Monthly Archives: November 2013

If You Ate Like a Pilgrim, You’d Be Hungry on Thanksgiving

The towns near Boston are filled with turkeys. Not the big, white meat, breasted varieties featured in the local supermarkets, but scrawny, big winged, dark brown varieties that roam up and down the neighborhood, terrorizing small pets and children.  They seemed to have fallen from the sky like a local plague and reproduce as fast as mosquitoes. Is this what the pilgrims ate for their first Thanksgiving? If so, these 21st century varieties are now protected, so no one can go outside, bag one and take it home to roast. But even if this were allowed, it is doubtful that they would be worth eating, as they are mostly bone and feather.

Just about everyone acknowledges that our Thanksgiving feasts of today bear no resemblance to the foods eaten by the pilgrims and Native Americans in Plimouth (old spelling) in 1621.  Food historians point out that there were no apples (no apple pie) or potatoes (much fewer marshmallows). Pumpkins were sliced and fried or boiled, not pureed into a pie, and if anything was stuffed into the cavity of a turkey, it was only onions and herbs.  Bread was probably made from ground corn, and cranberries were not boiled and sweetened for at least another 50 years. Protein came from wild turkeys, and if they were as lean as the ones roaming around Boston, did not provide much meat. Waterfowl, as well as shellfish, were included in the meal, according to an account of witness Edward Winslow. It is doubtful that the lobster meat was dipped in melted butter, as they had very few cows until 1627, when a subsequent ship brought more livestock to the plantation.
Even though this meal was billed as a feast and indeed, the food was eaten over three days of festivities, if we were to eat such a meal today, we might leave the table hungry. The caloric value of fat-free squash and pumpkin, skinny turkeys, clams, cornmeal, and onions is probably less than the calories in one of our servings of stuffing and sweet potato casserole. To the pilgrims, coming out of a summer of near famine, this meal was indeed a feast and perhaps for the first time in months, they did not feel hungry.  But for those of us who rarely leave a meal feeling hungry (unless we are dieting), the first Thanksgiving menu would feel like a partial fast, not feast, day. We are so used to eating more than enough at every meal we would not consider any meal a feast unless it were truly excessive.

This may be the reason why the weeks before Thanksgiving newspapers, magazines, cooking shows, and even radio programs describe recipes whose ingredients are excessively caloric or overwrought with too many ingredients and/or complicated cooking techniques. This would explain why menus for Thanksgiving go on for pages, and we are told to prepare so many different dishes that there is no room on the plate for all the food that is has been made.  Indeed, a common question before Thanksgiving is, “What are you going to serve?”  When I have replied with a menu that does not differ, except for the turkey, from a normal family get-together, I am looked at as if I am a food miser.
Shouldn’t the pendulum of Thanksgiving feasting start to swing back to the simplicity of that first Thanksgiving?  After all, we don’t have to present a feast worthy of a Roman orgy to feel thankful that we have food on the table and shelter in which to partake of it. This is not to say that our turkeys should now resemble those wandering around greater Boston, or that our desserts should be boiled pumpkin rather than pumpkin pie. But if we bring simplicity back to the meal, then, like that first Thanksgiving, being thankful will be the most noteworthy aspect of the day.

Are Sidewalks the Answer To Weight Loss?

We all know the mantra by now: If you want to lose weight or prevent weight gain, you have to exercise along with eating healthfully. What kind of exercise? Why walking, of course. Your doctor mumbles something about walking three or four times a week while writing out the requisitions for lab tests at the conclusion of your annual physical. You want to ask how you are going to manage to do this under the blazing sun and humidity of the summer, or the dark, cold, icy, snowy days of winter, or on leaf-slick sidewalks after a November rainstorm. Or, if you can get another question in before being ushered out of the office, where are you going to walk since you live in a neighborhood without sidewalks?

Many cities or older suburban communities usually have sidewalks. They may not be free of snow in the winter, and cracked and jagged from old tree roots pushing up the pavement, but at least residents don’t have to walk on the road. But this is not the case in many parts of the country where sidewalks and residential areas often part ways. If walking is to be done, it has to be on roads that often have no shoulders where one can stand to avoid being hit by a delivery truck or a mammoth SUV. If the side of the road has dense vegetation or rocks, even standing there may be perilous since there is little space for one’s feet. More than once, I have stayed at a hotel /convention center for meetings in a suburban industrial park and have been forced to walk or run on highways with sand and pebbles flying in my face from passing trailer trucks. And although some suburban communities, often gated, have roads relatively free of traffic, the mind-numbing effect of walking round and round streets with only houses and not a store in sight is enough to send one inside.

Walking is the easiest, most convenient, and least expensive way to exercise, and there is data to support the notion that those who walk most may be the healthiest. [1] New Yorkers are supposed to be the fastest walkers in the country and may be among the healthiest. Today, the life expectancy of a baby born in New York is 80.9 years, which is 2.2 years more than the national average. [2] Of course, these city residents don’t walk just for the exercise; it is often the most efficient and even fastest way for them to go from point A to point B.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported several years ago that in the summer of 2002, 86 percent of the 205 million Americans walked at least once, and 40 percent walked more than 15 days, per month. The presence of sidewalks increased the tendency for adults to take walks, and the Bureau suggested that adding sidewalks to communities without them would increase the number by another 2.8 million. (In all fairness, some of these non-sidewalk communities may have walking trails or parks.) [3]

To be sure, there are many alternative ways of exercising: health clubs, home treadmills, recreational sports from skiing to swimming, dancing, rock climbing and more. All of these will certainly use up calories, increase stamina and bone strength and perhaps even cognitive acuity. However, unlike most of these other forms of exercise, except perhaps biking and rollerblading, walking permits multi-tasking which, in our overly busy lives, makes it a much more attractive form of exercise. Walking the dog, with your children to their school, to do errands, to the post office, to a doctor’s appointment, to a neighbor, or to a movie, theater, concert or restaurant means that the walker is not only burning calories but also accomplishing some other goal. Indeed, there is a website called WalkScore that evaluates over 10,000 neighborhoods in 3,000 cities for their walkability, i.e., ease of doing errands and getting to recreational sites by foot.

Lifestyle change is the buzzword defining what has to happen if the obese are to become and remain thin, and the thin not to become obese. The ability to walk in safety, on sidewalks that lead to somewhere interesting, must be part of this healthy lifestyle if people are to follow it. Those who are fortunate enough to live in neighborhoods with sidewalks and places to walk to are aware of the positive impact this has on their lives. Social interactions are as likely to involve taking a walk as sitting and eating. Being out on the sidewalk has often led to friendships among neighbors who otherwise always leave the house in a car.

To be sure, having sidewalks and places to which to walk does not eliminate the discomfort and even hazards of bad weather, dog owners who do not clean up after their pets, and watching out for cars when streets have to be crossed. But it certainly makes it easier to respond to the suggestion to get out and walk, especially when it means you don’t have to worry about finding a place to park your car.