“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.
We lived in a rented two-story house close to the Corn Gate, on the northwest side of town. It was a majestic structure with outside walls built of stones that had been chiseled by hand. Bars protected the many windows. A large metal gate opened for our Landcruiser when it came from Saada in the north. The road that ran by our house had been newly paved by the Chinese, but long before that road had ever existed there had been a small “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant at the end of our street. It faced south and caught the slanting rays of the sun in the morning. Rough wooden benches were placed alongside a row of oilcloth-covered tables where hungry customers, like myself, got breakfast served on a tin plate: Kibda beans with liver and plenty of onions mixed into it. Delicious round pancake-loaves of bread, the staple of every household, were served on the side. You got as many glasses of qishr as you wanted with breakfast. Qishr is a “tea” drawn from the hull of the coffee bean, sweetened with sugar and spices, said to help the digestion as well as quench the thirst. (Coffee is very expensive and most of it goes for export.)
Some women made a meager living by baking the round pancake bread fresh every morning and selling it in the market place to bachelors and students who didn’t have the benefit of a home oven. The dough was prepared right after breakfast with some leaven from the previous day’s dough. It was left in a corner covered with a heavy cloth. At eleven o’clock the fire in the clay oven (an inverted “beehive” with a hole at the bottom) was started with firewood, cardboard or dungcakes for different degrees of heat. After the fire died down and the ashes left a pleasant glow, the dough would be flattened between both hands, put on a bread cushion and then expertly plopped against the hot clay wall of the oven. After a minute or so, it was removed with the help of tongs.
Often we were invited for dinner in the homes of these very hospitable people. We would sit around a plastic table cloth spread in the middle of the room on the floor. Naturally we would sit on the floor too, on one knee, with the other knee up, and after the blessing Bismallah, we would tear a piece off our flat loaf that was put on a plate in front of us and dip it into the common dish. If it were a banquet there might be as many as twelve different dishes at the same time. We might start with porridge of cooked grain, or a cooked vegetable like cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes or red carrots. Another dish was a sour, holey bread soaked in sour milk, which would be eaten either by hand or with a spoon. One of the courses would be a layered honey pastry. It was often served with imported “golden syrup” but I think that originally it must have been made from flour, butter, salt and honey. The last dish was the meat course, usually lamb. Then we drank helba, fenugreek soaked in water and beaten stiff like eggwhite, then poured in the meat pot where only broth was left. The host would stir the mixture vigorously with two fingers of his right hand. Then the heavy stone pot would be first offered to the guest who would drink from it and pass it on to the next person until the whole family had had their fill.
Once while staying at a farmstead, I got a turn at the butter churn. It was made from hardened leather and you had to sing a ditty in Arabic to keep the rhythm of churning. It took a long time and different women in the earthen floored dark kitchen took their turn. In the end there was a small lump of butter, about two tablespoonfuls. I forget how it was used, but I know it was prized. Mostly sheep fat was used for cooking.
At a wedding in a tiny hamlet on the top of a high mountain the sheep was slaughtered and then hung by a log on a peg in the stone-built wall of the house. A crowd thronged around the dead sheep while the butcher cut out the still warm liver and offered it to the guest of honor. I hesitated. Would raw liver from an unknown sheep make you sick? The butcher looked at all the men who stood in a circle around and said, “If you don’t take it, any of these men will.” I made up my mind and ate the liver, raw and still warm. Six weeks later I was laid low with hepatitis. Was it the sheep’s liver or was it just coincidence?
Primitive and Modernized Yemenites
A study of Yemenite Jews, published in the American Heart Journal March 1996, provides one of the most important comparisons in the scientific literature between primitive and modernized diets and their relative effects. Yemenites who had lived in Israel for more than 25 years were compared with Yemenite immigrants of less than ten years residence. In the former group, atherosclerosis, heart disease and diabetes were common; in the latter group they were rare.
A comprehensive survey of dietary habits revealed two major differences between Yemenite Jews living in Yemen and those living in Israel: First, in Yemen, the fats were mainly or solely of animal origin, including “Samne” (dehydrated butter), milk, mutton, beef and very few eggs; vegetable oil was rarely used. In Israel, the Yemenites consumed similar total amounts of animal fat together with about 3 tablespoons of margarine per person daily and 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil (soy, sesame and olive.) Secondly, the carbohydrates consumed in Yemen consisted solely or mainly of starches, with little sugar; in Israel, sucrose accounted for 25 to 30 percent of total carbohydrates. The authors concluded that neither the total saturated fat content of the diet nor the lack of unsaturated fat could explain the rareness of ischemic heart disease and diabetes in the recently immigrated Yemenites. Rather, the study strongly indicated that the culprit was processed vegetable oils and sugar.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2000.