The world is your cow. But you
have to do the milking.
–New England Proverb
So what should we eat? There is still a lot of disagreement about that, even within those circles that advocate ditching grains, sugar and excessive fruit and eating lots of healthy fat. So where do we turn if we want to eat like out ancestors used to?
Well, speaking of New England (opening quote), I happened upon The Old Sturbridge Village. It quotes and describes a number of cookbooks from its time, like The American Frugal Housewife published in 1829. Prior to that time, cookbooks in America were kind of snooty. They featured recipes from the old country and foods that the ordinary guy couldn’t easily get. But AFH was “for the people.” It was recipes based on what people actually ate. OSV also analyses the dietary patterns of time. I’d like to give you some quotes:
Characteristic of the dietary patterns of its time, The American Frugal Housewife gave meat and fish a prominent place among its recipes…Its section devoted to the preparation of meat, poultry and fish is simply titled “Common Cooking.”
Calvin Plimpton, Massachusetts, spoke for many New Englanders when he wrote of wanting “meat or its equivalent to be served three times a day.”
By “its equivalent” Mr. Plimpton did not mean tofu. He meant fish or eggs.
“Common cooking” for daily life included beef, veal, mutton, lamb, pork, poultry, hashes and meat pies. The “best breakfast” was rolled salted fish dipped in egg and then fried in lard. Or cold, thinly sliced beef. A “simple breakfast” included fish or steak, bread, and cream. Not milk: cream. A “bountiful breakfast” included ham, beef, and sausages.
One of the most telling things was a letter describing what was promised as provision for an elderly couple. Their children wanted to take care of them, you see, and taking care of them meant planning for the year all the couple would need to eat. What they got was considered typical and adequate: 1 healthy, fat hog weighing 300 pounds; 300 pounds of good beef; half a barrel of mackerel #2 (about 100 pounds), the milk and the calves from 3 good cows, 10 pounds of brown sugar, 2 pounds of white, 1 gallon of molasses, 1 gallon of rum, 2 gallons of brandy, 5 bushels of wheat, and some rye, corn, potatoes, green tea, black tea, and other spices. There’s a vague reference to vegetables and fruits, when available and in season. It’s also important to notice that there’s no indication these people were anything other than ordinary. They weren’t important, rich or unusual.
I took the time to look all that up. A 300 pound live pig today, for example, gives about 23lbs of pork chops, 6lbs of ribs, 18lbs ground sausage, 30lbs ham, 16lbs bacon, 20lbs shoulder roast, 8lbs butt roast, 10lbs stew bones and 16lbs of pure fat. (You can be sure our friends knew how to utilize every part, and I’m certain they used far more of it than I’ve just listed. But for the sake of argument we’ll assume they only got 125-150 pounds of edibles like we do today).
We have to guesstimate a bit on the beef, since we don’t know exactly what cuts were used. And I’m also going to assume, just to be kind to the anti-fat fascists, that they sold the calves of the three cows and didn’t eat them. Your average cow back then gave 50 pounds of butter per year. (Cow output was measured in pounds of butter back then, not gallons of milk). But assuming they ate all the rest of that meat and all the butter–and leaving out the calves–this old couple still consumed an average of 1,657 calories per day of just meat and fat. Their average fat intake would have been about 177 grams a day, almost 100% from animal products. If they ate the calves it would have been even higher.
(Just FYI, to bring in some discussion from the comment section, my guess is that our nineteenth century couple could have gotten another 100 pounds worth of meat and fat off the pig. Today calves–ordinary ones, not genetic monsters designed to fatten abnormally–killed for their veal yield around 150 pounds of meat. All carcasses are measured before and after butchering, since the weight of the blood affects the after-slaughter weight. But assuming that each cow gave one calf that year [and even today a cow that doesn’t give at least one calf a year is usually sold or slaughtered as useless] that’s another 450 pounds of veal at least. So it’s very likely that our friends had another 550 pounds of meat and fat that year, giving them a total average of more like 2,141 calories and 199 grams of fat per day. Now of course we don’t know that they personally ate everything they were given–as I said, the calves could have been for them to sell to guarantee some monetary income, certainly they must have had guests over for meals who helped them eat their food. But even at our most conservative estimate of 1657 calories and 177 grams of fat, we’re talking about an incredible difference from today’s averages.)
The modern American man eats approximately 64 grams of fat per day, enormous amounts of it now unsaturated and not from animals. The modern woman eats less than 40. The modern man and woman are almost astronomically more likely to be fat, to contract diabetes, heart disease, cancer, appendicitis and dementia than their nineteenth century ancestors. One site on the history of cancer explained that in the 19th century in America it was “virtually unknown.” Heart disease was nothing like the rates we see now.*
If our examples ate all their wheat and sugar allotment themselves, they were eating about 150g of carbohydrates a day from those sources. The vast majority of it was whole wheat. Their white sugar intake was an average of 2g per day, or about what you would get from two small squares of extra-dark chocolate (75+%). Their total sugar intake (including brown and molasses) was around 15g per day, or 12 pounds per year.
Modern nutrition guidelines insist that we must eat 300g of carbohydrates per day. The average American in reality eats between 400 and 500g per day, 189g of it sugar for an average of around 152 pounds per year. Unlike grandma and grandpa, only about 1/7th of our grain intake is whole wheat.
So over 1650 calories a day from just fat and meat for our example couple. With the wheat, sugars, alcohol, corn, rye, vegetables and fruit they had to both be over 2000 a day.
According to modern nutrition, this old couple should have been 500 pounds each and hardly able to waddle over to their graves to drop into them. People in their 50s are “supposed” to eat 1200-1400 calories a day or even less. And they aren’t supposed to be eating any fat at all, let alone more than twice what a healthy modern young American man is currently eating. They also should be packing in fruits and vegetables at every meal, glutting themselves on those so as to “fill up” on “healthy” food. They shouldn’t be treating them as an afterthought meant only to accompany the main foods–fat and meat–as this couple’s children clearly did.
So that’s one place to start. Try eating like great-great-great granddad did: double your fat, halve your carbohydrates, eat less than 20 pounds of sugar per year (the threshhold under which populations generally see very little cancer, heart disease, appendicitis, cavities, and other disease of civilization) and eat lots of meat.
*Naysayers will typically argue that no one lived long enough at this time to develop cancer and heart diseases. There is something to that–but only something. It’s not the full explanation, not to mention that it doesn’t explain why doctors are perplexed that both these diseases are striking younger and younger. After all, cancer historians describe the disease as “virtually unknown” during the 1800s–in any age group. How many people do you know or know of who’ve had cancer before age 50? I’m betting quite a few. Ditto heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Plato says he’s hungry
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