Q & A With Nancy Harmon Jenkins: On the Mediterranean Diet, Her Cookbook(s) + What Took Us So Long
For many of us whose idea of good food is a bowl of olives, a plate of mezze, a huge dish of paella or Catalan soup or lamb with couscous, Nancy Harmon Jenkins' cookbook The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, or her newer The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, is one of the basic books of the kitchen. First published almost twenty years ago, Jenkins' book was groundbreaking in its simplicity, with the book's subtitle -- "A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health" -- a promise that recalibrating what we eat away from fast and processed food to the ingredients of Mediterranean cooking could not help but yield healthful and delicious results.
Bantam Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Filled with recipes that read more like Yotam Ottolenghi's idea of food than WeightWatchers, Jenkins' book meant "diet" in the basic sense of the word: what we eat, what we should eat, what we used to eat, at least if we lived along the shores of the Mediterranean, where olives and vegetables and fish and grains and wine were once basic, ordinary fare.
When the results of a 5-year study were published recently by the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease could be prevented in people at high risk if they switched to a Mediterranean diet, Jenkins' book came into focus again. We caught up with her by phone in Maine this week, where she was happy to talk about her book, the new findings, her upcoming book on olive oil and whether her views have changed. (They have not.) She was also pretty happy to be decamping for Italy from her native Maine, where it had been snowing for much of the last week. Buon appetito! Turn the page.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins: It's interesting, because as Mark Bittman pointed out, I wrote that book twenty years ago. And there has been a certain amount of scientific confirmation in the meantime, but this study in Spain was largest, and the longest over a period of time of any that have been done. So I guess it's pretty darn good evidence.
SI: So good that they released the study early, didn't they?
NHJ: The evidence was so clear that they thought it wasn't fair to them to keep them on their low fat diet -- which I guess wasn't really all that low-fat, although enough to qualify. But the thing that I found interesting is that there's so much else going on with the Mediterranean diet, especially with olive oil, that I wonder -- with an article in The New York Times about scientists calling for more studies on the relationship between nutrition and health. You want to say, where have these guys been for the last twenty or thirty years?
SI: This all seems kind of obvious. Is it just us Americans who have difficulty with this concept?
NHJ: No, it's not. Because in Europe, the European Union has said that there are no in vivo -- which means in people, rather than in the lab -- studies on the Mediterranean diet or on olive oil. Which is kind of stretching it a little, because I know the Spanish have really been in the forefront of this, I mean, predictably because olive oil is a major export product for Spain -- and they need all the help they can get right now.
I have an olive oil book coming out next year, and I hope to clear up a lot of the mistaken ideas about olive oil -- from the consumers' idea that it's all fraudulent to the kind of medical idea that it's just another fat, and get people to understand that it really is kind of a miracle ingredient. Out there in California they're particularly interested in this, because they're trying to capture at least 10% of the U.S. market, which is huge, for extra virgin olive oil. Now they're at 1%, I think, or maybe 1 1/2 this year, but they're really hoping to increase that. And I think they probably will. I don't think you can make great olive oil in California -- maybe some people can, but most people are making very good olive oil. Carefully made and quality assured, and good for you, obviously.
SI: It's been almost twenty years since your book came out. Have your views changed? It seems that what's changed has been the rest of the world rather than you.
NHJ: No, my views haven't really changed at all. My views on olive oil have. There was the first book, The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, and then there was The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which came out in 2009 -- and when the first edition was published, we didn't know all of this about polyphenols and antioxidants and things like that in the olive oil. We just knew that it was a good fat. So at that time we were saying that it doesn't really make any difference whether you use extra virgin or regular olive oil. Now we know that it makes a big difference. So that's one thing that's changed.
The other thing of course that's changed is that there are more and more problems in countries like Italy and Greece and Spain with people turning away from the Mediterranean diet and adding a lot of fast food and processed food and junk food, and a lot more meat than they were consuming back then. So that's been a very worrisome change. But all you can hope is that they get the message sooner or later.
SI: Well that's the terrible irony, right? Twenty years ago the Mediterreaneans were actually consuming the Mediterranean diet, and now they're eating the American diet. It's kind of tragic.
NHJ: That's absolutely true. I see it most of all in places like France, which never was a big olive oil consuming country, nor was it a big Mediterranean diet consuming country. But the proliferation of McDonald's in France is really shocking. Really shocking. And then you go to places like Greece and Spain, where the economy has suddenly become so perilous that they're cutting out meat because it's expensive. So maybe tightening economic situations will move people back closer to the original Mediterranean diet.
SI: Yet in this country, it seems like the less money you have, the worse your diet is.
NHJ: Absolutely. And you know, part of that is because our food supply is so damn cheap. And because it doesn't reflect the real cost of food, because it doesn't reflect the cost on the environment, in the way we raise animals and corn and soybeans and things like that.
SI: Do you think that the recent movement to educate Americans about food and nutrition, thanks to Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and everyone else, is working?
NHJ: I do. There's a lot of talk. People talk the talk but they don't know how to walk the walk. The book that I'm working on right now is very directly addressed to a broad spectrum of Americans who would like to eat better, and know that they should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and can tell you that seafood ought to be a bigger part of their diet -- but they don't know how to do it. They're terrified of cooking. And they don't know how to buy things.
What I want to do is give them a bunch of simple, straight-forward recipes that say, look, don't try to do it all at once. Do it little by little, because you'll shock your family into disapproval if you're not careful. Like a 10-week program that will get you from an American diet -- I'm not even sure that people are eating a lot of fast food, but they're eating prepared, microwavable food -- and to get them from that into a situation where they're much more thoughtful about their food, where it comes from and how to prepare it, and much more confidant in the kitchen. Because it isn't rocket science.
SI: Yes. For example, the very first recipe in The New Meditteranean Diet Cookbook is for marinated olives. That's REALLY easy. Do Americans need it easier than that?