Once upon a time, we lived in a world where people simply ate. They ate what was available; they ate what was fresh; they ate what was local; they ate what nature provided. Nobody counted calories or milligrams of this, that, or the other. They ate things they liked just because they liked them. And, by and large, they were a happy people who lived long and healthy lives. And then food science was invented and it all went to hell in a hand basket.
Okay, that's not entirely fair. Food science came about because we started treating our food like a science project. We “enhanced” it, we “fortified” it, we “processed” and “preserved” it and filled it full of “additives.” And in so doing, we created a society of the most obese, disease-ridden people ever to populate the planet. In an effort to safeguard our waning health, food scientists came along to help guide us down the righteous paths of good nutrition. Unfortunately, as so often happens with trailblazers and pathmakers, they didn't know where they were going themselves. They were just winging it based on the information they had and hoping for the best. And this has led to a lot of dead ends on the ol' nutrition trail. Like Daniel Boone and Kit Carson of old, food scientists have had to do a lot of backtracking and reevaluating. “Damn! Where did that mountain come from?” “That river's not supposed to be here!” “Ooops! Bigger stretch of desert than I thought.” Such is the case with cholesterol.
I'm of an age where cholesterol has been a part of my consciousness for about as long as I can remember. Maybe less so when I was a little kid, but certainly a major factor in my adult diet. Cholesterol has been the big, bad, bugaboo for about fifty years now. HDL (high density lipoproteins) were the good guys that would save you from coronary disease while LDL (low density lipoproteins) and their companion triglycerides would send you down the slippery slope of fat-clogged arteries to a certain early demise. Dietary science from the '60s, '70s, and '80s said it, and we all believed it.
Well.....not all. I was one of those who always wondered how Grandma cooked everything in lard and Grandpa chowed down on a half-dozen eggs and bacon every day and they both made it well into their 80s. My great-grandmother lived to just a few months shy of 100 and she never counted a calorie or monitored a milligram in her life. What did they do right that everybody else seems to be doing wrong?
In the first place, they ate what was available; they ate what was fresh; they ate what was local; they ate what nature provided. They ate things they liked just because they liked them. And, by and large, they were happy people who lived long and healthy lives. Nobody tried to embalm them with preservatives before they were dead. The fact that they knew what arms and legs were intended for also helped. Can you imagine? They actually had to get up and walk across the room to change the channel on the TV!
Anyway, back to cholesterol. The fat world shook the other day when the nation's top health cops at the FDA decided that maybe cholesterol has gotten a bum rap. Old research has been reexamined and rethought and new findings find that eating foods like eggs, butter, steak, shrimp, and lobster may not significantly impact the level of cholesterol in the blood or increase the risk of heart disease. Hence, they are recommending the removal of cholesterol from the list of “nutrients of concern.”
After analyzing studies and data from the '70s and '80s, nutritionists now realize that all the health warnings about cholesterol shoved down our throats over the years actually caused people to shift to foods high in carbohydrates and sugar, which, conversely, created more inflammatory and cardiac disease processes – and obesity – than the original culprit. Turns out it wasn't naturally occurring fats that were causing all the problems, but our wonderful new chemically created trans fats and refined oils that were killing us off in droves.
In fact, your body needs cholesterol in order to function. That's why the liver produces it naturally and in greater quantities than dietary intake provides. And that's why the new studies are saying, “don't sweat the cholesterol. It's not that big a factor.”
Wha-a-a-a-a-t! Do you mean all those disgusting egg white omelets I've been eating for forty years were all for nothing? That I've been choking down “I Can't Believe It's Not Butter” for decades when I could have been basking in the real thing? In the interest of full disclosure, I wouldn't actually touch either of those things if you paid me to, but yeah, that's about the size of it.
I'm happy as a frog in a pond full of lily pads about butter. As a native son of America's Dairyland, I wouldn't put margarine, that disgusting chemical concoction foisted off by the French on an unsuspecting world, on my table to save my life. Ironic, because margarine has recently been shown to be a substance that will kill you more quickly than bad ol' butter ever would. See? Food science at work. “Butter is bad and margarine is good. Oh......wait.......margarine is bad and butter is good. Or is it butter can be good if it's got olive oil in it and.....and....margarine is bad.....unless it's made with healthy fat like.......oh, never mind!” And let me tell you a little secret; skim milk has never passed my lips, either. I live by the rule “If my grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, I won't eat it.” And in her day, skim milk was something they fed to cattle and pigs. (You younger folks may have to amend that rule and extend it back to your great-grandmother.)
But I'm happiest of all about the revived reputation of eggs. I've always liked eggs. Not six at a time like Grandpa, but I can do justice to one or two at a sitting. And even at the height of the hysteria when egg-phobic ninny-whiners were out there trying to suck the life out of every egg dish by insisting that the yolks were gonna kill us all deader than hammers and that we should all be eating “whites only,” I refused to succumb. There's a cardinal rule in the kitchen; “there's flavor in fat.” And when it comes to eggs, fat's where it's at. All the “killer” cholesterol is in the yolk, but so is all the flavor. Try as I might, I could never stomach the idea of eating a pile of bland egg whites. Not that I tried very hard, mind you. No, indeed. I chose to brave a premature death by eating two or three whole eggs a week, usually with a deadly glass of whole milk and perhaps a couple of lethal slices of buttered toast. Buttered, not slathered with faux-healthy “spread.” And I'm on the cusp of my seventh decade with blood cholesterol that falls within normal limits.
Eggs have long been called “nature's perfect food.” And there's a reason for that that transcends all the junk science we've been forced to endure. Granted, egg whites have some extra proteins in them. Beyond that, they are nutritionally worthless. All the good stuff is in the heretofore forbidden yolk. The beautiful golden center of an egg contains loads of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. All the carotenoids, lutein, and choline in an egg are in the yolk, as well as most of the calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, thiamin, folate,and vitamins B6 and B12. So go ahead and listen to the idiots who tell you to throw out the yolk. Better yet, throw out the whole egg and just eat the carton. It's fat-free and you'll get lots of fiber that way.
So now that eggs are officially okay again, let's celebrate with a recipe for the grandaddy of all Italian egg dishes, the frittata. This is one of my favorites.
FRITTATA AL FORNO CON MOZZARELLA
(Baked Frittata with Mozzarella)
1/4 cup whole milk
salt and pepper, to taste
1 sprig fresh Italian parsley
6 fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz mozzarella, thinly sliced
1 plum tomato, cut into thin rounds
Preheat oven to 350°.
Combine the eggs and the milk and beat until frothy; add the salt and pepper.
Chop together the parsley and the basil and add to the egg mixture.
Heat the oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Pour in the beaten egg mixture and cook until the bottom sets, 4 or 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add a layer of cheese, then dot with slices of tomato.
Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the eggs are set and the cheese has melted, 15 to 20 minutes.
Makes 6 servings