I have been thinking a lot lately. Some may claim this is a dangerous activity. Maybe it is, but it certainly allows dots to be connected in new and innovative ways. Maybe some of the topics of my mind have been on the mark, and maybe they haven’t been. It’s certainly ideas to give further consideration.
First, let’s turn back the hands of the clock to another era, one that was quite some time ago, when the group of people we know today as the Amish were a new “cult.”
Many of these people emigrated to the United States, where they took up new lives and established communities and farms. Initially, they didn’t appear much different than their neighbors. Almost everyone in a rural community was a farmer, so their farms were the norm of the era.
Their clothing wasn’t much different either. Everyone dressed fairly similar to the way the Amish dressed. The men’s beards weren’t notably different either, nor was the hair styles worn by the women. Everyone used horses and buggies. No one had telephones or electricity. Everyone ate fairly similar foods. Children usually only went to school through the eighth grade, if they went to school at all, in a one room schoolhouse which they walked to. Probably the sole difference was in the services themselves, for the Quakers also usually held their services in members’ homes.
The differences between the Amish only began to appear as industrialization began. With each step forward in terms of technology, the Amish evaluated it in terms of their belief system and decided whether or not to accept it as being a reasonable addition to their lives. They slowed the process of change in their society, which made their differences begin to become more noticeable. Now, nearly a hundred years after electricity became commonly available, the differences are easily seen between the Amish society and mainstream society.
That’s not to say that the Amish haven’t paid a high price for their choice to remain separate from mainstream America. It’s meant that their gene pool is much more condensed, as marriages to outsiders have become increasingly rare. That’s allowed certain genetic diseases to appear with a higher than normal frequency. That has also allowed medical science a chance to approach these almost unknown diseases with more confidence about treatment, better testing, and long term prognosis. While it’s difficult for those that have inherited this surprise genetic package, it’s also meant that society as a whole has also benefited from their long term choices to remain apart.
If we continue to look back to the era in which the Amish originated, we also will find that medical science didn’t have much to offer anyone. It was pretty ignorant of a number of things, ranging from sanitation to genetics. While it doesn’t have all of the answers and often doesn’t like some of the modern questions about our health, we also couldn’t accurately diagnose some things, such as diabetes, cancer, food allergies, etc.
Even so, it seems that the average person was far healthier and more robust than the average person today. Gluten intolerance, something that seems to be hitting our population in epidemic proportions, along with obesity and diabetes, were all unheard of conditions. Food allergies in general were fairly rare, and were most likely to occur if someone ate an “exotic” food that was different from the foods they normally consumed. These same statements are largely true if we even look back to just fifty or a hundred years ago.
So what do I think this means?
Maybe the problem is not so much that people are changing, but it is because of the diet we have today. It’s filled with processed foods, fast foods, artificially flavored/colored/sweetened products, and foods from around the world. We can eat fresh strawberries at Christmas, and fresh oranges in July. Our bread, nothing like anything that would have been on the average dinner table a hundred years ago, is soft, sweet, and whiter than our bed sheets.
In the meantime, we suffer from digestive issues, allergies, lack of energy, diabetes, and obesity, all while on our special low calorie diet. We get progressively sicker rather than regaining our health.
Look at the diet of a hundred years ago in comparison. There was a lot more food on the dinner table, but it was a lot simpler too. Meals were usually produced from locally available foods in season. They featured a lot of complex carbohydrates, animal fats, and home cured meats.
All that cholesterol, and yet if a person managed to survive through childhood, they were likely to live as long or longer than the average person does today. My own family tree features many people, even in the 1700s, that lived well past their 80s. Census records often list them as “farm laborer” or “house servant” even after age 60. (I don’t descend from anyone famous, for the record. Everyone was pretty much an ‘average joe’ even though many of my ancestors emigrated to America prior to the Revolutionary War.) Most families would have regarded things such as pure salt, sugar, and white flour as “luxury” items. Corn, beans, potatoes, and other garden produce would have been on the table in many forms most meals, along with things such as butter, eggs, milk, and cured meats.
Doctors would have also been a rarity, which may have helped ensure long lifespans, since many of the medicines and treatments commonly used were of dubious nature. Most injuries, diseases and illnesses would have been treated at home, using either patent medicines (which had to be bought with money) or herbs that were raised in the garden for that purpose. Childbirth would have occurred at home, with the assistance of a family member or a local midwife. Dentistry, when it was necessary, was also a do-it-yourself project or one that may have even been conducted by the local barber! Actual dentists, as we know them today, weren’t common until the late 1800s or later, depending on the area.
Unless you lived by a port on a river or the ocean, truly exotic foods such as pineapples and bananas, would have been unheard of. Exotic spices, such as cinnamon, vanilla, allspice, nutmeg and black pepper, would have been expensive items bought from a local merchant or a peddler. Even white flour would have been out-of-the-ordinary, although many families would use unbleached or a semi-white flour for baking.
There was no such thing as vegetable oil, unless it was olive oil, which had to be imported to the USA until fairly recently. There was no high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, GMOs, etc. either. Even soy products such as tofu or TVP didn’t exist. Few farmers even raised soybeans yet, as it wasn’t a crop with much of a market or use at home either.
This isn’t to say they had boring meals without any sweets. There was candy, pies, cakes, cookies, muffins, etc. and they were commonly made at home. The difference was that they were sweetened with molasses, honey, maple syrup or sugar, cane syrup or a coarse, tan cane sugar that was more commonly available in the local store. (Probably more similar to what we call turbinado sugar today.) Foods were seasoned with herbs from the garden too.
Foods were also preserved by drying, curing, pickling or preserving with sugar. Home canning, in glass jars, became commonplace in the early 1900s, with home freezing moving in during the 1950s. Even in the 1960s, many small towns still had a butcher shop with a walk in freezer where a family’s meat (from cattle or pigs they paid to have butchered) were stored in the “locker”. Wrapped in white butcher paper, with a stamped label, this storage was part of the price paid for the meat’s butchering and packaging.
The meat, eggs, and dairy products consumed were typically fed local grasses and grains. All chickens were “free range” in a way that few chickens know today, coming to the coop to roost from protection from predators. Hogs and cattle were typically pasture raised as well, and hogs were often allowed to roam the woods of the area for the entire year, fending for themselves, and being rounded up and killed in the fall when it was easier to hang, butcher, and cure the meat in the cooler temperatures.
For city folk, life was a little bit different. While some city families had a milk cow, many bought their milk from the “milk man” who delivered daily. This dairy was still nearby, as transportation was not fast enough to encourage distant dairies. Vegetables and fruits sold in the local markets were also likely to be produced in the area. Butcher shops supplied families with fresh and cured meats, which typically had also been raised nearby. Most families had a “kitchen garden” where much, if not all, of their produce and herbs were raised.
Nobody ate fresh foods out of season unless they had someone with a very green thumb and could afford a fancy (and expensive) greenhouse to raise it in. This was true of everyone, regardless of their economic and social status.
We can’t say the same things today. Today, we have no clue where our food originated from usually.
That may not be a good thing, but I’m also not the only one who is questioning that concept. First, there is what is called “Slow Food.” There is also another concept called permaculture. (Permaculture Institute is here, and my audio interview with its founder is here.) There are also countless organizations promoting heirloom food crops, organic farming, and back-to-nature living.
What I am questioning now is whether or not these choices are choices made because of dietary desires, lifestyle goals, or a belief system.
Maybe we need The New Church of Wholistic Living (as far as I know, this does not actually exist), encompassing community, society, diet, lifestyle, ideology, and belief system into a comprehensive system that essentially turns their members into something not unlike the “Amish of the New Millenia.” It’s not that people who are practicing this type of life are separating themselves entirely from technology, but that they are questioning society’s current lack of values regarding many things, with the most visible point being the food we consume. Other commonly questioned items in this arena are things such as excessive use of motor vehicles, television, and modern mainstream medicine.
What do you think about all of this? Have I lost my mind? Am I becoming excessively suspicious of the offerings from the giant corporations and big box stores?