Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Mother And The Mediterranean Diet

If my mother, who turned 95 last week, could understand it, she would feel pleased and vindicated by the recent brouhaha about the Mediterranean diet.  In case you have been news deprived lately, this has to do with the large study in Spain which had to be halted because the positive effects of the diet on the experimental group were so strong that it was deemed unethical to deprive the control group (who were eating a "healthy" diet based mainly on lettuce and such) of its benefits.

Here's what to do if you want to live forever.  Eat little dairy and meat.  Eat fish three times a week. There's no such thing as too much olive oil. Eggs are fine, as is chicken, in moderation.  You can eat all the nuts you want, as well as veggies, legumes and fruit. Chocolate and wine are good.  And, this is my favorite part: several times a week, saute onions and garlic in olive oil, then add tomatoes and simmer;  eat this on rice or pasta.

I was born a few blocks from the sea in the days when Mediterraneans still ate the Mediterranean diet.  My mother used to buy olive oil in four-litre cans, and garlic by the braid.  Every morning she or the maid (in post civil-war Spain you didn't have to be wealthy to have a live-in maid) would grab a basket and go to the market to buy bass, whitefish, mackerel, sardines, octopus, squid, mussels or crayfish, which we would have for the main meal, between one and two in the afternoon.  Dinner, around ten at night, was a one-egg omelet, cooked in olive oil.  For an after-school snack, I was given the food of the gods, pa sucat amb oli i xocolata--a thick slice of crusty bread sprinkled with olive oil and salt, and a piece of barely sweet dark chocolate on the side.


Our diet varied according to the season:  salads and green beans and melons in summer;  cauliflower and swiss chard and dried beans in winter, with almonds and raisins, and the occasional orange, for dessert.  A glass of wine with every meal.

Except for the after-school snack, everything we ate had to be prepared at home.  Meat and vegetables had to be washed, trimmed, sauteed.  Sauces--the garlic and onion sofregit, the velvety bechamel, the almond-based romesco, the divine allioli--had to simmer patiently.  The table cloth had to be laid and the table set, the family summoned.  After each meal the dining room had to be swept (you wouldn't believe what a mess all that crusty bread makes), and the dishes washed and dried by hand.  Food was not a casual affair.  It kept women from becoming lawyers, accountants and astronauts.  It was a daily ritual that enslaved its priestesses.

One thing people hardly ever cooked at home was dessert.  The only home-made one I can remember was the crema catalana, similar to creme brulee, that my aunt who lived with us made on the feast of Saint Joseph.  All the other desserts came from the pastisseria, the neighborhood pastry shop:  tortell de Reis for the feast of the  Epiphany;  mona de Pascua at Easter; coca de Sant Joan at the summer solstice;  panellets and ossos de sant (saint's bones made of marzipan) at Halloween;  and turrons for Christmas.  These formal, celebratory desserts were washed down with champagne and followed by a tiny cup of extremely strong coffee. 

One thing that my mother, whose mind was taken away by encephalitis three years ago, still reacts to is Mediterranean food.  She rejoiced over the turrons that one of her granddaughters sent her at Christmas, and for her birthday I mailed her a package containing the soulful combination of a wedge of manchego, a sheep's milk cheese, and a chunk of membrillo, a barely sweet, fruit-scented concoction made from quince. 

Now that her ability to comprehend and communicate has vanished, food remains as a vehicle for emotion, an assertion of her will to live.  Unlike most people in her dire circumstances, who shrink  with each passing day, my mother in her great old age has grown round, almost spherical.  Her vital signs, the nurses assure us, are excellent.  She has never lost her appetite.

If I could, it would give me joy to reciprocate the earliest gesture that she made for me, the offering of food.  I would make for her a long-simmered sauce from my own tomatoes;  a simple omelet from my own hens' eggs;  and a thick slice of crusty bread sprinkled with olive oil and salt, with a hunk of dark chocolate on the side.

7 comments :

  1. Your description of what you ate when growing up is quite delicious, as is the food. My guess is you have taken the Mediterranean culture to Vermont with you, giving your household a coastal warmth, no matter the outside temperature.

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  2. We do go through a lot of olive oil, and last fall I planted garlic for the first time. We'll see how it turns out (I won't be harvesting it until July).

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  3. It's 8 in the morning, and my mouth is watering (yes, drooling) for the food you have so beautifully described. I wonder what I can find in my kitchen...

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  4. Unfortunately, breakfast wasn't much--milky coffee and a slice of bread with maybe a little butter (the only time we ever ate butter).

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  5. I want to eat all of this. Immediately.

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  6. Lovely. Especially this line "It was a daily ritual that enslaved its priestesses."

    And it also gave me a clue of how, as my mother's memory deteriorates, I can continue to provide her comfort. Thank you for that.

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