Eat Your Veg. Please.


one perfect artichoke

one perfect artichoke

I just spoke on the phone for 22 minutes, in my gravelly early-morning voice (with a cold coming on yet), with an Italian radio interviewer about Italian/Mediterranean food and its influence on the great American public. I have to confess I’m pretty chuffed at my ability to do that, even though I had to look up a few words in advance to get ready for it. But once I get talking, even in Italian, it’s hard to stop me!  In preparing for the interview yesterday, however, thinking about things, looking things up to be sure I had my facts straight, I discovered something that threw me:


Despite Michelle Obama’s efforts, despite all the words I and so many of my colleagues in the food-writing business have written over the decades, despite the constant dissemination, from influential bodies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Harvard School of Public Health, of unassailable statistics showing that consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is key to better health, longer life, and protection against catastrophic illnesses—despite all that, the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in recent years has not increased. In fact, the opposite: it has actually decreased.

fava beans

fava beans


According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, the median consumption of vegetables across America is 1.6 servings daily, and 22.6%, that is almost a quarter of all Americans, report that they get less than one serving of vegetables per day.


I can only imagine what Italian listeners to that radio interview will think when they hear that—Italians who eat pasta with vegetables, and lots of them, at least once and often twice a day, whose idea of a serving of meat is 4 ounces or less, who end almost every meal with a simple salad and possibly a piece of fresh fruit, Italians who have such a resource at hand, even in winter, of fabulously tasty fruits and vegetables that it is impossible to resist their appeal. These are the same Italians who spend almost 15% of their disposable income on food—unlike lucky Americans who get away with just under 7% according to a survey from Washington State University, leaving more income for alcohol, cigarettes, and cable TV.


Should we be congratulating ourselves on our low food costs? No way! Because one reason why the cost is low is this: We are content to buy cheap mass-produced food—the kind of thing Michael Pollan called “edible food-like substances.” You know what they are—I don’t need to detail them for you.


romanescoThe question I keep asking myself (and the good folks at USDA and the CDC and even, I bet, Michelle Obama also ask themselves) is this: How in heck do we make a change? How can we seduce Americans into embracing vegetables as a delicious, delightful, tasty, fun, easy, crunchy, salty, sweet (I’m using all those adjectives that people say they want in their food) treat instead of a duty to be borne?

Could we start with carrots? Sweet, crispy carrots? Take a handful—maybe four or five depending on their size. Scrub them well, grate them on the large holes of a box grater, toss them in a bowl with two spoonsful of extra-virgin olive oil, a small spoonful of fresh lemon juice, add some salt, a little pinch of sugar, a bit of black pepper (lots or little, depending on your taste), and maybe, if you like spice, a pinch of a not-too-hot ground chili pepper. Toss and let rest for half an hour so the carrots soften slightly in their dressing, then serve. They can go at the start of a meal or at the end, or they can accompany a little piece of grilled fish or meat. Any way you slice it, they’re delicious. I guarantee!


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    1. Posted March 4, 2014 at 4:18 am | Permalink

      You’ll get no argument from me on how good vegetables are and how good they are for you. The eating habits of Americans are, for the most part, just dreadful. Our country faces a growing public health crisis that is directly attributable to poor diet. Keep up the good work, Nancy! And the carrots sound fab!

    2. gale
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Excellent Nancy – should be in the Times. American’s don’t know how to cook anymore so don’t know what to do with the (usually)lackluster produce from way too far away (Peru, Chile?) that has no flavor. Cheap rules whether it’s meat or veg. I can just imagine the national whine that would ensue if we paid the actual cost of our food.

      Do have a ? though – does Italy have an obesity problem and are they healthier than we are as a nation.

    3. Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      They like to say they have an obesity problem but it isn’t anything like what we see in Maine. And mostly it is tied to a youthful population (especially young children) who consume a lot of processed, packaged foods (called merendine, they are packaged in individual portions so mom can buy one each for each of the five days of school) and, of course who also spend a lot of time in front of the television and, increasingly, the computer screen. In other words, Italy’s diet is changing but more slowly than many other industrial countries and they are somewhat farther behind the rest of us since they do treasure their food traditions and tend to hang onto them almost as an icon of cultural identity. And historically southern Italy was one of the places cited in the Seven Countries Study for its adherence to a traditional low-meat, high-veg, olive oil, Mediterranean diet, and consequently much better health profiles, especially as far as chronic diseases are concerned. Ancel Keyes, promoter of the study, actually had a house for many years in a pleasant little fishing village down the coast way below Naples.

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