Friday, October 30, 2009

The Jane Austen Diet at JASNA

Ironically, I planned to give up my Jane Austen dieting for the week-end of the JASNA annual meeting in Philadelphia. I figured that the food served would be too processed, too diverse and from too far away to maintain any kind of accuracy. Crazily enough it turned out that there was a 18th centuryrestaurant right across the street from the hotel. Though pricey and completely touristy, I decided to give City Tavern a go. The Tavern was built in 1773 and was the new local hot spot when signers of the Declaration of Indepence lunched there. Modern day visitors are greeted by waitstaff dressed in colonial costume and served beer in pewter mugs.

Sadly, cuisine-wise the City Tavern didn't stack up. I ordered a a goulash, which of course shouldn't have even been on the menu and a Spruce Beer. The beer was extra delicious, though I'm not entirely sure it was authentic. It's quite possible that the careless waitstaff just brought me the wrong thing. My dining companion ordered "salmagundi" which is a fancy 18th century name for a mediocre chef salad. The best thing about the place was the bread basket which was a variety of authentic recipes including a sweet potato muffin supposedly from Thomas Jefferson. I assume that would be TJ's cook's recipe, as I doubt the famous founding father, plantation owner and slave impregnator was in the kitchen with sleeves rolled up.

What ended up happening after that cuisine wise was pretty much as predicted. I couldn't find anything remotely within my diet so I did my best. I did take care to eat a comically large amount of food on Friday night. We dined at The Continental, a martini bar and tapas place. Eating a bunch of tapa may be the modern equivalent of the multi-course dinners served in Jane's Day. All in all I had a small to medium serving of more than a dozen dishes. I probably owe every member of the central Jersey JASNA group a few bucks since we split the check. I felt like I ate two or three times what everyone else did. I had an evening of whist playing for which to fortify myself. I also took home the most insane left-overs ever: Deep Fried Philly Cheese Steak Egg Roll. I had it for breakfast. Though not remotely on the Jane Austen diet, I was at least carrying on the tradition of starting my way with a formidable breakfast that draws stares from anyone likely to encounter me while eating it. And really, that's what it's all about, right?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sugar Boycott still makes sense

When I began this diet, I had the notion that I would pretend that sugar was still the product of slavery and something that I would boycott in order to show solidarity with the cause of abolition. What started as a bit of mental reenactment has wound up coming round full circle. I found this article on CNN recently. Two documentary films "The Price of Sugar" (2007) and "Sugar Babies" (2007) further enlightened me in their depiction of the deplorable conditions in the Dominican Republic in which this cash crop is produced. Both the films have been the targets of sabotage efforts and film festivals have reported attempts at bribery to prevent the film being shown. The plantation owners hired the Washington, D.C., lobbying and law firm of Patton Boggs to sue the makers of “The Price of Sugar” for defamation as part of their public relations campaign.

It's not only the Dominican Republic that is problematic. One of the sugar plantation owners whose labor conditions were exposed in the films owns plantations in Florida that also import Haitian migrant workers on temporary U.S. visas harvest cane. In areas where sugar is grown as a main cash crop at the expense of diversified agriculture the health of farmers tends to plummet. Children raised in this environment often live on little other than chewed sugar cane which is a disastrous diet for preserving health and welfare. In 103 countries sugar growers face a myriad of occupational health hazards, made worse by their poverty and lack of access to health care. Wages in the industry are very low, yet jobs in sugarcane production are among the most hazardous in agriculture and in some cases, farmers do not earn enough to provide enough food to cover the calories burned on the job.

Isolating sugar produced in unethical conditions can be difficult. The commodity is sold on the market to manufacturers who may buy from many sources depending on prices. Cane sugar still accounts for 60-70 percent of all sugar consumed in the world and in the US, domestic production of cane sugar still falls short of demand. We still import a fifth of our cane sugar from the developing world. The by-products of the industry may wind up in producing rum or ethanol. Ethanol production from sugar cane has its own issues. The burning of sugar cane to make ethanol has had a toxic effect on the people living near such refineries in places such as Brazil.

There is a corporate responsibility organization called "Ethical Sugar" which represents progressive sugar growers who use fair labor practices and sustainable growing techniques. My suggestion is that people who are concerned about the origin of their sugar should assume that if it is cane sugar and not produced by a fair trade manufacturer (Rapunzel is a fairly well distributed, if pricey product) that it probably was farmed at great expense to human life and environmental welfare.

The easiest and cheapest thing to do is to stop eating sugar. Use local honey and fruit to sweeten if you must or switch to an ethically produced brand. By the way the so-called turbinado sugars (Sugar in the Raw) often seen in health food stores, though less processed is not necessarily any healthier or more ethically produced than plain, white sugar. Because of the importation of migrant labor to U.S. sugar producing states Florida, Texas, Hawaii and Louisiana, the problems of labor conditions can still persist. At this point Sugar in the Raw is not part of a fair trade organization. The sugar added to most processed foods in this country is refined from corn or beets and may have its own set of problems in terms of environmental impact and public health, but at least its not the product of slavery or near slavery conditions.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A day in the life

My apologies for the time away from the blog. I recently bought Cooking with Jane Austen and I'm trying to work up the gumption to cook a big feast. Most of the dinners are very daunting though: a dozen dishes is typical. A review of this excellent book, to follow soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, I've been treading a more moderate path for this diet. Most weeks I'm satisfied with making a few recipes from source cookbooks and the rest of the time I do the best I can. A typical day of Jane Austen Dieting looks a little like this:


Thick cut, Nieman ranch Canadian style bacon (Nieman Ranch is one of the few traditional pork producers in the country that don't use GMOs or antibiotics. The meat actually has fat on it!)
Four oatcakes
An ounce of raw milk, farm house cheddar
A tablespoon of home made marmalade (this is one of the few uses I've found for the stuff. It's great with pork. Not so good on toast though)

Sandwich with home-made potted liver spread
hard-boiled egg
"Quick pickle" salad of cucumber and mint
tablespoon of sour cream for egg and salad

Smoked, peppered mackerel
green salad
boiled new potatoes
boiled green beans from neighbor's garden
lots of butter

One of my staples, especially for lunch since I'm away from home is potted meat. I've hit upon a few different methods from various cookbooks. Here's one of my favorite, that's easy, tasty, healthy, traditional and you can call it "pate" instead of "potted meat."

Liver Tureen

Wash and pat dry one package of chicken livers. Place one tablespoon of tallow or lard in frying pan on medium heat with a large shallot minced and sautee until the the shallot begins to color. Add the liver to the pan and cook a few minutes on each side. You don't want the liver to be over-done. I used liver which had been frozen at least a couple weeks so that I wasn't worried about any bacteria.

Add the liver, the fat from the pan, the shallots and two tablespoons of butter to a blender or food processor and puree until you have a smooth paste. Pack this mixture into small crocks and cover closely with plastic wrap. These will keep in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks. The fat is a very good preservative. I've not yet managed to keep them long enough that I'm worried about it, though. This is great on warm toast, in a sandwich or on a oat cake. I've made similar tureens with leftover ham or beef, though the liver is my favorite.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

An Almond cake for my mother's birthday

My first couple of Jane Austen cooking experiments didn't go so well. There was a marmalade that took many hours but is still languishing in the fridge door, untouched where I deposited shortly after I made it. It's just too chunky, bitter and difficult to spread to be something I reach for. Then I made a Soup De Santee or a Dish of Fish of all sorts from the Complete Housewife. Again, hours of work, not a huge hit with the family and to be honest, I wasn't too keen on it myself. Also my hands reeked of fish for days no matter how much I scrubbed them. So for my mother's birthday cake, I was determined to compromise a bit. This was, after all, a birthday. I wanted people to enjoy themselves.

I took the recipe for an almond cake from the Complete Housewife and then I began scouring the internet to find a cake recipe that was similar but modern enough that I could follow it. Most importantly I wanted something I could complete in an hour and be done with it.

Here's the Complete Housewife recipe:

Take a pound of almonds, blanch and beat them exceeding fine with a little rose water. This step I did in the blender. Robert helped me hull the papery shells off the almonds which was fun. He likes to watch the blender too. The cake was supposed to be a surprise but he told Grandma about it the minute she walked in the door. "I made you a cake!" This whole step took about ten minutes. I shudder to think how long it would have taken with a mortar and pestle. The rose water which I obtained from a mid-eastern market smelled amazing mixed with almonds. It's really neat to find out that improving the smell of something is almost as effective as dumping sugar into it. If something smells sweet, it almost tricks your palette into thinking there's sugar there.

Then beat three eggs, but two whites and put to them a pound of sugar sifted. I used a cup of honey instead because I'm boycotting sugar with this diet. I then added two cups of unbleached flour and six eggs. I increased the eggs because of the flour. It would also be possible (and fairly authentic) to use white breadcrumbs instead of flour. I just didn't have any white bread on hand. I added the flour because I had 6 people to feed with this cake and I didn't think almonds alone would make enough volume.

Then put in your almonds, and beat all together very well. I did this with the hand mixer in about two minutes, making sure that there were no almond chunks or clumps of paste. Again this would be incredibly tedious and slow to do by hand.

Put sheets of white paper and lay the cakes in what form you please. It's amazing that several of the modern almond cake recipes I found recommended parchment as well. I opted to use a spring form pan that I greased and floured before adding the batter. I would say an eight inch pan would be ideal.

Bake them in a cool oven. I baked my almond cake for 60 minutes at 300 degrees. It came out perfectly, not too dry or to moist, with a nice subtle sweet almond flavor.

You can perfume them if you like. I topped it with a whipped cream flavored with a drop or two more rosewater and a sweet sherry. I decorated with a few of my mom's favorite flowers, daisies. It was really a perfect cake for a summer tea party, which was how we enjoyed it. Total prep time for the cake was about a half an hour. I spent 10 minutes on the decorating and making the flavored cream. It took an hour to bake, but I don't really count that time, since I spent it sitting on the couch, reading cookbooks.

Given the success of this recipe, I think that from now on I'm going to pretend its always someone's birthday on this diet. I need to compromise a bit more, I think and look out for recipes that don't take three hours or more to make.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Fanny Price Principals of Household Management

Jane Austen indirectly chronicled the difficulty of finding good kitchen help in her novel Mansfield Park. The heroine, Fanny Price is sent home to her parent's house to find that is in chaos: too many people living in a confined space, not enough money and only one servant, the infamous Rebeca, to wait on everyone. Yet, the real problem in the Price Household wasn't any of these things. It was poor management. Mrs. Price is overwhelmed, unable to cope and does little but yell at Rebeca in hopes that this will improve the situation. When Fanny arrives she begins to quietly pitch in. Her management by example (i.e. leadership) inspires her younger sister and even the formerly shiftless Rebeca to pitch in as well. Before long the meals are at least palatable if not up to Mansfield standards, there is a greater degree of calm (helped largely by the removal to the Navy of several of the more boisterous boys) and life is tolerable if not terrific for Fanny.

Fanny's management style has no effect on her alcoholic, spendthrift father, but perhaps given a few more years of her example Mr. Price will have either drunk himself to death or reformed. Rebeca is still lackluster and Mrs. Price still unable to cope with her. Fanny's experiment is cut short when she returns to Mansfield Park to help Manage by Example her Aunt and Uncle's family. There she proceeds to be quietly useful to everyone, helping to save one cousin from illness and another from heartbreak.

I've been thinking this week about embarking on My Jane Austen Diet and the difficulty of following the maxim "What Would Jane Eat" without servants. I made one recipe for preserved oranges and it took hours and hours of back-aching labor, and yielded exactly one jar of semi-edible marmalade. Of course in Jane Austen's day even moderately genteel families had several servants. The impoverished Dashwood girls are reduced to only having three servants to attend them. Almost every family in her novels has a cook. The exceptions are the Prices and the Bates in Emma.

So I thought I'd see if I could solve some of my kitchen labor problems with some Fanny Price Management Principals.

1)Fewer mouths to feed means less work for everyone. Send as many spare children as possible into the Royal Navy: this is really feasible or desirable as Robert is only three. Even the Navy in Austen's time had it's limits.
When this is not practical, attempt to co-opt the children into being kitchen help by simply working in the kitchen and espousing the principal that being useful is very comforting to one's soul. I have had the experience of neighborhood children wandering into my kitchen and pulling a Susan. (In reference to Fanny's younger sister who one day decides to pitch in with the tea.) One neighbor child helped me with the afore-mentioned marmalade, though he didn't want to eat it when it was finished. Robert will be many years before he's much help in the kitchen. He's very good at washing vegetables even though I mostly let him do it because he enjoys it and it's fun to be with him. Certainly the amount of work it takes to keep him out of harm's way in the kitchen far outweighs having to wash those dirty spuds myself.

3) A quiet, relaxing atmosphere is more important than a fancy or skillfully prepared meal. Fanny Price was a loner who liked to sit by herself in her room and read books. Going back to her parent's house was a huge shock mostly because of the noise and disruption. What if you walked into a four star restaurant and were greeted by howling infants, prancing toddlers, a blaring television and teenagers talking on cell phones? No matter how good the food was you'd probably try to get out of there as soon as possible. Unfortunately that's more or less the state of the average person's dinner table. One option is to feed the babies and toddlers separately from the adults. My husband and I have had great success doing this with our son. He has a few meals a week with us, but they are a privilege which can be revoked if he doesn't behave. The importance of being a good dinner companion is stressed above even nutrition. We feel that the harm imparted by allowing loutish behavior to rule at mealtime far outweighs the harm of missed meal. He can have crackers and milk in his room if he's going to be like that.

4) Keep your larder stocked with good, simple foods that take little preparation or that can be prepared well in advance. Something small and good is better than nothing or something fancy that arrives too late. When Fanny and her brother William first arrive home, in the late afternoon, their mother greets them thusly, "Poor dears! how tired you must both be! and now, what will you have? I began to think you would never come. Betsey and I have been watching for you this half–hour. And when did you get anything to eat? And what would you like to have now? I could not tell whether you would be for some meat, or only a dish of tea, after your journey, or else I would have got something ready. And now I am afraid Campbell will be here before there is time to dress a steak, and we have no butcher at hand. It is very inconvenient to have no butcher in the street. We were better off in our last house. Perhaps you would like some tea as soon as it can be got.”

Mrs. Price, afraid of doing too much or too little opts to do nothing at all! How often have I paid the price for this type of waffling with my toddler. If I don't have a meal plan in my head, and ready to begin prep the minute we walk in the door, he simply throws open the fridge and begins foraging for himself. This is how he once happened to eat half a pint of sour cream with a spoon. One can't blame the little lad. He is hungry and tired from his daily travels. He deserves some meat and a dish of tea or at least a nice piece of cheese and fruit.

Sadly by the end of Fanny's tenure at her Portsmouth home, her mother still has not learned this principal. On her final morning in her parent's house, Fanny is forced to skip breakfast because it is not ready in time for her to leave. This probably owing mostly to the fact that Fanny and Susan were busy readying their things for the journey and had no time to help with the preparations, which leads me to the next principal:

5) If you really want something done right, you probably will have to do it yourself. In the last chapter of the Portsmouth section of the novel, Fanny sits and meditates on the state of her mother's house, "She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea–board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebeca’s hands had first produced it. Her father read his newspaper, and her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, while the tea was in preparation, and wished Rebecca would mend it; ..."

I actually did consider trying to hire a teenager to come in and help a few hours a day, while I worked in the kitchen. I decided instead that, although I'm going to try my best to eat like Jane Austen, I'd be mad to try to cook like someone from her era. A good food processor, a good set of kitchen gadgets, an excellent gas range and grill and most-importantly, a refrigerator will take the place of at least one servant. When one considers the amount of time saved at a modern market, where one can shop for a whole week in one place, it must add up to at least half a servant. Modern ingredients will also save me time as well. How long do you reckon it took to beat a pound of loaf sugar into two cups of the granulated stuff? Must be at least a quarter of a servant saved by using modern sugar. No wonder people wer boycotting the stuff.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What would Jane Eat

I said in my first post that my mantra for this blog was going to be What Would Jane Eat. So I must establish this, which is not by any means a simple task. I consulted the wonderful essay by Sheryl Craig, "The Torment of Rice Pudding and Apple Dumplings" for extra research. I am mainly using the Complete Housewife as my guide. I also will use my knowledge of the novels and less than perfect knowledge of the letters as well in some cases. So many restrictions abound because of the limits of seasonal produce and meat, the need to buy local and the costs of certain foods, that I considered subtitling this essay What Jane Wouldn't (or couldn't) Eat.

I'll start with the restrictions since they are many:

1) Processed food. No more MacDonalds. Not that I ate there much, but I did enjoy the occasional Chipotle, which is more or less the same thing. No more packet anything. No more supermarket ketchup, salad dressing or cottage cheese. No refined flour as it did not exist in Jane's day, even for the super rich. Sadly this means my beloved pasta too since macaroni was a relatively recent arrival to England in Jane's time and was associated with the rich and fashionable. The word "macaroni" was synonymous with "dandy." Jane Austen wasn't big on dandies and ate macaroni only rarely perhaps at some of the more opulent dinners she attended. Though the pasta she would have eaten would have been homemade since the first pasta factory didn't exist even in Italy, until 1827.

2) Very little sugar. Jane didn't take sugar in her tea, so I'll have to give that up. The reason for this may have been political, because sugar was heavily associated with the slave trade and boycotting sugar was something that many abolitionists practiced. Tea was the main reason for the quadrupling of sugar consumption per capita just prior to Jane's lifetime from three to eleven pounds per person. (Still a far cry from 66 pounds per capita in present day America). There had to be some people at the top skewing these numbers since the average person had no access to this heavily-taxed luxury good. That someone was the Prince Regent and his cohorts who enjoyed all manner of excess including the fad of sweet pastries and cakes, probably brought to England from France.

Tea of course was accompanied by scones, cakes and jams, all made with sugar. In the Complete Housewife recipe for marmalade you have 3.5 cups of sugar used for every pound of boiled down seeded orange concentrate. Compare this to a modern marmalade recipe which would use two cups of sugar for every pound of oranges. This was a change from earlier times when marmalade would have been made with little added sugar, using salt as the main preservative. This was a fermented product and far more beneficial to one's overall health than the overly sweet jam of Jane's day. No wonder it was around this time that people among the aristocracy became obsessed with the condition of one's teeth. Think of the Bingley sisters commenting that Elizabeth's teeth were "tolerable, but nothing out of the common way." The rise of cavities, gum disease and other dental misfortunes is absolutely linked to the rise in refined sugar consumption.

Raspberry jam swas pecifically mentioned by Jane Austen in her letters. During a visit to Godmersham, her brother's estate, Jane laments a lack of Raspberry jam in the house and asks Cassandra to bring her a pot from home. The recipe for raspberry jam in the complete house wife calls for two and a quarter cups of raspberries for every pound of sugar and is a more similar to a modern jam recipe in its sugar requirement.

Of course not everyone could afford to cook like this. For most of her adult life Jane Austen was dependent relation, her income fixed by what she, her sister and her mother were given by her brothers. Throughout the Complete Housewife pudding recipes call for one to add "some sugar" presumably to account for tastes, but for varying budgets as well. Three out of four rice pudding dishes have no call for sugar at all, which seems very strange to a modern palette.

Most amazing to me is the difference in the way cakes are made. Even the impoverished Bates family in Emma, arguably the poorest people who have actual "speaking parts" in Austen, had cake for tea. Where modern cake recipes rely heavily on sugar, Regency recipes rely far more heavily on eggs, butter and fruit for richness. I found a recipe for a "rich great cake" which would be a wedding sized cake, perhaps similar to that eaten at Miss Tayor's wedding in Emma. The cake used four cups of sugar for 22 cups of flour. Compare this to a modern cake recipe whose sugar to flour ratio would be closer to 1:4. The cake had 16 pounds of currants and raisins though, so it would be sweet.

From a Weston Price perspective this is good news for me. I will be able to make the occasional cake, heavy with saturated fats from animal sources, sugar from fruit and light on refined sugar. I should note that the overall use of desserts, I believe to be far less frequent in Austen's time than ours. In the bill of fare in Complete Housewife there are very few puddings listed as they mainly rely on seasonal fruits for their sweetness. So I should expect to eat very little sugar and fruit only infrequently. I plan to go whole weeks on this diet without any fructose at all.

3) Out of season, anything. That means no apples in July, no asparagus in September and no Strawberries in February. I will be trying to eat as much local produce as possible, grown within 500 miles of the Twin Cities where I live. Luckily we live in a very rich agricultural area with good small farms, tons of local farmers markets and a wide variety of locally grown produce. The one exception to this is seafood. In order to best mimick the Austen diet, I will probably need to eat salt-water fish and seafood, which would have occasionally enjoyed on seaside trips. I will also be trying my hand at preserving as much as possible. Though jam making in Austen's day was similar to what it would be today, they didn't have the sterilized jars and lids with the clamping rings. They had to rely on stoneware with paper or parafin "lids" for jam. Sometimes they would use leather I think, but that would be porous to the air, and allow spoilage. Mostly I'll be fermenting vegetables and fruit without sugar, in order to have more available in the winter. I'm not insane. I don't want to get sick. I'll sterilize my storage containers ahead of time.

4)Imported or ethnic foods. It won't be easy to give up my beloved Japanese soba noodles and sushi, my Chinese chow fun and my Italian pizza. The huge variety of styles of cooking make modern life bearable really.

So what does that leave me to eat? Well lots of wonderful things. Meat of all kinds, and all kinds of meat bits that I might have formerly balked at are going down in my kitchen as we speak. I have come to rely on my local Asian market for all those parts of the cow that the grocery store is uninterested in carrying. Maybe by next spring I'll have worked up the courage to make the "Ragoo of coxcombs and hen's feet" in the Complete Housewife. If so, I have a source for those bits. I'm still trying to track down beef cheek so that I can make potted meat, which was a staple of the picnic food/cold collation lunches that Jane Austen would have been familiar with.

Hearty soups and stews made with real homemade broths were a staple of Regency fare. Almost every bill of fare in CH begins with a soup. I better get busy boilin them bones!

I can't believe how much butter is going on in this diet. Every single vegetable recipe says to accompany it to the table with a cup of butter. Failing that, a boat of butter will do. Huzzah! I love butter.

Eggs were used in greater quantity than we would think wise today. I reckon I'll be going through a couple dozen a week, versus, our usual consumption of a dozen every other week.

Nutmeg is the preferred spice in this time period. I've seen savory recipes that call for more than an entire grated nutmeg. I've never seen a modern recipe with a request for more than a pinch of the stuff. Good thing I have that dedicated nutmeg grater. It just goes to show you can never have too many kitchen gadgets.

Though I mentioned in an earlier post dairy seems not to agree with my allergies, I'm hoping that finding raw milk sources of dairy will open up the wide world of moo juice, again. Fingers crossed.

For those of you who may be concerned about the large amounts of cholesterol and saturated animal fats that I'll be consuming, I have done a blood cholesterol test (though blood cholesterol levels can be misleading and shouldn't be an indicator of overall health, it will show a piece of the puzzle) before starting this diet. I've also had my annual physical exam and am in adequate health. Let the sat fat insanity begin!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blogging my weight loss journey

I tried to pick the most horrifying sentiment/sentence (sentimence?) possible for my first entry and I think I've done a pretty good job. One of the big trends in the weight loss world now is to refuse to call your diet what it is. I've seen it described as a "lifestyle," "a transformation program" and even a "nutritional regime" which sounds like something that might be ousted by a caloric junta. The most annoying pseudonym for "diet" is "weight loss journey." When combined with the word "blogging" this should be your signal to run a mile.

Now that you've run your mile, I want you to consider that any scheme to reduce, rearrange or increase calories is a diet. Any promise to eliminate certain kinds of foods is a diet. Any caloric adjustment in combination with planned exercise is a diet. To give some simple examples, running for your life from a tiger, would be one of the few kinds of exercise that would not be labeled with the dreaded "d-word" however if you took your pet tiger out for a jog to make up for eating a pepperoni pizza, then you are on a diet. If you have a bag of those pre-cut baby carrots or a container of lowfat cottage cheese in your fridge right now, you are on a diet. If you have an opinion about the merits of an elliptical trainer versus a treadmill you are on a diet. If you choose sugar free soda because it "tastes better to you" you have been on diets so long that your pleasure receptors are broken and you possibly need more help than even the greatest novelist of all time can offer.

A lot of people are blogging about their diets. Among the millions of boring and unhelpful voices, I've read many entertaining and helpful blogs on this topic, so you might be wondering what I could possibly have to contribute to this already noisy, and over-crowded conversation? What could reading a detailed list of what I ate for lunch today, possibly add to your life?

To answer that question, I will tell you about how I started this particular weight loss journey. I did my first diet ever in 2002, a month before I got married. I now consider myself extremely fortunate that at age 32, I had managed to avoid dieting my entire life. I was about to get married and perhaps out of terror of photographs preserved for eternity of less than ideal "me," I embarked on the inevitable narcissistic, pre-wedding "lose fourteen pounds in two weeks "e diet." For a not so small fee I downloaded a two-week meal plan that was 1200 calories of steamed veggies, brown rice and skinless chicken breasts. After two weeks without beer, sugar or bread, I was really crabby. I had lost a little over half the promised weight, (most of which was probably water from the greatly reduced carbohydrate intake) despite feeling ravenously hungry and deprived almost every day of the diet. After the wedding I gained back all the weight plus a few pounds just to say "thanks for playing." What I should have concluded from this fiasco that all diets are scams and rip-offs and that my failure was not a failure of willpower, but a failure of the entire idea of caloric restriction. But it would be seven painful more years of Weight Watchers, Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle, The Real Time Transformation Program and even a few weeks of the horror that is Fit Pregnancy before I finally came to that conclusion. Even after all of that, I still could not figure it out on my own. This is where Jane Austen finally enters the picture. Sort of.

Last year I took up runningas part of a diet. While I eventually dumped the diet, I did enjoy running. I completed a half marathon and planned to train this year for a full marathon in the fall. Over the winter, I ran a bit here and there, ate whatever I darn well pleased and gained about 15 pounds. I decided this spring that if I was going to drag my body over a mountain trail for 26 miles, I'd better make sure there was a bit less of it going along for the ride. I began an intensive diet, counting every calorie, tapering every carb, balancing my macro nutrient ratios or "mac rat nuts" as I affectionately referred to them and exercising like a maniac. I was running 20 miles per week, lifting weights four times a week and doing ab exercises in the few spare moments of downtime, that I have in my busy day of working full-time, raising a toddler, cooking all these crazy dinners for my diet and writing my movie blog. Somewhere in there I might have had a husband or something, I'm not sure.

After about a month of this nonsense, I was sick. My allergies were worse than they've ever been in my life, I couldn't run, keep up with my kid or even get to work some days. I'd wake up in the middle of the night for no reason, though I've never had a problem with insomnia and about the only time I felt good was a small window of time about a half an hour after my workout. My doctor prescribed new and scary medicine for my allergies and I began searching online for ways to try to regulate my health problems with diet. I was convinced that the way I was feeling was not merely a bad year for pollen counts, but that something with this new intense diet was encouraging my collapse.

I found many potential problems with my new "lifestyle." The first culprit was the caloric restriction. Our bodies have evolved as machines for equilibrium. They automatically balance what we take in or don't take in. All organisms do because they like everything else in the universe must obey the laws of thermodynamics. When you take in few calories, you loose fat for a while. Hooray, the diet is working, you think and you just dig in your heels and assume that you've found the magical solution to your fat problem. Yet everyone who has ever dieted for more than a week or two will describe to you a plateau, or a point where their body has adjusted to its caloric intake and refuses to shed any more weight. The reason for this isn't that your body can suddenly function better on 1200, 1500, 1800 calories or whatever. It has adjusted its metabolic rate. In other words it processes the food you are eating more slowly, converts fat to energy more slowly and doesn't give you a whole lot of surplus energy for playing kick ball with your toddler. This is really the opposite of the direction you want to go, but most diets offer you a solution of eating a few more calories, eating less of one macro nutrient ratio like carbohydrate, or exercising just that little bit more to break the plateau. Sometimes these solutions succeed temporarily but eventually you will plateau again and again until you quit. Then when you begin eating your normal caloric intake and your body with its new found slow metabolism happily packs all the weight you lost back on. Though I did not feel hungry during my diet thanks to eating a lot of meat every 3 hours, I was feeling the effects of starvation in my reduced energy.

The next culprit was exercise. Exercise to exhaustion encourages the use of your adrenal glands. These glands are wonderful little makers of super energy to save us from sprinting tigers and the like. The drug they produce effects your entire body chemistry, which includes of course your metabolism and the way you process and store the food you consume. A little adrenaline once in a while is good for you, but you shouldn't be living off of it day in and day out. You may have heard about the "runner's high" and you may have felt the effects of feeling energized after exercise yourself. The problem is that as a species we didn't evolve to use our adrenal glands in this way. Anthropologist believe that as hunters and gatherers which we were for millennia before developing agriculture, &tc, we had up to 90% of the day for leisure. The vast majority of our ancient ancestors' day was spent weaving a nice new mat for the cave, or playing wist with sabre tooth tigers. (What is it with me and tigers today?) These must have been some seriously relaxed people. Old folks living in Florida leisure complexes have hell bent schedules in comparison. In our modern, stressful lives we are using adrenaline as crutch drug whose negative side effect is metabolic ruin (thanks to super diet blogger Matt Stone for that phrase). This explains why when I stopped running consistently last fall, my body packed on the pound like crazy. It also explains my messed up sleep schedule and why my energy with my new diet was erratic and poor.

The third culprit was processed food. Though my diet espoused the virtues of "eating clean" avoiding processed foods, white flour and sugar, the constant demand for lean protein led to the encouragement of lots of low fat dairy products and processed protein isolates like whey and soy powder which were some how magically exempt from the "eating clean" rule. In my reading on allergies, I frequently saw warnings that dairy products can exacerbate allergies, because many people have difficulty processing dairy and the unprocessed protein in their body is treated as an allergen by the immune system. I thought that I was only getting three servings of dairy a day, something which never bothered me to this extreme before. I discovered that low fat dairy products are often supplemented with powdered skim milk (listed as "milk solids" on packaging, if its listed at all) in order to give them more body. Powdered milk is made through a high temperature process that creates a product that many people simply can not absorb. Same goes for the whey and soy isolates. My body may have just viewed them as unusable garbage to be gotten rid of, the same way it views a harmless pollen spore. When figuring in all the extra dairy I was getting, I was eating at least six servings a day, sometimes more. When I eliminated lowfat dairy from my diet, my allergies improved within a few days. I haven'te taken my medication in a month and have only had one sinus headache. (As opposed to the continuous sinus headache I had for the month of May).

At this point I was mad at diets. Diets had made me suffer, haven't worked (I weigh five pounds more today than I did when I started that first pre-wedding crash diet) and have nearly wrecked my health. So naturally, I decided to go out and start a new one to make everyone else miserable. No that's not what happened. As I began reading about nutrition and allergies I stumbled onto the website for the Weston Price Foundation. I was marginally familiar with these dietary principals from some writing I did for our food co-op newsletter a few years back about the FDA wanting to restrict aged raw milk cheeses, like parmesan reggiano. One of the principal tennents of the organization is that pasteurization is a scourge on our society which kills the benifitial enzymes in our milk that allow us to resist disease and, of course, digest milk. Their campaign for Real Milk (i.e. raw milk) has been successful in helping many people connect with sources for raw milk and over come supposed "lactose intolerance" which is so wide-spread in our society.

WPF also have a radical stance on saturated fat in that they believe (and they have a convincing amount of scientific and medical evidence to back up the belief) that it has been unfairly blamed by the medical community (with ample encouragement by the food processing industry) for heart disease and obesity. They are against processed food, particularly the demon, sugar and encourage people to revive the old arts of sprouting and soaking grains, fermenting condiments instead of preserving them in sugar and salt and in general eating like your great, great grandmother might have. They put a book called "nourishing traditions" which combines a summary of the scientific research supporting their conclusions, a cookbook and an interesting philosophy which attempts to mimic the way our ancestors ate in a pre-industrial agrarian society before the rise of modern diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. While I began to read this book with interest, I also maintained, a healthy skepticism-- after all they were telling me the exact opposite of every almost all of the dietary advice I've ever been given. I took Nourishing Traditions with a giant grain of sea salt hand harvested in Britanny with a wooden rake.

What appealed to me about Pricean principals, besides the slightly cultist and wacko vibe they give off is that they were all about getting back to a diet that predates modern society. It was like dieting with a time machine. Unlike the paleo diet, WPAers don't ask you to go about insisting that you stop cooking your food. You can go back too far in time. "Hey check out this new precambrian diet. All I can eat is trilobytes. Guess I'm going to loose a lot of weight on that since they're extinct. " In a sense, by reviving these lost cooking techniques (like making bread without a packet of yeast) they ask you to go back before the industrial revolution. So I began to slowly attempt to adopt these principals to see if they could improve my health any. In doing so I stumbled across Matt Stone's wonderful blog, where he documents all the crazy self-experiemens that he's done in dieting, while promoting his own diet, The High Everything Diet which is designed to heal your metabolism and let you stop dieting forever. In the midst of all this internet stumbling I also was looking for a recipe to use up a big piece of beef which I'd been given and came across "The Complete Housewife" by Elizabeth Styles, the most popular 18th century cookbook. I was familiar with this book as it as often quoted by people writing about the era of Jane Austen as it was the principal cook book of her day.

Thus the Jane Austen diet was born, part attempt to adhere to Weston Price Principals, part wacko diet self-experiment, and part homage to my favorite author. On this blog, I will describe my attempt to eat as much as possible from the maxim "What would Jane Eat" all the while sharing my discoveries. I'm not going to ask anyone to download anything for any amount of money, restrict a single food group or to replace their elliptical trainer with hikes down muddy country lanes. I will do it and tell you what happens. It's going to be like those guys who try to see how much milk they can drink without throwing up on Youtube, only with Jane Austen and stuff.