The Traditional Foods Movement and Me

I’ve been reading up on the traditional foods movement in the past few weeks. Developing alongside the more visible local food and slow food movements, it shares much in common with them: namely, a preference for locally produced, sustainable whole foods which have not been overly refined, chemically treated or genetically altered. But whereas Slow Food is a formal organization with celebrity members such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Michael Pollan (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), not to mention a leftist philosophy, the traditional foods movement appears to have more grassroots appeal, with much of the movement stemming from the research of Weston A. Price in the early 20th century and the more recent book, Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon. As the name implies, traditional foods proponents emphasize traditional methods of processing, preparing and preserving food, looking back to before the industrialization of agriculture.

Baked steel-cut oatmeal with walnuts, dates, plain yogurt and a splash of maple syrup

The key issues appear to be local, sustainable, whole (meaning minimally processed) and organic foods; raw or at least non-homogenized dairy; soaked and sprouted grains; bone broths; and fermenting as a means of preservation and probiotics. Traditional foods proponents are also largely omnivores, appreciating the health benefits of food from many sources, animal and vegetable, and not shying away from saturated fats, provided they are natural and not highly refined. The overarching concept is one of nourishment: the emphasis is on putting good nutrition into your body (and increasing the nutrition of your foods with the above methods), rather than on simply removing foods from your diet (eg: removing calories via fat, sugar, salt, or carbs without considering the nutritional value of the little that remains).

I haven’t done enough reading on the subject yet to fully weigh in on its implications for my own family. I do know that we don’t eat as many unrefined products as I would like, particularly in the dairy department, where I cringe whenever I think about the ultra-pasteurized milk and cream we have been ingesting. Soaking or sprouting grains (and flours, beans, nuts, seeds, even cacao nibs) and fermenting products such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, all take a level of advance meal planning that I have never been especially good at, and in many cases, pair best with the use of dehydrators, grain mills and dedicated fermenting containers, none of which I own. The more I read, the more panicky I started to feel: Is the food I cook neglecting or actively harming my family’s health, despite my best intentions? Can we even afford to eat truly healthy food?

I didn’t feel better until I took a step back and evaluated our family diet a bit, compared to the food of my childhood and even the first years of my marriage at the turn of the 21st century. We used to shop at the grocery store for whatever caught our fancy, disregarding location, seasonality, chemical and genetic manipulation, and honestly, without even checking ingredient lists most of the time. Today:

  • Overall, our diet is much more varied than it used to be, thanks in part to my ongoing struggle to overcome my picky eating habits.
  • We support the local agricultural community and the protection of heirloom fruits and vegetables through the Salem farmer’s market, and we try to buy most of our produce when it is in season; Salem-area fruits and vegetables, Oregon cheeses, and Pacific-Northwest salmon are just a few examples. Local food is generally fresher, and consequently more flavorful and nutritionally viable.
  • We buy organic, sustainable foods whenever it is financially feasible for us, and try to start by replacing those foods that typically contain the highest concentrations of pesticides and other synthetic compounds, as well as those that are in a concentrated form, such as sugar and maple syrup. The availability of these products at chain grocery stores and warehouses has increased substantially even since I started blogging in 2006, and seems to be improving all the time.
  • We have removed high fructose corn syrup and other highly refined sweeteners from our diet, and limited the majority of our saturated fats to naturally derived sources such as unsalted butter, coconut oil, and olive oil. I still find a place in the pantry for Spectrum shortening and occasionally fry foods in canola oil.
  • When we go to the grocery store, we read labels and try to choose those products with shorter ingredient lists containing whole foods (rather than a paragraph of unpronounceable chemicals).
  • We rarely eat prepared foods and don’t go to restaurants more than once or twice a month (and often as not, when we do, we are disappointed with the outcome). This is better for us nutritionally and saves on meal expenses, allowing us to use more organic and natural foods at home.
  • I cook the vast majority of our food from scratch, including many grocery store staples, allowing me to control every aspect of the meal. As a stay-at-home mom, I am very lucky to have the time and energy to do so, although many basic foods require more patience than continuous effort or time commitment.
  • Although I don’t use all organic stone ground whole wheat flour, I generally use a combination of unbleached all-purpose flour and white whole wheat flour, and sometimes incorporate less familiar flours derived from buckwheat, rice, quinoa, corn and barley (among others) for variation in our baked goods.
  • We have graduated from eating individual containers of sweetened yogurt to large containers of plain yogurt, and now to homemade yogurt, a simple process that should save us money every year. Yogurt is incredibly versatile and can be adapted for savory dips, marinades, baked goods, smoothies, frozen in the ice cream maker, or just eaten sweetened with fruit and honey; it can also be drained to substitute for sour cream, mascarpone, and cream cheese. And of course it is full of probiotics for digestive health.
  • Several months ago, I switched from organic low-sodium boxed chicken stock to homemade stock made from vegetable scraps and chicken carcasses; I make a batch in the crockpot overnight every time I roast a chicken, and store the velvety, gelatinous result in my freezer. This type of broth extracts every last bit of nutrition from the bones and cartilage, including calcium, glucosamine, and a range of valuable trace minerals.
  • As a side note, we also have a relatively small carbon footprint: Since I don’t drive and my husband walks to work, we mostly use our car (a Prius hybrid) only for occasional errands around town. My mention yesterday of a trip to the farmer’s market and Safeway was all on foot, a mile or so each way with Nolan in the stroller and a backpack on my back, although with the little guy I don’t hoof it as much as I used to. Oh, and we recycle and use cloth diapers, and all that jazz.

My fledgling whole wheat seed culture, bubbling to life and 3 days away from starter status.

As I came to realize, we have already probably done more to maintain a nourishing family diet than 85% of Americans, and most of what we lack is due to limited availability and budget.  But there is always room for improvement, and here is my list:

  • I should do more research into organics availability and their comparative costs in Salem, and re-prioritize our purchases, particularly regarding meats. Additionally, I should look further into the traditional foods movement’s benefits and caveats, particularly with regard to soaking grains and phytase/phytic acid.
  • I should make it more of a habit to plan meals well in advance, allowing me to work with dried legumes and soaked or sprouted grains more readily, not to mention brining or marinating of meats. This would also help streamline our food consumption and hopefully produce less waste.
  • I should continue experimenting with foods I have rejected in the past as a picky eater in order to give us a more varied diet as a whole.
  • I should try to find a way to get minimally processed dairy into our diet. Ultra-pasteurization and homogenization deaden much of milk’s nutritional value, not to mention its beneficial bacteria and flat-out flavor. This issue is something of a challenge considering my lack of transportation and limited budget, but I think it is worth struggling over considering how much milk, butter, cream, and etc. we go through in a month.
  • I should experiment with preservation methods such as canning and fermentation. My tolerance of sour foods has increased somewhat in the past decade, and I am particularly interested in giving sauerkraut a try, considering my German/Polish heritage. On a related note, I should probably try to use more alternatives to plastic storage containers.
  • I should maintain a sourdough starter for baking bread and all manner of other goodies. Once upon a time, in 2002 or 2003, I kept a sourdough starter and made beautiful loaves of bread, bagels, pretzels, pancakes, and more. Not only is sourdough bread partly fermented and more easily digestible than your standard loaf (even for folks with gluten intolerances), it just tastes good, and with a minimal effort, will allow me to keep my bread fiends happy on a regular basis. At the moment, I’ve got a whole wheat seed culture going, and in a few more days, it will have developed into an honest-to-goodness starter.
  • I should consider more options on either end of the table, by which I mean gardening and composting. I used to have an herb garden, along with a small bed of chard and bell peppers, but that fell by the wayside with our very large dog trampling through the beds (because they are all along fences holding back our neighbors’ dogs).

Refried beans made from dried pinto beans (a much more successful effort than the batch I made two years ago).

All of this is excellent food for thought, and has made me reevaluate our food choices. Something else I’ve noticed in the course of my research is that many of the blogs espousing the traditional food movement stem from a conservative, and frequently Christian, perspective, which is honestly a breath of fresh air for me as a conservative Christian foodie living on the liberal left coast. This observation just piques my interest more. Time to make a trip over to the library, methinks! (And incidentally, please feel free to correct any initial misconceptions I may have about the traditional foods movement, or to recommend print and online resources on the subject.)

Update 7/15/10: I am now making all of our own yogurt at home, and incorporating some into virtually every meal (although in some cases that means baked goods, which lose the probiotic benefits). When I drain the yogurt to thicken it, I reserve the whey to use in bread-making. My sourdough starter, Oscar, is pulling his share of the workload, and I have a good basic sourdough recipe to work with now. Additionally, our waste management company has started a new program that allows the composting of all food waste (animal/vegetable/mineral) to be placed in the same bin with yard debris, so I now keep a separate food waste bin in the kitchen, which is emptied outside every other day; most vegetable scraps go in the freezer for stock.

Update 8/25/10: Progress in the preservation front, thanks in part to my participation in the Preserve the Bounty challenge over at Nourished Kitchen. I’ve put up fermented sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, and ketchup; frozen peach butter, shredded zucchini, green beans and grape leaves; dried peach slices, peach butter leather, corn kernels, silk and husks, cherry tomatoes, mint and lemon balm, clover blossoms; made peach, basil and sundried tomato compound butter; and pickled chard stems and okra. I’ve also been saving any viable seeds from my produce to try planting next year: cantaloupes, peppers, dill and tomato so far. Indoors, I am currently growing a basil plant and some baby leeks. Finally, I’ve been saving glass jars as we use up their contents, to store foods in rather than plastic.

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