The first time I tasted white bread was on General Black, the American warship that crisscrossed the Atlantic for a number of years bringing World War II refugees from Europe to the United States. Actually, I didn't even know I was looking at a slice of bread until my mother told me that was what it was. Bread, to my mind, was always a kind of brownish-grey. As I recall, that slice of white bread seemed strangely soft and flavorless, but I was no judge, for I had no appetite for rye bread, either.
Once we settled into American life, however, my interest in food, especially oranges, apples, cherries, strawberries, peaches, milk, eggs, home fried potatoes, whitefish, eel, sardines, and vanilla ice cream, perked up. It was during these early years of my childhood that I learned everything my Swedish great-grandmother had apparently taught my grandfather, who in turn had taught his daughters, including my mother.
First, of course, was the premise that food needed to be eaten fresh. Her entire life, Mother avoided buying anything that came in a can. She even was leery of frozen foods and never did believe they were as good as fresh. Preservatives, or "chemicals," as she called them, were the kiss of death. Even salt and pepper were suspect because they were used to preserve meat or fish in some way. Spices in general were to be avoided for they "irritated the digestive tract." But herbs were another story entirely.
A favorite herb was "kanapes" (marijuana), whose seeds were ground into a delicious butter and spread on rye bread. Unfortunately, according to all the Latvians, this herb was unavailable in the United States. Oh, how everyone extolled the flavor of that butter. My parents settled for peanut butter, especially the kind manufactured without sugar, which was almost as good.
Sugar, of course, was almost as dangerous as eating salt and pepper. It was acceptable in fresh fruits (to be eaten in moderation), but lethal in drinks. Mother would not forbid us soda pop, but she never kept it in the house, either. In her day, in Latvia, grandfather had only allowed the girls to drink "limonade" once a year - and that was at the cemetery festival. That was also practically the only time of the year Mother and her sisters were allowed to eat white bread - in the form of bagels shaped like pretzels and strung on a string.
In terms of nutrition, Mother said, vegetables were almost more valuable than fruits. She would grate fresh carrots and let me help her, until we both skinned our knuckles raw. This was her way of enticing me to eat carrots, for grated they were sweet and juicy (I know - there was "danger" of too much sugar even in the luscious carrot!). Sweet corn, too, was an iffy vegetable because of its sugar content. Even the blameless potato, which grandfather said contained all the nutrients for life, especially right under the skin, had to be eaten in moderation, for sugar (in the form of carbohydrates) also lurked therein.
Luckily for me, I think now, that I grew up "eating ethnically," as Michael Pollan would say. In a fascinating, easy-to-read, yet comprehensive article called "Unhappy Meals" published in the New York Times Magazine (January 29, 2007 issue), Pollan explains how "thirty years of nutritional science has made Americans sicker, fatter, and less well nourished." Boiled down, his point is that "real" food (a pork chop, apple, cabbage, sprig of thyme) is chemically complex and richer in nutrients than any processed food "fortified" with some, not all, of those nutrients (Thyme alone has 38 different anti-oxidants!). Beta carotene, Pollan points out, ingested as a supplement (as opposed to eaten in a real food), actually "increases the risk of certain cancers."
Our bodies are just as complex as the foods we eat in the way we digest, absorb, and metabolize those many nutrients. For instance, we digest corn more slowly - and beneficially - than we digest high fructose corn syrup. In terms of metabolism, using corn syrup is like "mainlining glucose."
So, what does Pollan recommend we do? Eat food your great-great grandmother would recognize as food (oatmeal, not breakfast cereal bars; milk, not nondairy creamer); avoid "food products" that have unpronounceable, and more than five, ingredients in them; buy fresh produce at a farmer's market; pay more for your food and eat less; eat mostly plants, especially leaves; cook and garden, if you can; eat like an omnivore.
The American way, according to Pollan, has been to emphasize quantity and reduce price instead of improve quality. When all else fails, go back to your roots and eat the ethnic foods your family ate. Pollan cites the French, Japanese, Italians, and Greeks, but he acknowledges that any ethnic food is superior because it's "real" food.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches at Western Nevada Community College and eats as multi-ethnically as possible.