I believe that we’re all born with an instinct to gravitate towards the foods that most nourish us. It probably started off as an evolutionary survival trait, but in modern times (let’s say the last 300 years) that ability to cook, to nourish, to connect us to sustainable eating became the province of the elders, notably grandmothers.
Grandma knew that the kids stopped complaining about their bellyaches the moment they downed a little ginger tea.
I think if you take a deeper look at what drives longevity in many traditional cultures, you’ll find a Nana out there passing along a lifetime of culinary wisdom. And that really blows me away. I mean, think about it; science has evolved to the point where it can give us ten reasons why ginger is good for the digestive track. Grandma knew that the kids stopped complaining about their bellyaches the moment they downed a little ginger tea. She also intuited that longevity wasn’t about living forever, but living well for whatever time we had, and that the health of the individual and the community were forever intertwined.
So it goes with eating well. The science intrigues, but the wellspring of motivation comes from engaging the senses on almost a primitive level. The sensuous tastes, the intoxicating smells, the vibrant colors…that’s the irresistible hook. After all, I’ve never seen a list of phytochemicals alone that made anyone salivate. That kind of positive response to food, that sense of soulful nourishment, was instilled in us—if we’re lucky—by someone who was our first and most intimate encounter with longevity, a person who saw it as their raison d’etre to feed everyone in their world and pass those skills on to succeeding generations.
I’ve felt that connection and reconnection at the hands of grandmothers in my own life. I emphasize reconnection here because it’s common, at least in American life, for people to fall into the fast food, eat-on-the-run habit, especially as they try to establish careers or go through life changes. I did exactly that, and it took a health scare in my late 20s to set me to rights. Not that my return to the kitchen was planned; all I had done was buy a plane ticket to Italy, a land that in my mind’s eye was a magical place (a few Italian relatives in the family regaling me with tales of the Old Country certainly didn’t hurt). I’d arranged to stay with an Italian Nona who took in borders, but I think I was more (or less) than she bargained for. She didn’t speak English, and I only a pig-smattering of Italian, but her pitying eyes when she first looked at me in the kitchen needed no translation: This one can’t even make pasta.
But instead of casting me aside as hopeless, I became her science project, an Eliza Doolittle of sorts. I never had to sing, or balance books on my head, but I did have to learn everything about becoming a woman. In the Nona’s eyes that meant but one thing: learning to cook. Of course this also meant learning to shop, which in Italy means daily trips to the market. I was suddenly part of a Posse—my Nona, a half-dozen of her friends, and me. Nona showed me how to feel up (there’s no other word for it) every piece of produce in the market. From her viewpoint this wasn’t a luxury but an economic necessity; who had the money to waste on bad produce? At first her friends just stood back and tut-tutted at that waif that had stumbled across their friend’s door. But over time, and a lot of meals, I won their confidence and found mine.
Adapted from The Longevity Kitchen: Satisfying-Big Flavor Recipes Featuring the Top 16 Age Busting Power Foods
Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson (Ten Speed Press)
Release Date: February 2013