I spent the past three weeks on the other side of the Atlantic–mostly exploring my husband’s native Transylvania. Dismiss the visions of cobwebs, bats and Count Dracula that I know immediately came to mind. Transylvania was mountains, rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye could see. My husband also happens to live in a town where almost everyone follows the tradition of family farming. This means we had about a dozen chickens roaming the backyard, a few turkeys, a lamb and even a pair of pigs–in addition to all manner of local produce.
In New York City, unless you visit farmers markets regularly or are a member of a CSA, it’s very easy to lose touch with what’s in season. This was not the case in Romania. Eating off the land meant eating only what was in season OR what had been pickled or otherwise preserved from a prior season. October in Romania meant lots of carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, peppers, raspberries, apples, grapes and some tomatoes. Though I was loving the wealth of fresh, organic produce available to me, I found myself missing bananas and avocados–tropical fruits that would never grow in Romania, even in summertime.
So what gives when it comes to eating local and sustainable? Is it limiting or is it health enhancing?
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda both associate foods with particular seasons as well as particular characteristics (warming/cooling, dry/damp, light/heavy, among others). The broader principle behind both of these dietary theories is to eat foods with characteristics that balance out both our own constitution and the season we’re in. Most of us already do this intuitively. For example, everything pumpkin is extremely popular as the weather cools down in autumn. According to TCM, pumpkin is a “warming” food. Our bodies are naturally drawn to it as we transition into cooler weather. The converse is true of something like watermelon in the summer–a “cooling” food according to TCM.
I’ve never eaten as locally and seasonally as I did in Romania. So why did I feel like I was missing something?
For me, the answer seems to lie in eating ancestrally.
Let’s compare my own roots with Romanian cuisine:
Staples: grains (especially rice and corn), beans and other legumes, starchy vegetables (potatoes, yuca, plantains), fish and meat (especially pork), fruits (oranges, bananas, and mangoes), dairy products and nonstarchy vegetables consumed less frequently
Greek Cuisine (Northern Greece)
Staples: Vegetables and greens (zucchini, eggplant, dandelion, leeks, potatoes), grains (corn, some whole wheat), legumes (lentils), fruits (grapes, berries, pears, apples, peaches, quince, plums and figs), meats (lamb, goat and poultry–consumed rarely), dairy (mostly yogurt and cheeses made from sheep or goat milk)
Staples: soups (made of root vegetables, fermented wheat, organ meats and/or smoked meats), meats (sausages, grilled, meatballs, especially pork-based), dairy (sour cream and cheeses eaten frequently), vegetables (bell peppers, eggplant, cabbage, potatoe), grains (wheat and corn), pickled foods
These are three very different ways of eating. However, my parents’ diets overlap in that they were both very plant-based. My mother’s diet growing up was more carb-heavy, with rice and beans as a staple and fewer green veggies. Fruit, however, was widely available to her. My father was raised on far more green veggies, along with legumes and whole grains. The Romanian diet incorporates far more animal products–almost the polar opposite of the other two diets.
A big part of my health coaching program is hinged on the concept of bioindividuality–that one person’s food is another person’s poison. This has a lot to do with an individual’s background, existing health issues, lifestyle, age, gender and–yes–heritage. But what to do when you have two very different cultural backgrounds, like I do?
The reality is there isn’t one guide to getting this right. Over the years I’ve experimented with lots of different foods and have discovered what works for me and what doesn’t. Some of those are foods that my parents were raised on. Others (for example, whole wheat) just don’t jive with my system. And the reality is that some of the foods available to me now just aren’t the same as the foods that were available to my parents in a less polluted, pre-GMO world.
So, I tried the Romanian diet. While it was the most pure, organic and local food I’ve ever eaten, I absolutely missed my own personal “staples.” In fact, when I got home I was thrilled to make some brown rice porridge for breakfast with some banana slices. There are no magical amazing properties to these foods–I just felt better eating them.
There are foods that simply call to us, whether it’s the familiarity of having eaten them with loved ones or something deeper, out of our ancestry. The key is simply listening and being loyal to our own bodies rather than any one dietary theory.