Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Impressions from the Wise Traditions Conference

I spent last weekend at the Weston A. Price Foundation Wise Traditions conference in King of Prussia, PA. Here are some highlights:

Spending time with several people in the diet-health community who I’ve been wanting to meet in person, including Chris Masterjohn, Melissa McEwen and John Durant. John and Melissa are the public face of the New York city paleo movement. The four of us spent most of the weekend together tossing around ideas and making merry. I’ve been corresponding with Chris quite a bit lately and we’ve been thinking through some important diet-health questions together. He is brimming with good ideas. I also got to meet Sally Fallon Morell, the founder and president of the WAPF.

Attending talks. The highlight was Chris Masterjohn’s talk “Heart Disease and Molecular Degeneration: the New Paradigm”, in which he described his compelling theory on oxidative damage and cardiovascular disease, among other things. You can read some of his earlier ideas on the subject here. Another talk I really enjoyed was by Anore Jones, who lived with an isolated Inuit group in Alaska for 23 years and ate a mostly traditional hunter-gatherer diet. The food and preparation techniques they used were really interesting, including various techniques for extracting fats and preserving meats, berries and greens by fermentation. Jones has published books on the subject that I suspect would be very interesting, including Nauriat Niginaqtuat, Plants that We Eat, and Iqaluich Niginaqtuat, Fish that We Eat. The latter is freely available on the web here.

I attended a speech by Joel Salatin, the prolific Virginia farmer, writer and agricultural innovator, which was fun. I enjoyed Sally Fallon Morell’s talk on US school lunches and the politics surrounding them. I also attended a talk on food politics by Judith McGeary, a farmer, attorney and and activist, in which she described the reasons to oppose or modify senate bill 510. The gist is that it will be disproportionately hard on small farmers who are already disfavored by current regulations, making high quality food more difficult to obtain, more expensive or even illegal. It’s designed to improve food safety by targeting sources of food-borne pathogens, but how much are we going to have to cripple national food quality and farmer livelihood to achieve this, and will it even be effective? I don’t remember which speaker said this quote, and I’m paraphrasing, but it stuck with me: “I just want to be able to eat the same food my grandmother ate.” In 2010, that’s already difficult to achieve. Will it be impossible in 2030?

Giving my own talk. I thought it went well, although attendance was not as high as I had hoped. The talk was titled “Kakana Dina: Diet and Health in the Pacific Islands”, and in it I examined the relationship between diet and health in Pacific island cultures with different diets and at various stages of modernization. I’ve covered some of this material on my blog, in my posts on Kitava, Tokelau and sweet potato eating cultures in New Guinea, but other material was new and I went into greater detail on food habits and preparation methods. I also dug up a number of historical photos dating back as far as the 1870s.

The food. All the meat was pasture-raised, organic and locally sourced if possible. There was raw pasture-raised cheese, milk and butter. There was wild-caught fish. There were many fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kombucha and sourdough bread. I was really impressed that they were able to put this together for an entire conference.

The vendors. There was an assortment of wholesome and traditional foods, particularly fermented foods, quality dairy and pastured meats. There was an entire farmer’s market on-site on Saturday, with a number of Mennonite vendors selling traditional foods. I bought a bottle of beet kvass, a traditional Russian drink used for flavor and medicine, which was much better than the beet kvass I’ve made myself in the past. Beets are a remarkable food, in part due to their high nitrate content—beet juice has been shown to reduce high blood pressure substantially, possibly by increasing the important signaling molecule nitric oxide. I got to meet Sandeep Agarwal and his family, owners of the company Pure Indian Foods, which domestically produces top-quality pasture-fed ghee (Indian-style clarified butter). They now make tasty spiced ghee in addition to the plain flavor. Sandeep and family donated ghee for the big dinner on Saturday, which was used to cook delicious wild-caught salmon steaks donated by Vital Choice.

There were some elements of the conference that were not to my taste. But overall I’m glad I was able to go, meet some interesting people, give my talk and learn a thing or two.

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