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Archive for November, 2010

 

I am reasonably sure that nearly every time I get an exciting idea and share it, people around me mentally buckle their seatbelts and desperately attempt to locate the nearest exit row. This culinary adventure is no different.

When we moved to NM this summer, my intention was to somehow get involved with Native American cuisine- to find out what it was, what its applications were, learn about the medicine within and to shake the hands that made it. Most people back in Oregon politely nodded their heads, took me as my usual nutbag self and wished me luck, half wondering if people spoke English in New Mexico or not.

Before leaving Oregon, I signed up for a Native American cooking class at the studio of a Santa Fe chef. With a house only halfway unpacked, I drove out to the desert and found myself with a handful of other participants around a gorgeous table and some totally non-Oregon foods. During the lecture portion of the class, I sat up and took notice when the chef explained that she was an ethnobotany instructor at a nearby American Indian college and her next project was centered around helping the local tribes return to indigenous cuisine and eliminating diabetes along the way. As someone with a family history with this disease, both Type 1 and 2, and having a medical interest in management and care of this process, my radar went red line. I begged to be a part of the program. And so it began, my entrance into the Native American culinary world.

A friend from school and I were chatting about the presence of opportunities in life and having the right doors open at the right time. I mentioned the situation and he stated, “You have very big doors”. Considering that I knew only one soul in town before the move and the next two total strangers I met become my work colleagues, I have to totally agree with my buddy on this one. Less than one week after we moved, I stumbled upon the very subject I’d hoped to learn more about.

My Colleagues, Lois and Walter

The Kiowa chef is half Sephardic Jewish. Let me give you a moment to process that combination.

Lois comes from New York and was raised with the influence of both her parents equally. This is a total gas for me, as she represents another facet of my own heritage, which is  Ashkenazi. She has the familiarity of region and multi-ethnic areas that I have, but she has a more diverse culinary palate with influences from Spain and warmer climates beyond. The flavors of both styles of Jewish cooking are complete contrasts and they come together when we bat ideas around. Through her I have learned volumes about the Native American condition in the modern day, and have realized that the surface has only barely been scratched. The woman is very passionate about honor and respect for both communities, is active in both and has a beautiful loyalty to tribal people of all kinds (Hey, my Jewish Homies- Can you name all twelve of our tribes off the top of your head?).

I learned by way of the Navajo chef in the partnership that his interest in cooking was taken as very odd by the elders. Although his success has made him a local celeb with the Grandmas, they were initially very, very concerned about him from a “preference” standpoint. In the Native society, matriarchs rule the cook fires and having a man in the kitchen is, to say the least, not “right”. Thanks to things like Food Network and his returning to the reservation instead of going Hollywood, he is now their favorite son. With this class, he is showing them another method to honor their ways with healthier versions of familiar foods and bringing medicine to their bodies. If I were to make a comparison, Walter is now the equivalent of “a nice Jewish docta”, and every grandma on the reservation is ga-ga over him.

The Facts

The classes we are teaching are designed to take people back to the foods that are indigenous. The main catch? It’s all plant based and extremely low fat. With a well documented study that the root of all evil, AKA, Diabetes, lies in the presence of intramyocellular lipids (fats stored in the muscle cells). The drastic reduction of fat intake in the diet forces the body to use the stores as energy. These stores are such things as the cupcakes over your jeans, the spare tire over your belt, the marbled foie gras you call your liver and so on. The burning of internal fat leads to lowered blood sugars, the reduction of the Hemoglobin A1C level (a report of how the blood sugar has averaged over a three-month period) and results in the lessened or eliminated need for Metformin, a drug that stabilizes blood sugars artificially.

 

With the reduction of body fat and leveling out of blood sugar, the pancreas and liver get back control of themselves, producing enough glucose and insulin at the right times. Without animal protein gumming up the kidneys, the readily digested and available vegetable proteins in beans and grains are utilized at a much higher rate than animal sources. Little waste needs to pass from the kidneys and it does so without consequence. The usual renal damages that result from the combination of a diabetic kidney and animal protein that land a person on dialysis are nearly eliminated, if this lifestyle change protocol is started soon enough.

 

The idea of this program is to get people acting sooner than later. Already, after just a few weeks, people are reporting relief from neuropathy, that debilitating, stabbing pain in the feet and legs that cripples diabetics. Time will tell with blood draws in a few months time just how well each individual person’s compliance has impacted their health. If even one of the students can get off medication completely and stay off it by making the dietary changes permanent, it has been a major victory.

 

The Meat Of The Matter

Okay. You read that this is a plant-based program. Lets not mince words and call it what it really is…  It’s that frightening word VEGAN. Like you, I’ve associate this word with predominantly over-self-aware freaks. Gotta admit that I side with Bourdain on this one to a major degree. The other side of the coin? Know that I do have to somewhat agree with the animal protection side of it and I feel a little guilty sometimes, but I chose to balance my love of meat and the processing of it by learning how to slaughter humanely. As a conscious effort to respect my food I choose to give thanks to the animal bred for the specific purpose of feeding me, rather than to boycott it altogether. On the other hand, I greatly respect the healthy side of this diet, diabetes being one great reason to adopt it. A food allergy is another serious reason (An allergy, folks, is not one that makes you feel like you have the flu after eating a cracker with brie, it’s when you DIE immediately after you eat the brie).

 

The crap I just can’t deal with a baffling statement such as:  “Using honey demeans the labors of the bee”, “Eating eggs throw off my Chi” or “I only eat foods that have committed suicide by falling to the ground on their own/rotting off the vine”. When you have an entire manifesto embroidered on a hand-woven, fairly traded hemp dinner napkin tied around your neck at the breakfast table, its time to lock yourself up, away from the general public. Don’t freakin’ go out to eat at a restaurant that is not vegan, either. Seriously. The world is NOT going to accommodate you at all times.

Now consider a reservation of Native Americans.

(That blank, empty  cloud of thought over your head is

extremely visible, by the way…)

Here, let me help you a little.  Back in the day, before the whites made contact with the locals, plants were the most prevalent part of the native diet. Cultivation eventually became routine and winter storage kept bellies fed when the ground was frozen and sunshine was not warm enough. Meat and fish was part of the diet, but only after the loss of another living creature in the natural world and only if a hunt was successful. Animal protein, once obtained, was shared with all the people of the community, no matter how big or how small. One bison shared with every belly in the pueblo does not make for nightly steak dinners the likes of what we are accustomed to today. Guess what? Diabetes did not exist in these communities way back when.

Walkin’ The Talk?

When I dropped the bomb to Brian that this was a vegan cooking class, the laughter and side slapping was more or less than what I expected. With the discussion of the details of this adventure, the inevitable question rose, the dreaded challenge of my moral character: “So, are you gonna do the diet, too?”. Do I need to resort to spelling out the actual profanity-filled reply? Can you not imagine all manner of expletive to violently thrust itself between the words “No” and “way”?

I spoke to my chef on the first night of the class and stated that I believed in the cause and would do all I could to support the issue and the medical professionals associated with this new way of life. I agreed to be an integral part of the students’ learning process and to uphold the highest standards of my culinary forefathers, but I stood firm that I truly believe bacon to be Meat Candy and it was non-negotiable in my private home.

As a staff member, I was handed a pile of books with exciting titles like, “Get Healthy! Go Vegan!” (the eye roll was a reflex that I hoped nobody noticed), and “Reversing Diabetes” (more curious to me, considering my background) and I assumed I was supposed to read them, throw on a “Fur Is Dead” shirt, stop shaving my armpits and be happy about things like Tofurkey. I shoved the books into a pile on my nightstand that evening and let the books take up space for a few days. This was definitely gonna be an interesting 8 weeks…

 

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