"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Paleolithic Diet–Rugged, Natural, And Pointless

The Paleolithic diet is a modern nutritional plan based on the presumed diet of Paleolithic humans. It is based on the premise that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, which marked the end of the Paleolithic era, around 15,000 years ago, and that modern humans are adapted to the diet of the Paleolithic period.

The Paleolithic diet consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. What was good for the caveman is still good for us.  Here is a romanticized picture of Late Paleolithic Man who lived only 10,000 years ago.  He indeed looks a lot like us – trimmed beard, attractively long but not shaggy hair, well-muscled and not overly hairy, strong nose, and intelligent, purposeful gaze.

Early Paleolithic Man who lived 1,000,000 years ago was a bit different, and his diet was not chopped, pounded, cooked, and spiced like his descendants. He had massive jaws to rip and chew raw meat, roots, wild prairie stalks, and beehives.  He was truly close to the land and should be the real poster boy for the modern Paleolithic diet.

One of the hottest restaurants today is NOMA in Copenhagen.  The master chef is Rene Redzepi who forages for the ingredients that go into his five-star dishes. He gathers wild grasses, seaweed, leaves, periwinkles, nuts, and berries.  Although he does not bill his fare as Paleolithic for obvious reasons, he is a chef in that tradition.  He cooks his food, which is a big improvement on early the caveman, but he still has a profound belief that whatever grows can be eaten.

                                                            Rene Redzepi foraging for dinner

As far as I an tell, the Chinese are as Paleolithic as they come.  A Chinese exchange student lived with us for a year while my children were in high school.  I would often walk with him on the C&O Canal, a narrow strip of National Park along the Potomac River and home to a surprising variety of wildlife for parkland so close to Washington.  Every day he would notice some animal – a snake, chipmunk, beaver, shrike, or caterpillar – and comment, “That good to eat”.  After a month or more of this I said that it seemed that Chinese people ate everything.  “If you can catch it in China, you can eat it”, he replied.

My son spent many year in China and agreed.  Although the food was often greasy, it was certainly eclectic and very tasty.

The old Italians were pretty Paleolithic in their tastes as well.  My grandmother always picked dandelions from our front lawn in the Spring and fixed them in salads and in soups. I don’t know how she did it because they are the nastiest, most bitter, plants around.  Italians like bitter vegetables, and although Americans have come to like broccoli rabe and endive, the light bitterness took some getting used to. 

My dinners growing up were as far from Paleolithic as possible if you discount my grandmother’s occasional dandelions. We ate Swanson’s chicken pot pies and TV dinners, frozen French Fries, peas, carrots, and lima beans; and Sara Lee cakes.  My mother was actually a good cook, but soon got sick of Paleolithic chopping, pounding, and cooking and happily filled her shopping car with all the processed food that the Fifties could churn out.  Unfortunately for my sister and me, we had gotten used to her spaghetti with anchovies, all-day tomato sauce with veal, pork, and braciole; stuffed artichokes with parmesan cheese and garlic; and pasta al brodo.  

What is this disgusting stuff?”, my sister shouted when my mother served us our first TV dinner. Tasteless turkey slices, gluey dressing, fake, cardboard-tasting mashed potatoes, and marbly peas.  “You’ll eat it and like it”, my mother said.  “We’re going out”, and left with my father in a wash of perfume and cigarette smoke.

I first had my taste of ‘natural’ food in Quito in the 70s.  A husband-and-wife team from Vermont opened Hojas de Hierba and made whole-grain food – carrot cakes, muffins, and bread. They were impossibly rugged, inedible, and tasteless; but Alma and Lars were way ahead of the curve, and little did they know that the organic, whole foods, natural, locavore movement would be all the rage today.  Fortunately both local and commercial food producers learned quickly how to turn their stone age, rock-hard products into something delectable.  There is nothing like today’s organic bran muffin, hot out of the oven – fragrant, moist, sweet but not cloyingly so, and marvelously textured. 

Two Yale professors recently conducted a review of what are considered the healthiest diets available, assembled in this table by James Hamblin in The Atlantic (3.25.14).

The researchers were not able to conclude from the evidence which was best, but since they are all based on the same scientifically accepted principle – non-processed foods are best for health – one could freely pick and choose.

I am an eclectic cook and have prepared dishes from all the categories on the chart above – foods that are low in carbohydrates, low fat, and even Paleolithic, although because of my background, travel, and family tradition – not dietary principle - most of my dishes are Mediterranean.  I still don’t get the Paleolithic as a steady diet, however.

Good friends of ours live on a ranch in Montana and are committed to organic farming, local produce, and free-range meat.  They are not Paleoliths because they eat farm-grown grains and their own home-grown vegetables, but do insist on eating only wild animals.  They prefer not to do the hunting, but buy deer, elk, moose, and antelope shot by local ranchers in the foothills of the Crazies.  I am used to urban meat – thick, marbled, dry-aged prime ribeye; a thinly-sliced veal scaloppini; tartar-grade ground beef, or the tastiest of all, slow roasted lamb shanks with whole garlic and rosemary.

Elena roasted the elk, carved and served it at the table.  It was stringy, rangy, and five-minute-a chew tough. It was a principled meal, very Paleolithic, organic, and so free-range that hunters were up in the mountains for three days in the higher elevations before they brought the animal down.  Because the elk had run in a herd, traversing the mountains and back and forth across the length of Paradise Valley, it was lean and well-muscled.  It was a mature adult so any baby fat that it might have carried had been burned off long ago. The meat was tasteless and inedible.

Other friends of ours live in the Dordogne region of France, and both Marcel and Evelyn forage for wild mushrooms and truffles in the hills above their small chateau.  The problem, however, is that both are Parisians and moved to the ancestral home of Marcel’s family only after his mother had died.  They both took to country living, fit easily into the mold of country squires, and lived a life of sophisticated rusticity.  Neither one, however, learned how to forage correctly, and only thanks to a stray dog who begged for food, are they alive today. “I’m not so sure about that one”, said Evelyn to Marcel as he was about to cook some suspicious-looking mushrooms. “Why don’t you wrap it in fat and feed it to the dog to see”. 

It is easy to see how Marcel had mistaken the deadly Amanita ‘death cap’, the most deadly mushroom on earth with the clitocybe nuda, a very tasty edible variety of mushroom; but still, he was very  fortunate not to eat it.

He fed it to the hungry dog who gulped it in one go, lapped some water from the cistern in the courtyard, and keeled over dead.

The moral of the story is to eat what you like, particularly if you are of a certain age.  By the time you are of retirement age, whatever damage a childhood of Chef Boyardee, Swanson’s chicken pot pies, TV dinners, and Oreo cookies has done, it is too late to do anything about it. No amount of marbled fat, Perdue chickens, or Monsanto GMO-laced peas is going to make any difference whatsoever.

I am lucky to have been conditioned into liking a Mediterranean diet, so I prefer pasta marinara with a squid-based tomato sauce garnished with basil-steamed monk fish over a slab of meat.  When I do get the hungries for a bloody something, however, I go to the adult section of the store, and buy a thick 16 oz. NY Strip.  I never trim the succulent fatty bits from the center-cut, bone-in pork chops, but nibble them as entremets between each juicy mouthful of meat and the cheesy, Normandy-style potatoes au gratin with fines herbes I learned how to make in France.

I first had this potato dish in Brittany at the country home of a Parisian friend.  She picked the fresh herbs from the garden, bought the cheese from the local fromagerie , and helped slice the potatoes.  When the dish came out of the old, heavy, iron stove, it was bubbling with cheese and rich cream.  Every bite was succulent, full of flavor, and completely satisfying.

I could use half-and-half, semi-skim Jarlsberg, and regular butter; but I never cut back.  I use whole cream, unpasteurized, high-fat Gruyere and Emmental, and European-style creamery butter.  It is fabulous and always unforgettable.

I once was invited to a dinner party where the hostess wanted to show off her ‘nouvelle cuisine’ and made the same potato dish with all the ‘right’ but tasteless ingredients – skim milk, margarine, and low-fat cheese. The trick was to slow-bake it, she said, thus preventing curdling and allowing the potatoes to absorb all the liquids.  The result was a pasty mess. The cheese curdled into hard lumps, the potatoes disintegrated, and the liquids evaporated to leave a mess of oregano-flecked, half-mashed potatoes.

I am sure that there are some really remarkable creations chez Rene Redzepi; but I suspect diners eat an NOMA for the exotic allure of foraged ingredients, for the chef’s artistic presentation, and his renowned food architecture.  I still am not convinced that wild alfalfa and oak fungus will taste all that good.

noma copenhagen denmark dinner


  1. Really interesting, Ron. Low fat diets, Atkins etc. always drove me crazy and seem unnecessarily complicated. As an athlete I encounter lots of smart and fit people who ascribe to specific diets--vegan, paleo, gluten free--hoping for superior performance. I limit gluten but only because too much upsets my stomach. Michael Pollan makes more sense to me: eat (real) food, not too much, mostly plants...and following almost any diet within a cultural tradition (Mediterranean, Japanese, Nicaraguan) you'll be decently healthy. Two elements factor you focus on that I think many Americans lose sight of: we must ENJOY our food, and everything in moderation. I love your story about potatoes au gratin. How sad!

    Related, this is where my sister and friends staged my bachelorette party--they know me well. Highly recommend for anyone you know who may need cooking inspiration. She buys quality local meat and eggs but some bulk items from Costco and cooks with plenty of olive oil & butter--moderation: http://www.justsimplycuisine.com/dc/about

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