Healthy Food

November 2004

My wife Ruth and I love to travel the back roads of Spain. We have visited just about every nook and cranny of Spain over the past 35 years, and our sons have been part of the adventure from the time they were little children. Today they enjoy meeting the local artisans, farmers, and fishermen as much as we do. The terrain of Spain can be rugged and the towns in the varied regions may have distinctive dialects; yet we sense an elemental integrity and generosity of spirit, which is held in common throughout Spain.

We do not need to drive very far to return to the natural way of doing things - it seems to be at the very heart of Spain. I know it is easy to become sentimental about the olden days, and forget about the farmer who had no labor-saving devices to spare his aching back. Nevertheless the traditional worker's self respect depended on the quality of his labor. He took personal pride in what he produced with his hands. 

The focus of the farmer is on the quality of the crop he is cultivating, or the animal he is breeding -- with never a thought given to the demands of mass production. I recall an owner of an olive grove who chose to have ample room between his olive trees so that each one would flourish. Because of this decision he will need to follow the traditional way of harvesting the ripe fruit by beating the olive-laden branches with a stick, rather than seeking some time saving machine. 

While we were standing there he told me that he was saddened to see that some of the young workers wanted to mechanize the harvesting process. I looked around expecting to see a large piece of farming equipment looming in the grove. However, all I could see were men shaking the branches as has been done for thousands of years. Then I looked closely at a couple of the young men who had strapped a tiny motor to the end of their poles. The motor vibrated the stick so that they could shake the branch faster!  Nothing revolutionary there.

Just last month in Alicante my son Tim and I visited with three young women who wanted us to taste the picolimón table olives they had developed. The olives are grown to organic standards, hand picked and processed using no harsh chemicals, no additives to enhance the appearance, and no flavor enhancers added to the brine. They were just plain olives. But they were so good a gourmet friend of mine in New York told me they were the best bottled olives she had ever tasted --- they were almost as good as the olives from a tub in a rural market in Spain.

I have been trying to get a handle on why so many of us value these all-natural items. Is it for reasons of good health or superior flavor? Alternatively, is it a yearning for a simpler time when the product at the market was actually what it appeared to be? I think I arrived at my personal conclusion as I recalled the days when I was a kid and awaited Thanksgiving Day with great anticipation.

We would go over to our grandparents' house for a gathering of the Harris Clan. My father was one of eight children, and they in turn had many children. Somehow we all gathered around the table, which extended from the dining room into the front hall and in later years into the living room (with a supplementary table or two added on). 

My aunts were busy in the kitchen making pies and stuffing, cranberry sauce and all the fixings, while my grandfather puffed on his pipe and many of the younger men and boys played touch football. At the appropriate moment we would gather, and the roasted turkey would be brought in to the table to the delight of all.  It was golden and flavorful with lots of moist dark meat -- my favorite part of the turkey.

This year, I am awaiting Thanksgiving Day with equal anticipation but this time I will be the grandfather, our sons Tim and Jonathan will be there with their families (including three delightful pre-schoolers). Only our son Chris and his wife will be not be with us, for they are far away in Armenia! I planned to   recapture the memory of that wonderful turkey of my past, by ordering a classic heritage turkey, rather than bringing home one of the gigantic white creatures of today, which have virtually none of my favorite dark meat. To my dismay I found that the turkeys of my childhood are literally a vanishing breed. They have been replaced by the turkeys of today -- a product of the industrial age. Through breeding and hormones they are top-heavy -- their breasts are so laden with white meat that they can't even walk! 

I now understand perfectly why all-natural and organic food is appealing. It makes sense that something naturally grown without the 'benefit' of industrial additives is likely to be healthier to eat. It is easy to accept that a product is more authentic when the producer grows the fruit, or raises the animal naturally for flavor, rather than for volume or appearance. Besides, the more we appreciate and support the artisan growers by purchasing the fruit of their labor, the more we will preserve the traditions -- which are what we value about Spain.

May you have a warm and happy Thanksgiving with those close to you -- and whatever may grace your table, remember it is the atmosphere of love and friendship that counts.

My best to you and your family,