One of my more vivid memories of breakfast in the 1970s was working with my brother to hide the wheat germ my mom was always trying to add to our pancakes, our hot cereal, yogurt, and even, I shudder to recall, our scrambled eggs. In addition to wheat germ, my family experimented with the whole 1970s panoply of “hippie” health foods.
Like what? Oh, let’s put aside years of therapy and let the memories wash in: carob chips instead of chocolate chips, tiger’s milk bars (whatever those were), “wheat balls” instead of meatballs. Heck, we even added grated carrots to the marinara sauce.
Needless to say, we kids were against it – as was my father – and eventually my mom’s best intentions were driven off the rails. And when I say they were driven off the rails, I am not kidding: While no gram of processed sugar passed across the lips of this precious oldest child until junior high, by the time my sister, who’s 11 years younger than me, hit kindergarten, she was breaking her morning fast with Cookie Crisp cereal and a side of Strawberry Quik.
Today, the cycle of life continues. I have my own baby, and, even over the phone, I can see my mom rolling her eyes when I describe my efforts to offer the foods that I think are best. “Dara, babies aren’t going to eat kale, no matter how many mangoes you add to the pot!” And so it goes.
All of which I tell you so you will know that when I say I understand the difficulties of conceiving and carrying out an integrated nutrition strategy for your family, I am not just whistling Dixie – I really do understand.
As far as I can tell, the crux of the matter is this: When it comes to food, delicious trumps all. Grown-ups, kids, invalids, astronauts, Olympians and babies are all alike in this; we all just want something delicious. Sure, we’ll eat something we know to be healthy that we think tastes yucky – for a little while. But after that, we hide the wheat germ and damn the torpedoes.
Young chef Heidi Swanson has been grappling with this dichotomy, understanding that there’s a whole realm of healthy ingredients that most people simply don’t cook with because no one has shown them how delicious these foods can be. Her new book, Super Natural Cooking (Celestial Arts, 2007), is the product of years of experimentation with what she calls the “underused palette” of healthful ingredients, also known as hippie foods – including grains like millet, amaranth, quinoa, teff and faro; sweeteners like brown-rice syrup and molasses; and every kind of nut, vegetable and fruit.
“When I started this book,” Swanson told me from her San Francisco home, “I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is a healthier way of eating,’ which it is. I was thinking, ‘This palette of ingredients is completely overlooked by good cooks and is an amazing place to cook from.’ I never ever want to be involved in a kind of ‘hold your nose and eat your vegetables’ book. I wanted to say, ‘Here are some great recipes, here are some easy ways to make changes in your cooking that dovetail with what you’ve been reading about nutrition, food politics, and so on.’” In other words, she wanted to make healthy things delicious.
Some of my favorite recipes from Swanson’s book are the kid-friendly ones, like the clever finger-food Sprouted Garbanzo Burgers (see Web Extra!), in which you whip up patties made from ground chickpeas, slice them in half, and let the family fill them to their taste – they’re kind of like the English muffin pizzas of yore, but without the payload of processed flour. I also adore the Spiced Caramel Corn (below), which provides all the food fun of traditional caramel-corn treats, but delivers a substantial nutritional benefit as well.
“People at this point are getting the message from all sides,” Swanson explained. “Their doctors – everyone tells them: Eat more vegetables, more whole fruits, more whole grains, legumes and nuts. But then they find they’re really at a loss as to how to do that. Doctors don’t understand that you have to have buy-in from the whole family to succeed in changing your diet. If your family isn’t eating what you’re making, you won’t keep making it. But if their favorite new recipe just happens to be healthy, you won’t hold that against it.”
And unlike my brother and me, your kids won’t try to hide the ingredients.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she has received four Beard awards for her restaurant and wine column in the Village Voice Media–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been included in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.