A late spring terroir kimchi

As spring transitions into summer here in the Peak District, there is now an incredible abundance of wild greens to enjoy. It’s a great time to forage for dandelions, mugwort, wild garlic, nettles, goose grass, heather and Jack-by-the-hedge. So we have been experimenting, brewing a tasty dandelion beer, dandelion tempura and a mugwort and cranberry gruit ale which we will open soon to see what is on offer.

So many of us are now re-discovering the plants of our ancestors, and there seems to be a widespread hankering for the stronger and more local flavours offered by the wild plants and fungi in our surrounding area. The Belgian-born forager and food writer Pascal Baudar has written a lot about this recently, and has a couple of very good books on the subject, including the excellent The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir. As Baudar lives in southern California and not Derbyshire, the book is more of an inspiration piece than a how-to guide, but that is Baudar’s style. It’s about understanding and appreciating the tastes of the local terroir or landscape.

Pascal Baudar and his recent book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine.
Pascal Baudar and his recent book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine.

Late May is a fantastic time to become familiar with foraged greens which are so much in abundance right now. We have a regular kimchi-making session, usually every fortnight or so. Unlike a traditional Korean kimchi, ours is only very lightly spiced, using a small amount of chilli, sometimes supplemented with turmeric or paprika.

Fresh kimchi going into the fermentation pot.
Fresh kimchi going into the fermentation pot.

For this batch we decided to fortify the usual cabbage, carrot and onion base with dandelion roots and dandelion leaves as well as wild garlic and daikon leaves. Dandelion provides some real bitterness to the food, and bitterness is a common feature of many wild plants. The domestication process has been designed to remove bitterness from most of the foods we have become used to, so for the modern palette such tastes are unaccustomed and take a little getting used to. But bitterness, if used correctly and in moderation, gives a real boost and complexity to many dishes. Bitterness is also often an indication of nutritional benefits, and dandelion is full of health-giving properties. Dandelion is noted for its ability to improve the liver function as well as being an amazing source of vitamin K.

Wild garlic can be found pretty easily along the riversides near to our home, and this batch of kimchi included a large bundle of the tail end of the season for this plant. As you can see from the photo below, wild garlic is just coming into flower, and the buds can also be pickled and used much like capers. Like its more familiar domesticated cousin, wild garlic has similar health-giving properties, but we use only the leaves, buds and flowers, as taking the roots destroys the plant.

Wild garlic buds and flowers.
Wild garlic buds and flowers.

We have also started growing our own diakon, and although the roots still need some time, the leaves are delicious and much in abundance. Although daikon is not a wild plant, it’s easy to grow and, like dandelion, is rich in nutrients, most notably antioxidants and vitamin C. Flavour-wise, the leaves are a little peppery and will add some zing to this batch of kimchi.

Daikon leaves from our raised bed.
Daikon leaves from our raised bed.

In a week or so our kimchi will be ready to enjoy.

Koji and natto making in Wales

We had been lured to a remote valley in mid-Wales in search of the secret to Japanese cuisine:  koji. Arriving on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, it felt as though we had stepped out of the Welsh countryside and into Edo period Japan. Reiko, our host, is a really remarkable woman as well as being a highly talented chef.

Cwm Mawr

Our reasons for seeking out Reiko stemmed from our growing understanding of and appreciation for koji. We wanted to learn more about this miracle foodstuff from someone steeped in Japanese culture and culinary tradition. Reiko was a very welcoming host, and straight away we felt very comfortable sharing food and stories in her spacious and gracefully decorated barn conversion. Despite the fact that she is approaching the age of 70, Reiko could easily pass for a woman at least 20 years younger. This seems to be at least partly due to her upbringing in the countryside of post-war Japan, where junk food was non-existent and sugar, meat and even fish were very rare indeed.

Reiko and Georgina

Reiko explained over some of her extraordinary dishes how she had begun to learn to cook at the age of ten. This was macrobiotics without the classes, books or teachers which came along in later years. It’s an authentic, artisanal form of macrobiotics and we were learning at the feet of a master.

That evening we helped her start a batch of koji made from organic short grain rice. The process takes about three days, (including pre-soaking the rice) so the plan was that the koji would be ready just before our return to the Peak District on Monday afternoon. We also began work on a large batch of organic natto for one of her customers.

Koya tofu

Reiko has spent many years perfecting her recipes and methods for the koji, miso, natto, tamari and amazake she makes herself, and it was difficult to keep up with her as she buzzed around her comfortable kitchen.  Like an artist in the kitchen,  she wasn’t one to carefully measure out ingredients or amounts, but she took the time with us to try and come up with approximate measurements. Fermentation is a type of cooking better suited to the artist than the scientist, as outcomes depend so much on a symphony of time, temperature, environment and ingredients.

The wonderful Reiko with her wonderful koji
Fresh koji
Natto preparation
Fresh natto!

But fermentation is more about waiting than it is about rushing around the kitchen, so once the koji and natto were bedded down for the night, we were able to learn more about the central part that fermentation (especially in the form of products based on koji) plays in traditional Japanese food. Koji (which can be either made with rice or barley) is a key ingredient in many important foods, most notably miso, amazake and tamari. It seems that there is hardly a single Japanese foodstuff that does not involve at least some basic type of fermentation, whether it be natto, miso, tofu, pickles or soy sauce. It feels as though the health benefits (not to mention the taste benefits!) of fermented foods are now only beginning to be better understood here in Western countries, even though many, if not most, traditional food cultures have long treasured and understood their life-giving benefits.

Miso-pounding!
Our first batch of home made miso, day 1

Perhaps our modern aversion to ‘germs’ has a lot to do with this shyness for fermented foods in the Western diet. Or perhaps it’s simply down to the fact that fermented foods are rebellious and don’t take kindly to mass production and homogenization. In any case, there is something of a rebellion taking place, and Cwm Mawr is at the heart of it.

Serving lunch

On Sunday the more traditional Welsh rain had returned, so we cancelled our plans for a short hike in the surrounding hills to focus more closely on the making of other macrobiotic mainstays, namely miso and barley and rice amazake. Reiko guided us in our endeavours as we made a start on a large batch of organic miso and began fermenting the amazake with some koji we had prepared earlier. By now the natto was ready, so we were also able to watch Reiko whiz together a very tasty natto condiment which was a great accompaniment to the afternoon’s late lunch.

Natto condiment

We rose fairly early on Monday for the final day of our trip. By now the koji would be ready, allowing us to finalise our first batch of miso. The koji smelled quite extraordinary, a smell that is too elusive for words. An unusual but also pleasant smell, quite unlike the dried koji we were more familiar with.

Miso soup with mochi and noodles

And so later that day we set off north, the car packed with an array of exciting foods awaiting further fermentation and experimentation. We were both buzzing from this brief but deeply interesting culinary journey. Check back in four months when the miso will be approaching maturity! And we will soon be returning to Cwm Mawr to learn even more in our next lesson.

The Top Ten Macro Myths, Part II

Last week we introduced the first part of our review of Alex Jack’s “The Top Ten Macro Myths”, examining some of the important misconceptions held by many followers of macrobiotics as well as many of its critics. We feel that this is an important period in the history and development of macrobiotics, as the movement is often held back by popular misconceptions and exaggerated claims. Fortunately Alex Jack’s little book provides some very good analysis, with the intention of removing a few of the dogmas which have inhibited the growth of this beneficial and wholesome way of life.

One source of information which is used so widely today is Wikipedia. We are often told that Wikipedia is more accurate than Britannica and that it is highly reliable. Unfortunately there are keyboard warriors out there who insist on ‘correcting’ all mentions of holistic and alternative health practices, and with regards to macrobiotics the situation is pretty bad, as Alex Jack has recently written about in his article entitled What Wikipedia Doesn’t Want You to Know about Macrobiotics (and Holistic Health).

Fortunately Alex Jack remains a fair-minded and clear-headed thinker when it comes to the subject of macrobiotics. Let’s examine macro myths 6-10.

6. Macrobiotic people never get sick.

One of the most common claims made by proponents of macrobiotics is regarding its ability to prevent and cure disease. Many books have been written about seemingly miraculous cures of people with advanced stages of cancers or HIV who reversed the progress of the disease by switching to macrobiotics. Indeed the macrobiotic philosophy itself has always emphasised the importance of diet in controlling disease. Alex Jack points out that following a plant-based diet reduces the rate of chronic disease by between 50% and 75% when compared to society as a whole.

When macrobiotics first became popular in the west our understanding of chronic illness and the importance of diet wasn’t very well understood. Today we are living with the consequences of these decades of blind faith in the powers of science, and although there has been something of a backlash to being force-fed a diet devoid of anything nourishing, today even our pets have diabetes.

Alex Jack reminds us that many prominent macrobiotic practitioners have succumbed to chronic illness. In his view, this has not been caused by “too much salt or poor quality salt, red-meat fish, deep-fried kombu, soymilk or cream in morning coffee”. Instead, the cause can be found in the general decline in food quality and the prevalence of pesticides, pollution and other contaminants in our environment and food supply. Poor air quality has been closely linked to early death, and recent studies have pointed to a rise in lung cancer among non-smokers in London. There are some things that even miso soup cannot stop or cure.

A personal interest of mine is in the area of primitive diets, which in contrast to a macrobiotic one, were very low in grain consumption (but very high in fibre). It’s worth reading my earlier post on the Hadza diet for more information on this. Alex Jack doesn’t delve into such areas at all, but it seems an topic well worth exploring, as wild foods in general contain much higher levels of nutrients than domesticated grains and vegetables.

7. Emotions don’t count.

I was a little confused by this ‘macro myth’, as I haven’t had formal macrobiotic training and I have not been exposed directly to the teachings of George Oshawa. Alex Jack argues that one possible reason that many followers of macrobiotics downplay or overlook the role of emotions and health is due to a mis-translation of the word ‘sentiment’, which meant that emotional judgement was seen as ‘sentimental’ or, in other words, false or fleeting. For Oshawa, emotional judgement was higher than blind or sensory judgement but lower than intellectual, social, ideological or supreme judgement.

As with the notion that yang is superior to yin (see previous post), negative emotions have often been seen as a symptom of poor diet or food choices. Alex Jack refers to practitioners who tell their clients that emotional issues are ‘peripheral’ (in other words yin) and don’t address the biological ‘root’ or ‘core’ (in other words yang) of the issue. And yet we can fairly easily understand that the link between emotions and health is strong.

Alex Jack writes movingly of his own experience with emotional issues, recounting a time in his childhood when he was diagnosed with asthma. The doctor prescribed a family move to the dry climate south west of the United States, but fortunately his mother had an intuitive insight and asked young Jack if anything was bothering him. When he told his mother that he felt that his baby sister was getting too much attention, Jack’s mother changed her behaviour and his symptoms went away.

8. Brown rice is the perfect food.

Back in the 1970s and early 80s my father would, on a fairly regular basis, retreat from daily life and go on a brown rice binge for anything between a few days and a week. His view was that a period of time dedicated to short grain brown rice and twig tea would act as an intensive remedy, seemingly able to cure any illness. He seemed to thrive on this strict regimen, but fortunately as children we were not subjected to such a limited diet. These days he still goes for short brown rice bursts, following a commonly-held notion among followers of macrobiotics that brown rice is the perfect food or at least close to being one.

For Alex Jack, brown rice is indeed very, very nutritious, “it is a marvellous food for body, mind on soul”. It’s hard to argue that after eating a simple meal consisting mostly of brown rice that one does indeed feel good and pure. When properly cooked and seasoned and accompanied by some simple side dishes it seems hard to beat. Critics of macrobiotics have pointed out the dangers of brown rice fanaticism, always citing the one or two people who allegedly died from eating too much brown rice. Such shrill warnings are impossible to take seriously, but the question here is not whether brown rice is good or not. The question instead is around brown rice being a ‘perfect food’.

It seems worth quoting Alex Jack at some length here, as he reminds us that:

“The whole idea of a perfect food, to my mind, is mistaken. It is like believing that there is a perfect religion, a perfect society, a perfect family or a perfect chant or song. What is beneficial in some circumstances may be harmful in others. What strengthens one person, weakens another. The quest for a universal saviour – whether theological, ideological or nutritional – is another form of reductionism. There is no magical food or drink, supplement or herb that is the answer to all ills.”

Although brown rice does indeed offer a number of health benefits this is somewhat offset by the social and environmental damage caused by rice-growing when compared to some other, similar grains, such as millet, due to the large amounts of water required and the intensive levels of effort needed. Furthermore, rice, when compared to barley, millet, sorghum or wheat, is somewhat lacking nutritionally. The important thing to remember here is that a healthy approach to macrobiotics does not fixate on one particular foodstuff or technique, rather it is about tailoring foods to local and personal needs.

9. Meat-eating creates violence.

Having spent much of my life around vegetarians and vegans, there does seem to be a common perception that there is some kind of link between meat-eating and violent behaviour. It’s obvious that meat-eating, as it involves killing other animals, involves cruelty and violence. Similarly, anecdotal observation of the behaviour of most vegetarians and vegans would suggest that such people are less prone to violence than their carnivorous counterparts.

But the question here is much more subtle and much more important than whether or not killing animals for food is violent. If we consider meat-eating at a societal level, things begin to get much more complicated and also much more interesting.

When I was still a student in school the common perception was that so-called ‘primitive’ people were much more violent and bloodthirsty than their ‘civilised’ counterparts. I heard stories of cannibals in the jungle, human sacrifice and red-skinned savages scalping peaceful white farmers. Indeed much of this mythology is so deeply rooted in our culture that it seems almost impossible to shake off. British media went into hysteria recently when the explorer Benedict Allen was “missing in a remote area of Papua New Guinea while searching for what is believed to be the last surviving cannibal tribe“. The soon-to-be-released Hollywood blockbuster Hostiles depicts wild meat-eating Indians attacking and murdering innocent homesteaders.

Such simplistic world-views are very hard to shake – from our civilised perspective they almost seem intuitive. Yet, over the past six to eight years I have begun to question them very deeply, through my personal studies into anthropology and the history of civilisation. Once we set aside the fact that killing animals requires violence, the question becomes much more difficult to explain in simple terms.

Modern anthropology has done a very good job of dispelling many colonialist myths, revealing in fact that societies based on hunting are less violent than agricultural ones. The reasons for this are quite subtle and involve a close reading of human history, but essentially when societies switch from hunting to farming a number of important shifts take place, resulting in social structures more prone to religious intolerance, misogyny, extremes of rich and poor and subjugation of the earth.

Through the accumulation of wealth only possible through farming and the cultivation of grains, a new era of rapid population growth and manipulation of the environment begins, starting in the Middle East and China and spreading to the rest of the planet through war and colonisation. The end result of the ‘agricultural revolution’ is global violence on an unprecedented scale, involving the destruction not only of other humans but of countless other species as well. This shift seems to have been triggered by moving away from hunting and gathering and towards planting and farming. I’d strongly recommend James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States on this subject, but there are many other excellent sources of information as well.

From my own research and observation the question of violence has much more to do with our relationship with Mother Earth than whether we eat meat or not. Daniel Quinn, in his excellent book Ishmael divides the world into takers and leavers. This is probably a much more useful distinction that carnivores and vegetarians.

Alex Jack comes to some very similar conclusions, but also notes that meat, due to its very yang nature, can be a bad combination when combined with highly yin foods such as sugar and alcohol. But, all-in-all, he has:

“come to the view that diet contributes about one -third of our health and consciousness. Another third comes from the environment and activity, especially physical exercise. And one third comes from mental, emotional and social influences and activities, including family upbringing, education, relationships and spiritual practices.”

10. Your face never lies.

Oriental diagnosis, especially face reading or physiognomy, remains an important part of the macrobiotic approach to health and wellness. Alex Jack writes at some length of his own experiences of face reading, describing it as a “valuable diagnostic tool”, but also reminds us that it can easily be abused. He describes episodes when he was “shocked by the number of students and clients who confided how humiliated and abused they felt by their macrobiotic teacher or other counsellor told them on the basis of their facial features”.

Alex Jack notes acutely that a quick diagnosis made on facial features can lead to those being judged to feeling wounded and furthermore to accept the diagnosis without question, leading to further ill health.

According to some macrobiotic practitioners, I am sanpaku or ‘three whites’ which can be observed by looking at the whites at the sides and underneath the eyes. Such a condition is supposedly a sign of ill health and an indicator that the patient is imbalanced and exhausted. It’s also supposed to be an indicator of an early death. But it’s also just the way I look, perhaps due in part to the way my face is shaped or something else, I don’t know exactly. In any case, I have felt the pain of such judgements which were quite hurtful at the time. I still don’t know if they revealed anything significant.

The important point here that Alex Jack is trying to make is that face reading is only one tool among many and is not the final method for diagnosis. It should be used with caution, as it can have harmful emotional consequences. He ends with an important reminder that “in the macrobiotic community, sickness is often regarded as punishment for violating the order of the universe”, and also that “this mindset is the very antithesis of ‘a loving realization of the order that governs the infinite universe’ of which Oshawa speaks.”

Conclusion

I was really impressed by this little book. Alex Jack is a serious thinker and a very compassionate and open-minded human being. I was humbled at his willingness to challenge some of the ‘macro myths’ I remember being taught in the 1970s and 80s. For anyone either interested in or sceptical of macrobiotics, this feels like an essential read.

Book review: The Top Ten Macro Myths by Alex Jack

The Macrobiotic Shop has a small treasure trove of rare and hard-to-find books on the subject of macrobiotics. These days there are fewer books published on the subject, which is very unfortunate, especially given the huge rise in veganism and environmental awareness which has taken place since the heyday of macrobiotics in the 1970s and 80s. I recently came across a slim but excellent little pamphlet by the great macrobiotic expert, Alex Jack. Since reading this very rare piece our last remaining copy has been sold, but I was able to read Alex Jack’s little book and put down some of my own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

It seems unfortunate that macrobiotics hasn’t benefited as much from the explosion in veganism, clean eating and general increased awareness in healthy eating as it should have. To me, this is a real shame, as it still has huge relevance and can provide enormous health and environmental benefits. I really am no expert in this arena, so perhaps what follows is totally off the mark. However many people in the macrobiotic community are very passionate about what they do, and it seems worth spending a little time looking inward this winter, for this is a time of reflection.

From a personal perspective, The Top Ten Macro Myths really resonated with me, as I had the mixed blessing of being brought up in a macrobiotic household during the 1970s and early 80s. I describe this as mixed because the results of this experience affected me in mixed ways. As a child, I found much of the food cooked at home to be pretty unpalatable and at school my packed lunches were the stuff of ridicule and embarrassment. I just wanted to fit in, and that was not easy being brought up on brown rice, tofu, steamed vegetables and miso soup. The rich sugary diet of mainstream America seemed a lot more tasty, but even at a very young age I knew and understood that such a diet was also terrible for health and the environment.

Despite not enjoying the culinary aspects of the 1970s macrobiotic diet, it left me with an excellent constitution. I am now well into middle age, but am extremely healthy and active. Similarly, my father, who is close to 80, is still very active and suffers from few of the health problems endemic in our society.

Thankfully the modern macrobiotic diet is a complete revolution, taste-wise. Georgina is an incredible cook and in her very capable hands the food really comes to life. The so-called ‘normal’ food available in our society holds almost no appeal to me, as 21st century macrobiotics feels superior to just about anything else on offer. And yet macrobiotics still suffers from some of its 1970s baggage, a problem which Alex Jack outlines very well.

So let’s have a look at these ‘macro myths’.

1. Macrobiotics is a Japanese diet.

This is probably one of the most pervasive myths which still lingers on. As our readers know, macrobiotics became popular through the writing of such people as George Oshawa and Michio Kushi. They spread the popularity of Japanese staples such as sea vegetables and tofu as well as some more exotic ingredients such as Japanese plums, or ume. However, as Alex Jack makes clear, they were not trying to export their own food culture around the world. Rather, they were simply describing what they had observed in their own country and asked others to follow their principles and adopt them to local conditions. Many staple ingredients of a typical macrobiotic diet have their origins very far from Japan, such as tempeh (Indonesia), and Hokkaido pumpkins (north America).

A good macrobiotic diet is typically rich in ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, oats and barley, none of which are common in Japan. So, although there are some links between macrobiotics and a traditional Japanese diet, the link is not a fixed one and can be ‘flexed’ in either direction. It’s perfectly possible to adhere to macrobiotic principles on more common European or North American grains and vegetables and go nowhere near tofu, hiziki or kuzu. Having said that, Japanese ingredients and cuisine can add some really exciting tastes and nutritional benefits to almost any meal.

2. Macrobiotics comes from the Orient.

Alex Jack argues that rather than being invented in Japan or in ‘the Orient’ (not a term used so much these days!), macrobiotics has its origins in Europe. He cites examples such as Hippocrates and the German enlightenment writer Christoph von Hufeland, author of Makrobiotik or The Art of Prolonging Life  (1796), as well as many others, all of whom argued that food is the basis of our health and that a plant-based diet is ideal for human health. Alex Jack goes on to pursue an interesting thread, linking the pioneering work of dieticians such as Hufeland to the 19th century Japanese physician Sagen Ishizuka and later on George Oshawa. In doing so, Alex Jack cleverly links the historical threads of European and Japanese thinking on health and diet, showing how each generation is able to build on the previous one.

Sadly some of the dogma of Oshawa’s teaching led to macrobiotics to be discredited in many people’s eyes, even though the overall philosophy has a much richer and more widespread foundation and history than it it sometimes credited with.

3. Yang is superior to yin.

As a child in a macrobiotic household, I was taught about the dangers on yin foods at a very young age. For several years my father forbade many foods from our diet for their supposed yin dangers and I was often warned that I looked too yin. At age eight or nine I wasn’t too sure what all of this meant, but it seemed that to be yin was to sin. Although macrobiotics seems a little more relaxed today that it was 30 or 40 years ago, elements of the yang bias still pervade. Today I have a somewhat better understanding of the meaning of these words. Rather than standing in contradiction to each other, yin and yang complement each other and need each other. Alex Jack argues that Japan’s male-dominated culture of the early and mid-20th century led to a valorisation of typical yang properties and a disparaging attitude towards yin ones.

He even writes that Japan believed that they could defeat America in World War II because America was too yin when compared to Japan’s tough, yang culture. With regards to food, yin and yang aren’t really principles I think about too much, but it is interesting to consider diet from this perspective.

4. Cooking is the highest art.

I wasn’t as familiar with this concept as I was with most of Alex Jack’s other ‘macro myths’, but it does seem largely true that macrobiotics elevates cooking over most other pursuits. Here Alex Jack takes the view that many in the macrobiotic community place cooking over all other pursuits. Instead he urges us to that ‘today the highest art is preserving the world’s natural and organic food supply’. This is due to the decline in food quality and nutrients since the 1960s and 70s. In 2017 this situation is even more alarming, and even the Conservative minister for the environment, Michael Gove, recently stated that the UK  is “30 to 40 years away from the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”.

It’s deeply concerning when the Conservative party comes out with statements warning that:

“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth… Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”

Alex Jack’s view on the matter is somewhat similar, and he believes that we must each find our own path to building a better way of life, which may be:

“farming, gardening, cooking, working in a natural foods restaurant or store, writing or painting about food-related subjects, designing a web site or creating a holistic social network, and countless other ways. In brief, practising macrobiotics – reclaiming our birthright as a ‘happy, healthy, free human being’, in Oshawa’s inspiring words – is the highest art”.

From my own observation this fourth ‘macro myth’ is probably a little over-stated, but it does remind us that the path to health and freedom cannot be found through food alone.

5. You are what you eat.

Diet. People with food on a white background. Human, thin, fat. Nutrition, food. Vector illustration

Alex Jack maintains that this is the “foundation” of the macrobiotic belief system. He then links this to other competing theories of character, identity and destiny, pointing out that some would say:

“We are what we think. We are what we believe. We are what we feel. We are what we love…and so on…In all these cases, the model or paradigm is: energy in = energy out.”

Although the belief in a single road to well-being is very simple and convenient, it should be clear to most of us that there are several fundamental problems with such a mindset. Firstly, how do we know which foods are the right ones? Countless books have been written on the subject, and even within the macrobiotic community there are significant differences of opinion. And then there is the question of an individual’s personal constitution and environment which will further affect these choices. Although we can agree on principles, there are a huge number of variables which make this standpoint problematic.

Alex Jack then brings up the interesting question of what we put in our bodies, pointing out that we consume both water and air at far higher rates that we do food. 75% of our food is made of of water, yet we don’t think too much about either the quality of our drinking water or how water in the food affects the quality. The question of air quality is probably even more serious. We consume about 11,000 litres of air each day, and yet as we hear more and more regularly, the quality of our air is very poor and declining.

The central arguement here is that Alex Jack is asking us to not fall into the trap of reductionism, such as can be found in science or religion, both of which often claim to have all the answers.

His final point on this ‘macro myth’ I found to be very inspiring. This centres around the idea that:

“our thoughts and feelings, visions and dreams, prayers and blessings, can all have a profound effect on our health and consciousness in a manner that transcends, or is independent of, our way of eating.”

In my own life I have experienced this many times. We can often feel when a dish is prepared with care and love. Regardless of the ingredients that go into a meal, the intent we bring to it may be as important as anything else.

Next week I will be examining ‘macro myths’ six through ten, which are:

6. Macrobiotic people never get sick.
7. Emotions don’t count.
8. Brown rice is the perfect food.
9. Meat-eating creates violence.
10. Your face never lies.

The microbiome: an animistic perspective

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Daniel Vitalis’ ‘Rewild Yourself’ podcast in which he interviewed Professor of Genetic Epidemiology Tim Spector, author of ‘The Diet Myth’ about the time he spent living and eating with the Hadza tribe in Africa. Professor Spector started his scientific journey as a geneticist, but gradually took more interest in the subject of nutrition after a serious illness. In this absolutely fascinating interview Spector describes how nutrition is an area of science especially ridden with dogma where advocates of one way of eating or another make highly selective choices when presenting their evidence. Spector, on the other hand, comes at the subject with a very broad mind and in fact experiments with a number of diets while at the same time carrying out his research.

But what was most striking and interesting to me about the interview was the way in which Professor Spector described the microbiome and its role in human health. The importance of this organ was underlined when he spent just a few days living a hunter-gatherer life with the Hadza people in Tanzania. While I do take a lot of care with what I eat these days, I generally don’t follow scientific research into diet and human health. It’s so easy now to fall into the habit of using the latest research to back up our own prejudices, whether it’s the notion that so-called ‘clean eating’ will lead directly to an early death for faddish Londoners or that drinking coffee will lengthen your life. Or shorten it. Instead, I generally trust my instincts and, for the most part, avoid reading any stories claiming that this food or that food will have a dramatic effect on my health.

I had been hazily aware that our bodies are filled with trillions of bacteria and that these play a really important role in our overall health, especially that of the gut. This knowledge dovetailed neatly into my own interest in fermentation, an interest based equally on the enjoyment of the tastes as well as a fascination for the hidden world of yeasts and bacteria. I instinctively felt that these foods and drinks were also good for me (and are, in fact, and important part of a macrobiotic diet). Foods such as miso, koji and natto are all good examples of this.

We love looking after our kombucha microbiomes

During the interview, Spector does an incredible job of describing the scale and importance of the microbiome, a community of something like 100 trillion fungi, yeasts, viruses and bacteria, together weighing about two kilograms. To put this into context, the microbiome contains more cells than the rest of the entire human body and, at two kilos, weighs more than our brain or indeed most of our other organs. This discovery has led many in the area to ask us to think of the microbiome as a human organ in its own right, alongside the kidneys, heart, liver and lungs. And, like these other major organs we know so well, we could not live for very long without the microbiome.

Professor Spector then describes in some detail his stay in Tanzania eating a very healthy foraged diet for a few days with the Hadza. Being an astute scientist, Spector carefully takes stool samples on his trip and later analysis reveals that in just three days of living a hunter and gatherer life the health and diversity of his microbiome increased by 20%. He primarily puts this down to the wide range of foods he ate, as well as the time spent outdoors and without modern sanitation.

Which is a very long way to bring me back to the title of this post: animism. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I read a lot of Dr. Seuss. Listening to this interview brought back memories of ‘Horton Hears a Who’, the story of an observant and kind-hearted elephant who suddenly becomes aware of tiny people living on a speck of dust. The Whos cannot be seen by Horton’s friends, and so Horton is ridiculed for trying to protect this tiny community. But, as Horton reminds us in the story, “a person’s a person, no matter how small”.

Indigenous beliefs are often centred around notions of animism, or, in other words, the perspective that everything in the world is alive and is interacting with us. Even though these forces maybe invisible to us, they are powerful and interact with us in important ways. Professor Spector makes it clear that the microbiome is affected and nourished by everything around us, down to the air we breathe, the landscape we live in and our direct and indirect contact with the other living beings around us. Let’s have the humility to accept that the tiny citizens of Whoville in our microbiome have the power to make us well or unwell and that we should all do what we can to nourish them.

Mitakuye Oyasin – We Are All Related