Fat is where it’s at
Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer
Imagine a steak with a great big fat cap. What do you do? Do you eat the whole thing for the flavour (and nutrition!) of it or are you “fastidious”?
I read the other day that orcas have a trick with great white sharks. If you flip a great white shark on its back, it becomes immobile. Orcas flip them over, make a neat incision, and remove and eat the liver. They leave the carcass for the scavengers. Now, that makes orcas more informed about nutrition than your average dietician or government scientist! (We should not be surprised.)
Over prehistory and the development of humans, we had the same skill and the same instinct. On achieving a kill, the prime targets to devour are the organ meats and the fattest parts of the body. Lean “meat” is distinctly second grade, though of course if you are hungry… All this is about as poles apart from being a vegetarian as you can imagine. We have had nearly half a century of propaganda about fat being bad for you, and my experience is that most people have thoroughly digested that seriously damaging message.
I have a couple of allotments, this year groaning with food that is definitely vegetarian. Wonderfully fresh chard, broad beans, French beans, cabbage, kale, carrots, peas, squash, and fruit too. So fresh and tasty. Yet I struggle to give it away. People, even vegetarians (perhaps especially vegetarians!), want bland supermarket produce with plastic wrapping, labels, and cooking instructions.
What all this says to me is that we are alienated from our food. We are not comfortable with our place in the great web of life. We have lost, in our sophisticated and pressured existences, the basic rapport with food that will nourish us as we need to be nourished. That leaves my jaw hanging loose. Really?
We rehearsed last week the sorry tale of corruption and incompetence. So how do people choose what to eat if they have lost a healthy relationship with whole, nourishing foods? With all the messages pointing the wrong way even if you happen to get something right?
We can understand alienation from food, that really basic and fundamental part of our human context, by looking at food marketing. There is an implied puritanical context for food choices: you would like to eat this, but eating too much of it would be to over-indulge. We can help you resolve that difficulty by selling you the low-fat option (or whatever). Horribly twisted and damaging psychology, ideal of course for getting you well and truly hooked. And as far from integration with our supporting ecosystems as it is possible to get. Jean Calvin would have recognised this picture: deny the body and its desires if you want to be saved.
Probably I need to restate here that if you eat a high fat, meat-based diet (not hard to do) you will have healthy gums and teeth, your digestion will work well, your weight will stabilise at a healthy level (probably lower than you are now) and you will not suffer unduly from western diseases such a cancer. Be aware that there are other interests and other messages out there.
Most people understand that pubs sell you salty snacks to get you thirsty and drinking more beer. But the use of carbohydrates, especially sugar, to make you hungry is less well known. While ostensibly helping you to eat health-enhancing nutritious food, the supermarket shelves are stocked almost entirely with foods that mean you cannot even eat sensibly. A marketing person’s wet dream is to sell you something like “keeps hunger locked up till lunchtime” that gives you hunger cravings for the things that keep hunger locked up. Wicked, evil, lying, destructive manipulation. And absolutely par for the course, sanctioned by national food guidelines and food labelling regulations.
Marketing is powerful enough to unhinge us. It sold us cigarettes. It sold us smartphones. It sold us Brexit. The neoliberal message that we make our own individual decisions based on our own preferences is SO corrosive and so counter to evidence. What we are doing in this blog is trying, again, to get in touch with our alienation from ourselves via a particular subject. I am suggesting that our reaction to FAT is near perfect as a microcosmic laboratory. I see my wife and my kids cutting the fat off meat. (I am wiser than to lecture them!)
Careful, considerate farming
I want to pick up a small aspect of the choices people make in becoming vegetarian.
In my allotment, I can be reasonably careful of living creatures. I try to leave the snails to the thrushes and the blackfly to the ladybirds. I would be thrilled if there were more hedgehogs and frogs to help me with slugs. I use insect netting extensively to keep the pigeons from the cabbages and I have a rabbit fence all the way round. But modern arable farming is not like that. There are insecticides and herbicides and fungicides, all properly called biocides because they kill life. A damaged ecosystem causes swathes of death. If you want to focus on violent death, just follow a combine harvester or look at the various culls that take place.
Last week we pointed out that monocultures are essentially deserts. Aesthetically, they disclose their violence. Where are the teeming wildlife that lived there? I suspect many vegetarians feed garden birds. I do, just for the constant activity. But why are bird populations mostly in dramatic decline? What does it have to do with a vegetarian diet? We need to get real here: the marketing illusion (lie) is all too present. “This is gentle, kind food, that respects the environment and keeps us healthy.” Except that it does neither and never has.
Just to rehearse that all this is the model for capitalism. In the 16th century, rich people, firstly in Portugal, started to have sugar plantations in Brazil. Now look at what that simple statement means. The land was stolen; it was cleared of all vegetation and of any local people, whatever that took. Sugar grew easily but was not native and had no natural diseases. Labour was brought from Africa, as slaves who would not run away, having no local knowledge or relationships. Above all, this took place far beyond the ken of the investors, who had none of the violence on their conscience. This was just a way to make money.
Interesting that it was (and is) sugar, rightly called the white death. But we are alienated from our food in just this same capitalist fashion. We think we can buy ethical food, whatever that might be, and it is simply not true. We will have the effects of our purchases on the soil and the ecosystems, on local labour relations and the local economy, on the extinctions of insects, birds, and animals, on the effects on global warming, etc., hidden from us if someone thinks that is what we truly want.
There is more likely, nowadays, to be government regulation to force us to buy things that we have decided against than there is to be any transparency and consumer protection.
The aesthetics of eating
In an excellent summary article Your Brain on Plants, Georgia Ede looks at the micronutrients our brains depend on to function well, and uses as a context the average nutrient status of people on different sorts of diet: vegan, omnivore, carnivore, etc. That is enough to establish that different diets, and the deficiencies that accompany them, are significant and can be associated with mental health issues.
But I am after something more visceral! We have got to a point where the gut reaction to something dripping with fat, say a burger, is repulsion, almost gagging. So many food pundits want food to be fresh and somewhat clinical. “Grease” is the word applied to fatty food. For Georgia Ede the problem with a burger is the bun, and possibly the PUFAs used in the process.
Our alienation from eating has led us to retch at the very moment of sinking our teeth into the rich fatty substances that we need. To illustrate, a modern scenario that tries to bridge this. My son runs a project called Wild Routes that involves getting closer to the natural world in a very physical way. One of the highlights when we meet on the project is the pit roast. A big hole is dug in the stony ground and a fire lit to burn for some hours. Then, some big shoulders of lamb are put in the hole and covered with hot stones and soil. After six hours the taste and richness of this very fatty meat is truly heavenly and eating it without getting smeared is not possible. Sanity regained, but you have to actually do it.
There is a wonderful book by Albert Borgmann: Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. In it he introduces the concept of focal practice: a social practice that humans have always done that comes to characterise what it is to be human. The archetypal focal practice is sitting around a fire. Borgmann’s interest is in technology: what happens when we have central heating and don’t sit around fires anymore? Well it is obvious that something important is lost because we really, really do like sitting around fires, when there is one. At Wild Routes, there is always a fire to talk around and sing around. Technology is really handy, central heating is a wonderful thing, but we do start to lose each other (and ourselves).
I want to posit that sitting around a joint of meat and jointly devouring it is primal, focal even, in the same sense. The aesthetic that can balance our effete squeamishness about melted fat running down our chins is precisely that sense of restoring the order of the world. I can report that people really, really do like digging in to exquisitely tender shoulders of lamb! And I have been experimenting with the upgrade to mutton which is so much stronger in taste. (Philip was part of my experiment and gave the thumbs up.)
The related aesthetic is the possibility of being jointly grateful to the animal concerned for its life and what it has provided. This is the link into the avoidance of factory farms, where thanking an animal makes no sense. But real farmers do know and care for their livestock. I just signed up for a scheme in the South Lakes where you can invest in longhorn cows that enable a young couple to manage the landscape properly and give thanks in a proper way when the animals are mature and ready to eat.
Just to circle round on our theme, the corporations who want to sell us non-food, dressed up as something to keep us pleased and healthy, absolutely rely on us being alienated from this sort of experience. Maybe we need a movement to up the nation’s barbeques to something closer to real food and away from the trays of dubious material sold at knockdown prices in the supermarkets.
I now have my copy of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs — it will have to be holiday reading. Note the thesis: when people are asked whether their work achieves anything useful for anyone, a large majority say no, it does not. Our existences are shaped and consumed by processes that we despair of, and we cannot easily find the exit.
Compare that to what we are saying about food. What people eat makes them ill and makes them want to consume more of what just made them ill. Food as nourishment for body and soul has been lost and people don’t know anymore how to find it. Our existences are shaped und degraded by processes we despair of and don’t know how to correct. Even to the point where we feel visceral distaste at the prospect of the thing we most need: fat.
Or try the parallel from the other face of health. There is a Twitter meme at the moment about things that others may be surprised at in your profession. A medical one that came up was about how most prescription medicine does no good at all to the person taking it. There is a metric that describes the number of people (N) who have to take a particular drug for one person to benefit, on average of course. An N of 8 is thought to describe a highly effective medication: 7 people get only side effects; the eighth person sees a benefit. The doctor does not know what effect a drug will have on you: his/her advice is hypothetical and statistical.
People follow food advice to some extent. I think they are a bit “middlemind” about it: so long as they avoid the extremes, they will be OK, balance is everything. (Curtis White: The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture is Turning Us into the Living Dead) But the official advice is to get half (half!) of your calories from the only macronutrient which we absolutely don’t need. So balance is massively distorted. And because everyone’s diet is wrong, the epidemiological statistics don’t work either. Because everyone gets dental caries we say, “oh well”. Because no-one has a waist anymore, we say “that’s what happens in middle age all around the world”.
Remember I am trying to make space here. If you are of a vegetarian persuasion I wish you well, but how are you going to re-engage with the primal experience of sharing rich meat? My friend Matt was introduced, via his wife’s uncle, to the art of deer-stalking as part of estate management. On an early morning excursion, a deer was shot and brought back and the still warm liver enjoyed for breakfast. I quite understand that this is not for everyone, but some equivalent is important because it is more real than our other food habits. Our food is not what we imagine it is and that turns out to be of supreme importance in regaining our bearing in our lives.
The more I learn about this stuff, the more I think anyone — but especially women of reproductive age — who goes out of their way to AVOID some of the planet’s most nutrient-dense foods, has zero clue what they’re doing with regard to physical *and mental* health. Amy Berger MS
 Your authors are a bit split on this question. Philip loves certain textures of fat (and loathes others), whereas Aidan is far less fastidious. We’re united in believing that it’s nutritious.
 Here in the UK, we just suffered the seriously messed up introduction of a new train timetable, for heaven’s sake. For all that there was plenty of notice and ‘planning’ on all fronts, it still went wrong.
 Yes, he of what is now known as Calvinism.
 Regardless of how you may have voted, what you may have wished for, etc., it was undeniably sold (and bought, hook, line, and sinker) as a proposition.
 Externalisation, that’s the word you’re all looking for. That’s the economists’ whitewash, the Simonizing power of markets.
 http://www.diagnosisdiet.com/micronutrients-mental-health/ (we must get better at linking!)
 Unless you’re musically inclined, in which case it’s also a 1971 musical that features ‘greasers’ from the ‘50s.
Fun fact: the entirety of the Brooklyn disco scene as made famous in Saturday Night Live was the invention of British writer Nick Cohn, based on the ’60s London social group known as the mods. http://davetrott.co.uk/2012/07/creativity-is-transferable/
 PUFA : polyunsaturated fatty acid
 To illustrate how cultural this is, rather than physiological, let me make use of my friend/colleague who is a UK-born non-practicing Muslim. Adventurously haram on many fronts, he can’t manage bacon or other pork products. The retch runs deep.
 This deep gratitude was a central feature of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. As I recall, one sense of grokking was in the gratitude to and eating of another being.
 One of my local chefs despairs at the veggies who walk through the door, because most of them have lost this connection. “They don’t like food” she says, and this at a restaurant where chefs go to eat when they get a night off.
 None of food, nor farming, nor restaurant are what you’d imagine them to be from the storybooks we show our children. We literally can’t conceive of how much not-food occurs in ‘food science’ at scale. And yet we get hints: vegan wine, anyone?