“In His Footsteps” explores the diets and health of native peoples, as experienced by Westerners who have visited them, much as Weston A. Price did in the 1930s.
Growing up in Manhattan in the 50s and 60s has turned out to be an advantage. New York City had no McDonald’s anywhere and the only fast food was pizza. Meanwhile, enlightened neighbors who had organic farm food trucked in from Pennsylvania introduced me to whole foods at age eight. By high school, nutritionist Adele Davis was all the rage and I often ate liver for breakfast. In 1969, I went to study ballet in England and spent the next nine years in Europe relatively unaware of the low-fat craze overtaking America. As a result, I had no bias against the foods I discovered during my stay in Europe.
In Graz, Austria, I had no oven and no fridge while I lived there and this was not particularly unusual. The farmers’ market was the place to buy fresh groceries and most stores closed between 12 and 3 pm. Many people ate a morning yogurt at one of several dairy stands. The yogurt was served in tall, pint-sized recycled glass bottles that required a special spoon with a long handle. It was fresh, tart and had strawberry preserves at the bottom. We obtained food for lunch at little stands that sold warmed Krainer sausages, along with a bread roll, hot mustard and freshly grated horseradish.
Austrian homemade dinners always started with broth soup and noodle balls. Veal and pork were the main meats, with occasional chicken. Easter dinner consisted of hard boiled eggs, Easter bread and a ham that were all packed into a covered basket, taken to church for a blessing, and served at home afterwards.
The crusty, pungent, brown bread at my boyfriend’s home was stored unwrapped in a breadbox but never grew moldy or hard and seemed to be capable of lasting forever! One day he showed me a new loaf he’d bought and said, “This one needs to settle for a couple of days or it will upset the stomach.” I immediately pondered the American penchant for freshly baked bread straight out of the oven. As a topping for bread, raw honey and butter was common.
In the entire year that I lived there, the one truly Austrian food item that did manage to make my jaw hit the floor was Speck, which is like a large thick solid chunk of bacon that’s about 90 percent fat. Sometimes it’s 100 percent fat and is smoked or flavored in some way and Austrians LOVE the stuff! They slice chunks of it onto bread and thrive. Between that and a love of whipped cream and pastries I could never figure out how everybody stayed relatively thin! But they ski and hike a lot, their food portions are much smaller and simpler and they’ve stayed closer to natural foods than we have.
Krefeld, Germany was not a hotbed of health food but it was not a tourist spot either. Stores closed during midday and again at 5 pm. The morning indoor farmers’ market sold mountains of fruits and vegetables, including pumpkins by the slice. However, the only form of corn that was grown was an extremely tough variety used for animal feed. I was told that after the second world war, when the defeated Germans were starving, the US sent cornmeal as part of the food supply and the Germans mistakenly thought they were being sent animal feed as a humiliation gesture. The typical Krefelder diet consisted of pork, chicken, potatoes, cabbage and lots and lots of pickled vegetables. Spit-roasted chicken from takeout stores that stayed open fairly late was virtually the only form of fast food.
I quickly discovered that the only type of salad available in German restaurants was a pickled mixed vegetable salad. In fact it seemed virtually impossible to find a green salad, fresh fruit or fresh vegetable at a meal outside of my own apartment. It’s not that they weren’t available–the farmers’ market had many varieties and one department store’s gourmet shop imported everything from pink grapefruit to okra. They just didn’t offer them on the menu at restaurants and I never personally met anyone who served them. But I assume that somebody besides me was eating their way through the mountainous piles of satsumas and clementines that came into season every year, as well as the springtime strawberries and other seasonal fruits that appeared with regularity.
In 1977, Luzern, Switzerland was the most enlightened city I’d ever lived in. They had grocery stores with items you could only find in health food stores in the USA. Items like raw milk from government certified cows, papaya and passion fruit juices in small cartons, flavored brewers yeast and whole yogurt with muesli premixed into it. The Luzerner diet combined French, Italian and German influences and was highly seasonal. Fondu and raclette were both considered winter meals. (Raclette is a form of melted cheese served on a plate with a boiled potato, pickled onions and gherkins.) Every fall brought wild game into the stores and the restaurant menus for several weeks. It was also the brief season for a mildly alcoholic grape juice that was the result of pasteurizing wine in the beginning stages of fermentation. Ripe chestnut season brought chestnut spread and candied chestnuts to the stores. Veal and pork were the primary meats when it wasn’t wild game season and cheese was popular year round. I still remember overhearing an American tourist in a grocery store ask for “Swiss cheese!” To her consternation, the clerk spread his arms wide to indicate the entire cheese display.
Although London, England was more Americanized than the rest of Europe in the late 1960s, the rural areas of England were relatively untouched. In a typical English household, dinner consisted of meat with no fewer than three or four vegetables. They often use vegetables that are less common in the US such as leeks, rutabaga (called “swedes”), turnip and rhubarb. The British seem more creative with their meats than we are; they are sausage and meat pie fanatics and their variety of cuts of beef, pork and lamb are different from ours. Lamb seems to be their major love.
Even today, most British cheeses are made in traditional ways. In 1992, I stayed at a dairy farm bed & breakfast in Cornwall. An informal tour of their cheese-making facility revealed a huge metal table with walled sides and curdled milk sitting in it. It was slowly doing its own thing. Periodically it would be stirred. In time it would be ready for the next of several stages. This same farm also ran a honey business. By having different fields planted with different flowers, one of them being clover, they managed to offer several varieties of honey.
Much to my dismay, I have watched the gradual Americanization of London and the beginnings of it in other major European cities. At this point most Brits still look quite slim, nothing like their overweight American counterparts, but I am told that as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Baskin Robbins have moved in, the British waistline has slowly begun to expand. In 1969 McDonald’s was nowhere in sight. It’s really quite ironic. I used to complain that the British Wimpyburgers were truly dreadful and nothing like American burgers. Now I sincerely wish the Europeans had never discovered the allure of Burger King and still had Wimpy’s! At least those truly awful-tasting burgers were discouraging enough to keep the British eating the foods they’ve been eating for centuries!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2000.