Some Musings on Poor Peasant Diets


Spending all last week at “the cabin,” I figured I’d keep my Rush and Led Zeppelin to my myself, this time. Perhaps I’ll have some food pics, though. But maybe I won’t post them, either. Too peasant.

Since I began Potato Hacking recently, I stumbled from potato hack intermittently, to peasant hack most of the rest of the time. And I haven’t written about it because I was simply too engaged in thinking about it. I’m inexorably drawn to more of what one might call peasant food, though, as exists in the modern world. Of course, it was not always like that—no more than luscious ribeyes, or baby-back ribs, or racks of lamb were “Paleo” fare. Everyone is living various fantasies. I’m only trying to be a bit less fantastical over increasingly shorter periods of time.

Being right since forever is for suckers and their choirs of sycophants.

There’s no reason to be upset about any of this. Everyone has to eat.

  1. Kings and court got fat
  2. Peasants fared well often, but it often sucked too; some starved to death, some had lots of kids, and some got all sorts of pathologic disease—some of which spawned epidemics due to dense urbanization

To my curiosity, and perhaps it’s the most chewing on an idea I’ve done recently—what if, not-totally-screwed, peasants made the best they could out of the smallest they had? Could it be that they created the most suitable food concoctions for humans because it integrated with a decent slice of life, along with a general optimism; like, a this-isn’t-bad optimism? It’s a serious question. Give it a fair number of brain cells.

I think optimism is a key element because resignation get’s you nowhere. Resignation, fear, and trepidation get you into default positions where one then focuses on taking from others or supports the promise that others will take from others in exchange for spoils. Optimism makes due, and when you do that, you’re also more motivated to improve your lot.

Think of that in microcosm terms and not modern presidential-election political terms. The steel, aluminum, gunpowder, lead, blood, and death of WWII represent a crazy display of human destruction and the potential for a lot more. And there often wasn’t even adequate levels of peasant food as attentions were turned to real estate, borders, political power, influence, and large choirs cheering hopeful winners. One can view Western civilization as the raw audacity and technological ability to wreak massive destruction, alongside the competence and goodwill to feed millions and billions. It’s a machine with many bits, pieces and levels; a philosophy of reason and logic, and often, a well-maintained lifeboat. It’s a mix of seeming contradictions, fueled by lots of best hopes while planning and executing for the worst.

But biological organisms aren’t machines. The former evolved. They weren’t invented and patented. Their maintenance and sound operation require nutrition inputs, social inputs, autonomy of thought, and freedom to act to gain and keep values. Machines get new parts, are improved at the next iteration of development, or get replaced even as the world’s best buggy whip—supplanted by something entirely different.

None of this would have happened had the peasants, or working class, not had adequate nutrition. But in settling for bread and circuses in the words of Roman poet Juvenal, did humanity sow the seeds of its health destruction? Factory machines don’t care. They didn’t evolve. Slavery is their raison d’etre.

Humans evolved, but did they evolve to require increasing levels of highly palatable food, in abundance, made increasingly palatable not only by industrial food engineers but by home chefs, including moi meme? Or did they evolve to get by pretty damn well on a paucity of omnivory, and did they fare better with brief interludes of autophagic cleansing that we call intermittent fasting?

These and other questions of nutrition and diet are what I’ll be exploring as we march forward on enough nutrition to get us where we want to go while freeing us to get out of the kitchen, supermarket, and restaurant. It promises to make our wallets heavier, too.

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  1. thhq1 on April 4, 2016 at 15:14

    Here’s a peasant diet to muse on. A result of WW2.

    Having to eat a diet like this for a while pushed Europe back in the direction of champagne and caviar ASAP.

    • sdiguana on April 4, 2016 at 16:09

      On the link:
      What an interesting read… it almost makes you think Ancel Keys isnt the 7 horned monster Paleo makes him out to be, though I’m sure some of those participants thought so during the experiment!

      On the post:
      I’ve thought about that too Richard, since I’ve been on potatoes for a month and a half now, sometimes i long for ‘good’ food. But ironically the days i eat it, the next day i really just want a potato. Its almost comforting… not sure how to even explain it. I suspect the gut bugs are helping to dictate my decisions and emotions regarding food. I am lighter hearted and more content with life on peasant type food, which outside of the gut bug perspective would make no sense at all.

    • Steve Smith on April 5, 2016 at 03:12

      My uncle and Granduncle were Japanese POWs on the Burma Railway. Uncle survived (but scarred mentally and physically), Granduncle died of cholera. A lot of what that link has to say rings true with what the survivors of this tragedy said: hunger pervaded all thoughts and thoughts of sex were non-existant (one POW was offered a “comfort woman” but turned it down in favour of the guard’s leftovers). Accounts are common with the POWs fantasizing about food, fat, sugar etc. Beri-beri and other malnutrition diseases were rampant. When the soldiers were liberated, they were fed steroids to increase bodyweight. One survivor, after dreaming of so much about food, could only stomach bread and butter. Many ex-POWs became hoarders–collecting anything that might be useful–a throw back to their railway days. In the end, my uncle would sit alone in a darkened room with the doors locked.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 5, 2016 at 07:20

      Of course, while hunger and starvation and paucity of food and just poverty can define a peasant diet, I’m simply talking about using elements of it as a template.

      For example, Stephen Guyenet has a recent post up about what he eats. Check it out.

      Damn simple and basic, lots of beans and potatoes and other veggies, small portions of meat, some pastures eggs, etc., and he grows much of his own food. I can’t see anyone getting fat of unhealthy on a diet like that. Or starving.

      And one advantage is that in this day and age it will make a lot of us richer, as food costs are way lower. I can easily make huge pots of soups that last for days on well under $10.

    • Thhq on April 5, 2016 at 07:24

      The more I read of Keys the more I think of him as a WW2 soldier of nutrition. A military commander responsible for the overall strategy. Get results now and damn the consequences. His association with politicians like McGovern – creating that stupid pyramid – is unfortunate. What he and his wife Margaret did in living out the best of the 7 Nations in Italy for 50 years proved the value of the Med Diet. You can read what he wrote about wine in 1959 and use it to pick up a good bottle for dinner. And his pre-Atkins comments on ketosis – a metabolically unsuitable diet to be used only under heroic circumstances to treat epilepsy – are for the ages. Keys forgot more about ketosis than Atkins ever knew.

  2. Tommylee on April 4, 2016 at 16:34

    Thhq1, thank you for the link. Very informative.

    Am doing the Potato Hack. I plan to combine with the 5:2 plan. Free will eat cold boiled potatoes 2 days, e.g., Monday and Tuesday, then lower carb Mediterrean Diet (no sugar, no grains, just olive and avocado oils) the next five days, then repeat. I will do this for the month of April, and evaluate. We’ll see.

    • Thhq on April 5, 2016 at 12:13

      Here’s a link to a Med Diet meal that Ancel and Margaret ate in Pioppi, Italy in their 90’s. I like it because it gives you an idea of what will make you a centenarian, though a good bit of it (living in Pioppi for 50 years) is out of our budget range and could be critical. Living in Minneapolis (or worse, Winnipeg) probably takes 10 years off your life.

      I like the cocktails and wine part. Even as a peasant you need your vodka and grappa.

  3. gab on April 5, 2016 at 10:43

    Makes me wonder if starvation creates a sort of multigenerational PTSD effect resulting in, maybe not exactly food hoarding, but close. When, let’s say, the grocery store has 2 bags of avocadoes for a bit more than 1 bag, who resists? Who says, what am I going to do with 12 avocadoes? At least when it’s onions, then 4 pounds will stay happily in the bottom of the refrigerator for a while, but those damned avocadoes all start to get soft at the same time!

    Yesterday I bought a 10 pound bag of Yukon golds for $1.97 Cdn almost free American. ;) But I had half a bag at home already!

    My grandmother born in the early 1890s lived through 2 world wars and the deprivation of the depression and the post world war 2 deprivation of Soviet occupation. I think she must have done alright although all of her surviving male children ended up dying of heart disease (Barker effect?) And we were too poor to ‘hoard’ when she was living with us and doing all the cooking (including homemade noodles and all that jazz). Food was not all that variable back in those days, although more seasonal, but Toronto wasn’t exactly your international food mecca back then either.

    My uncles and aunts were pretty well, if not exactly food hoarders, then making sure in case of war, there was enough food in the house to last a few months. Lots of canning going on, plus huge chest freezers. They also tended to grow their own as well. My parents seem to have avoided this and the whole ‘thang’ skipped that generation in my case. I have to be very careful with how I buy groceries. It’s too easy to bring home all manner of stuff that will either make me over eat or will end up in the garbage.

    The potato (not exactly hack) is really highlighting for me how much less complicated food ‘accumulation’ and consumption can be. Notwithstanding the fact that two days ago I bought 12 avocadoes.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 5, 2016 at 11:27

      Gabs, “Stupid Dog Brian” is everywhere. Lurking, always ready to attack.

      It’s interesting to have had experience with parents and grandparents to went through serious shit. I had two grandparents and a great-grandparent who went through The Depression. Two other grandparents, my dad, and a bunch of uncles and one aunt went through WWII as German citizens.

      Fortunately, the high-end college campuses their blood and hardship paid for in large part now have safe spaces where their progeny never even has to even hear a discouraging word.

    • Thhq on April 5, 2016 at 11:35

      I’ve run into a couple good keeping strategies. Last fall I really got in to the Yellow Finn potatoes, buying sacks from a grower as fresh as they were dug. His recommendation was keep them cool, dark and dry, and leave the dirt on. They lasted 4 months in the garden shed that way without sprouting or turning green. The other good keepers were the thick-skinned 25 pound Princess pumpkins (Musquee de Provence) which lasted 6 months in the garage without going soft. We wondered whether they might make it to next Halloween.

  4. gab on April 5, 2016 at 12:46

    A discouraging word, eh Richard? The poor little snowflakes.

    Thhq, good that you have someplace to store produce like potatoes. Here in an apartment, even a 10 pound bag during the warmer months begins to rapidly sprout. This is why last year, early part of the year, I was eating potatoes but then during the summer it became non optimal. Will need to put in more effort this year so instead of part time potato eating, I’ll endeavour to consume them on a fulltime basis.

    I sort of ‘forgot’ about a Butternut squash and after about 9 months I cut it open to discover it had more or less dried out inside. Well, you know, after a few months of occasionally checking the incredibly shrinking squash, what’s the problem with leaving it a few more months?

    • Thhq on April 5, 2016 at 12:58

      I first discovered the big French pumpkins a couple years ago, buying one for Halloween and eating it for a month afterwards. Last summer we grew them, and got 100 pounds in a 20 foot square area. I wouldn’t do it again. The vines take over everything and I had a pickup load to dispose of. And the squirrels chewed on them too. I’ll let some farmer do it for me next year.

  5. RMcSack on April 5, 2016 at 14:33

    Loving your recent food explorations lately. This feels similar to what I’ve been doing lately too. After low-carb PB for almost 3 years, and dropping 60lbs, I started adding more starches after starting olympic lifting. Over time (and many many FTA posts) I’ve made a number of adjustments from adding back gluten-free grains, legumes, unrefined sugars, then gluten-based grains as of late. It’s been difficult to unwind all of the psychological entanglements of Paleo (although in many ways I’m grateful for what it helped me through). We were fortunate enough to find a micro-bakery in the next neighborhood and it’s just been wonderful to have rustic bread almost daily now.

    I think, and have been reading a lot about what you’re covering here. People (and organisms in general) evolve around their environment and especially their access to food. This is an ongoing process where certain adaptations are beneficial in some ways but detrimental in others. It’s been becoming clearer that following the path of least resistance has brought us to where we are today. The problem is that now it’s developed to the point of multiple systems surrounding we depend on leading to a level of atrophy which we’re having to deal with. Kind of like the analogy of peasant versus court. The kings and court probably experienced declining health for the same reasons that we do. It may not have been the types of food they ate, but rather the frequency of the types combined with a lack of survival pressure. Their physical systems atrophied as they did not have to struggle as peasants, or hunter-gatherers did.

    One thing I noticed after I started introducing more starches and grains into my diet is that it was harder to maintain my weight. Not rapid gains by any means, but still it felt like there was a slow and steady gain I had trouble pinning down. I generally cut back on fat consumption to make up for the increased carbs, but I still wasn’t finding a happy balance. I considered and respect Angelo Coppola’s approach of lower fat, but I didn’t want to go that way. Overall I felt like I was eating very healthy, but somehow just slightly overeating.

    Recently, a comment on FTA reminded me of Leangains. So I read up and started incorporating daily intermittent-fasting, and so far it seems to be the missing link for me. Suddenly I’m not concerned about my carb versus fat level intake. I just get to enjoy what I normally eat, and now slowly losing some of the excess weight I picked up from before.

    I think there’s definitely something key to mild starvation. It does seem that we’re conditioned for environmental pressure, and the lack of takes away some sort of basic regulation that we need to keep things in check.

  6. GTR on April 5, 2016 at 15:52

    Peasants were like 85% of population in the past. And they specialized in producing food, thus had to know about it. Basically a lot of thinking (information processing) about food was going on in this class. More than other classes could afford because they were both smaller, and involved mainly with other affairs.

    Comparisons to ruling classes is not fair, as for the ruling classes food was sometimes a way to show status, impress, please the guests (tools to win in politics), rather than a way of surviving or achieving health. In this sense they were succeeding.

    • gab on April 5, 2016 at 19:09

      Peasants (free tenant or serfs), I think we would need to split hairs here and possibly there’s a difference. When the labouring group (serf) lived at the behest of what the landowner wanted to do with the land, they had to provide a certain percentage of their daily activities to working on the landowners arable land or pasture. So, even though the labourers had the hands on experience, decisions were made independent of their input. They could grow their own produce on small plots of land as well and keep some of their own animals as well. Tenants did not have to work the landowners fields but they had to provide a percentage of their products (usually) or money to the landowner.

      I’m not sure there was ever any sort of ‘village’ type life where the labourers were truly independent and could carry on in whatever manner they chose for themselves. Then we’d be discussing free men who could own their own land but then were no longer strictly peasants.

      Pros and cons of each situation. If the harvest fails, as it did even in Europe during the Irish potato famine, all the crops did poorly. But the serfs did not starve to death because the landowner had an obligation to feed his serfs. A freeman landholder, usually a smallholder, would not have been in this situation. There would have been starvation if the mixture of crops planted were not adequate to feed the family and any servants.

      Quite possibly, the ‘peasant diet’ would be some difference between different groups of peasants because of varying degrees of access to food items.

      What could we do to simulate a ‘peasant diet’ when we are able to easily access foods that are out of season? It needs to be a faux peasant diet because it’s quite difficult to confront all sorts of choices available today.

      Choose your peasant. Are you Italian background like Angelo? German like Richard? Different diets. French peasant? They never got enough to eat btw. So don’t go for French peasant. ;) Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Mexican…..go for it.

      All peasant diets had their basic plant based foods which contributed the bulk of the diet. Is it wheat, rice, potato, rye, corn, millet based? Heavy duty in pulses? Then mix and match your vegetables, ferments, and sometimes ya just gotta cheat: I’m eating avocadoes. Like my grandmother ever saw an avocado in her entire life. Not. Pfft.

  7. josh on April 6, 2016 at 03:33

    it definately was the potatoes and beans and not the fact that kings were sedentary and peasants hand to do back breaking labor every single day to even afford food. definately.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 6, 2016 at 07:59

      That’s your argument. Don’t try to pin your straws on me, dude.

    • Rita on April 7, 2016 at 13:27

      josh, you don’t know anything about history. Go do some research before you embarrass yourself…oops – too late.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 7, 2016 at 16:13

      Rita, why be so kind to an ignoramous obvioisly on a hit and run?

      Typical pussy boy wanker.

  8. Rob on April 6, 2016 at 06:07

    NYT article on Keys :

    “His co-investigator, Dr. Henry Blackburn, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, has written that the low-risk Cretan ”is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines,” adding: ”He walks to work daily. His midday main meal is of eggplant with large mushrooms, crisp vegetables and country bread dipped in olive oil. Once a week there is a bit of lamb. Once a week there is chicken. Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats and condiments. The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts or fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes the meal.” “

    • thhq1 on April 6, 2016 at 09:02

      Blackburn is a pretty interesting person in his own right, and a nonagenarian at this point. I contacted him and got a lot of personal details on Keys. Keys was slightly overweight, blunt with people, family man with a lot of home projects, short, walked very fast. Blackburn commented that Keys parents were relatively long lived. I checked on this and found out that Keys had outlived both his parents by over 25 years, as well as his uncle Lon Chaney. In the aggregate of lifestyle and diet, Keys struck on a formula for longevity. It appears to have benefitted those close to him, like Margaret (who lived to be 97) and Blackburn. If you read his writings about the early years at UMinn observing athlete’s diets you see that same bitter cynicism about “things as they were” that you see later in Taubes and Atkins. As Keys described the overfeeding on milk and fatty beef at the training table: “whatever makes baby rats grow faster”.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 6, 2016 at 09:33

      Very interesting. Always great to get personal insights closer to the real person and not the face they put on for self promotion.

      Everyone is self-promoting, but what’s the motivation? In presidential terms, to help or rule?

      It seems to me, at times, that the best thing anyone can do is stop messing with the endless “studies.” The studies that count are the populations that are long lived. How do they do that?

    • thhq1 on April 6, 2016 at 11:43

      “The studies that count are the populations that are long lived. How do they do that?”

      I think it’s a matter of picking the best course you see and sticking to it for the long haul. There are a lot of ways to do it.

      I don’t think that it’s at the extremes, whether high fat, high protein or high carb. Wen I look at Minger’s encyclopedic low fat diets thread, I see a lot of mental instability and cancer. When I look at high fat diets, I see a lot of early onset CVD.

      Now for the soapbox. I think that the HFLC promoters have set the fight against obesity back 15 years by their single-minded attack on fructose. The USDA 1970-2005 statistics show a 20-25% increase in calorie consumption over the period. 80% of the increase is due to the increased consumption of refined grains and added fats, while only 6% of the increase has been in sweeteners. So where is the problem? The extra can of soda every 3 days, or the extra bag of potato chips every day? Duh. Yet attacking the bag of chips means that the HFLC promoters would have to attack fat as well as carbs. They’re preaching “Fat won’t make you fat” as their core HFLC message, so they CAN’T attack the fat-laden chips. And they end up chasing the fructose in the soda, even though there’s no chance in hell that this will significantly reduce the obesity crisis.

    • thhq1 on April 6, 2016 at 12:17

      Self promoters…Rush nailed it…

      Living in the limelight
      The universal dream
      For those who wish to seem
      Those who wish to be
      Must put aside the alienation
      Get on with the fascination
      The real relation
      The underlying theme

    • Richard Nikoley on April 6, 2016 at 13:52

      I don’t quite see it that way. Lustig was a late comer, welcomed, but people were already spurning refined sugar and HFCS for a long time. He was just a quivering arrow of added confirmation bias.

      What HFLC was after in Paleo was rituals over fats, and they were willing to condemn some of them to hell in exchange for celebratory rituals for chosen fats.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 6, 2016 at 14:01

      It’s been in my eclectic library alongside Motzart and Ella Fitzgerald forever.

  9. Thhq on April 6, 2016 at 14:17

    Yeah Atkins kind of barged in on Paleo and had their way with it. In the Cordain system it’s all about grass fed fat. It takes out the chips by shunning both starches and vegetable oil, and it leaves the fruit fructose in. But like any other crash diet it’s hard to stick with.

    Black stormy nights on the WA coast listening to Rush, Nirvana and Thorogood on the way home. Nervous about deer. Nothing like it.

  10. thhq1 on April 7, 2016 at 17:00

    I like the anthems.

    Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam for the ages.

    U2 for the ages.

    And of course The Who for the ages.

    Music to mash potatoes to.

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