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Posts tagged ‘granola’

In a Nutshell

On my fridge, I have a collection of business cards from cafes and shops visited on trips abroad. This afternoon—months late—I added another few from a recent month-long stay in Canada and the US, and I was reminded of a fantastic breakfast at the August First bakery in Burlington, Vermont. I was in Burlington for a conference and spent a couple of days beforehand working and wandering around a small university town – I grew up in a small university town so I have a professional interest in them – which has a reputation for extraordinarily progressive and inclusive politics. DSCN1370 There were posters advertising make-your-own banjo classes (out of gourds, apparently), vegan Thanksgiving, and homebrew nights; the local Democratic party was next door to a Tibetan dumpling shop; and I have never been so aware of the plight of the Dalai Lama as I was in the week I spent in Vermont. And there was the most amazing co-operative, which had a wall – a wall! – of granola. Progressive America is, truly, the most amazing place. (In a similar vein, Ann Arbor’s community co-op is opposite a Birkenstock shop.) DSCN1380 I had, then, granola at August First. And it was wonderful granola, with whole walnuts and fat raisins, and with plenty of really good plain yoghurt. Burlington has embraced its granola. But – and I write this as one who makes her own granola – there is a contradiction at the heart of the association of granola with progressive living: a lot of the time, it’s full of sugar. Unlike muesli, which is left raw, granola is baked usually with honey, maple syrup, or (sometimes and) sugar, as well as oil, and, occasionally, egg white. This is not necessarily the healthiest breakfast. So why does granola signify healthy eating? DSCN1386 This isn’t the only food to be linked to left wing politics. Paul Laity notes:

‘Socialism,’ George Orwell famously wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1936), draws towards it ‘with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England.’ His tirade against such ‘cranks’ is memorably extended in other passages of the book to include ‘vegetarians with wilting beards,’ the ‘outer-suburban creeping Jesus’ eager to begin his yoga exercises, and ‘that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers…’

Orwell’s ‘cranks’—a term reclaimed by the London vegetarian restaurant in 1961—were the free-thinking and –living British Bohemians of the early twentieth century, who experimented with new forms of comfortable dress, sustainable eating, eastern religions, egalitarian social arrangements, and alternative sexual identities. This early counter culture was strongly influenced by late nineteenth-century dieticians and naturopaths—many of them based in Germany—who advocated raw, simple eating in contrast to the meat- and starch-heavy meals which characterised most middle-class diets. DSCN1388 As Catherine Carstairs remarks in her essay ‘The Granola High: Eating Differently in the Late 1960s and 1970s,’ it was immigrants from central Europe who brought health food shops to North America, stocking vitamin supplements, wholewheat bread, and, inevitably, fruit juice. It was these shops that made widely available the foods eaten at more exclusive sanatoriums in Europe and the United States.

Like muesli and bircher muesli, granola was invented in a health spa. In her excellent and exhaustively detailed history of granola, Karen Hochman argues that Dr James Caleb Jackson—a farmer, journalist, and doctor—invented granula in 1863 for the patients at his spa, Our Home on the Hillside, in upstate New York. Relying heavily on Graham flour—invented by the dour evangelical preacher Sylvester Graham—he baked sheets of biscuits and crumbled them into granules to be soaked in milk and then eaten for breakfast. It’s likely that granula—the predecessor of Grape Nuts—would never have moved beyond the confines of Our Home on the Hillside had it not come to the attention of a rival sanatorium doctor and Seventh Day Adventist, William Kellogg, who used rolled, toasted oats instead of Graham flour biscuits. He renamed his product granola, and it became for a while a significant money earner for his Sanitarium Food Company (renamed Kellogg’s Food Company in 1908).

But enthusiasm for granola remained—largely—limited to the relatively small numbers of people who shopped in health food stores until the 1960s and 1970s. Then, concern about the effects of pesticides and additives on human, plant, and animal health; suspicion of the food industry; a desire to experiment with diets from elsewhere; and a back to the land movement all coincided to produce an interest in purer, healthier, more ‘natural’ foods. Hippies—another food counter culture—looked back and found granola. So did big food companies, as Hochman writes about the US:

Granola went mainstream in 1972, when the first major commercial granola, Heartland Natural Cereal, was introduced by Pet Incorporated. In rapid succession, Quaker introduced Quaker 100% Natural Granola; Kellogg’s introduced Country Morning granola cereal and General Mills introduced Nature Valley granola.

The sweet, nut- and dried fruit-filled granola we eat today is derived from the granola reinvented in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite having been popularised by Quaker and General Mills—the enemies of the second food counter culture—granola retained its association with progressive, healthy living.

This cultural history of granola tell us three things, I think. Firstly, that the food counter culture has roots in alternative experiments in living stretching as far back as the late eighteenth century, when vegetarianism and lighter diets were picked up as markers of enlightened, rational eating. Secondly, that business has long taken advantage of the experiments done by people working and living on the fringes of respectability.

Finally, it also traces the shifting meanings of what we define as ‘healthy.’ Despite evidence presented to us by nutritionists, what we think of as being healthy food depends on a range of factors, including whether, historically, a product has been associated with health-conscious living.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.