If anything defines our age, it is stress and change. In the wild, we know that ecosystems will need resilience to withstand the pressures. And we know that resilience depends on diversity — a web of life so extensive and complex that if one strand falters, there are many others to compensate.
But what about us? We also need resilience to withstand the pressures. And, according to Diana Beresford-Kroeger, we also need diversity to maintain resilience. In our case it is largely diversity in what we eat.
Even in the best of times, we need food diversity. Every individual is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. So we need a wide range of delivery systems, concentrations, and combinations of essential elements — the fatty acids, amino acids, proteins, sugars, vitamins, and minerals. We need, she says, to browse among lots of different plant foods.
But these are not the best of times. We live under enormous environmental and social pressures. So, now more than ever, we should be browsing widely, she says. But we’re not. We’re eating processed foods bought in supermarkets, and they basically contain only eight species of plants — wheat, rice, tomatoes, potatoes, barley, oats, corn, and legumes.
« As recently as 50 years ago, people regularly ate 150 or more different plant foods,’’ she says, « and on the whole, they were healthier. The greater the variety of food people eat, the healthier they’ll be, and the better able to withstand diseases.’’
Beresford-Kroeger holds degrees in medical chemistry, classical botany, organic chemistry and nuclear chemistry. In addition, she has a diploma in veterinary surgery and worked ten years in heart research.
Even the early pioneers, living under trying conditions, were better off than today’s supermarket shoppers, she says, because they ate widely, especially among food sources known to First Nations people.
For instance they ate burdock roots, which supply inulin, a form of sugar that diabetics can eat, and red hawthorne berries, « which are the only food in the world that opens the ascending coronary artery, and prevents the need for bypasses.’’ They used wormwood, which gets rid of intestinal parasites, and roasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, which were a source of essential fats such as omega-3. They picked wild strawberries, which not only were delicious, they cleaned plaque from teeth, and their leaves made a tea that helped people sleep.
What worries her is that, « We’re losing the folkloric knowledge. Grandparents used to teach grandchildren a lot of this. And that tradition is almost gone.’’
In the early spring, pioneers used to snip the tops of pigweed and ordinary nettles, cook them as you would spinach, and enjoy the year’s first fresh greens. The nettles contained sulphur that restored immune systems. Fiddleheads, high in serotonin, provided a nerve regenerator. Watercress was used in salads, and the marsh mallow weed provided rennet which, when added to milk, made junket.
The arum lily, called Indian turnip, was prepared like potatoes. The pioneers also cooked the young pods of milkweed, which tasted like asparagus, fried giant puffballs in butter (high in vitamin B complex), and roasted cactus pads (high in minerals). In addition there were morel mushrooms, « which have anti-carcinogenic characteristics.’’
Beresford-Kroeger has a long list, but the foods that most made my mouth water were the berries. The pioneers preserved them for winter use, and they included wild cherries, gooseberries, crowberries, blackberries, elderberries, blueberries, whortleberries, partridgeberries, hackberries, mulberries, serviceberries, black currants, cranberries, and fly honeysuckle berries, a well as wild grapes, and wild plums.
I’ve mentioned 32 different foods. Many more were available.
I asked Beresford-Kroeger what advice she would have for people today. Go to markets where you can find cross-cultural foods, she replied, places such as Kensington Market in Toronto. Look for specialty food stores. And try new foods.
It sounds like the most pleasurable way for anyone to stay healthy that I’ve come across.