For many of us whose idea of good food is a bowl of olives, a plate of mezze, a huge dish of paella or Catalan soup or lamb with couscous, Nancy Harmon Jenkins' cookbook The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, or her newer The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, is one of the basic books of the kitchen. First published almost twenty years ago, Jenkins' book was groundbreaking in its simplicity, with the book's subtitle — “A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health” — a promise that recalibrating what we eat away from fast and processed food to the ingredients of Mediterranean cooking could not help but yield healthful and delicious results.
Filled with recipes that read more like Yotam Ottolenghi's idea of food than WeightWatchers, Jenkins' book meant “diet” in the basic sense of the word: what we eat, what we should eat, what we used to eat, at least if we lived along the shores of the Mediterranean, where olives and vegetables and fish and grains and wine were once basic, ordinary fare.
When the results of a 5-year study were published recently by the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease could be prevented in people at high risk if they switched to a Mediterranean diet, Jenkins' book came into focus again. We caught up with her by phone in Maine this week, where she was happy to talk about her book, the new findings, her upcoming book on olive oil and whether her views have changed. (They have not.) She was also pretty happy to be decamping for Italy from her native Maine, where it had been snowing for much of the last week. Buon appetito! Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Congratulations, I guess. It seems that people have finally figured out that the Mediterranean diet is good for you.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins: It's interesting, because as Mark Bittman pointed out, I wrote that book twenty years ago. And there has been a certain amount of scientific confirmation in the meantime, but this study in Spain was largest, and the longest over a period of time of any that have been done. So I guess it's pretty darn good evidence.
SI: So good that they released the study early, didn't they?
NHJ: The evidence was so clear that they thought it wasn't fair to them to keep them on their low fat diet — which I guess wasn't really all that low-fat, although enough to qualify. But the thing that I found interesting is that there's so much else going on with the Mediterranean diet, especially with olive oil, that I wonder — with an article in The New York Times about scientists calling for more studies on the relationship between nutrition and health. You want to say, where have these guys been for the last twenty or thirty years?
SI: This all seems kind of obvious. Is it just us Americans who have difficulty with this concept?
NHJ: No, it's not. Because in Europe, the European Union has said that there are no in vivo — which means in people, rather than in the lab — studies on the Mediterranean diet or on olive oil. Which is kind of stretching it a little, because I know the Spanish have really been in the forefront of this, I mean, predictably because olive oil is a major export product for Spain — and they need all the help they can get right now.
I have an olive oil book coming out next year, and I hope to clear up a lot of the mistaken ideas about olive oil — from the consumers' idea that it's all fraudulent to the kind of medical idea that it's just another fat, and get people to understand that it really is kind of a miracle ingredient. Out there in California they're particularly interested in this, because they're trying to capture at least 10% of the U.S. market, which is huge, for extra virgin olive oil. Now they're at 1%, I think, or maybe 1 1/2 this year, but they're really hoping to increase that. And I think they probably will. I don't think you can make great olive oil in California — maybe some people can, but most people are making very good olive oil. Carefully made and quality assured, and good for you, obviously.
SI: It's been almost twenty years since your book came out. Have your views changed? It seems that what's changed has been the rest of the world rather than you.
NHJ: No, my views haven't really changed at all. My views on olive oil have. There was the first book, The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, and then there was The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which came out in 2009 — and when the first edition was published, we didn't know all of this about polyphenols and antioxidants and things like that in the olive oil. We just knew that it was a good fat. So at that time we were saying that it doesn't really make any difference whether you use extra virgin or regular olive oil. Now we know that it makes a big difference. So that's one thing that's changed.
The other thing of course that's changed is that there are more and more problems in countries like Italy and Greece and Spain with people turning away from the Mediterranean diet and adding a lot of fast food and processed food and junk food, and a lot more meat than they were consuming back then. So that's been a very worrisome change. But all you can hope is that they get the message sooner or later.
SI: Well that's the terrible irony, right? Twenty years ago the Mediterreaneans were actually consuming the Mediterranean diet, and now they're eating the American diet. It's kind of tragic.
NHJ: That's absolutely true. I see it most of all in places like France, which never was a big olive oil consuming country, nor was it a big Mediterranean diet consuming country. But the proliferation of McDonald's in France is really shocking. Really shocking. And then you go to places like Greece and Spain, where the economy has suddenly become so perilous that they're cutting out meat because it's expensive. So maybe tightening economic situations will move people back closer to the original Mediterranean diet.
SI: Yet in this country, it seems like the less money you have, the worse your diet is.
NHJ: Absolutely. And you know, part of that is because our food supply is so damn cheap. And because it doesn't reflect the real cost of food, because it doesn't reflect the cost on the environment, in the way we raise animals and corn and soybeans and things like that.
SI: Do you think that the recent movement to educate Americans about food and nutrition, thanks to Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and everyone else, is working?
NHJ: I do. There's a lot of talk. People talk the talk but they don't know how to walk the walk. The book that I'm working on right now is very directly addressed to a broad spectrum of Americans who would like to eat better, and know that they should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and can tell you that seafood ought to be a bigger part of their diet — but they don't know how to do it. They're terrified of cooking. And they don't know how to buy things.
What I want to do is give them a bunch of simple, straight-forward recipes that say, look, don't try to do it all at once. Do it little by little, because you'll shock your family into disapproval if you're not careful. Like a 10-week program that will get you from an American diet — I'm not even sure that people are eating a lot of fast food, but they're eating prepared, microwavable food — and to get them from that into a situation where they're much more thoughtful about their food, where it comes from and how to prepare it, and much more confidant in the kitchen. Because it isn't rocket science.
SI: Yes. For example, the very first recipe in The New Meditteranean Diet Cookbook is for marinated olives. That's REALLY easy. Do Americans need it easier than that?
NHJ: That's my real principle. I mean, I love Paula Wolfert's books, and Paula's a good friend of mine. And I love delving into all of those complex recipes, and going to some remote part of the city to find an ingredient, but when it comes down to it most people either don't have time for it, they can't afford it, or they're just not interested in it. So this is a book like that. This is not a book for fans of culinary history. But then, you go back into culinary history and you find a lot of good ideas about what to put on your plate.
And it's not just that we need it simple; Americans need to be reassured. I have this real bone to pick with the food media of this country. I think we've spent 25 years mystifying food, and making people think that they have to have a degree from the CIA if they want to prepare a meal. All over the world, people prepare two, sometimes three meals a day, and they don't think twice about it. And usually these are very delicious meals too, and often very healthy ones. So why can't we do that? Because we've been persuaded that cooking is an art and a skill and something for the elite to have as a hobby. All of that baggage that goes along with it. And I'd like to get rid of all of that.
SI: Yes, exactly. Because when you have things like Top Chef challenges and mystery ingredients, you come away thinking: There is no way I can cook dinner.
NHJ: And you're racing against the clock all the time in those shows. I never watch them; I don't have a television set, so I'm not even tempted. It's brought a great deal of happiness into my life. I must say, when Downton Abbey comes on, I'm always looking for a neighbor with a television set, but apart from that, I'm perfectly content.
SI: So do you think there's hope for us?
NHJ: Oh, I think there is. I also think it's a little bit like global climate change, you know? The time is now. The clock is ticking and we have to make these changes. We have to make changes in how we use the environment, and we have to make changes in our diet. Because I've never forgotten that one of the leading scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health, at an annual conference on food and the healthy diet, said that there's no way that the United States can continue to be a power in the world if we are raising, as we are right now, a population of obese and diabetic children. Because the social costs are just so great that all of our energy as a culture and as a society will have to be spent taking care of them, one way or another. And we can't afford to do it. So that's another very critical reason why we have to make changes in our diet.
SI: So much of this is misinformation.
NHJ: Yes. There's Dr. Oz, who I think is kind of a charlatan even though he's given a lot of credibility, saying that people should know that if they put olive oil in the refrigerator and it doesn't harden, it isn't really extra virgin. Well, that's just a load of crap. And that's just one tiny recent example of the kind of misinformation that's all around us.
SI: Do you find that having “diet” in the name of the book was helpful or not?
NHJ: Well, I didn't want to put “diet” in there. I mean, it is called “The Mediterranean Diet” officially, but I didn't want to put it in there because people would think it's a weight-loss book. But my editors both times said that we had to keep it; obviously they thought it would sell. I couldn't call it “The Mediterranean Way of Eating Cookbook” because that's just too awkward. So I went along with it. I'm always amused by these critical comments on Amazon, and they'll say “Diet! This book isn't about a diet at all!” Almost the first sentence in the book is, This book isn't about losing weight. Although you can lose weight on it if you cut your calories and increase your activity — but that's not what it's about. And we have such a restrictive sense of what “diet” means. Diet means what you eat.
Oh gosh, there was a terrible article in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend by this cranky humor writer named Joe Queenan. He said that this wasn't a Mediterranean diet, this was a “monastic diet,” a diet of deprivation. And I thought, what are you talking about?
SI: Olives and cheese? That's hardly deprivation.
NHJ: He's just creating words to fill his column. I don't forgive him; I think it's a terrible thing to do, but I understand him.
SI: So you've not only written books about Mediterranean and Italian cooking, but ancient Egyptian maritime technology?
NHJ: Yes, I did. That was a long time ago, back when I was going to be an archaeology writer. Before I realized that there was no money in it, so I became a food writer. [Much laughter all around.] I love Egyptology and I wish I could have continued with it, but for a number of reasons I wasn't able to finish my graduate degree. I got moved to Hong Kong instead, and there was very little Egyptology going on in Hong Kong at the time.
Ancient Egypt is a wonderful subject; modern Egypt is a fabulous subject. I wish I could get back there again and see everything that's going on now. The Egyptians will work it out; they always have, and they will again. Maybe I should do a book on the ancient Egyptian diet.
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