The essential wisdom behind this book is timeless: any time a large group of people gathered together are not immediately struggling for survival, they start inventing brainless ways to be “safe,” most of which involving changing details of method instead of changing goal.
Fifty years ago, we knew how to change goals. If you felt unhealthy, you sought a balanced life: you ate the right amount, exercised the right amount, had the right degree of socialization and spent time on things like your spirit and mind as well. These were inseparable ideas; they all came together together a goal.
In the current time however we have such a fragmented view of reality that we think in pure linear terms. If you’re fat, the problem is fat, so stop eating foods high in fat. Not “eat less and exercise more,” or “find a new purpose in life so you don’t pig out to fill the void.” This is how we get such aberrations as sugar-free gum, lite beer, low-fat cheese and light cigarettes.
Nourishing Traditions calls us to look upon the opposite principle, which is the notion of tradition, or an order in harmony between all of its parts. As you can see from a sample chapter, the book is composed of recipes, pen and ink drawings, and informative blurbs about the science behind the nutrition. As a form of mission statement, the book alleges:
Unfortunately, several dangerous errors are built into the edifice of the USDA Food Pyramid. First, the new guidelines imply that everyone can eat the same foods in the same proportions and be healthy. According to the recommendations, grains should be the basis of our diet; but many people do very poorly on grains. Others have a low tolerance for dairy products. These intolerances are due to a number of factors, including ethnic background and genetic inheritance. Secondly, the pyramid calls for reduced fats without addressing the dangers of lowfat diets. Finally, the new guidelines perpetuate the myth that fats, carbohydrates and proteins have equal nutritional properties no matter how much or how little they are processed. The experts make no distinction between whole grains and refined, between foods grown organically and those grown with pesticides and commercial fertilizers, between unprocessed dairy products from pasture-fed cows and pasteurized dairy products from confined animals raised on processed feed, between fresh and rancid fats, between traditional fresh fruits and vegetables and those that have been irradiated or genetically altered, between range-fed meats and those form animals raised in crowded pens; between natural and battery-produced eggs; in short, between the traditional foods that nourished our ancestors and the newfangled products now dominating the modern marketplace. (3)
The book begins with a thorough overview of nutrition from this angle, proceeds on to a sensibly-designed chapter emphasizing basic recipes that are ingredients for other recipes; creating these recipes also simultaneously builds the basic skills need to tackle the more advanced recipes later in the book.
These building blocks alone change cooking in the way this book recommends: both radically, in changed assumptions, and mildly, in the actual changes required. You change ingredients, a few preparation techniques, and sources for the foods you most commonly use. You do not end up cooking anything unrecognizable or impossible.
In reading the first chapter, the reader also sees a pattern emerge. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of ingredient, like meats, dairy, vegetables, legumes or grains, or a type of recipe, like snacks or desserts. The chapter begins with a discussion of healthy methods of preparing that type of food, and a general synopsis of its roles in traditional cultures.
After that, the chapter becomes recipes roughly but not absolutely balanced from easier to harder. Interspersed among them are factoids, whether excerpts from medical and historical journals on the effects of certain types of eating, or the comedic “match the ingredients” blurbs that list the contents of popular foods and ask the reader to guess what they are (the answers are in back; I got one in five right at best).
While these recipes are not astoundingly difficult, they are designed for a different type of cooking. The last three cookbooks I picked up were infected with the mentality of the “foodie” set, who really like the use of exotic ingredients and multiple pans and techniques. These are more “dinner party” foods where you cook them to impress your friends.
Nourishing Traditions, on the other hand, is a general-purpose cookbook like the vaunted New York Times Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking. You can trick these recipes out if you want, and Fallon gives you some examples in the early pages of how to do that. However, these are mostly designed for feeding people you love, and the ingredients are as a result muted and the showmanship reduced, as is unnecessary complexity. Cooks making multi-course meals will find this very helpful.
However, using whole ingredients represents its own challenges. From making several recipes herein, I found that you cannot substitute your average modern product for its traditional counterpart in all cases. For example, when she says full-fat yogurt, make sure some marketing idiot didn’t sell you skim yogurt under an organic banner. Make sure your meats haven’t been given the “boutique treatment” that trims unsightly fats or some of the meat dishes will turn out slightly dry.
What will delight cooks about this book is that it is full of fresh ideas. You will find all of your old favorites here, but also some surprising variations that are designed not just for health, but for people who love food. The hors d’ouvres and soups sections contain good ideas commonly ignored by all chefs in addition to some insightful uses of food.
Furthermore, since Fallon’s technique is to use a few basic preparations in other recipes, once you get started, you will find that this book contains a whole theory of kitchens: preserves in the cabinets, soup stock simmering on a back burner, basic sauces prepared and ready for quick foods, and nuts and roots in a pre-prepared state for quick recipes.
While this book is a good general-purpose cookbook, it had to explain itself and why it rejects the reasoning we see on our televisions, from our “experts,” and in all of our cooking stores and grocer stores. The author chooses to point out that this is our traditional way of eating contra post-industrial revolution “politically correct” cooking, which like political correctness tries to refine the nature out of foods so that they present no threats, but in doing so, depletes them of essential properties:
The first modern researcher to take a careful look at the health and eating habits of isolated traditional societies was a dentist, Dr. Weston Price. During the 1930s, Dr. Price traveled the world over to observe population groups untouched by civilization, living entirely on local foods. While the diets of these peoples differed in many particulars, they contained several factors in common. Almost without exception, the groups he studied ate liberally of seafood or other animal proteins and fats in the form of organ meats and dairy products; they valued animal fats as absolutely necessary to good health; and they ate fats, meats, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains in their whole, unrefined state. All primitive diets contained some raw foods, of both animal and vegetable origin.
Dr. Price found fourteen groups — from isolated Irish and Swiss, from Eskimos to Africans — in which almost every member of the tribe or village enjoyed superb health. They were free of chronic disease, dental decay and mental illness; they were strong, sturdy and attractive; and they produced healthy children with ease, generation after generation.
Dr. Price had many opportunities to compare these healthy so-called “primitives”with members of the same racial group who had become “civilized” and were living on the products of the industrial revolution — refined grains, canned foods, pasteurized milk and sugar. In these peoples, he found rampant tooth decay, infectious diseases, degenerative illness and infertility.
All claims made in the book are extensively sourced from mostly well-respected journals, with a few people from the wild side who are interpreted in context and not used for any dramatic leaps of logic. It did not hit my filter for misfits who justify their weirdness by claiming a joint FDA-Masonic conspiracy has stolen our souls and precious bodily fluids. Instead, it’s common sense allowed to guide science, giving us a more interesting (and tasty) view of our daily food intake.
You can find this book for $17 on Amazon.com.