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State of Mind: Let it Rot!

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Just the other day a friend of mine was extolling the virtues of the “paleo diet.” In case you are not familiar with it, the paleo diet is based on foods we imagine our ancient human ancestors might have eaten during the Paleolithic Age. The Paleolithic Age dates from around 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. 

According to my friend, a modern paleo diet consists of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds — foods that our ancestors could have obtained through hunting and gathering in a supermarket. 

The paleo diet is based on the idea that we are not genetically equipped to eat foods that became available after the advent of agriculture. The paleo diet therefore doesn’t include such essential food items as Hostess Twinkies, Slim Jims, or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which were more common after small-scale farming began. It is thought by advocates of the paleo diet — and this is subject to debate according to owners of convenience stores — that this mismatch between our genetic makeup and what we now eat contributes to obesity, diabetes, and heart

My friend’s description of the paleo diet sounded quite logical, and I was more than willing to give the diet a try. After all, what guy doesn’t love giant steaks cooked over burning wood. 

I was willing to try the paleo diet, that is, until I ran across an article in a science magazine about authentic paleolithic cuisine. 

First, according to some scientists, an authentic paleo diet consisted of more vegetable matter than animal protein, and those vegetables were much coarser than a modern tossed salad. In fact, some paleoanthropologists now believe that the use of fire for cooking actually came about to make ancient vegetables, not meat, more tasty and easy to digest.

A ‘modern’ example of a vegetable paleolithic diners might have consumed comes from the Pacific Northwest. Camas root was a common food of the Nez Perce, Blackfoot, Lummi, and Salish cultures during the last few centuries. 

It doesn’t help that camas root is hard to distinguish from the root of white meadow death camas, which simply kills you if you eat it. (None for me, thanks! I’m good.) Also, camas root is high in a substance called inulin and must be cooked before being eaten. Eating undercooked camas or excessive amounts of cooked camas causes gigantic amounts of flatulence. What guy needs more of that!?

Second, paleo cultures may not have cooked their meat because it was already tender and fragrant. Some paleoanthropologists now believe that putrefaction may have played a big role in the diets of our ancient ancestors. This is based on observations of modern Indigenous and northern European people by travelers and explorers.

In one instance a 19th century British Amazonian explorer named Landor watched as his guides consumed a bloated and decaying rodent that came floating near their canoe. The stench was more than Landor could bear, but his companions thought it was lip-smacking good. 

In another incident, the American arctic explorer Robert Peary refused to let an Inuit hunter bring aboard the ship what the hunter thought would make an excellent lunch – a stinking and rotting seal carcass dripping with maggots.

And take, for example, a food that has been mentioned in this very column – hákarl. Hákarl is the national dish of Iceland and is the flesh of a Greenland shark that has been allowed to ferment and then air dry for four or five months. According to one website (current.seabourn.com), “While Hákarl can be found in most grocery stores in Iceland, it is mainly consumed during the midwinter celebration of the Þorrablót festival. Þorrablót … contains other meals that will strike outsiders as peculiar … assvið (boiled sheep’s head) and súrsaðir hrútspungar (rams’ testicles).” 

Iceland today is a thriving first-world nation, but as these dishes suggest, it has its dietary roots in ancient places. And as paleoanthropologists would be quick to point out, delicacies such as rotted shark, the brains of sheep (or any other animal), and rams’ testicles are exactly the kind of fare ancient humans would have enjoyed, along with tongue, intestines, liver, adrenal glands, bone marrow, and, most importantly, gobbets of fat. Lean meat was, literally, for the dogs.

That is because of what is termed “rabbit starvation,” which is caused by eating nothing but lean meat (rabbit meat is extremely lean). The liver can only process so much lean meat before the waste products of protein digestion begin to accumulate in the blood. Consuming animal fats is essential to good health, and fat is what paleolithic diners wanted most. 

Last, and most damning to me and many American males, an authentic paleo diet cannot include BEER! You need grains to make beer, and grains didn’t come along in sufficient quantities until farming was invented.

So, if you want to follow an authentic paleo diet, remember to leave that beer cozy empty and take that porterhouse steak and throw it into the yard and let the sun and flies have at it. It will be tastier and more readily digestible in a few days. Also, make sure to throw in some putrefied pork belly to avoid rabbit starvation. And don’t forget small amounts (please!) of cooked camas root.

As for me, around my house there is a diet that, as far as I understand it, involves not eating “points,” which are mercifully odorless and tasteless and only a problem when consumed in large quantities.