The Best Food Is Peasant Food

Any intermediate-level home cook knows about the concept of deglazing. And if you're a student of French cuisine, you'll also know that the idea of deglazing was an insight from French peasantry: it was a way take very little meat--or meat of not the greatest quality--and get a lot of flavor impact out of it.

Likewise, dishes like Coq au Vin also reveal the brilliance of a resourceful peasantry: take a not-particularly-prized type of meat (in this case an old, tough rooster who, uh, can't quite do his job any more), cook it for a long time in cheap red wine, et voila: a delicious, hearty and healthy meal with amazing flavors. A meal like this didn't cost a lot to cook a few centuries ago in rural France, and it doesn't cost much today.

Consider the lowly catfish: a perceived low-end fish that Cajun cuisine adapted to produce astonishingly delicious meals. See, for example, Paul Prudhomme-Style Fried Catfish, an easy and out-of-this world delicious recipe we featured here two years ago during our 30 Days of New Recipes trial. Rich people a century or two ago would never eat catfish. Today, they line up for it at the finest Cajun restaurants.

When I spent three weeks in Medellin, Colombia earlier this year, I sampled morcilla, an incredibly delicious sausage made with rice, spices and various unmentionable parts of a pig. I couldn't get enough of it--it was the best sausage I'd ever had. Which is why morcilla is popular all over Colombia by all classes of people. Once again, a food made by peasants, and made from inexpensive ingredients, becomes a delicious and culturally prized dish.

These are all simple examples, but they illustrate a truth we often state here at Casual Kitchen, a truth easily forgotten in our always-striving, always-craving culture: Really good food does not have to be expensive. It never was true, and it's not true now.

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Are You An Al Gore Environmentalist?

Al Gore Environmentalist: noun; The type of person who tells everybody else how to save the environment from his air-conditioned 10,000 square foot mansion.

Over the past few months I've been paying closer attention to virtue signalling behavior. And in the domain of environmentalism we see lots and lots of it.

There are studies for example, that show that people make green purchases primarily to signal their status and "morality" to others. Or worse, when people feel they're being observed, they are significantly more likely to buy an environmentally-friendly or green product, but when not watched they default to a standard product. And worse still, they make their environmentally wasteful and consumerism-based purchases quietly, at home, online, where nobody can see.

True virtue is practiced in private, out of sight of others. Virtue practiced in public is always compromised, at least to some extent, by the fact that you get credit and status by your "virtue" being seen. And of course this becomes pure pseudo-virtue if you practice contrary behaviors when you think no one's looking.

Al Gore's problem lay in the fact that it's awfully tough to conceal a gigantic mansion. Or the fact that at one point he had the single highest residential electric and gas bill in the entire state of Tennessee, at some $30,000 a year in power usage. Practicing pseudo-virtue at this level is risky: eventually someone's going to discover the inconvenient truth and point out the yawning chasm between what you preach and what you practice.

Al Gore-ism is perhaps the worst form of hypocrisy. But even more galling is the implicit truth that some people get to make the rules, rules that are somehow totally optional for them. Not for us though.

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A Primer on Intermittent Fasting

Readers, once again, thanks for indulging me while I take a short break from writing, and please enjoy this post from CK's archives. See you next week with (finally) a new post!

One of the more interesting dietary topics I’ve been learning about over the past several months is the concept of the fasting window, and how intermittent fasting can help you achieve weight loss, eliminate body fat, and improve your body’s overall health and fitness.

Remember, humans only started eating three square meals a day relatively recently. And it’s only over the past century that humans began eating three carb-heavy meals a day.

In contrast, consider a Paleo-era human, genetically identical to humans today, yet built to survive, even thrive, in an environment where food was periodically scarce. A Paleo-era human would periodically go many hours, sometimes days, without eating at all. Which brings us to some of the key central concepts behind intermittent fasting:

1) Our bodies were not designed for the consumption of regularly timed, full-size meals.

2) Our bodies are actually designed for occasional periods of fasting.

3) Our bodies benefit from these occasional periods of fasting.

Bonus! 4) Based on my experiences, intermittent fasting actually isn’t all that bad or even all that hard to do.

A disclaimer. I am not an expert in these areas. Not even close. My goal for today’s post is merely to talk about my own experiments with intermittent fasting. If you’re curious about attempting your own intermittent fasting experiments, or if you’d like to learn more about this domain, be sure to look over the various resources at the end of this post. There’s plenty of reading material there to get you started.

A 17-hour fasting window
So, with that as background: what, then, is a fasting window, and what does it do for you?

Simple: it’s just a period of time during with you don’t eat. And this fasting period causes your body to burn its own body fat through a process called autophagy, where the body in effect metabolizes itself in a way that helps our cardiovascular health, our fitness and our body composition.

Like I said, I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting, and I’ll share an example from my own experience of a recent 17-hour fasting window. And while it may seem like a really long time to go without food, it’s actually not as big a deal as you’d think.

First, I had an earlier than normal dinner, finishing eating at about 6:00pm, perhaps an hour earlier than typical for us here at CK. I also made sure the meal was predominantly protein-based. I did my regular post-dinner things: reading, relaxing and so on, but didn’t snack, consume alcohol or ingest anything other than water. Then, I went to bed around 10:00pm.

The next morning I got up at 6:30am, but instead of eating breakfast at my normal time (around 8:00 or 8:30am) I deferred breakfast until after my workout. At 9:30am I went to the gym and did my usual workout, which lately includes things like squats, deadlifts, some light running and other weightlifting exercises. When I got back it was just after 10:30am. I then waited about a half hour, and at 11:00am, I ate two eggs and a dollop of peanut butter, a meal containing about 30 grams of protein and plenty of satiety factor to carry me well into the afternoon.

So, with my simple breakfast at 11:00am, I had just completed a 17 hour fasting window--the time difference between 6pm the night before and 11am the next day.

During this time, my body first obtained fuel from my meal from the night before. At some point, however, it began extracting the fuel it needed from my body’s own stores of body fat. Which is the whole point of all of this in the first place.

What was most striking about this 17 hour fasting window, shocking even, was that I was never hungry at all, thanks to two things:

1) a high-satiety, low-carb meal the night before,
2) the fact that working out makes your hunger temporarily disappear.

I only really started to think, “hey, it might be kind of nice to eat something” at around 10:45, just a few minutes before I actually ate.

One more thought. Every time you sleep through the night, or at least avoid creeping downstairs and raiding your fridge in the middle of the night, you execute a fasting window of around eight hours. Which means the easiest way to apply intermittent fasting is to incorporate your sleeping period, but then add a couple hours of extra fasting on either side. Start by eating a slightly earlier dinner and deferring breakfast a little the next day. This can get you to a simple ten- or even twelve-hour fasting window quite easily with minimal changes to your routine. Try it.

Once again, we humans weren’t designed to eat every few hours--as much as we tend to get hungry with that kind of timing and think we need to eat. We certainly weren’t built to eat regular, full-size meals consisting of carb-heavy processed foods. And, in an unfortunate case of dietary circularity, it’s the carb-heavy foods themselves that put us on a hunger roller-coaster, making us think we need more food every few hours.

Finally, I’ve repeated this intermittent fasting experiment many times in the past few months, with fasting windows ranging from 12 hours to 19 hours, to see what the results would be. At what point I feel unwell? Would I ever experience severe hunger?

The answers, shockingly, were never and no. I experience some modest sensations of hunger once my fasting window gets beyond 16 hours, but nothing severe and nothing I couldn’t handle. Further, it was interesting to have a chance to observe those mild-to-moderate sensations of hunger. If anything, they were good tests of my Stoic principles, which made me all the more grateful and appreciative of the food I later ate.

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Resources/For Further Reading:
1) The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us about Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging by Arthur De Vany, a pioneering thinker of Paleo eating and fitness.

2) Man 2.0 Engineering the Alpha by John Romaniello and Adam Bornstein. Extraordinarily useful (though male audience targeted) book on fitness and diet with excellent discussions on fasting techniques.

3) Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (the entire book is useful, but specific to fasting see pages 365-369).

4) Highly useful four-part series on various aspects of intermittent fasting at Inside Tracker: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

5) See also CK’s ragingly positive review of Arthur De Vany’s The New Evolution Diet

6) CK on how to apply “Antifragility” to our diets--and eat better for a lot less money.

In Defense of Big Farms

Readers, I'm travelling right now, so please enjoy this post from Casual Kitchen's archives. See you in another week or two, and thank you for indulging me while I take a brief break from writing.

Anyone who bites into a rock-hard California tomato in February and compares it to a sweet Jersey tomato in August quickly learns an indisputable truth: there are certain things large-scale agriculture can do, and certain things it can't.

And that's one of the many reasons everyone enjoys driving over to the local farmstand to buy produce. Not only are you supporting your local economy, you get a tomato that, well, actually tastes like a tomato.

But what happens during a drought, or a flood, or a poor year for crops in your part of the country? What happens when there's a shortage of local food?

I'll share one recent, and sobering, example of what happens. Remember the rice shortage of 2008? Most Americans don't, for reasons we'll get to in a moment. But sadly, this shortage created severe problems in dozens of countries around the world. In fact, nations like Senegal and Haiti faced skyrocking rice prices, food hoarding--even food riots.

But in the USA, no one even remembers. Why? Because our ag and transport industries adapted so quickly that consumers hardly noticed. In fact, the only evidence of a rice shortage in our local grocery stores here in northern New Jersey was a brief limit of two 20-pound bags of rice per customer. And within two weeks, rice in our local stores was in oversupply and put on sale at 50% off.

Remember: this was a shortage severe enough to cause food riots in some countries. And while there was plenty of panicked media coverage of the horrors of the rice shortage, I never saw a single article discussing how our food industry adjusted to it so effectively.

Admittedly, Big Food and Big Ag can be hilariously easy targets to criticize. To the most paranoid among us, they represent everything wrong with America today: Big Food makes irresistible snacks as part of a master plan to fatten us all up, while Big Ag secretly grows genetically-modified produce, soaks it in e. coli for good measure, and then drives it cross-country in an orgy of fossil fuel consumption.

But this perception is parody, not reality. Today, the options available to American food shoppers have never been greater: the average American grocery store carries some 55,000 items, and in the dead of winter you can find anything from organic California raspberries at $6 a pint to regional potatoes at 59c a pound. I'll leave it to you to decide which is the better value.

In short, food is available to us in a range that is simply unimaginable to our grandparents' generation. And at the same time, American consumers are reaping the benefits of a full-blown renaissance in local food. A truly robust food industry -- one that can handle spot shortages, manage uncooperative regional weather, and adapt to the natural fluctations of food production -- needs to have both local and large-scale food production to work properly.

That's how we can protect the food needs of a nation of 320 million people.

A shorter version of this post ran in Dirt Magazine.

Anticipated Reproach, And Why Vegetarians Are Such Jerks

Readers, I'm doing some travelling right now, so please enjoy this post from back in Casual Kitchen's archives. See you in a couple of weeks!

I've never in my life met a vegetarian who was a jerk.

But whenever the subject of vegetarianism comes up--even highly flexible and inclusive versions like CK's Part-Time Vegetarianism--there's usually at least one or two vehement responses from meat-eating readers who presume that some jerk vegetarian wants to take their meat away.

Why is that? I mean, anyone spending five minutes at Casual Kitchen would quickly figure out that we're not vegetarians. We're not a threat to the meat-eating world at all. We're just trying to eat a little healthier and save some dough.

Here's the thing. When a meat-lover responds in an aggressive way to a post on vegetarianism, they expect to be pilloried for their food choices. They think a "reproach" is coming from a pack of tie-dyed vegetarian kooks, so they act accordingly.

That, in a nutshell, is Anticipated Reproach. Essentially, people are expecting missiles to be fired at them, so they fire their biggest missiles first--in a pre-emptive strike to protect themselves.

Anticipated Reproach explains how arguments spontaneously appear out of thin air. All you need is to have one person fire a defensive verbal missile, another person to react, and it's on.

I don't mean to pick on meat-eaters (although admittedly, I'm using them as a rhetorical device in this post). And obviously, the veggie/vegan/meat debate is just one of a million places where you can see anticipated reproach in action. It shows up in all kinds of discussions: in political debates, in debates on taxes and entitlements, in debates on corporate power, about the level of government involvement in our daily lives, and in every other hot-button issue we face as a society today.

It helps explain why otherwise well-behaved people start up insane arguments on Facebook, and why people will waste hours attempting to correct the views of people they don't even know.

And if you think it's only other people who do this, think again. All of us are guilty of anticipated reproach from time to time.

But here's the thing: when you anticipate a reproach that hasn't yet been made... well, you're actually imagining something that doesn't exist. You are making it up. And of course it goes without saying, you haven't furthered the discussion by one millimeter, you've taken it backwards into name-calling and defensiveness.

There's a couple of takeaways here. First, for fellow bloggers: try not to take reader comments personally, particularly the nasty ones. Those comments are almost always about the commenter, not about you. Most likely they are thinking of other times when they've been reproached for their views, and they're simply anticipating still more reproach from you.

Second, don't fall unwittingly into the various anticipated reproach traps. Don't pre-emptively escalate your language. Try to use humor, but avoid sarcastic humor (this is a particularly tough challenge for me). Don't make declarative and pontificatory statements. Instead, ask questions, and try, sincerely, to learn the thought process of the people who don't agree with you. Hey, you never know, you might even learn you were wrong!

Nahhh, probably not. :)

In any event, here at CK, you won't find yourself reproached. Ever. This is my solemn promise to you, dear readers.

I created this blog so that we could all have a "no-reproach zone" to talk about cooking, our diets and the food industry. Yes, you will find your assumptions questioned here, and yes, you'll be challenged here to think differently--sometimes very differently--about things.

But don't anticipate a reproach... because that reproach ain't coming.

Readers! What are your thoughts?