Thursday, June 14, 2007 Experiences Real Food at Murray's

June 13, 2007

Chicken with skin, potatoes with butter and milk -- this diet is what Nature intended? Nina Planck explains why.

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Her father was a college professor in upstate New York. Her mother started a school. But in the 1970s, Nina Planck's parents bought 60 acres in Virginia and, with their three children, started a new life --- as farmers.

The Plancks made a living selling produce at roadside stands and farmer's markets. Their children were forced to eat real food. They grew up healthy and strong. But in her teens, Nina became a vegan. She had been 5'5" and 120 pounds, "most of it muscle." Now she ran three to six miles a day --- and bloomed to 147 pounds, with less muscle tone.

Alarmed, she started responding to her natural hungers. And she learned two things:

1) "The more meat, fish, butter and eggs I ate, the better I felt."

2) "No traditional culture is vegan --- humans are omnivores."

Omnivores. Hmm. That should ring a bell; I was so impressed by Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" that I wrote a long, two-part review. Planck's book is a kind of sequel to Pollan, a hands-on guide to what you ought to eat, and why.

Planck's major proposition is that "traditional" food --- "foods we've been eating for a long time" --- is good for us. "Industrial" food --- "recent and synthetic" --- is bad for us. Worse, industrial food leads to the diseases of the industrial era: obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Real foods lead to health and vitality.

You want to eat the skin of a roast chicken? Please do. Like mashed potatoes moistened with butter and milk? Go right ahead. And, yes, eat meat: "Plant protein is always inferior to animal protein."

Some of this will be familiar --- there are echoes here of the Mediterranean diet. What is new to me is the unwavering emphasis on natural foods in their purest form: grass-fed beef, whole milk from pastured cows, raw milk yogurts and cheeses. And on cooking combinations, foods that work together to release more useful energy in your body.

The bad news here is the good news. Planck has done massive homework, and the book is clotted with science. On the plus side, that suggests her conclusions --- which will surely seem cracked to those who don't buy food products not labeled "low fat" --- aren't just the pet theories of the whole foods crowd. On the minus side, it means you need to read, pen in hand, to mark the good stuff.

But then, you should read "Real Food" as if you're going to school --- there are that many pointers to better living here. Like which "organic" foods to eat. Unless you have unlimited wealth, you'll notice your food bills are dramatically higher if you opt for an all-natural kitchen. If you have to choose, Planck says, it's better to buy grocery vegetables and wash the chemicals off. Save your money for organic, grass-feed beef --- if there are pesticides in animal protein, they're in the most concentrated form. Not healthy.

And there are charming factoids along the way. My favorite: "spring" butter, so named because it's produced by cows eating lush pasture in spring and fall. Priests used to bless it. If I could find some and slather it on real bread, I imagine I might too.

Inspired by this book, I went down to Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village and bought a sampling of raw milk cheeses and yogurt. The yogurt had creamy lumps that made me think twice --- until I had some. So that's what yogurt tastes like! Ditto the cheeses, all of them much stronger than what we usually get.

Thanks to Pollard and Planck, we have banished most of the products that our fellow citizens enthusiastically swallow --- for the kid, we've even been able to find Heinz Ketchup without High Fructose Corn Syrup. This week, we'll start making our own yogurt.

In a few weeks, I truly believe, we'll feel healthier. And be healthier too.

How can you not be interested in Nina Planck's book?