Conflicting, confusing, and crazymaking—that’s how many people describe the diet and nutrition information put out by our government, the medical industry, and any number of expert authors. Is beef okay in moderation? How ‘bout soy? Does our body process the sugar in fruit juice the same as the sugar in a Coke? Is an extremely low-carb diet dangerous? Are there added hormones in cow’s milk? Yes, the questions are endless and the answers fall all across the board.
But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands. We need food, obviously, and our good health depends on our own ability to design a diet that agrees with body, mind, and spirit.
This week, we’re pleased to introduce Gigi Berardi, a Fulbright scholar with more than thirty years experience in food and farm studies. More importantly for our purposes, Gigi is a sane and knowledgeable voice about how to take ownership of your relationship with food. Her new book, FoodWISE: A Whole Systems Guide to Sustainable and Delicious Food Choices, earned a starred review from Tanisha Rule in the November/December issue of Foreword Reviews, so we worked quickly with North Atlantic Books to set up this compelling FaceOff interview.
Tanisha, whisk in hand, take it from here.
Your cautionary tales about trying new foods while traveling were both cringeworthy and humorous. Can you give one more story that wasn’t included in FoodWISE?
Most of the stories that come to mind involve food poisoning! All that experimenting takes a toll, I have to say! But I have others. Here’s one.
When I was living in Perugia, Italy, some time ago, I was out with a group of about twenty Italians, and with my British partner, Ish, who didn’t speak Italian. Nor was Ish too enamored with Italian cuisine: primos, secondos. The primo is usually a pasta or rice dish, which was okay, but the secondo course that follows is often a rather basic, but still often delicious, meat dish.
He’d had enough of the plain secondos. So, in Italian, I explained to the waitress that he wanted something a little more complicated, and my Italian friends all chipped in, “Bollito, bollito!!!”
Now, “bollito” literally means “boiled,” so I ordered that. The waitress returned with appetizers and said very softly to the both of us, in English, “Do you know what bollito is here?” Ish and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Now, here’s the reveal: “Boiled cow’s head.” She sounded alarmed, we looked alarmed, and my Italian friends, in a heartbeat, sensed that all was not well on our side of the table. Despite the overall sense of deep, impending doom, I said to Ish as calmly as I could, “Everyone at this table is staring at us right now, please smile, we’ll figure this out.” Then the head arrived. Correct—it was a boiled cow’s head—with a green sauce. Needless to say, Ish barely touched it, at which point all the friends at the table were shouting at me in Italian, “Tell him to eat it with the green sauce! The green sauce! It’s much better with the green sauce.”
Again I spoke to him, but in very soft English, “Please smile right now, breathe deeply, and take a bite with the green sauce!” Done, but he wasn’t smiling. Hours later (maybe it was just one, but it felt like a dozen), dinner was over. I did note that people took home a lot of the unfinished food, “for the dogs, too good to be thrown away.” But there was one exception—the bollito.
Okay, here’s another story, just a snippet.
When I lived in Italy for my Fulbright scholarship, I spent a lot of time with our administrative assistants—that’s how I learned Italian. Not with the professors or directors, but with the secretaries. I could count on lunches daily—either in nearby Assisi at Ristorante La Stalla or in my friend’s home. She was from Sardinia, one of fifteen children, and I enjoyed countless delicious meals there. One vivid memory I have is being served Casa Marzu or maggot cheese, which is a sheep cheese from Sardinia (her family had made it). But, it contains live insect larvae. It is outlawed in the European Union for health concerns, and that’s made it a lightning rod for activism around raw milk cheeses. Slow Food has made it a cause célèbre. As for the taste: it’s delicious, when consumed with a very, very strong red wine!
People are interested in healthy eating but, as you acknowledge in the book, many people have full schedules or lack of access to whole foods. For those who haven’t yet read FoodWISE, what would you say to encourage them to start their WISE journey?
Lunch happens right in the middle of our busy workdays, and dinner maybe at the end of a long day with kids. Managing all is challenging. Cooking a lot of food at a time—and I talk about this in the book—means that you can divide big meals into portions and save them in the fridge (or freeze, depending on what it is) for the next few days.
Enchiladas, big dishes of cheesy potatoes, slow-cooker stews, broccoli casseroles, ratatouille—cooking these can easily be a Sunday afternoon pastime, when you have more time. Or even better, cook up a big pot of rice—that really keeps well. You can then add curry-type spices or Tex-Mex spices or sweet spices with some coconut milk to change the flavor. Pack this up for lunch and you have a delicious meal, too. And, if I really don’t have time, I go to my local supermarket, which roasts free-range chickens, and add some ounces of that to each meal. But I also can see the fermented-soy-tofu versions of this, too.
The other thing I’d say: Redefine “cooking!” It can be so simple. Get some canned goods and cook up some simple recipes! Opening up a can and adding something—spices, a few veggies—is cooking in my book (which I also discuss in FoodWISE). Cans of beans, tomatoes, plus spices over potatoes and with cheese/chicken (or not, if you’re vegan) is delicious! Also, simplify: Some people like to have a lot of the same foods each day—it’s just easier to plan. It’s easy to do this with breakfast. Grains and yogurts and cheeses and fruits and vegetables—experiment with different types (“experiment” is in the FoodWISE acronym).
What do you see as the biggest challenge to switching from a mostly processed food routine to WISE eating habits?
Time. The first step is to get information on whole and sustainable foods, and then get excited to prepare some good foods for family and friends—or even if it’s just for a family of one (yourself). Whole-foods cooking does not need to be expensive (think: dried beans instead of canned, eggs, produce in season, potatoes if you don’t eat grains, or pasta). But do save your precious pennies for those fresh vegetables, which tend to be pricey, for all the reasons discussed in the book. But still, there’s the time it takes.
We can cope by keeping it simple. Basically, any way we can get whole foods is good by me. I budget my time, and that helps a lot. I know that, in a few weeks, I’ll be doing a lot of cooking at home. But right now I’m trying to finish some writing projects. So, I’m going to cook a big pot of rice and buy some roasted Brussel sprouts and squash (in one big container that I can recycle), and grate some of my aged cheese (from milk from my sheep—this is where I invest some of my time), and call it good. Time is a challenge, but what I’m saying is we don’t need to be cooking all the time. Instead, identify sources of good, inexpensive foods in a time crunch. We have to be realistic.
You teach food classes domestically and internationally, and the photos on your blog, “Resilient Farms, Nourishing Foods,” are amazing! The students who take your classes, what are they hoping to gain? Can you talk a bit about the experiences they have in class?
There are so many reasons why students take these courses, and also a lot of variety in what they hope to gain from them. Many want a different type of cultural immersion. In Italy, they all stay with one host family and the experience is life-changing for some! Conversation at the three-hour dinners is all in Italian, and so are the excursions that this family offers. The students study Italian and also attend the University of Florence to study sensory taste sciences (the science of taste—what’s the taste difference between this pecorino cheese and that casa marzu? This bread without salt and those flatbreads from the South?).
So, the cultural immersion with families and universities is a new experience for them. It’s also just plain fun to be in the birthplace of the Italian renaissance and try to imagine what cooking and dressing and doing science was like 500 years ago. We also study different contemporary philosophical and economic systems of producing food—and that study is also a kind of cultural immersion.
In Mexico, we study the impacts of free trade economics on Mexican villages, primarily in Guanajuato state, where much of the United States’ winter broccoli is produced. Groundwater is low due to the deep water withdrawals for irrigation—and it is high in arsenic and fluoride, in part due to the rich volcanic rock. What to do? Caminos de Agua, a non-profit based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is working hard to build rainwater catchment systems—and we work with the group. So, it’s service learning for the students in addition to the excursions to pyramids and mines and museums and ranches, which is a life-changing experience.
Although you state outright that the complex topic of body weight is one you didn’t attempt to fully cover in the book, what you did include makes your beliefs on body image clear. Why is the myth of the ideal body important to debunk and separate from the idea of living a FoodWISE eating life?
The drive for, and ideal image of, perfection is the crux of the problem. We’ve been talking about it already here with the image of the “perfect cook,” for example. We have to try to let go of the body images, as well. We are our worst and most frequent critic. Images of thin, of sinewy gods and goddesses, of sylph-like forms, those aren’t for real people. I write about this at length in my book Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance (Routledge, 2005).
And here’s the thing, striving for thin by severely reducing calorie intake doesn’t even make physiological sense because the body often adapts by lowering its metabolic rate, and need, for calories. Now, there are exceptions, and I can think of one food plan in particular that beautifully addresses weight management, but it involves a lot of external support and tools.
Really, we have to develop positive body images and role images (mother, cook, friend)—away from obsessive body image and/or work schedules. I get that perfectionism can be a personality trait and many cooks, for example, have pretty high standards, which are necessary to create their exquisite art. But doing well in the kitchen is about avoiding excessive pressure and self-criticism. Let’s just put this out there: we’re not going to be perfect, flawless cooks eating the perfect diet to have the perfect body size. Rather, we need to settle for “good enough.” For cooking, I’m all about, “This is what dinner looks like when I’m at work most of the day and then taking care of my three kids at night. And I forgot to pick up the milk.” Cooking is about experience—and that’s a critical part of, the “E” in, FoodWISE.
I know you’ve just written a book, a huge task! But what’s next for the FoodWISE movement? Are there any new ideas you’re marinating on as far as recipes, an upcoming class, or new methods and paths to FoodWISE living?
Yes! I’m thinking of writing another book on sustainable credit and humane financing for 20,000 women in India: Credere. The Timbaktu Factor. Clearly, credit is not about money. It’s about believing in people and projects. The root of the word “credit” is credere, which means “to believe in.” It’s about belief and believing in someone and something you trust, and that’s what one now-giant collective in India has done. Foster belief in each other … and then the money follows. So, this is one project. I’m also working on some fiction, set in Renaissance Florence.