My love of the Mediterranean has been scientifically proven to be healthy. Hooray!
Ever since I swam in the sea at Tel Aviv as a child, warm, lapping turquoise waters have beckoned. Never mind that I was born in New England and spent my summers on Cape Cod in the frigid and boisterous Atlantic Ocean. Once I finally swam in the Mediterranean, its siren's song remains in my ears. In high school, after my French attained a basic level of proficiency (or so I thought before departing), I participated in a summer exchange program in Aix-en-Provence, France, the city that epitomizes the beloved French Provenￃﾧal design, aesthetic, and taste. Much as I appreciated the fields of lavender, olive trees, evenings of open-air opera in the Roman amphitheatre, and bright floral tablecloths, the day my host family drove me to Cannes sealed my identity as a Francofile and lover of the Mediterranean then and there.
The featured foods around the Mediterranean cities I discovered over the years only added to the allure. Freshly-pressed olive oil drizzled onto grilled vegetables, mozzarella, tomatoes -- topped with a dash of sea salt -- beats out my ancestral cuisine of kasha varnishkas any day. The robust yet spicy wines of the Cￃﾴte du Rhone serve as a fine compliment to any roast chicken sprinkled with herbes de provence and a side of tiny, well-oiled, rosemary potatoes with a dessert of fresh peaches. As soon as I recite the menu I begin to see the sun glistening on gentle blue waves and to hear the lilting murmur of people debating philosophy and politics in French and Italian. It's strangely meditative to eat grapes while watching children circle around a nineteenth-century carousel that plays old songs by Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. I spent a summer during college on the beaches of Greece with a boyfriend and recall that we ate marvelously well despite our lack of financial resources. After doing nothing but swim, read, and explore Greek islands (and maybe a kiss or two), I came back to college tanned, rested, and happier than I'd ever been. No wonder these people don't get heart attacks.
I pointed out to my father, who instructively emailed me the New York Times article extolling the newfound virtues of the diet recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, that I had always known the Mediterranean was good for the heart.
I accumulate frequent flier miles on my credit card to enable trips to the Mediterranean, whether to Spain, France or Italy. When life and resources limit actual travel, I bring the region into our kitchen. During the years that Dr. Ramon Estruch and his colleagues at the University of Barcelona were proving the science of it, I was shopping at Citarella, my local fish store, and Fairway, a market that stocks dozens of varieties of olive oil. My small wine refrigerator is stocked with inexpensive but full-bodied reds. But, I pointed out to my father, even if we follow the diet, how do we know that these people aren't avoiding heart attacks and strokes simply because they live by the Mediterranean? They can pause to take a dip in the sea, debate philosophy at a cafￃﾩ, or hear opera in a Roman amphitheater. Is it the food or is it the lifestyle that accompanies it? Don't we need to combine healthy eating with a relaxation of our crazy pace of work, email, and texts? I realize that the scientific study isolated diet to ascertain specific information, but it just seems intuitive that sitting with friends and family, talking at leisure while waves lap in the background, might also inhibit heart disease.
The same week that the study about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet was reported, I was asked by a friend what America means to me. It's too easy to fill in the contrarian's response here: soda, packaged non-fat cookies, TV dinners, and heart disease. But that wasn't what I wrote. Thinking about the question, I was flooded with gratitude for my existence in our fast food nation. Despite the fact that my non-Mediterranean daily life involves fighting for a spot on the subway and weaving around discarded mattresses (stay away -- possible bedbugs!) deposited onto the sidewalk curb, I felt a surge of patriotism. I thought of my grandfather, who came from Poland before World War II and avoided the horrific fate of many of his relatives. He loved America. I thought of the pro-choice rallies I attended with my children even when they were in strollers. Their preschool twin friends held up a sign that read: "My mommy is the boss of her own body!" We marched and chanted for reproductive freedom for women without fear of attack. I thought of the pieces I write here on The Huffington Post without thoughts of censorship (although reader critiques may be tough). I thought of how my kids go to school with the children of celebrities and of superintendents of apartment buildings, with kids from Harlem and Brooklyn and Manhattan, and who speak multiple languages and worship different gods at home. I felt a surge of pride in the diversity of food represented during multicultural feasts at our public school when a vast array of cuisines assemble on cafeteria tables lit by unflattering fluorescent bulbs.
I'm not saying that people on the Mediterranean don't have diversity of cuisine or freedoms. Of course they do. They protest. They write critiques. They share a range of traditional local recipes and tastes. There are more countries on the Mediterranean than Greece, Spain, Italy, and France (and Monaco), and they have diverse religions and cultures. I've never been to Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, or Morocco but I have tasted their foods and know there are varied recipes using fish, olive oil, nuts, beans, fruits vegetables and red wine. The pot-luck dishes at a school dinner in the city of Marseille could probably rival the tables of our school in New York. The schism between America and the Mediterranean is not as stark as I've painted it. In fact, my husband and I loved our honeymoon in Turkey not only because of the delicious grilled fish we ate on a rented boat in the Mediterranean off Kas and Gocek, but also because of the country's interweaving of East and West.
When you start to unravel the diversity of cuisines and histories of the region, complexities emerge. While I strive to recreate the health benefits of Mediterranean in my kitchen with flavored olive oils from Nice and Italian illy coffee in my espresso machine, I also bring New York with me when I walk along Mediterranean roads. Over a decade ago I conducted an interview with Denise Siekierski, aka "Colibri" (her nom de guerre means hummingbird), an elderly Holocaust survivor who was living in Queens. During the war, Colibri was based in Marseille. She worked in the Resistance helping Jews find places to hide, escape across the French border with Switzerland, and obtain false papers. After speaking with Colibri for hours, I wrote parts of her story in a book about women and the Holocaust. No matter how much I savor the tranquility of Mediterranean coastal cities, I can never fully erase images of Nazi soldiers and clandestine Resistance activities along those streets. Such shadows from the past set my pace racing -- causing enough stress, perhaps, to induce heart disease. Food and memory are deeply intertwined. No matter how much we strive to improve our diets and resist dangers, what we've already taken in continues to reside-- and, if we are not careful, possibly block -- in our hearts.
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