I go through spurts of being super creative in the kitchen, then find myself making really simple foods for weeks on end. When I do get really creative, I come here and usually find something delicious to make. Here’s a collection of my top 10 favorite vegetable recipes!
Some of my most wonderful memories are of food. I remember the first meal that I cooked for my family when I was a boy. It was a steak salad. Just a simple salad of romaine lettuce topped artfully with cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced bits of steak I cooked myself and a bit of parmesan cheese. I did it all by myself, and I remember my brother telling me I had a talent for cooking, a talent I pursued for a few years as a line cook.
Restaurant kitchens set the scene for another collection of beautiful memories and experiences. Running the fryers at Ruby Tuesday in the Concord Mall in Wilmington, Delaware with Lucio and Fermin was where I first learned to speak Spanish, in addition to being my first restaurant job. My next job was at a Japanese restaurant, where I spoke my first words of Japanese, rolled a sushi roll, met more friends, and learned to cook foods most Westerners don’t get the chance to.
My last line cook job was at Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, when, after my aunt and uncle took me there for dinner and I asked George Perrier to see the kitchen, I volunteered to come and work on the weekends just to learn. It was a wild ride filled with the most complicated crab cake preparation in the world, green bean and mashed potato prep reduced to chemistry-lab-like exactitude, and lots of and lots of emotions. I can still remember the smells almost as if I can reach out and touch them: the fresh, peppery punch of the basil in the walk-in, the earthy and exotic aroma of the thyme that flavored almost all of the meats, and the ever-present rich aroma of butter which permeated the entire place. After all, things couldn’t be French without butter.
When I left Le Bec-Fin to finish my foreign language degree in a study-abroad program in Tokyo, one of my very first memories in Japan was the meal of simple cold soba salad I made for my new roommates the day we moved into the dormitory, strained with a blue plastic strainer I bought from the dollar store, topped with daikon sprouts and a soy and fish-stock-based sauce.
I held onto cooking as one of my most cherished hobbies in the close to seven years I lived in Tokyo, and when I eventually burned out from the salaryman lifestyle and too many hungover and strung-out mornings, it was one of the few things I had left when I came back to my parents house to get clean and start my life over. I remember the first few weeks of waking up sober and the pure joy of cooking and eating four scrambled eggs in the morning before starting the day building my first business and taking control of my life again.
After moving to a new home in Philadelphia to be closer to the kickboxing gym I loved, I found paleo, and that unlocked an entire new world of cooking and eating enjoyment. I found a wonderful old butcher in the Italian market who stocked some amazing meats, and I would invite all of my friends over and barbeque, cooking delicious paleo meals and spending time with the people close to me. Sharing a meal together is one of the most timelessly intimate emotional experiences in this world, and one that is decidedly positive.
The giant steak I ate at a Midtown steakhouse during my buddy’s graduation party, the brunch that my girlfriend and I enjoyed on our one-year anniversary at the same spot we ate on our first date and the beautiful dress she wore for me, the Italian water ice place that my father used to treat us to after a ride to the park with the golden retriever, Homer, on late summer evenings, the tiny soba stand tucked away from foreigners in a swirl of back alleys the heart of Tokyo, the aromatic mélange of the fresh herbs atop piping hot soup at a food stand on the side of the road in Bangkok…
Memories of food are so visceral, partly because they involve olfactory memory, which is the most resonant, but also because meals can be one of the few times of the day where we stop entirely, take in our surroundings, and nourish ourselves. When you share this act of nourishing with others, it becomes something very communal, an act of bonding which also nourishes the human spirit. Food, together with water and air, is one of our connections to physical life itself. Survival is inescapably emotional.
This is why when I see internet memes trying to tell me that “food is fuel,” and “don’t reward yourself with food; you’re not a dog,” and the universal generalization that “emotional eating” is a bad thing, it’s confusing for me.
Emotions are a part of life, and expressing emotions through our actions just as much so. How could something that any human being does multiple times a day be decoupled from our emotional process, particularly a thing which is, in and of itself, emotional by nature? It doesn’t stand to reason to me.
When I make my girlfriends lunch each night, it’s an act of love, perhaps the quintessential emotion. I put care into it, making sure it’s something that’s balanced, healthful for her, and something that she enjoys. It’s also one less thing she has to worry about in her busy life. It’s a way that I show I care for her.
When I buy nice cuts of meat on a special occasion to cook for us, it forms a memory of that occasion associated with something delicious and good for our bodies. What could possibly be wrong with rewarding yourself in a way that is nurturing and healthful, in addition to being memorable and special?
Like most things in life, I think the answer is “It depends.” Our actions only serve as an expression or realization of our emotions, so the important question is, what emotions are they acting as a vehicle for? In this case, what emotions are we acting out when we eat?
If something bad has happened in your life, that makes you sad. So, how do you deal with your sadness? Do you attempt to identify its cause, come to terms with it, and either make mental adjustments to counteract that sadness, or do you pick a self-destructive indulgence that is going to allow you to avoid coming to grips with those emotions for a time, only to return to that sadness later? To put that into concrete terms, if you get fired from work because you are too tired to do your job because you’re sitting up late at night drinking scotch and eating ice cream every night, do you run away from it by sitting up late at night drinking scotch and eating ice cream, or do you decide to go to the gym and then make yourself a recipe you saw on a paleo blog that is going to make you feel good and motivate you to continue to make better decisions? Thinking that food is at fault in destructive emotional eating is like blaming the car for not running without gas.
Food can be encouragement, celebration and self-care, just as easily as it can be binging, pity partying and self-abuse. The critical realization is that loving yourself is step one. If you care about yourself and want to feel good, you will care about what you put in your body. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing to say that what is nourishing cannot also be enjoyable. Enjoyment itself is nourishing. It’s ok to treat yourself. It’s also completely possible to do so in a way that is self-edifying and not self-destructive.
Emotional eating is no more wrong than emotions themselves are wrong. There is no right and wrong. They are simply part of the human experience. It’s which ones and how we cultivate them that matter. When you truly love yourself and place your own happiness and, by extension, health, first, that decision manifests itself in all of your actions, including the food you eat every day. Eating can and should be a happy thing, and what better emotion is there than happiness.
While the paleo movement is fast becoming one of my biggest passions, I am at heart a writer and a linguist. My degree is in foreign languages and literatures, and I have held different writing jobs over the past seven years in public relations and marketing, journalism, freelance writing and translation, and authoring my own books. I think a lot, if not constantly, about what words mean to us and how we use them, because words are, in the end, thoughts, and thoughts are always worth considering.
There has been lots of discussion within the paleo movement lately about whether “paleo,” is the best word we can use to describe ourselves. There have always been other variants: “caveman,” “ancestral,” “evolutionary,” and “primal.”
There has also been quite a bit of external criticism of “paleo,” which has mostly been divided into two arguments that the paleo movement itself has never really made: one being that there was one uniform “Paleolithic” lifestyle the movement seeks to duplicate, and the second being that we cannot eat modern agricultural or factory foods. Pick up and actually read any of the flagship books on paleo and you’ll find nobody is actually saying either of those things.
Yes, cavemen didn’t have modern (in)conveniences like plumbing, electricity, iPhones or Justin Beiber. But the argument is more that modern life and diet are not what we have evolved to thrive from, and we’d be better off not diverging so quickly from what we are genetically accustomed to.
The point is less that there was one specific lifestyle that all Paleolithic peoples followed, and more that it wasn’t sitting in front of the television eating Cheetos.
That being said, there is some truth in what the detractors are saying. We don’t live in Paleolithic times, so in that sense, we’re not truly “paleo.” Few if any of the foods that did exist in those times survive today in their ancient form, so we technically aren’t eating “paleo” foods.
Taking my own life as an example, every time I get in the car and drive the 30 minutes on Route 78 across the Newark Bay, the busiest global container shipping facility in the United States, stacked with stories and stories of steel shipping containers, to the Whole Foods where foods have again been shipped in from as many places close by as very far away, fill up my car with those groceries, and drive back to my home to put them in my refrigerator, which iscooled by electricity from a fossil fuel grid, I reflect on just how much I can actually call my lifestyle “paleo.”
The task of providing people with information on paleo, like say this essay or the recipes on FastPaleo.com, is one undertaken mostly in a modern, contrived pseudo-reality, the internet. All the paleo food bloggers and writers, myself included, spend as much time in front of a computer screen as they do lifting heaving things, swimming in cold lakes, or sprinting naked through the dew-covered early morning grass.
About the best I can say is that the vast majority of the time, what I put in my mouth is something that is going to nourish my body, and I move it in such a way that makes me feel happy and strong. And, I know that there is a reason for this that lies in human physiology, which ultimately lies in human evolution.
This isn’t to say any of this is wrong, but I think what I am doing is accurately describing what many would now refer to as a “paleo” lifestyle.
Part of the discussion revolves around the denotation of the word, the dictionary or literal definition. If you want to make the argument that the modern “paleo” lifestyle doesn’t mirror Paleolithic life, go ahead, but there’s nobody that’s ever really taken the other side, or frankly, much reason to. It’s mostly an academic argument, and a strawman at that, and in my book, ivory towers aren’t paleo.
The idea that we can control or dictate language has always been a bad one. Words change meaning and reflect different contexts as part of the evolution of human thought, and there’s nothing to say that that evolution has to be logical—random change is part of all natural systems.
How did we end up with the word “paleo” to describe ourselves? I think there certainly was a uniform, romanticized vision of primitive life that the movement wanted to cling to: strong, semi-clothed, sexy savages who ate meat, tossed boulders around and took naps in the shade by the creek when they felt like it. Symbols and images are important in any movement and necessary to visualization, and can be separate from the logic and reasoning that drives those movements. And, the sexy caveman and cavelady are attractive symbols.
Also, I should stand up for paleo and say that there are real connections to Paleolithic life, if not perfectly exact or literal ones. It’s true that people weren’t eating factory food products more than fifty years ago, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago. Whether you want to argue when exactly people began to eat agricultural grains en masse or not, the skeletal evidence of the adverse health effects of doing so doesn’t change. We can certainly agree eight hours a day of television wasn’t the Paleolithic norm, and that exercise involved more than walking to the microwave when the timer goes off for the popcorn-lung popcorn.
I think just as importantly, but also again randomly, is that “paleo” is a three syllable word with three vowels in it. It’s an easy word, and it “sticks,” and many times with language, that’s enough. People don’t typically get together and decide what the best words are for things—it kind of just happens (except maybe in France). People are part of nature, and language is part of people, so in a way it’s pretty contrived to say that any word tons of people use to describe a thing is right or wrong. Trying to engineer language is like trying to engineer food—futile.
What I think is also important, very important in fact, is what the “paleo” lifestyle stands for, what it represents. I came to this lifestyle because it was the only thing that finally allowed me to break free from substance abuse and live a life of health and prosperity. It’s an extremely real thing to me, and it has a name to describe it. Paleo has had similar positive effects on many, and it only continues to grow and help more.
Somehow, despite this, it’s become fashionable in some paleo circles to say things like “Paleo doesn’t matter!” “Who cares, just eat what you want!” and “Just eat real food!” Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you’re already someone who is fortunate enough to have learned paleo and how it works for you. It’s also really selfish and dangerous, because there is a whole 70% of the population who are chronically ill, and that word represents a lot of truth and healing that those people still need. Being too cool for school only serves to take away one more voice that could reach them.
So, to answer my own question, “Is the word ‘paleo’ important?” First “no,” not in the sense of how much people who embrace it are living 100% like cavemen. But since that’s never been the point, it’s a pretty pedantic and useless answer to give. Argue it if you want, but you won’t be helping anybody.
Secondly, “yes” in the sense that what the word represents has proven itself capable time and again of giving thousands of people a lifeline to health that they can reach out and take hold of with their very own hands. Words are merely symbols, random utterances of sounds and combinations of script, and what is important is what they represent. The ship may have sailed on “paleo,” but the sailing has been quite smooth for everyone who has been fortunate enough to leap aboard. No reason to turn around now.
Probably the most common question we get on FastPaleo is whether certain things are “paleo” or not. From the start of the site, we have catered to both “paleo” and “primal” type ancestral diets, and feel that this is a legitimate area of personal tolerance—dairy can be great if you tolerate it well and buy good dairy. There is no universal yes/no answer, no responsible one at least.
Dairy is just the most common one, but there are plenty more: sweeteners, paleoized treats, white potatoes, even sweet potatoes, white rice, tamari, and so on and so forth.
I think it is very natural that people want a universal yes/no answer on the question of what foods are and aren’t paleo. Firstly, this is because there has been such a destructive lack of clarity for so long about what is and isn’t healthy. The paleo movement has finally ushered in something that is theoretically sound, fact-based, and functional. All many want to know now is what steps they need to take.
I think the second reason has to do with human nature, and likely, our own evolution. Wanting one clear, definitive answer for the questions relating to the world around us is a near universal tendency in human thought, even though things are almost always not that way. I would imagine this has to do a lot with our own evolution as hunters—the most important thing was always one identifiable piece of prey, which was vital to our survival. We may be hard-wired to look for single answers.
But, as the journalist H.L. Mencken famously said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
For the purpose of what recipes we do and don’t post on FastPaleo, we’ve always tried to take a broader approach: the things that make the site as inclusive as possible and that most would call “paleo” or “primal.” But, even if this is a floating or broad definition, it is still a definition, because there has to be.
While the paleo movement is fast becoming one of my biggest passions, I am first and foremost a writer and a linguist. My degree is in foreign languages and literatures, and I have held different writing jobs over the past seven years in public relations and marketing, journalism, freelance writing and translation, and authoring my own books.
I think a lot—if not constantly—about what words mean to us and how we use them, because words are, in the end thoughts, and thoughts are always worth considering. A definition is, by definition, limiting. The French définir, literally means “by means of finishing.”
In other words, it’s not called the “Just eat whatever you feel like!” diet for a reason. If you’re going to have a defined lifestyle, then you’re going to have to define it. So, what’s the point? Some things are open for debate, but paleo is paleo? How do you decide?
First, find the most widely accepted definition of paleo and apply it. People have figured out the basic answer for you already, and it’s pretty readily available. There is Robb Wolf’s Quick Start Guide and book, Diane Sanfilippo’s Practical Paleo, a one-page Cheat Sheet on FastPaleo.com (top right of the home screen), a wonderful free forum the International Paleo Movement Group, with many knowledgeable people that can help you out with the basics, and a wealth of other readily available resources on paleo basics. If you feel like you need to, try out an elimination protocol like the 21-Day Sugar Detox.
If you’ve never eaten only good foods, how do you know what you’ll feel like when you do? There’s no baseline. By establishing this baseline, you’ll come to understand how your body works and reacts to different foods, and you’ll be able to form a baseline that will allow you to start to find your own “paleo.”
Here’s what this meant for me. Through this process, I also came to understand what foods made me feel good, what foods were “sometimes foods” and what foods were “never foods.”
I feel good with a bit more fruit than most. I’ll do paleoized treats on occasion, but too many make me gain weight. There are a couple never foods on my list: anything with gluten or substantial processed sugars. If a restaurant sauce has a touch of sugar in it, no biggie, but I’m not eating cookies made of white sugar and wheat flour—not worth it. Rice is a sometimes food: I’m active; white rice is comparatively innocuous in terms of antinutrients, and sushi and Thai sticky rice are really, really good and remind me of my time spent living in Asia. Cultured dairy is also a sometimes food. I never drink milk, but like a bit of Parmesan or blue cheese on things on occasion.
The idea of “never” foods and “sometimes” foods is one I got from my brother, and one that is extremely important to my paleo. It’s also the reason that some things are indeed open to individual preference and needs, while others are much less so.
When you establish what these things are for yourself, first by following a strict paleo protocol and then reintroducing and experimenting with different foods, you will be able to build your own version of paleo. While there very much is a broad definition which works for everyone, there is just as much an individual one that works just for you.
Spontaneity and mental health are two things that are also important parts of a paleo lifestyle, so while you could make an argument that eating whatever you want on occasion just because you want to is paleo, it would be much harder to say that doing so all the time is. If you wanna eat a donut every once in a while because it’s fun, great — donuts all day every day, you’ll probably feel like poop.
The point is I think you can craft your own rules, and if you’re realistic in doing so, you can forget about 80/20 and cheating, because as long as you’re following your own rules, you’re 100%. Then you can feel good that you’re eating in a way that makes you feel good, while not feeling guilty that part of that also includes doing whatever you want every once in a while. But this isn’t a green light to do whatever you want—the point and power of paleo is that the broader rules apply to everyone who is human, and thus apply to you to, if you are inclined to follow a lifestyle you can call “paleo.” The “Eat whatever you want!” lifestyle is of course an option to you in a free society (and unfortunately, a popular one), just not a paleo option.
Here’s how to always be 100%:
1) Take the commonly accepted definition of paleo and apply it
2) Stick with that for a few weeks, but reintroduce more borderline things, and see how you feel
3) Assign mental categories to the borderline things, like “sometimes” “a little bit is ok” “once in a blue moon” or “never”
4) Follow your own rules. If this means white rice is a sometimes food and donuts are a once in a blue moon food and soda is a never food, and that’s what makes you feel the best, as long as you stick to it, you can be happy that you’re 100% “paleo,” according to your own definition.
As long as you’re diligent with testing and taking mental note of how different foods make you feel, and real with yourself about both your own definition and sticking to it, there is a lot of freedom, health and peace of mind in finding your own paleo.
The following is written by my good friend and training partner, Isaac Glendening:
I’ve determined that our generation was spoiled by Nintendo. Hear me out here…in Contra we had cheat codes for unlimited lives, Mario Bros had all sorts of secret shit hidden in it to make the games go easier. Don’t even get me started on “Game Genie.” What I think that did for those of us in our mid-20′s to our 40′s is steer us wrong, because in life there are rarely any such shortcuts.
I’ve dropped over 100lbs of body fat in a relatively short time, and a lot of folks have pulled me aside and asked me on the sly, “What’s the secret?” I’ve been accused of everything from doing drugs to starving myself. The only people who haven’t questioned me are my wife and those I train with. So let me break it down for you, here’s my sort of “Contra Code” to losing weight and getting fit….diet & exercise….and lifestyle.
Go Paleo. No arguments. It works across the board. Dairy? No Dairy? Go “Primal” or “Orthodox Paleo”…it almost sounds like picking a religion. I’m currently reading Adam Farrah’s book e-book titled “The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Link” (http://practicalpaleolithic.com/paleolithic-diet-blog/paleo-dieters-missing-link) and love how he advocates a sort of trial-and-error approach to finding which works best for you. I went super strict and then tweaked it based on my body’s tolerances of various food items. Read and research as much as you need to. Dig into every facet if you feel so inclined. I’ve said it many times, but it sickens me that most people invest more time into choosing a new computer or car than what they put into their bodies and how they treat themselves. Dig into various recipe sites as well…it will make things more fun and interesting. I’ve gotten some great ideas from a few recipe resources online and in print. Check out www.fastpaleo.com for recipes, this is where I post a ton of stuff. Also, www.marksdailyapple.com is my go-to resource for all of my questions. The articles are awesome and the search engine is really helpful.
Planning and prep are key in consistently eating paleo for the first few months until your lifestyle adjusts. The other half is exercise and monitoring your activity. Be honest with how much work you put in and keep that “leave nothing behind” mentality when it comes to working out. Using an interval timer and snagging workouts from various resources like Crossfit and the book Cardio Strength Training by Robert Dos Remedios has been helpful to me.
Keep in mind that I train for a combat sport, Muay Thai. Not softball or even football but a sport where my actual physical well-being is in more direct danger, which elevates certain hormone levels and causes some wonderful physiological (not to mention psychological effects); so part of what’s pushed me is not wanting to get my ass kicked (as much) and be able to keep up. Whether I compete or not, I’m always gearing up to make progress for if/when I do. It’s not for everyone, and may not be for you, so look into group exercise classes that will encourage you to push yourself harder. Look at your instructors and the people in the class. Are they fit? Are others in the class pushing themselves and motivating those around them? As my trainer always says, “you’re not going to get any better playing kickball with a bunch of 9yr olds.” The bar before you must be raised high, and you must have a desire to reach it…but here’s the trick, you have to understand that it will continue to be raised for you….and you must come to love that. Even if you train alone, lifting weights or running, you can always be better and you have to come to love that fact and let it motivate you in a positive manner. It is within yourself. As the great trainer Ross Enamait says, “Pick Your Passion”.
Groups/gyms such as CrossFit are pretty rad in that respect and the community/team dynamic can be VERY helpful. CrossfFit gyms are EVERYWHERE. You’re never gymless. I’ve managed to get some sick workouts in with just bodyweight exercises and a timer.
Gear up! Wear clothes that make you feel good, that you feel you look good in when you go to the gym. You’d be surprised at how much this helps. Nothing drives me more nuts than seeing folks at the gym wearing their crappy sweats and doing an equally crappy workout. Get the proper gear. Make training a specialized occasion in your day. Make Playlists for your workouts on your mp3 players and only listen to them when you train.
I believe in the power of ritual. I know on my most ass-dragging days if I run my fave gym playlist on my ipod while getting dressed in the locker room I’ll be pumped and ready to rock by the time I hit the gym floor. If I’m heading to Muay Thai training, it’s the smell of the Thai Boxer’s Liniment and the sound of the bell that gets me going. Sometimes it’s a combination of both, run a little ointment under my noise, listen to “Bring Da Ruckus” by Wu-Tang and I go from 0-120mph in no time. I AM PAVLOV’S DOG AND DAMNED PROUD OF IT!
Obesity is not just about diet and exercise—a lot of it is about your overall lifestyle. Health issues, especially manageable health issues such as type 2 Diabetes, are rooted in everything you do. It may sound kinda harsh, but ditch your unhealthy friends. People who only get together to drink and sit on their asses watching sports most nights, hit up bars as their main source of recreation on the weekend or just eat out too much and also have weight issues need to hit the road, if only for a little bit until you get yerself in check. Who knows, you may value your time with them even more when you do see them and encourage them to be more active.
People who think that sort of lifestyle is “normal” or commonplace are only contributing to the problem. At the end o’ the day it is not normal or acceptable to be sick. Obesity is an illness. Even if one is just a little overweight (and that’s kind of relative, but let’s say above 18% body fat for shits and giggles here), that extra weight only opens us up to more disease. It’s like having an open sore on your hands….bound to collect germs, get infected and make matters worse.
Treat yourself like an athlete, even if you have no sport. I came across this mindset when I trained with the folks over at Delaware Valley CrossFit; crosstraining with them to prepare for a National Karate Tournament a few years back. I learned that working out is a job, but one that can be enjoyable if you keep healthy goals. It should be scheduled into your week as you would any other errand and have top priority. Keep track of what you did in terms of exercise and on which day, space these things out logically and learn to be selfish with your training? Selfish? YES! BY ALL MEANS! Your health is important. Training is just as important as dinner.
People will change their plans around like mad to make sure they get to dinner with friends, they will go the extra mile just to hit up their fave lunch spot and make all sorts of sacrifices to go out for a night on the town and drinks on the weekend. Apply that sense of importance towards your training, see it as a necessity such as time with family, food, bathing…whatever it takes. Ask yourself at every meal, did I earn this? Not emotionally. I don’t give a shit how “hard” your day was. How much physical activity did you honestly do. Did you earn the right to eat the amount of calories you are about to consume in terms of how much energy you put out during the day? Be honest. It’s hard. Keep a diary of what and when you ate if that helps. I have a spreadsheet. It works.
Is it ok to cheat? That depends on a few things, I look at it like this, I plan one cheat meal in the week and one dessert. For example, Thursday will get me two slices of my fave pizza and maybe Sat will be a small amount of ice cream. The next Thursday will be another cheat meal I am sure to enjoy and the same with the Sat dessert. I chart everything, even if I mess up a tiny bit over the week…..and adjust my cheat accordingly. At first thought, keep it to 1-and-1 and not close together. The Thursday and Saturday rule works for my schedule and took some time to figure out. I will also purposely go weeks without one or the other or both. Keep it simple, something guaranteed to satisfy or else you may feel “cheated” by your cheat and that’s a very aggravating feeling.
In short, LIVE RIGHT and DO WORK! Good luck!!!!
Isaac Glendening is a Muay Thai practitioner, CrossFitter, education administrator, great dad, and has lost more than 100lbs and battled back from poor health through a healthy paleo lifestyle. And while doing all that, he manages to be the sound designer and front man in the synthpop band Cesium_137—proving, more than anyone, that through good health, all things are possible.
From the time I was a small boy, I’ve held both rational and spiritual ideas in my mind and heart.
The old lady my parents bought their house from had collected rocks in her front yard, and one of my very first memories from childhood was collecting the rocks she had collected. I would bring them inside, look at them, compare them to the rocks in rock books like the Audubon Field Guides—some of the first books I read for myself. Then I would arrange them by their type—igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic—and bring them to show-and-tell at elementary school—milky quartz, lapis lazuli, serpentine, garnet, and my favorite of all, amethyst. When we would go on field trips to the Smithsonian museums in Washington, I couldn’t wait for the rocks and minerals section with its amazing giant geodes and precious stones. Looking back, I think this taught me how to organize my thoughts from a very young age. I could assess the various qualities of things and place them into categories.
As a young adult, I’ve had a wealth of experiences in the analytic-fact-based-productivity-driven “real world.” I have two degrees—a BA in foreign languages and literatures and an MA in public administration. I’ve worked for the US government, a Japanese financial company, a British newspaper, and owned my own businesses. All of these things were intensely challenging for my mind, rationality and intellect. One of my businesses is a social business based on applied science—my paleo recipe sharing site FastPaleo.com is grounded in evolutionary theory and has helped more than one and a half million people become healthy.
I’ve also had intensely profound experiences for which that intellect has no immediate answers. I’ve received incredibly detailed messages about myself and things that would happen to me in the future from people on first meeting. Once, at a church service, more than ten years ago, I was called from the far back of the congregation by the pastor to come forward.
He placed his hand on me, and I felt a great sense of calm, and then he gave me what can only be described as a prophecy: “The lord will send you far and wide, but you have some things to work through first. I also see many books in you.” I was in the midst of working through my first bout of addiction and a failed sophomore semester at the time, but within a year I was on my way to Tokyo, Japan to study abroad and finish my degree.
I spent the next six years there, also visiting China, Thailand, Cambodia and Guam. As of now, I’ve written two books as part of a career in writing. Certainly all this could be self-fulfilling, but even if it were, there was still a profound emotional connection that passed words at that time, as if he could see into my soul, feel exactly what was troubling me, and tell me exactly what I needed to hear to put me at peace—a feeling which remains burned into my memory as both intensely powerful and inexplicable.
More recently, while running with my kickboxing team through the streets of Philadelphia, a woman at a bus stop stood up suddenly and yelled toward us, “You in the green!” I was wearing green, so I stopped. “Yes, you. God told me I would see someone in green and have a message for them. Can I pray for you?” Sure, why not. I read people well and she seems to have good intentions. If she wants to do something nice for me and it makes her feel good, what’s wrong with that?
She then went on to describe all of my businesses in detail and my desire to help people, and to tell me that my intentions were good, things would work out for me, and that my efforts would be rewarded. I didn’t know this woman from Adam. We do live in the age of the internet, and sure there could be rational explanations like cyber-stalking, but what was again most inexplicable to me was the sense of intense peace and connection during the few brief moments I spent being prayed for by a complete stranger in front of a bus stop in the middle of the street.
Things like this happen to me not infrequently. I’ll go out in the world and people will either tell me about myself or confide in me about themselves, sometimes in great length. Another time, I was on the subway and a man across from me told me his whole life story of addiction, being in and out of jail, being shot, and his friends that had died. He just started talking to me and I listened. I don’t really have an immediate rational explanation for any of these experiences.
I’ve also had profound lapses in that intellect, during plunges into alcohol and drug abuse that somehow took me forever to shake, even though I knew what I was doing was wrong. After summoning the will to get clean and sober, I began my quest for health, which eventually led me to paleo, which allowed me to achieve near perfect health, and, most importantly, happiness. I remember when I first began, someone close to me saying, “For it [paleo] to work, you first have to believe in evolution.” Of course you don’t—we don’t have to believe in anything in nature for it to work. The functioning of things isn’t at all dependent on our belief in that functioning, or even our understanding, which is limited.
And I suppose that is the easy way out a lot of people take in the “debate” over paleo “versus” creationism. “Who cares why it works? It just does!” But to live your life openly admitting that you don’t agree with yourself doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I have an easier answer to this debate, although one that many might not like: the two things have little to do with each other, and anyone who thinks they do is not thinking for themselves.
Setting aside entirely whatever factual merits creationism may or may not have, let’s think just about the thing it is talking about. Creationism is a cosmogonic theory that presents an explanation for the start of the universe. Evolution is a biological theory that presents an explanation for how biological populations change. One tries to explain the beginning of existence, while one tries to explain how living things change.
I think there are a handful of important reasons why two things that really shouldn’t have much to do with each other have come into conflict. The first is likely an overly literal interpretation of the Bible. I spent quite a long time in the church. I went every Sunday from a very young age, and was an acolyte, lector, and missionary, and even studied a bit of Biblical Greek in college. I’m pretty familiar with the Bible, and if you spend much time with it at all, you’ll know it’s filled with parable, fable and metaphor.
And if you read the Genesis story in this way—and not interpret it to mean that the earth is 6,000 years old and Jesus rode in on a triceratops—in many ways it pretty much follows how we think things went in modern, scientific terms. “Darkness was upon the face of the deep”—before the existence of the universe. “Let there be light”—the gravitational singularity exploding into the Big Bang. “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters”—energy coalescing into mater. “Let the waters bring for abundantly the moving creature that hath life”—life emerging from the theorized primordial soup. Life the becomes more complex, man arrives, man is able to live peacefully in nature (the garden) until there is a certain plant which allows him knowledge—symbolizing the advent of agriculture giving people enough time to pursue non-survival, intellectual activity—and the violence that the man-made agricultural system creates appears in the next chapter where we see Cain killing Abel in, guess where, a planting field.
Some of this is my own interpretation, and some, like the symbolic significance of the removal of man from nature due to his own technological knowledge and the violence that creates, others have theorized. But the point is, I think this is how we must approach the text, by asking the question “What does it symbolize?” Using metaphor, symbolism and storytelling is by no means unsophisticated and by no means stupid. They are still the most powerful literary tools we have to convey meaning and emotion. There’s a quote I very much like from Jesus and the Lost Gospels, which details how the Roman Church destroyed original Christianity and supplanted it with the controlling political power system the Roman Catholic church became: “In our examination of these texts we have made one assumption which other commentators often do not make: that our ancestors were not idiots.”
This leads to another large area of misinterpretation, this time on the part of people who look for natural explanations for ancient mythology. I just read another good book called The Invention of God: The Natural Origins of Mythology and Religion. There are tons of very interesting ideas in this book, like the battles between gods actually depicting volcanic lightning, and volcanic eruptions in Africa—where much myth originates—representing resurrection, as life eventually springs forth from the death of mineral rich volcanic ash. A lot of this is very convincing.
But there are two giant assumptions that misguide the findings: the author assumes that all ancient cultures interpreted “god” as many do today, as a spiteful, paternalistic old man in the sky that you have to watch out to not get in trouble with, or as magical superheroes. That present interpretation is based on 2,000 years of the misappropriation and misuse of Christianity as tool of control by people with bad intentions, and after the advent of modern fiction. What in the world does any of that have to do with any, much less all, of the significance of mythology to ancient peoples?
The second poor assumption is that just because people explained things in metaphor and story, that that reflected their literal understanding. It’s still one of the best way to explain things—turn on the Science or History channel and you’ll hear how atoms are like “building blocks,” but nobody really thinks the universe is made of Legos.
In my opinion, most people on both sides of this “debate” are in some way having their thoughts misguided. If you think the Bible is to be interpreted literally, when it is made up of metaphor, parable and fable, you need to read and think critically. If you think that the ancient mythologies of all the worlds peoples refer to the same idea of “god” that institutionalized Christianity fabricated to control people, you also need to dig a little deeper—part of the very definition of spirituality is individual interpretation of meaning. Furthermore, metaphor isn’t a bad way to explain things—it’s the reason many of these myths are still with us. It works.
In addition to spending a lot of time in the church, I was also fortunate enough to spend more than half of my twenties in Japan, and have a very good idea of their concept of “god.” The original Japanese word for god is kami. While usually rendered as “god” in English, the Japanese concept is entirely removed from a Western, particularly a Western institutionalized Christian mean-old-man-in-the-sky god. In the Kojiki, one of Japan’s oldest history books, kami is described as “Any thing or phenomenon that produces emotions of fear and awe, with no distinction between good and evil.” Nature has been very precious to the Japanese from as far back as they have history, and kami often refers to natural wonders. Waterfalls, mountains and trees can all be kami. And if you define “god” as a feeling of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature, it becomes very convincing and very real. Who doesn’t look at a giant waterfall and think it’s neat? My point is we can’t impose our own misconceptions of “god” created mostly by people with bad intentions on other cultures and draw conclusions—it’s bad thinking at best, complete nonsense at worst.
So, let’s get back to paleo. I think the point of all of this is about intentions. I think that one of the big drives of spirituality is to find meaning in areas of life where reason and science cannot. We think we know many things, because that can give us a sense of comfort, and everyone likes to feel happy. But if you peel back the layers, there are still very basic questions for which we have no sure answers: “What existed before the gravitational singularity exploded into the Big Bang, in other words, how did we go from nothing to something?” “What is the ultimate nature of matter and energy?” “What is the ultimate nature of time?” “How, exactly, did life originate?” “What is consciousness?”
The Greeks talked a lot about axioms and “primitive notions,” and I think this an idea we too often forget. At the end of the trail of all scientific theory are axioms, like for example a point in spatial geometry. We make an assumption and then base all of our findings and understanding from that assumption. But it’s still an assumption. Whether it’s guided, or informed, or an “educated guess,” it’s still a guess—something that’s made up, just like many would say the man in the sky is.
Science is, to me, how we organize our perceptions of the universe. We perceive things in detail, under controlled settings, in a prescribed way that can be interpreted, understood and duplicated by others, and then we agree on those perceptions—“scientific validation.” Being a form of understanding, and therefore a thought, science is neither inherently good or bad. It is only as good as our intentions for it. The paleo movement is perhaps the best example of this. The evolutionary biology that holds the tools for so much health and happiness for so many is as much science as the pharmaceutical science, agrichemical science, and mainstream healthcare science that paleo fights so hard against.
Spirituality, to me, is how we create explanations for ourselves, for things for which we have no rational answer, things like the Big Questions I mentioned above. The goal is the same, peace of mind and comfort, but many would argue that creating meaning in lieu of a rational explanation is somehow illogical, small-minded or delusional.
I would offer that there is little to suggest human intellect can be all powerful. If anything, there is much, much more to suggest its limitations. The belief that we will be able to eventually understand all things if we just keep working at it is exactly that, a belief, with little grounding in observed reality. The extent to which it is institutionalized actually makes it closer to a religion, particularly in light of the fact that human understanding has proven itself repeatedly to be, if anything, finite. We continue to advance an idea that stands in complete contradiction to the facts presented—the very definition of irrationality, even delusion. We have essentially “deified” the human intellect.
What is ironic is that I think this irrationality may be driven in some part by our own human evolution. In an ancient hunting landscape, we needed to identify something 1) physical, 2) a part of the whole on the visual plain, and 3) unique and individual, that we must capture as a finale to our hunt. The notion that there will eventually be one neat little idea that makes everything clear for us very much mirrors this to me. The history of the search for a final building block of matter (atoms, subatomic particles, string theory…) is perhaps the best example of this. Even with the ideas from quantum physics that suggest that this may be entirely wrong, we persist in our “hunt.” But it makes sense, because our hunt was integral to our survival. The search for answers is, if anything, evolutionary. It’s rooted in our very survival.
One day we may look back with the same whimsical disdain on “matter” as we do now on ideas like ether, or relating natural phenomenon in the form of metaphor, when in retrospect, all may have been equally just the best we could do at the time—and just as equally, wrong.
Another thing that makes the paleo movement interesting is that we have arrived at the state of collective poor health and planetary destruction we now face through our rushed pursuit of societal “advance” and “civilization.” A great many of the factors that have caused the health problem to become as epidemic as it is are the direct result of our “modern lifestyle.” We have used our knowledge to manipulate our environment to the point that we are destroying our own health, and then we must use it again to create a scientific understanding of how to save that health, a scientific understanding which was completely needless for the hundreds of thousands of years when we just lived paleo because that was just how people lived. One wonders if we aren’t placing just a bit too much faith in the good of human civilization?
I think about all of these things a lot, and I think that’s good—it’s good and healthy to think critically about things, have your own ideas, and question established ones. But I’m always left in a similar place, that none of us, truly, knows. This takes me to a very Buddhist idea, and one with which I identify strongly, that there are things we simply will never know, and striving too hard to do so brings suffering. There is peace in just agreeing that we don’t really know, and in furthermore agreeing to simply love and nurture one another.
I think you can see the very kind of suffering the Buddha spoke about in the “science versus religion” debate. It’s mostly hateful, lacking in empathy, and used to control thought. Both science and religion can be equally good or bad, depending on our intentions, and neither has proven itself fully capable of providing final answers to our Big Questions. What we know is that we have been given this life and the people and environment around us, and that the most people can be the happiest if we act out of love. I think that is the closest thing to a universal “truth” we have, and something few will disagree with.
I want to end with a quote, again from Jesus and the Lost Gospels:
“Life is a Mystery. A Mystery so awesome that we insulate ourselves from its intensity. To numb our fear of the unknown we desensitize ourselves to the miracle of living. We perpetuate the nonchalant lie that we know who we are and what life is. Yet behind this preposterous bluff the Mystery remains unchanging, waiting for us to remember to wonder. It is waiting in a shaft of sunlight, in the thought of death, in the intoxication of new love, in the joy of childbirth or the shock of loss. One minute we are going about our business as if life were nothing special and the next we are face to face with profound, unfathomable, breathtaking Mystery.”