Standing in line at Marc’s one Friday, I was craving fruit and spices, and I made this list: coffee, chocolate, lime juice, chiles, garlic, onion, cinnamon and banana, intending to make everything on that list part of that day’s diet. I had already had coffee, but the remainder needed attention. Later I added nuts, tea, vanilla, pepper and oils to the list.
You may notice that many of these foods come from the tropics or subtropical regions. I discovered that fact when, a few years ago, I studied and wrote columns about cocoa (published in The Review March 13, 2007), chiles (Dec. 9, 2008) and pineapples (March 6, 2007). It seems that many of our most flavorful foods and spices come from the warm regions.
Remember in elementary school how we learned about Marco Polo traveling to the East and the Portuguese navigators gingerly exploring the west African coast, trying to find a route to the East Indies? How Cristoforo Colombo sailed west and stumbled on the West Indies in search of the East? Many of those early explorations were made in pursuit of trade, and much of that trade centered on spices. The Dutch, for example, exploited the East Indies for their spices, coffee, tea and chocolate.
Spices were something I read about in history and took for granted for many years, but now I make a dedicated effort to include them in my diet. I have made chiles (Capsicum annuum annuum, also called chili peppers) and spices daily staples of my diet over the years as I have reduced sodium in my food. I add a salt-free garlic pepper mix to much of my food, and I occasionally use homemade salt-free chile powder using a recipe I found online. I begin each day with hot tea combining green tea and an herbal fruit tea. I never liked the flavor of black tea, but I began drinking green tea after reading about its antioxidant properties, and its mildness and the combination with a fruit tea make it enjoyable but a bit bland if you’re used to black tea.
I don’t eat a banana every day, but I eat fruit every day, not always tropical. I didn’t drink coffee for most of my life, having started only recently, and I had quit a few weeks back but resumed drinking it after reading a recent report of its benefits that is part of the changing viewpoint toward coffee and caffeine. I drink coffee black — no cream or sugar — and my only additives are a touch of dark baking cocoa and a few drops of vanilla. A day is incomplete without chiles and garlic, I could eat onions every day, and I squeeze fresh lime juice, one of my expensive luxuries, into a glass of water each day. I eat nuts, low-sodium or no-sodium, almost every day, but I have yet to find a good base for cinnamon.
I lived in ignorance of diet for the first three decades of my life, until a violin teacher told me about the book “Sugar Blues” by William Dufty. Dufty was a sugar-addicted journalist who ghost-wrote “Lady Sings the Blues” but broke his addiction after meeting Gloria Swanson, whom he later married. He tells in the book how, at a press conference, she whispered to him, “That stuff is poison” as he was about to put sugar in his coffee. “I won’t have it in my house, let alone my body,” she told him. Dufty may be a bit extreme — he attributes every malady known to man, and woman, it seems, including the bubonic plague, to the use of sugar, linking the rise of diabetes and mental illness with the increasing availability of sweets — and he published “Sugar Blues” in 1975, so the studies of course are often outdated, and he is often bitter and sarcastic about the establishment (it was the 1970s), but it’s worth reading with a grain of salt for its inspiration. I don’t know if the extremes to which Dufty goes are true, but I believe his point that refined sugar is not only useless but harmful.
Over the years I’ve turned from salt-laden and sugar-coated white flour products to whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables as I’ve studied other books on healthful eating and the harm our diet causes not just to humans but to the environment — “Don’t Eat This Book” and “The Ominvore’s Dilemma” are two that come to mind. I often fall back into old habits, but I eventually return to my better habits, and at times I visit my old friends for inspiration.
As I studied my list one day, it occurred to me that it goes against the campaign to eat local food. I agree in part with that campaign, but I also can’t forsake my foods from the tropics. Sorry localvores; I just can’t limit myself to food of the temperate regions. I need chiles, and chocolate, and coffee. And pineapples. And bananas …
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