March 2020: Gulliver In The Land Of Excessive Proteins

Gulliver In The Land Of Excessive Proteins.

My apologies for missing the February Blog, but as you will read, nature caught up with me and confined me to a hospital bed. Besides addressing the ailment it provided an opportunity to give some thought to a question of rumblings in the stomach. In this way it is a sort of addendum to the January blog. This was not because of any medical problem, or the paucity of food. No indeed. You are the recipient of a great deal of the essential calories – far more than you can manage – and that’s the rub. They are sadly not in any way appetizing, even if they are considered wholesome. Lacking essential seasoning of any sort, quantity cannot square this essential circle. One can die from all sorts of things in a hospital, but starvation is not one of them. However one hangs in there courtesy of the desert - a rotation of fresh apple, pear or orange. It was while peeling the latter, and contemplating better epicurean times, that the thought crossed my mind I was, in reality considering the absence of a true Italian cuisine, and in particular, one designated the Mediterranean Diet. Ah! You’ve heard of that no doubt, but I’m beginning to suspect that over here in Italy it’s as rare as a good Stilton cheese.

To recap for those who are unaware of the history, one Doctor Ancel Keys wading ashore with the 5th Fleet landing at Salerno in WW2, found time in its aftermath to foist this phenomenon upon the world. Not that the troops were dreaming of any such thing as dietary perfection while squelching up the beach. Dodging flying bullets was more important than the number of calories in a pizza, and from what they’d heard; a salami was a salami was a salami, and the bigger the better. The doctor; however, when he’d gathered breath found himself responsible for the local population in general, and was astute enough to notice that cardiovascular illness was something of a rarity among the indigenous residents. Such matters didn’t impress the troops who required that a pizza be, temporarily at least, measured in feet instead of centimetres to suit their universally anglicised appetite. So the good doctor travelled a lonely furrow until all the shouting was over, but his research ultimately demonstrated that the further you moved away from the Mediterranean the higher the rate of cardiovascular disease. He summarily put it all down to the food, and so a legend was born: the Mediterranean Diet. What food in particular we porkers may ask. Based on Keys’ studies, dieticians identified whole fibre and such basic natural elements as bread, pasta, legumes, vegetables, fruit, and importantly, olive oil as the panacea for all our epicurean intemperance. Fish was considered more acceptable than meat, which is not surprising given the geographical area of his research. A hundred years earlier the matter didn’t arise as a member of the bovine species was worth more than a years wages, and the lack of pastures in southern Italy was hardly the place to raise an Aberdeen Angus. However much it was the ‘key’ to Doctor Keys theory, in the new wealthy mass produced world the unholy matter of saturated fats, and the very devil, transfats, were universally ignored, and provided the reason for the concept being mothballed for almost half a century before it raised its head to address the catastrophe of the modern ‘avoirdupois’ syndrome. It took its place alongside the new cult of ‘Slow Food’ that certainly laid the emphasis on quality, but failed to address the salient matter of quantity, something that the Mediterranean Diet had forced upon itself by southern economic circumstances. Meanwhile the passing of time had quite overlooked the ‘get up and go’ north of Europe and our Atlantic cousins. 

Sitting there peeling off another segment of orange I considered that perhaps ‘good food’ had come to resemble ‘gross food’, something where the popular maxim ‘Good for you’ took on a whole new meaning, as though the benefits could somehow be compounded by the super abundance of the right calories. Slow Food, for all its good intentions, began to resemble a contradiction in terms where such protein-less food such as lard, was given the nod as long as it had been matured in marble caverns hidden in the Apuan foothills. ‘Lardo di Collanata’ appeared on all the latest menus in its own right – the ultimate hors-d’oeuvre for the passionate foodie. Hell! That was ME sitting there unable to kid myself that as soon as I shut my eyes I wouldn’t be dreaming of ‘Gorgonzola Pasta’, or a pancetta laden ‘Arrabiata! My nocturnal meanderings have no significance in this weighty matter, and my objections to boiled chicken for both lunch and dinner on the same day as well as the next day, are best left to a footnote at the end of the page. But birds might just have a relevancy in that a rotary spit full of Robins, or lesser-feathered friends, would fit very nicely into this narrative, as they almost certainly formed part of the Mediterranean diet. A quarter of an ounce of protein was not going to feature in Doctor Ancel’s hit list!

As our bodies, among other things, are made up of something like eighty per cent protein, which has a nasty habit of affecting our cholesterol levels, the good doctor had something of a down on protein. He estimated 56 grams a day for a man and 46 grams for a woman was enough to keep us lean, and anything more was going to be stored as fat. As modern Europeans ingest on average about 90 grams of protein per day you can see that we were walking into a blubber problem. It takes something like four billion tons of food to feed the world making Slow Food the virtual elephant in the room. It became a philosophy that was doomed to be distorted, and ultimately become a lost cause. As such it was antipathy to those who soon realized there wasn’t enough of the good stuff to go around, allowing the commercial market to highjack the shortfall by tacking the suggestive ‘Made in Italy’ nomenclature to their product, suggesting that the material was Italian, and thus of a natural, biological home grown nature. This soon morphed into ‘Produce of Italy’, which is still a long way from the genuine Slow Food ideal, an excellent concept that gradually failed to strongly promote the theme of edible material produced in a local ecosystem. Its absence has hopefully encouraged a new, and more determined, ‘Kilometre Zero’ movement. Despite its catchy title I have no doubt that the ‘ever-increasing’ populace will see off this extremist upstart. It’s a sad fact that chlorinated chicken and genetically modified wheat are always going to be the common lot. At least while a McDonalds ‘bio-Quarter Pounder’ remains something more than a fantasy. It wasn’t all down to a nations civilized dietary requirements by any means, as the social aspects of food have become completely detrimental, and no longer just a means of survival. It now manages to be a true art form. Every festival from Christmas to birthdays, to obscure saints, martyrs and heroes need to be generously celebrated by groaning tables of consumables along with the inevitable oceans of beverage, mostly with a lot of wind among the bubbles. Keys noted the consumption of wine among his Salerno patients and the beneficial aspects of moderate drinking; the now almost universally accepted two standard glasses a day. I don’t know if he was actually mindful of the excesses of taverns, restaurants and dinner parties throughout society where such prosperity has led to double chins complementing Jonathan Swift-like Brobdingnagian bellies, and a colossal surfeit of proteins. Yet, if the participants wished, all this could be consistent under the title of Slow Food, if not the Mediterranean Diet. Not that the latter can escape the very same criticism applied to the former matter of quantity, eat to your hearts desire syndrome. It is a tragic anomaly that in a world where a surfeit of food is available many must starve. It can only get worse! In the 2013 census the world was playing host to 7.1 billion people, expected to rise to 9.6 billion by 2050. The redistribution of food must one day come up against the availability of land to create it. Man cannot go on clearing forests forever.

Trees are as important as food is, being a vast photosynthesis factory, a sort of world oxygen mask. Eating less may one day be the only real alternative to saving the planet.

I finished the last segment of my orange and considered this statistical fact. It represented my final food for thought. If I followed Doctor Key’s prognosis and stuck to 56 grams a day I could actually make room for another person on this earth. I might well even return to my ultra slim self of yore.

Such moral thoughts; however, took no account of the machinations of Italian nurses contriving to smuggle in a substantial Tiramisu pudding for what they supposed was one of their undernourished ailing patients, who having finished his orange, just happened to be looking for a source of sustenance to take him through the night until breakfast of tea and two biscuits!