Cumberland Times-News

March 9, 2013

The French are slowly catching up with us

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— A recent report indicates that people who eat a Mediterranean-style diet are at a lower risk for heart disease and strokes.

That is to say, according to The Associated Press, they consume lots of olive oil, nuts, fruit, fish, chicken, beans, tomato sauce, salads and wine and little in the way of baked goods and pastries.

I frequently watch food and travel TV shows and see what’s eaten by folks who live around the Med. It may be that they simply want to live longer, so they can eat more of it.

Another factor that should be considered, but AP didn’t mention, is that some people in these cultures like to knock off work in the middle of the afternoon and relax for a few hours before going back.

Eventually, they close shop for good and go somewhere to have a leisurely late dinner that includes plenty of wine.

This beats wolfing down a sandwich at your desk at work, then wishing you could go someplace to take a nap.

Also not addressed was what’s sometimes referred to as “The French Paradox.” Frenchmen eat a high-fat diet filled with things like cream, butter, fat goose liver and celestially good pastries that you and I could only dream of, but have fewer heart attacks than Englishmen or Americans. They also smoke more than most other people.

One explanation has been that they drink more red wine than just about anybody else — except maybe the Italians, who also have fewer heart attacks.

However, one report I found stated that in 1997, only 8 percent of French adults could have been considered obese.

Now, that rate has risen to more than 40 percent — which means they are rapidly catching up with Americans. Close to two-thirds of us are considered overweight or obese.

The French also may be more physically active than we are. It’s not likely they get hungry while sitting around watching food-oriented TV late at night and send out for a pizza strewn with pepperoni, bacon and sausage.

Also consider that some Americans eat heart-healthier than others. Another recent study indicated that folks in the Deep South tend to snarf down more artery-clogging grub than sandal-wearing, tofu-eating yuppies who live farther north.

Our diet usually is dictated by the culture in which we have grown up.

Mine has been rather eclectic. I grew up around Italians, so I ate my share of spaghetti, and there were country folks who fed me fried squirrels and deer meat. And so on.

Mary Calemine put Italian sausage in her spaghetti, and it was unbelievably good.

Her husband Frank and I liked to do quality control on Mary’s meatballs, and it was just a matter of time until she told us to get the hell out of her kitchen before there wasn’t anything left to take to the table.

A friend asked me the other day if my mom was a good cook, and I just laughed.

Sometimes she fried her chicken, and sometimes she rolled it in corn flake crumbs and baked it. Either one would make a puppy pull a freight train to get some of it ... as Justin Wilson used to say.

After Mom passed away, Dad and I used to get an occasional hankering for fish the way she liked to cook it.

That meant haddock fillets brushed with butter and dusted with paprika, then broiled in a toaster oven that I still use now and then.

We kept a close eye on them, and just when they reached the point where they began to pull apart ... that’s when we yanked them out.

“I think we can make a meal off this,” he used to say, and I always agreed.

During sweet corn season, Dad made occasional pilgrimages to a family friend’s farm near Burlington to bring back a couple of dozen ears that had started the day still attached to the stalks.

We called them “roastin’ ears” because when Dad was principal at Keyser High School and Mom was an English teacher, the faculty had a cookout at the South End park every year.

He would send some students to get a mess of corn and dig a pit in which to roast it for several hours over wood coals. The roastin’ ears were dunked into big cans of melted butter and may have been the best corn I’ve ever eaten, with a distinct nutty flavor.

One year, the kids took a shortcut and harvested some of the field corn that Vo-Ag students had planted nearby.

Field corn is fodder for livestock and has even less taste than the popcorn-looking stuff that was used to package fragile items before bubble wrap was invented.

Dad got wind of this and drove in haste with his brother-in-law Bob Broughton to someplace in Garrett County, where they found a farmer who filled the trunk of Dad’s 1964 Buick Wildcat with sweet corn.

My great-grandfather James was born in County Cornwall in the southwest of England and would have referred to himself as a Cornishman, rather than an Englishman.

He had his own food traditions. Whether they came across the Atlantic with him in 1873 when he was 14, or if he developed them here, I have no idea.

When he sat down to dinner, he unbuckled his belt and undid the top button on his trousers. (He was a slender man, but his appetite was said to be a hearty one.)

He poured his coffee into the saucer and blew on it until it had cooled off, then returned it to the cup and drank it.

This coffee was referred to as having been “saucered and blowed,” and that came to be one of our family expressions. To be “saucered and blowed” usually meant that you or the dog were tuckered and ready for bed.

My great-grandfather also had a taste for what he called “bloaters,” fish that Dad said were incredibly salty and full of small bones.

The Internet says bloaters are a type of smoked herring that once was popular in England, but now is rarely found.

Great-grandfather James would put them on a skewer and go to the basement, where he cooked them directly over the flame and embers in my grandfather’s coal furnace.

What, I wonder, would the result have tasted like? Considering that he started his working life in America as a coal miner, it probably didn’t faze him.

Smoked fish is considered a delicacy in some cultures and a necessity for sustaining life in others.

I’m not sure where my great-grandfather’s version would fit in.