'Blue Plate Special': A Generous Helping Of Life.
Novelist Kate Christensen makes a plot line of her own life in a memoir that describes her struggles to come to terms with her family, her relationships and her sometimes violent father. A passionate lover of food, Christensen weaves recipes into a story of survival.
Other segments from the episode on July 10, 2013
July 10, 2013
Guests: Kate Christensen - Jo Robinson
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest Kate Christensen writes about relationships and about food, and she's pretty good at it. Christensen has published six novels. Her fourth, "The Great Man," won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She writes an occasional drink column for the Wall Street Journal, and writes about food in her own blog.
Christensen's latest book tells her own story, growing up in Berkeley with a troubled father, moving with her mom and sisters to Arizona, and struggling to come to terms with her family and relationships as she pursues a writing career. Her love of food and its connection to her emotions is a recurring theme in the book.
Her memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." When we spoke, I asked her to begin with a reading.
KATE CHRISTENSEN: This is chapter one of the memoir, and it comes after an introduction in which I talk about my reasons for writing the book and refer to my lifelong obsession with food and food writing equally. And chapter one is called "Breakfast at McGee," which is the house in California where I was born and lived in the early part of my life.
(Reading) When I was a kid, on what passed for chilly mornings in Berkeley, my mother used to make my sisters and me soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them. We had egg cups, but we never used them. These soft-boiled eggs were so good, we'd lick the bowls clean.
(Reading) One such morning, when I was about two years old, my parents sat at the breakfast table with my baby sister Susan and me. The table was littered with cups and plates and bowls, eggshells and toast crumbs. The sun shone in the windows of the kitchen in our small bungalow on McGee Street in Berkeley.
(Reading) My father was about to walk out the front door to go somewhere - work, probably. My mother said, in a high, plaintive voice: Please stay and help me, Ralph. I just need some help. Don't leave yet. My father paused in the kitchen doorway, looking back at us all at the table. Something seemed to snap in his head. Instead of either walking out or staying to help my mother, he leaped at her and began punching her in a silent nod of rage.
(Reading) It went on for a while. He slammed his fist into her chest and stomach. He pulled her hair. He seemed to want to hurt her badly. She gasped with shock and tried to stop him, but he was much stronger than she was. Then he let her go abruptly and slammed out the door and left us there, the three of us.
(Reading) My baby sister was wailing. My mother picked her up out of her high chair and held her, weeping slow, silent tears, rocking back and forth. I remember being paralyzed with an inward, panicky terror, but I didn't cry. I'm sure of it. I just stared at the table, at the eggshells and toast crumbs, and then I looked at my mother.
DAVIES: Well, Kate Christensen, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write, right after describing this incident at breakfast, that you made a choice then about who you would identify with. Do you want to tell us about that?
CHRISTENSEN: I felt that I didn't want to be my mother. Obviously, if someone's doing the beating up and someone is being beaten up, it seemed to me, from a very early age - and I remember feeling this so clearly, that my father was - seemed to be - to me, when I was so young, to be the stronger one. And I felt an identity with him, anyway.
And I didn't understand his violence, and I didn't understand his meanness and his sudden rage at my mother. But I didn't want to be the person who got beaten up. And I think that it was a way of protecting myself as a very, very little kid, to identify with the person who was doing the beating up, even though it scared me. It was my way of sort of keeping myself safe from it by not identifying with my mother.
I thought: I will never be vulnerable. I will never ask for anything the way she has just asked for him to stay and help her. So I won't have needs, if that's what having needs means. And it wasn't a very effective plan, to put it mildly.
DAVIES: Which gives us an interesting memoir to follow. You know, you write then that you denied that part of you that was female, that you would try to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambition, sexually aggressive, intolerant of weakness and vulnerability in yourself and everyone else. Is that something - when did you realize that, put that together?
CHRISTENSEN: I think I ran that about as far as it could be run.
CHRISTENSEN: There was - there's a scene towards the end of the book in which I relive that incident in a very, very visceral, powerful way. As my marriage is coming apart, and I'm - in that scene, I think I was 46 at that point. I'm 50 now, almost 51. So that was almost five years ago. And I think that was the moment at which I reconciled the fact that I was more like my mother, and I am female.
And this - I say in the book, describing this scene, a little later after the description, that he hit my mother, not me. So she's the one who was affected by it, not me. And that, of course, was not true at all. But it took me 44 more years to fully realize that.
DAVIES: Your mom herself is a fascinating story. She was, as you said, an accomplished person. I mean, she studied music, and she ends up in, you know, in California, where she meets your father, who was a radical lawyer. You're living in the Bay Area in the '60s. Do you remember what that was like? You were there until you were, what, about eight, I guess.
CHRISTENSEN: That's right.
DAVIES: I mean, what was life like then, and what impressions did it give you of adults?
CHRISTENSEN: It was such an exciting place, and I think I ever knew it then. I was born in 1962, and we lived in the center of it all, in Berkeley, and my parents were politicos. My father represented Black Panthers and draft dodgers and conscientious objectors pro bono in court, and he was a Marxist. And he lived what he believed.
And we went to peace marches, People's Park when it was tear-gassed, when they rebuilt it. It was a really exciting time. And people came over to our house. My mother made spaghetti. They stayed up all night talking politics. I, however, was never political at all and saw it as - saw it through the lens of curiosity and what grownups were - I just thought all grownups were like that, bearded and wildly dressed with long hair and smoking pot and politically active.
So it was a real shock when we moved to Arizona when I was eight, in 1970, and I saw a whole other kind of population.
DAVIES: You know, this behavior by your father back in the '60s and '70s, I mean, this was, you know, the dawn of feminism. I mean, this can't have been cool among his radical friends. Did people know? Did they figure out what was going on?
CHRISTENSEN: Well, there was a night when I was visiting him, after third grade. It was the summer I turned nine. And I remember - I don't know how - if anyone knew. I don't think my mother ever talked about it to anyone, and we certainly didn't. But we were at a dinner party. I was visiting my father by myself, and he was living in Oakland.
And I was - I went with him to a dinner party with his political friends, and one guy was - I remember the peach burgers that he was making, and I was riveted by the combination of hamburger meat and peaches, which actually turned out to be delicious. But that's not part of the story, necessarily.
But I remember looking up at the group of grownups and feeling an upwelling of anger at my father, suddenly, out of nowhere. I don't even know where it came from or what caused me to blurt out: My father hit my mother, and she cried, to the group. And there was a silence. And my father was ashen. And there was a sort of collective in-drawing of breath from all the people in the group, and I realized that was just not cool, what I had just said.
And on the way home, my father yelled at me for it, and said don't ever do that again. Don't ever say something like that in front of my friends. You just really embarrassed me, and everyone was horrified. And you just - you should never do that again. And my feeling wasn't righteousness or, you know, pride in having told the truth. It was horror that I had committed such a faux pas and that, you know, this - if things like that happened, you just weren't supposed to talk about them, and you certainly weren't supposed to announce it at a dinner party.
DAVIES: But he didn't say I didn't do it or didn't discuss it. Yeah.
CHRISTENSEN: No, no, but it - he didn't deny it, but nor did he address it.
DAVIES: And explain why you ended up in Arizona.
CHRISTENSEN: Well, my mother had been a cellist at Julliard, and had left with a semester to go, realizing that she didn't want to be a concert cellist. She hated performing, which is a real drawback when you're a musician.
CHRISTENSEN: So moved to Berkeley and met my father, and then in the course of their marriage, started taking psychology classes to figure out what was going on in their marriage. She knew there was something wrong, but she wasn't really sure what. So she started taking psychology at San Francisco State and became immersed in that, in the study of human psychology.
And after she left my father, she realized that she wanted to get a doctorate in psychology, and applied as a 30-something-year-old mother of three, divorced, she had just gotten her BA finally from Mills College. So there weren't a lot of schools in those days that were interested in not only accepting her, but giving her a stipend that she could live on.
And it turned out that Arizona State University in Tempe was the only one that did so. So we moved to Tempe in 1970, and she started studying psychology in the psych department there.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kate Christensen. Her new memoir is called "Blue Plate Special." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is novelist Kate Christensen. She has a new memoir called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites."
You finished high school at a Waldorf school. Explain what a Waldorf school is. How would the curriculum and kind of the school differ from a traditional high school?
CHRISTENSEN: I think that it's much more classical, and the school that I went to had an extraordinary arts program. I think that's really part of the Waldorf curriculum. We sang kind of sophisticated choral music and played the Brandenburg Concerti in our orchestra and put on "King Lear" as seniors, and our creative writing class was with my teacher May Elliot(ph), who was my first mentor.
And, you know, we were doing - she was a great critic, and I feel like that's where I really started writing seriously and where I was really taken seriously and criticized as if it were a workshop setting.
DAVIES: You weren't very happy there, though.
CHRISTENSEN: I was very unhappy there. Part of it is that I was an adolescent, and I don't know that I would have been all that happy anywhere.
CHRISTENSEN: But part of it was, you know, it had to do with a number of things, one of which was that I was a stranger, and I was the new kid, and I was living with my English teacher and working for room and board instead of, as I had done all my life up until now, coming home from school, getting a snack, going in to read in my room until dinner was magically served by my mother.
Now I had to make dinner, and I had to babysit, and I had to clean the house. And so I was responsible in a way that I absolutely was not ready to be. I was very immature. I was probably about 11 emotionally, at 16. And all I wanted to do was sit and read and write in my journal and obsess about the boy I had a crush on and listen to Carole King's "Tapestry."
But instead, you know, I had to be very responsible. And since I wasn't really ready for this, she was - it's understandable that she was often not happy with me. So there was that friction.
DAVIES: And there was some very appalling behavior by some of the adults at the school.
CHRISTENSEN: Yes, when I think back to the '70s, to the late '70s in high school, and what it was like in that school and how the grownups acted and how the students acted, I feel like I was personally appalled. A lot of the teachers were sleeping with students. But the students - the student body in general, there wasn't a sort of outrage about it. And it seemed to be what was happening.
It was sort of trendy that the grownups were all having - I don't know if they're mid-life crises or if they just didn't have a sense of boundary that grownups are all expected to have now. And I think part of why they're expected to have them now is that all these stories are coming to light about schools in the '70s, one of which was mine.
But I now know that this was by no means unusual and that there was complicity on the part of everyone.
DAVIES: Well, I mean, you were a victim. I mean, this teacher repeatedly molested you, I mean not rape, I mean, but clothes were on, but it was - you know, there was contact that was, you know, utterly inappropriate, happened more than once, and you as a kid kind of were overwhelmed and couldn't resist.
CHRISTENSEN: Well again, it was that - it goes back to that first primal scene at the breakfast table with my father beating up my mother and deciding I was never going to be a victim. So when you say you were a victim, I think was I? I don't really identify that way. I see it as I was a young girl far from home, and this man, he liked to paw me - repeatedly.
But I didn't let it - see, I didn't allow it, and that was part of the problem. I didn't allow myself to be upset by it. I didn't allow myself to really feel the full extent of the rage that might have been a more appropriate response than the passivity and the silence that I met in with and not - I didn't want to cause trouble. I was the new girl and far from home.
So I didn't - and it seemed to be what everyone was doing. So I, you know, I was 16 and naÃ¯ve and didn't - and I didn't speak up, and I didn't ever tell him to stop.
DAVIES: Right, but wasn't there a moment there where you told your mom, she told the school, and then nothing happened?
CHRISTENSEN: Yes, there was a moment when I finally broke down and told my mother. She was outraged. She went out there and talked to him and wrote a letter to the school, and nothing happened.
DAVIES: Do you think that was emotionally damaging to you? I mean, it's the kind of thing that today, I mean, the guy would be - spend years in prison for.
CHRISTENSEN: I know, I know. It was - it's so different now, and I'm glad it's so different because, I mean, I feel like adolescence is such a weird time. You feel like you should be more grownup than you are, and you try so hard to seem cool and grownup, at least I did. And I mean, so much of my energy was going toward acting like I had it all together when in fact I was falling apart on a daily basis and homesick and missing my mother and not ready to leave home at all.
And, I mean, the reason I left was to get an education because the school that was going to in Arizona just didn't feel like enough for me. So, I mean, I needed to leave, and I'm glad I did in that sense, and it was a wonderful school in many ways. But that part of it, I feel again like so much of what happened in the course of my life and so much of I think what this book is about is that I wasn't able to navigate things in the moment directly. And that caused a lot of trouble into my 40s.
The fact that I wasn't fully cognizant of my own vulnerability, and I wasn't in control of my appetites in subsequent years because of that.
DAVIES: And do you trace that back to your father's abuse of your mom?
CHRISTENSEN: I really can't, I can't escape feeling that there is - there was something set in motion by his violence in me. And it wasn't just the violence. It was also my refusal to feel that it had anything to do with me.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kate Christensen. Her new memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." A lot of the memoir is about your time in New York. When you went to New York, you had a lot of jobs, some of them interesting, some of them not so interesting.
DAVIES: That allowed you to write. One of them was you were a personal assistant to this woman that lived in a nice place on the East Side. Tell us about her and what you did for her.
CHRISTENSEN: She was a countess, and she had a...
DAVIES: A real countess?
CHRISTENSEN: She was a - well, she had married a count, which made her a countess. She was American-born. And I was her personal secretary. And I would show up at 1 o'clock every weekday in my terrible outfits and probably hungover from the night before, having been out drinking and listening to music until all hours. So I would show up in a sort of - in a whirlwind of nerves because she scared the hell out of me.
And there would be a list of things for me to do on the dining room table. So I would set up my little office. And then she would blow in, very glamorous, very sort of raven black hair, impeccably dressed, very chic, and, you know, make sure I was doing it all right. And then she would dash out again and leave me in a, sort of, you know, quaking puddle of fear.
And I was a terrible personal secretary in those days. I had no idea what I was doing. But the job was fascinating. I was fascinated by her. And she and I were sort of like two birds of totally different species, kind of I was the drab little brown sort of tree bird, and she was the glamorous bird of, you know, iridescent plumage and a sharp beak and talons.
And every now and then she would sort of attack me.
CHRISTENSEN: It was a fascinating job, and it was the job that inspired my first novel, "In the Drink," which is loosely based on that job.
DAVIES: And what were your tasks for this woman?
CHRISTENSEN: Well, there were two sets - my job consisted of two very different persona. And the first was the meek little personal secretary who was constantly screwing up. And the second was the person who helped her write her books. And she wrote spy memoirs, and she hired me, in part, because I had an MFA from Iowa. And so she knew that I was a writer, and so I could sort of help her.
When I wasn't doing the secretarial part of my job, I could generate scenes that we had talked about, and I could edit scenes that she had written, and that part of the job I absolutely loved. I thought it was so much fun and so entertaining, and her life was so colorful and entertaining. So that's what kept me working for her, and that is the relationship that we had that worked.
That was when I got her approval and delighted her, and we sort of were in collusion, as opposed to the other part of the job, which was this terrible power struggle that humiliated me on an hourly basis.
DAVIES: Kate Christensen will be back in the second half of the show. Her memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with novelist Kate Christensen, who's written a memoir called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." The book deals with her sometimes troubled, but always interesting family life and struggling to become a writer.
When we left off, she was telling us about one of her early jobs in New York, working as a personal secretary to a wealthy countess who wrote spy memoirs. She says the experience - interesting and at time humiliating - was in part the basis for her first novel, "In the Drink."
You tell us an interesting story about trying to get it published, and the way editors reacted to the book and to its narrator. Tell us about that.
CHRISTENSEN: Well, it's about a woman who was very much like I was in those days, a rather hapless, debt-ridden, hard-drinking sort of down-at-heels, but well-educated and ambitious young woman who comes to New York to be a writer. So there's certainly an autobiographical component right there, off the bat. But the editor's problem with her - her name is Claudia Steiner - the editors...
DAVIES: She's the narrator, not the rich woman, right?
CHRISTENSEN: Right. Yes. She's the narrator. And I wrote the book to sort of write an imbalance, to sort of get my own back after being so humiliated in this job. And I found humiliation of great goad and a great source of inspiration for writing my first novel, to sort of reassert my own pride and my own sense of self in writing this novel. But what editors seem to object to was that Claudia was not a heroine. She was not a sort of scrappy, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of narrator that everyone seemed to want to read about, instead of this, you know, she was - she seemed so willfully self-destructive, as was I in those days. And so I sort of took this a bit personally, like, what do you mean you don't like her? She's...
CHRISTENSEN: I like her. And I had two books in mind when I was writing "In the Drink." First was Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim." And I thought I was writing a female version of "Lucky Jim," and it was something that I hadn't seen done before in literature. So I thought I was doing something exciting and new to sort of use this book, as many novelists do. I mean, I think a lot of us have a novel or a couple of novels that we have as a touchstone for novels that we're writing, and that was mine, along with "Jane Eyre," because Claudia seemed to me to be the negative Jane Eyre - like, the opposite, the dark Jane Eyre.
And so, with these two books in mind, I felt I was placing myself solidly in a literary tradition. But the book came out right on the heels of "Bridget Jones Diary," with a whole bunch of other books that were very similar, superficially, about young women living in the city, drinking too much, sleeping with the wrong guys, in jobs they hated. And so, of course, naturally, what could critics do but - besides lump them all together and call them chic lit?
DAVIES: You know, we began with this horrific scene of you as a little girl watching your father beat up your mother over breakfast. They separated and divorced. Do you just want to say a little bit about the contact you've had with him since, and kind of what your relationship - if any - is today?
CHRISTENSEN: He disappeared from my life seemingly forever when I was - I think I was 11, maybe I was nine - in another cataclysmic scene of violence, which is described in the book. And it was hard to write these scenes and - but they're part of my story, so I did. And then he would - I would reappear in his life periodically. I think I saw him three more times. And the last time I saw him I was at Iowa in my mid-20s, and I have not seen him since then. And saying goodbye to him, I didn't realize that I was never going to see him again. But I haven't, and it seems that that part of my story and that part of my family was a sort of door that closed.
DAVIES: You closed the book wide wishing - silently wishing him a happy birthday.
CHRISTENSEN: Wherever he was.
DAVIES: So you've...
CHRISTENSEN: And - I think...
DAVIES: Yeah. So how do you feel about him today?
CHRISTENSEN: You know, I don't know him. He's a total mystery to me, this man who I adored so much as a little girl and who so shaped my life and that of my sisters' and my mother. And my memories of him seem so far away and so sort of - so sort of vague. And it's so strange to have a parent that you don't know, who's still alive. I don't have strong feelings about him anymore. My life has gone on, and I've lived half a century and I haven't seen him in a quarter century. So almost my whole adult life, I have had no contact, and he hasn't been part of it. And, you know, it's a sad schism to me, because any schism is, and especially when it's a parent. But it's not anything I think a lot about anymore. I certainly thought about it in writing this book, but I think much more about my mother, of course, who I'm very close to and am in frequent contact with, and also my sisters.
DAVIES: Well, Kate Christensen, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
CHRISTENSEN: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure talking to you.
DAVIES: Kate Christensen's memoir is called "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites."
Coming up, health writer Jo Robinson tells us why a lot of prehistoric fruits and vegetables were healthier than the ones we eat today. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, health writer Jo Robinson, has a new take on the old dictum that fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. She says tens of thousands of years ago, our prehistoric ancestors picked and gathered wild foods that were, in many ways, far healthier than the stuff we buy today at farmers markets. She says which vegetables you choose and how you prepare them can make a big difference in the nutritional benefits you get. And she says some canned and frozen vegetables can actually be healthier than fresh ones.
Crazy, right? It's all in her new book, along with some recipes to make wilder, healthier vegetables fun to eat. Jo Robinson is a health writer and food activist, best known for her research into the benefits of raising life stock on pasture rather than feed lots. She's written or co-written 14 books. Her latest is called "Eating on the Wild Side."
Well, Jo Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. You introduce us to the concept here in this book that our prehistoric ancestors, in some ways, ate a lot healthier stuff than we do. How do we know that?
JO ROBINSON: We know that, because we can now measure the wild food that they were consuming, and it still exists. It's not extinct. And we can now compare it to the food we now have in the supermarkets, and we can see really marked differences in nutrition. In particular, the wild plants had more fiber and more calcium, other minerals, more vitamins, more protein and especially, they had more antioxidants - which are just now proving to be very advantageous to our health.
DAVIES: Right. And you say that a lot of these changes in the direction of, you know, food which is less beneficial to us aren't kind of the last 20 or 30 years of modern agriculture, and, you know, genetic tampering with food, but really early on in the, what, roughly 10,000 years of agriculture, right?
ROBINSON: That's right. In fact, the most dramatic changes in the human diet happened at the very beginning of agriculture, because, basically, we looked around at all of this wild food that we had been eating for millennia - forever - and we kind of said to each other, well, you know, we're getting tired of eating this bitter, chewy, fibrous, low-sugar food, and we can do better than that. So what we did was we selected those wild plants that were the best tasting to us and the easiest to prepare and the most productive, and that makes a lot of sense. We would do it all over again. But what we didn't know is that when we were rejecting plants that were a little more bitter or had more fiber, we were actually cutting down on the amount of phytonutrients and antioxidants in our diet from the get-go. And we have continued to do that over the entire history of agriculture.
DAVIES: Give us an example of a modern food. Let's take the banana. You write about the banana.
DAVIES: I mean, we all know what a banana looks like. It's so inviting. It's got that nice, you know, yellow peel that comes off easily and that nice, creamy interior. What did the, you know, the prehistoric banana ancestor look like and taste like?
ROBINSON: Well, wild bananas were basically seed cases, and they were chock-full of hard, dense seeds. And people still gather these bananas - not to eat them, but to take the seats and string them and make necklaces. They were that large and that bulky. And we didn't eat them. They were - had very little sugar, extremely high carbohydrates. And to peel them you had to get a machete, or something similar to that, you know, to take off the skins.
So we looked around, and some of our, one of our remote ancestors came upon a mutant banana. This was nature's mutant. Nature is making mutations all of the time, and that's how we get all the varieties we have in our fruits and vegetables. Well, this particular mutation did away with the seeds, so that the seeds had been diminished to just little, tiny black dots. And if you look our - at the bananas in our supermarket, that's what you'll see - no viable seeds, but just these little dots. And this mutation also had zip-off peels, so that we immediately seized upon that, very cleverly, and began cloning these banana plants. You can't plant seeds of a banana that doesn't have seeds, so we had to clone them, which we did. And around the world, these bananas without seeds are about the only bananas that anyone eats.
DAVIES: Right. And compare the health of these nice bananas that we slice in with our vanilla wafers and our banana pudding.
DAVIES: Compare the health of those to the earlier products that are our ancestors...
ROBINSON: Well, some people around the world are eating really very nutritious bananas, because they have red and dark yellow and orange flush, and it's loaded with beta-carotene. But we've seized upon a white mutant. It has very little beta-carotene. There's some that are eaten by people that have 400 times more of this important nutrient than the ones that we eat. So we have one that's very sweet and rapidly digested carbohydrates and very low in beta-carotene. And this is our most popular fruit.
DAVIES: So we've always liked stuff that isn't good for us.
ROBINSON: Yes. Well, there's a reason why. It's interesting. We're programmed to want things that are sweet and, you know, full of salts and fat, because those were the very things that were scarce in the wilderness. And we needed to have high-calorie foods, because we had very energetic lives. We might have had to have burned 4,000 calories a day, so we had to have this wiring that rewarded us for eating foods that were energy-dense. And it works perfectly well in the environment, in natural environment. If we were to go into a national forest and look for the sweetest and least-fibrous and the fattiest food, we'd be doing very well. The problem is we still have that programming, and when you take it to the 7-Eleven, you get into big trouble.
DAVIES: Now, a lot of what you focus on is the presence or absence of bio-nutrients, or phytonutrients.
DAVIES: Now this is distinct from the nutrients that we typically think of, like proteins and vitamins and fiber?
ROBINSON: Right. These are molecular nutrients. They're not macronutrients. And the reason that I'm focusing on them is that we're just beginning to realize that these plant compounds, the technical name for them is polyphenols. I call them phytonutrients, a little more friendly term. They play a role in every cell and system of our bodies. And every month, new information is published showing that these phytonutrients are really essential for optimum health, and these are the things that we've reduced more than any of the other nutrients.
DAVIES: So you're telling us in this book that you've got to be careful about, when you eat fruits and vegetables, which ones you pick, what kinds you pick and how you prepare them and how you store them. So let's talk about some specifics. Greens. A lot of us eat salad, you know, five to 10 times a week. And you tell us, you know, that some of the wild greens that we used to eat had a lot of health and medicinal properties that were really beneficial. And you say among them are dandelions...
DAVIES: ...and you suggest trying a dandelion. What do you taste when you eat a dandelion?
ROBINSON: Well, I recommend that people do this, because one of the premises of my book is that we're not going to go back and eat wild food, per se. We're not going to like the taste of most of it. So go out and find a dandelion leaf, rinse it well, and then take a bite and just pay attention to your senses.
You know, for the first, oh, 10 seconds, you'll have very little - you won't sense very much at all, except that you'll notice that the leaf is hairy and quite dense, quite chewy. But then, this bloom of bitterness is going to come at the roof of your mouth and go down your throat, and it's going to stay there for about 10 minutes. And many of the wild plants that we used to eat had levels of bitterness similar to that dandelion. But the dandelion was a lot healthier for us, you know, compared with spinach, which we consider a super food. It has twice as much calcium and three times as much Vitamin A, five times more Vitamins K and E, and eight times more antioxidants. So our wild food that, you know, we - our remote ancestors ate was much better for us, but we wouldn't like the taste of it.
So I'm - my book is actually a field guide to nutritious food, what I call wild equivalents in the supermarket. They have held onto a lot of their wild nutrients, but they have that flavor that we've come to love and expect.
DAVIES: OK. Let's talk about some salad greens: iceberg lettuce, very commonly eaten in the United States. How much do we eat, and how good is it for us?
ROBINSON: I was surprised to learn it's the most popular lettuce, by far. I know many people who have moved on to mescaline and radicchio and more savory greens, but half the people in this county have never eaten any lettuce other than iceberg lettuce, and we produce 450 million metric tons of it a year. And it turns out to be extremely low in phytonutrients. It is - you'd have to eat about 10 cups of iceberg lettuce to get the equivalent of a half a cup of a loose-leaf lettuce.
And so, I mean, that's, you know, it's a very popular vegetable. It's one that people turn to, but it's one that we should start to wean ourselves away from and find others that we also like the taste of that have held on to some of these phytonutrients.
DAVIES: Right. Now, you note that if you're picking, you know, varieties of apples, they're clearly labeled. Not often the case with lettuce.
DAVIES: Is there a simple rule for getting the green that's going to be better for you?
ROBINSON: There is a simple rule, and it has an interesting explanation. The reason that iceberg lettuce is so low in phytonutrients is that plants produce these compounds largely to protect themselves from external threats like UV light and predation from insects, fungus, diseases. And when the leaves of a plant - like iceberg lettuce - are all wrapped up over each other, those inside leaves don't have to produce phytonutrients to protect themselves from the sunlight.
And since most of iceberg lettuce, the leaves are inside, they're extremely low in these healthful compounds. So what you want to do is you want to look for lettuce that grows with all of the leaves open to the sun, and that's loose-leaf lettuce. It is much more nutritious, because that plant has to continually defend itself against these damaging UV rays.
So the best choices in the supermarket are loose-leaf lettuce, the dark green varieties, but most of all, the leafy red varieties, because in addition to having some kinds of, like, carotenoids and other nutrients, they're rich in anthocyanins. So you get a double-bonus of phytonutrients when you eat a leafy red lettuce.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jo Robinson. She is a health writer and food activist. Her new book is called "Eating on the Wild Side." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with health writer Jo Robinson. Her book, "Eating on the Wild Side" argues that ancient, wilder fruits and vegetables were healthier than many modern varieties. When we left off, she was talking about the benefits of eating red, leafy lettuce.
Describe what you do when you bring home your lettuce.
DAVIES: I mean, this was interesting to read.
ROBINSON: Yeah. It's kind of a magic trick. In addition to looking at studies showing the nutrient content of our fruits and vegetables, I've been looking at the food sciences that are finally learning what we need to do to preserve and even enhance the phytonutrients in our food. This is a brand new science, about 15 years old.
So I came across this study. It seems bizarre at first, but if you take your lettuce right from the store and you rinse it and dry it, and then, if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it, you're going to increase the antioxidant activity, the antioxidant benefits that you get from that lettuce four-fold. You know, the next day when you eat it, it's going to have four times more antioxidants.
DAVIES: And that's because the plant is trying to react to my tearing it, as if it's threatened, and produce more...
ROBINSON: Exactly. Plants don't die when we pick them. They continue to respire and react to threats. And, you know, it thinks that we're this enormous cow that's eating it, and it's going to - you know, overnight, it's going to produce a lot of these phytonutrients so that the next time that cow comes around, it's going to ward them away.
DAVIES: Right. So I have to say, when I read this, this struck me as a lot of work, to take my greens, and then I'd wash them and then I'd dry them and then I tear them up. And we have those wonderful, convenient, you know, mixed greens now that come in sealed bags, or in those little hard plastic things with the lids. What about them? Are they OK?
ROBINSON: Most greens are what I call heavy breathers. And the scientists would say that they have a high respiration rate. And so as soon as they're harvested, they start absorbing a lot of oxygen, and oxygen is harmful to them. So they have to use up their stored antioxidants to protect themselves. And meanwhile, they're no longer producing carbohydrates, so they have to use up their stored sugars.
And lettuce is one of a number of plants that, in just a few days after harvest, it's going to have fewer phytonutrients and antioxidants, and it's going to have less sugar. So many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old. They're not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them.
And there's other fruits and vegetables that also burn up their antioxidants and their sugar at a really rapid rate, and they happen to be those superstars of nutrition that we're all encouraged to eat. So I'm just going to give you a list of things that you should get as fresh as possible, perhaps from a farmers' market - which is going to be probably fresher than a supermarket - and eat as soon as possible.
And so it would be artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, lettuce, parsley, mushrooms and spinach. So all of those, just day by day, they're giving you fewer and fewer nutrients and reducing your opportunity to experience optimum health.
DAVIES: So some vegetables don't. Some of them will hold them when you store them. Those will tend to...
DAVIES: ...give up the good stuff. So broccoli...
DAVIES: ...don't leave it in there three days and then eat it.
ROBINSON: That's right. But garlic and onions and apples and a lot of the root vegetables can be stored for months and not change the benefits that they give you. So it's important to know. Like, you know, I think you should have an Eat Me First list on your refrigerator of those that you should eat the day you bring them home, or the next day. I mean, it could be a measurable difference in your health.
DAVIES: You know, I think a lot of us have gotten a little skeptical of health advice, because over the years, you know, we hear that a particular food or a particular vitamin or a particular, you know, medication may be beneficial. And then five or 10 years later there are studies that show, you know, that it isn't effective, or maybe even that it's harmful in some ways.
ROBINSON: Yes. It's so frustrating.
DAVIES: Right. And a lot of what you write in the book just has such certainty to it. I mean, you'll say that, you know, this food has, you know, 20 times the lycopene of another. I mean, can we be sure of this? Is this research as clear and, you know, irrefutable as that?
ROBINSON: Yeah. Yes. Yes, certainly about the amounts, because I spent 10 years researching this book, and I read 6,000 peer review studies published in credible journals. And so we can be quite confident in the amounts of phytonutrients in different fruits and vegetables. I mean, we're learning new ways to measure them and new technologies, so there's some differences that, you know, that's happening over time.
But we can be quite certain that the amounts are correct. As for the health benefits, this is an infant science, and, you know, we're going to learn so much more in the next 20 years. But - so when I write about potential health benefits, I'm really careful to put in the perhaps and should be and, you know, in a number of years, we'll know better, and this is only in a small human study, because I don't want to commit the error of jumping ahead of the research and making claims that can't be substantiated. But as the months go by, there's more and more studies that are adding more certainty to the benefits of eating whole foods. I'm not talking supplements. I'm not talking medications, which have adverse, negative effects, but whole foods of certain types.
And it's really looking very promising that this could be the missing link to optimum health, that we've bred out these phytonutrients and other important compounds, and by adding them back for test tube studies, animal studies and now human studies, they're all lining up together, saying that this could be really beneficial for everyone and could - here's all the coulds - and it could reduce the risk of some very deadly and costly diseases.
DAVIES: Well, Jo Robinson, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROBINSON: It was my pleasure.
DAVIES: Jo Robinson's book is called "Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.