Getting Together to Eat Really Good, Healthy Food

Americans are waking up to the fact that our health ailments are frequently related to our diets – the food we eat. I question the definition of the word food because much of what we consume is a food-like chemist’s concoction, like the 37-ingredient Hostess Twinkie. I recoil in horror when contemplating the common American diet, which consists mainly of processed corporate glop, laden with additives and preservatives we cannot pronounce.

The late health guru Jack LaLanne used to criticize what people usually had for breakfast in his day: a cup of coffee, a doughnut and a cigarette. Would you give that to your dog, Jack would ask. LaLanne was, of course, a pioneering advocate for exercise, but he always emphasized proper nutrition as a foundation for good health.

Today’s typical American breakfast is probably a fast-food wrap or an adulterated muffin or a colon grenade in a bun, which folks on their way to work grab at a drive through then shove into their pie hole as they head down the highway.

But now Americans generally realize that cheap processed food laden with fat, salt, sugar, and chemicals is killing us. I’m talking about our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular degeneration and cancer. The food problem is compounded by our voracious vices involving cigarettes, alcohol and about any drug we can get our hands on, legal and illegal.

Doctors must grow frustrated when their patients expect miracle cures after decades of epic self-abuse result in lethal ailments. A common scenario would be a garden-variety American male who, from the age of 16, has smoked two packs a day, guzzled barrels of alcohol, eaten food indistinguishable from hog swill, ingested drugs both legal and illegal, and exercised about as much as a tree stump.

In the throes of physical collapse, he drags himself to the doctor, who, after running his patient through a battery of tests, must deliver the bad news to him and witness the big boo-hoo. The patient, of course, variously blames God, the government, or his unlucky stars – everyone but the real culprit, himself.

So rather than complain about the health care system, maybe the best thing we can do is take care of ourselves, practicing preventive medicine. And that can begin by eating proper food and exercising. My family was far from perfect, but we did sit down daily – mom, dad and my three sisters and me – and eat together, a meal of real food prepared by my mother. There is actual research that shows this family ritual prevents a lot of problems with the kids.

Moreover, my father refused to take us to fast food restaurant. He would be driving along when the Golden Arches would loom into sight and we kids would clamor for a Big Mac. “I’m not eating that dog meat,” he would growl, and drive on past.

We also had a Sunday ritual. We would drive out to my grandparents’ farm for a big family dinner, cooked by my grandmother. The consistently sumptuous feast would feature fresh, garden grown produce and their own farm-raised chicken, pork or beef. My grandfather got his dairy products the old-fashioned way. He milked the cows. The food and the family togetherness forged a bond that lives on in my heart to this day, long after many of my relatives have passed away.

And that’s a big point: Many of our social and physical ills can be traced to the loss of loving, bonding, responsible family units, built around the shared eating of wholesome food. If we are lucky enough, many of us have that warm remembrance of grandma’s cooking. It was so good because long ago she prepared real food, unadulterated by chemicals, and served it with love.

This is a long way from an all too common modern scenario: A harried single mother nuking a plastic dish of Hot Pockets in the microwave, then serving the gut bombs to a horde of ungrateful brats playing video games in the basement, who wash it down with Mountain Dew.

My life changed when I started growing a lot of my own food and studying nutrition, soil health and organic gardening.

I grow a variety of vegetables, but I also study, grow and apply medicinal herbs. A partial list would include the venerable parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (yes, I have that Simon and Garfunkel album) along with echinacea, hyssop, several mints, lemon balm, bergamot, borage and pennyroyal. I harvest burdock, nettles, ramps, dandelion and plantain from the yard and woods.

My latest healthy eating kick has been the rediscovery of the art of fermentation, inspired by the book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz. My homemade sauerkraut is superb, but my kimchi is the ultimate knockout. I mix Chinese cabbage with a heady paste of ginger, hot peppers, garlic, onions and fish sauce.

I mix it with brine then pack it into my prize ceramic crock and where it ferments for weeks. I keep sampling it all through the controlled rot process, and it gets quite tangy. Guests at my house wonder, what’s that smell. Sometimes they hint that my breath is a little ripe. Another friend says the place smells like a gym locker. What nerve. I merely smile and munch down yet another bowl. No kimchi for them means more kimchi for me.

Rogerson, of Wheeling, is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College.