This is Christmas and I think it’s a good time to switch to some lighter topic than our usual fare of social science and history. Although history is still going to be a part of today’s post, as you will see.
Today is one of few days in a year when we are supposed to gorge ourselves. In fact, many of my friends and acquaintances dread the holiday season as they inevitably end up adding unwanted pounds. So the question is how to eat well but still stay healthy. Well, I have the perfect food for you.
Foie gras! It’s incredibly tasty and, as I will show in a minute, very healthy. The only downside is that it is very expensive, especially if you are outside of France. But you can’t have everything.
Last Fall I was lucky to spend some time in Aquitaine and I swear I ate more foie gras in a week than during all of my previous life combined. I also learned new things about this wonder-food. The French have a tradition of small private museums devoted to various regional specialties, and we went to the museum of Foie Gras, located in a small village of Souleilles near Agen in southwestern France.
I must admit that the new information I learned in the museum was eye-opening. Foie gras is a grossly enlarged liver of geese and ducks, full of fat. I have always thought that enlarged liver was a pathology induced by sadistic goose keepers. It turns out that this is merely Puritan propaganda. Fat liver is a natural condition that migratory birds like geese and ducks acquired as a result of evolution (OK, I can’t escape evolution even when writing about holiday foods).
Geese migrate over huge distances, and they can even cross Himalayans as they travel over thousands of kilometers from their summer breeding grounds to overwintering sites. They need a very efficient source of energy, and fat has the highest energy content per gram of all other food compounds. So by the end of summer geese store a huge amount of fat in their livers. By the time they reach the end of their trip, their fat livers (foie gras) shrink 7-8 fold and become lean livers (foie maigre).
So, indeed, goose farmers stuff the birds with food and, of course, nobody enjoys being slaughtered and their liver eaten. Let’s face it, if you want to eat healthy (Paleo) you have to eat meat, and that means killing living things. But the insinuation that fat livers of geese and ducks are unnatural and pathological developments is a complete canard (pun intended).
The next surprise was that actually it wasn’t the French who caught on to the wonders of foie gras. It was actually the Ancient Egyptians (and here’s where history comes in). Many of the European geese when they migrate south in the fall end up overwintering on the banks of the Nile. Egyptians were fascinated by these birds and quickly figured out how to make them regain their tasty fat livers – by force-feeding them. Here’s an illustration of the process, dating from Old Kingdom:
and another one:
So the culture of foie gras is nearly five thousand years long. (It looks like whatever I write about, I have to bring culture in.) I use ‘culture’ here in its technical sense (socially transmitted information) – because the culture of foie gras was diffused by imitation and learning.
However, the French did not get this cultural practice directly from Egyptians. Instead what happened was that Egypt was annexed by the Roman Empire in the first century BC. The Romans loved good food, and they quickly caught on to the benefits of foie gras. In fact, they were so enamored of fat liver that the adoption of this wonder-food caused a linguistic shift. The word for liver in all modern Romance languages derives from ficatum, which means ‘fig’ in Latin.
The reason is that figs were the preferred way to fatten up geese prior to harvesting liver from them (still are). So the Romans called foie gras iecur ficatum, and then the Roman word for liver (iecur) was dropped, and only ficatum remained.
Finally, let’s talk about the health benefits of foie gras. There are three major types of nutrients that our bodies need to grow and maintain themselves: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Sugars can cause diabetes. Some sugars, like fructose, are actually fairly toxic. Complex carbohydrates, like starch, are rapidly broken into sugars (the process actually starts in the mouth), so they can be equally problematic. Proteins, when broken down, yield nitrogenous waste products, like uric acid, which can crystallize in the joints and cause gout.
Fats come in two varieties: unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated bonds are less stable than saturated ones and can react with other compounds resulting in toxicity. So the safest and healthiest food that we could possibly eat is saturated fats. This of course goes against the whole dietary consensus that arose after World War II – but that consensus is completely wrong, and is unraveling.
OK, I don’t have time in this post to explain this theory in detail, so go and read Perfect Health Diet by Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminets. The upshot is that we need all three major types of food for structural reasons, but the saturated fat is the safest – and, thus, healthiest – source of energy.
Getting most of your energy from fat is also the easiest way to stay lean, paradoxical as it sounds. If you are at all attuned to your body (so I am not talking about pathological conditions), what happens when you eat fat is that you get satiated very quickly. So if you eat a modest amount of fat as part of your meal, and eat it slowly, preferably accompanied by good wine and good conversation, you give your body an opportunity to send you the signal that things are good and you’ve had enough. So you end up consuming less energy. And that’s how you stay lean.
That’s, of course, the recipe followed by the French – or, at least, the older generation (the young are increasingly eating American and, as a result, are rapidly converging on the American obesity rates). This is known as the French paradox – how come they enjoy fatty foods so much, but manage to stay lean? Well, folks, it’s only a paradox if you subscribe to the postwar dietary consensus.
The French – or perhaps the Gascon? – Paradox: why are inhabitants of southwestern departements, who consume the most foie gras, enjoy the lowest rates of coronary disease and the highest life expectancies?
All right, enough of this writing about food – I am going to go ahead and treat myself to some foie gras that I brought over on my last trip from France.