also, did I mention, a culinary delight.
Leaving behind the food traditions that were brought about by poverty may be a sign of status, but the loss of history and health borders on tragic. I joke that I eat peasant food when people ask what I eat, but I’m serious. The soups, stews, and melanges that I eat as an everyday diet are inspired by the food eaten by poor folks around the world. I very much appreciate the tasty delivery of relatively bland staples that these cultures have handed down. Seriously, who else really appreciates what you can do with a bean other than the farmer who subsists on them?
Retaining ties to traditional food cultures is vital if we are to successfully combat our chronic health problems and enjoy locally produced foods. Place-based cuisines dependent on resources available regionally may well help us to adjust to the changing climate and economy as food and fuel costs rise. We need to preserve them, while still allowing them to conform to modern life enough that we’ll make and eat them often. Dynamic preservation is essential. We need to work on not merely embedding our traditions in museums, but also in our daily lives.
So what should we do? Adopt an elder– learn how to make a traditional, peasant dish (collect some context and a story or two while you are at it) and then teach someone else. Or, if you have it to share, adopt a youngster and shackle them to the kitchen table long enough to impart some history. It need not be Mediterranean, but it should be a peasant dish that uses minimal meat and dairy, and contains mostly whole grains, vegetables, or legumes. It could be your grandmother’s okra stew, your neighbor’s collards recipe, your great-grandmother’s pinto beans, or an amazing tabouli recipe. Feel free to post your experience here, or leave a link in the comments section.
* The Mediterranean diet is a fancy way of saying peasant food from coastal areas around the Mediterranean sea. It isn’t terribly expressive if you are looking for a single uniform food culture. Basically, white doctors made it up a generation or two ago when they were looking for some common ground in terms of what is a healthy diet. I work for one of the them, so I’m not dissing it as a health concept, just noting that it is not culturally embedded in any specific cuisine. Hence the quotes. Why it took the NYT so long to figure that out, I do not know.