Sustenance – ideas


There are an amazing number of ideas about nutrition around. Sometimes they conflict, and sometimes they hope for or promise more that I think nutrition by itself can achieve. There are a couple of carefully researched guideline sets that I pay attention to.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 are the most authoritative statement around. Many Federal and state regulations refer to this standard. The guidelines suggest consumption of about 2200 calories a day for a moderately active male of my age. That might include daily 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of vegetables, 7 ounces of grains, 5½ ounces of protein such as meat or fish or nuts, with a maximum of 266 calories SoFAS (solid fats and sugars). The 266 SoFAS calories would be about 2½ tablespoons of butter, 5½ tablespoons of sugar, or some combination. My diet is quite close to this outline.

Cost of food

The average daily expense of Americans on food is something like $6 per day for food at home + $6 per day for food away from home, or $12 in total. I and my mother eat like a king and queen, on our terms, for about $8.50 per person per day. We have just about anything we crave for that. Shunning prepared foods and having low appetites for meat make an enormous difference.

Finger food

Elderly people, especially those with dementia, often lose the acquired ability to use their hands for such functions as using table silverware. After my mother's stroke, the home care personnel simply gave up on her ability to feed herself and fed her. Another agency obliviously but glibly offered the rote proposal, "Adaptive utensils," i.e. forks and spoons with fat rubber handles that would be easier to grasp. Her first assisted living facility often would say, "Finger food," dumping a bunch of potato chips on her plate. None of these answers was vaguely reasonable.

My idea was, rather than trying to train her decaying mind to do something she simply couldn't do, turning eating into a task she could manage, with the requirement that the diet be something close to the healthy fare she had eaten at home. In fact, many nutritious foods are commonly eaten with fingers, from bread to carrots to canapés of various sorts. Many others can reasonably be eaten with fingers, if you adjust your expectations a tad. Slices of chicken breast, spinach, and cubes of cheese fall into this class. These are certainly as neat as the dripping meatball sub the assisted living facility offered her for her first meal there.

Fish was a particular challenge, but one that I felt was important because it is stressed in so many nutrition guidelines. We're used to thinking of fish as something very flaky. (No, those prepared deep-fried balls and sticks are not a option.) It turns out that if you cut fish into bite-sized kebobs, or perhaps strips such as shown here, and broil it, many kinds can readily be eaten without utensils. Again, there may be a little bit of grease on the fingers afterwards, but the situation is no worse than after eating a chocolate chip cookie.

The days of finger food are now past, but it worked well for three years, which was worth doing and added new possibilities for our menus. Our experiments now are with chopping and puréeing, but that's for another chapter.

Taste and the sound of music food

Most of us find appeal in food with some crunchiness, ranging from spare ribs to pasta or grains al dente. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's our carnivorous side showing through, or perhaps in nature few soft, textureless foods provide good nutrition. I usually end up happier if I consider texture in food preparation.

Researchers at Leeds University spent more than 1000 hours studying the appeal of 700 variants of a bacon sandwich. Their study found that the most important factor in appeal was crunchiness.

“We often think that it’s the taste and smell of bacon that consumers find most attractive,” Dr. Clayton said in a news release. “But our research proves that texture and sound is just, if not more, important.”

Wonder Bread continues in business, though, and grocery stores are well-stocked with applesauce. Perhaps we should spend more on research.

I like bacon, but have never found myself using it for crunchiness. I do like sunflower seeds for toothy texture.

Umami and the lac operon

In grade school, I was taught that there are really only four tastes our tongue can distinguish: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The rest of “taste” was really a matter of odors. Like many of the things I was taught in grade school, this had an element of truth but misled me for a long while afterwards. It’s generally accepted by now that the tongue has receptors for other food factors, in particular umami. Although the sensory perception from umami is difficult to point to or describe, it is clearly related to our experience from MSG. The glutamate enhances flavors in the presence of other food elements, rather than being palatable by itself.

While biological processes are rarely as simple as our theories about them, that doesn’t stop us from coming up with theories. One group revolves around the relation of tastes to the individual amino acids that make up proteins. It may be that we are conditioned to have taste rewards for each of the amino acids so we have a complete nutritional ensemble. My theory is that we’re conditioned to seek individual amino acids because having protein in a broken-down form saves the digestive tract a certain amount of wear and tear in processing more complex foods. This explains why cooking, aging, and fermentation, which all break down food elements, create things with attractive tastes. I won’t tell you, however, that I have of a shred of evidence to support this theory. It makes intuitive sense, just as it makes intuitive sense that a heavy object should fall faster than a light one.

My analogy would be the lac operon. (I was taught in high school that reasoning by analogy is the weakest form of logic, which is probably true, but I am proceeding in reckless disregard of accepted reasoning principles.) Our tongues like sugar (glucose) because it directly addresses a metabolic need. It tastes sweet. However, if glucose isn’t around, we can with a small amount of trouble convert a milk ingredient (lactose) into glucose. Lactose tastes good, though not quite so good as sugar. (Even better, we can have ice cream and get both taste rewards.) In this case, there clearly is scientific evidence that our taste preferences serve the function of saving our gut some work, an evolutionary advantage.

Aside from science or supporting survival of our species, foods with umami are yummy, as the name indicates.

Shrimp salad

shrimp salad

This salad is easily prepared and keeps for a few days. I find it very nice fare during the most torrid days of summer.


  • Three medium-sized red-skinned potatoes
  • Two or three stalks of celery
  • A cup of cherry tomatoes
  • 8 oz. of frozen shrimp, thawed (or you could prepare fresh shrimp, if you like)
  • Some watercress
  • A lemon, for juice
  • Olive oil


Cut the potatoes into bite-sized chunks and boil. Peel the strings off the celery with a vegetable parer. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Add chopped watercress, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Parsley potato soup

This soup is a cousin of vichysoisse, which is a more refined and subtler creation with butter, cream, leeks rather than garlic, and peeled potatoes, often served cold. The dish shown here is a much more robust one. It is quite simple to prepare and suitable for a winter's day.

It is quite good with a dollop of ricotta on top.


  • About 1½ pounds red potatoes
  • A bunch of fresh parsley
  • A couple of chicken thighs
  • Half a dozen cloves of garlic
  • Broth


Sauté the diced chicken thighs while cutting the unskinned potatoes into rough chunks. Add the potatoes, the coarsely chopped parsley, garlic, and enough liquid to cover everything. Cook for about twenty minutes and lightly purée in a food processor.

Stir fry

Stir-fries are supposed to be among the most free and spontaneous of dishes, but I've had little luck with them. This one seems to have a good mix of flavor, texture, ease of preparation, and feasibility using commonly available ingredients.


  • 8-12 ounces thin-sliced lean pork
  • An onion
  • A small tin of water chestnuts
  • 4 ounces of bean sprouts
  • Miso tamari


Slice the pork into thin strips and sauté with the onion. Meanwhile, slice the water chestnuts into thin bite-sized pieces. Add a couple of tablespoons of the miso tamari sauce, and then the sprouts just at the very end of cooking.

Cracked wheat & cranberries


  • 1 part cracked wheat (bulgur), about 1/3 cup per serving
  • 1 3/4 parts water
  • Dried cranberries
  • Butter


I find cracked wheat a tastier alternative to rice, and one that is much easier to cook. For the breakfast cereal, I cook a serving in the microwave at 100% for a minute, then at 40% for four minutes. I expect that the settings would be different for a different microwave. The cranberries are part of what gets cooked.

Butter in very moderate amounts is a wonderful presence in a diet.


“Salad” may be the most flexible menu concept there is, perhaps even more so than “sandwich,” which I believe is obligated to include bread or something like bread. This example illustrates a few of my own tastes and observations.

  • You can nearly always substitute apples in a recipe that calls for tomatoes. An apple will never taste like a tomato, but the taste will “go,” and apples aren’t grown in greenhouses in the winter.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil is good, but variety is better.
  • Walnuts go well with walnut oil.
  • While a bottle of fine vinegar is expensive, a little goes a long way.
  • Fresh beets are better than canned ones, but not by a whole lot, and home preparation of things involving beet juice does require concentration.

Ingredients for this salad

  • Arugula
  • Steamed apple bits
  • Steamed carrots
  • Baked winter squash
  • Baked eggplant
  • Beet slices
  • Walnuts
  • Walnut oil
  • Raspberry wine vinegar

Portabello sandwich


  • Sautéed slices of portabello mushroom
  • Whole grain bread
  • Fresh mozzarella cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Fresh basil


An excellent example of how fine raw ingredients can become a mouth-watering delicacy with almost no effort.

Tuna with orange and garlic


  • Chunks of tuna – I get containers of discounted tuna “kabobs” when the supermarket happens to have them
  • Butter
  • Orange peel
  • A clove of garlic
  • Options: fresh thyme or rosemary, a little fresh ginger if you have it


Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, and add to it the minced orange peel, garlic, and optional ingredients. Brush half over the tuna chunks. Cook under preheated broiler 4-6 minutes a side, midway flipping and brushing on the other half of the mixed butter.

This is a good example of an interesting dish from substitution for common ingredients, here orange for lemon (with fish) and tuna for beef (which is often prepared with garlic, herbs, and a bit of orange peel.)

Pasta with walnuts


  • Linguini
  • Chopped walnuts
  • Olive oil (or walnut oil)
  • Parsley
  • Parmesan cheese (a good thing to splurge on)


This is a cupboard-is-bare recipe. I was driving home one night late and trying to think what I could make for supper from what I had on hand, which was about zilch. It was quite good, and I’ve made it subsequently when the larders were full of other possibilities.

I later happened on basically an identical recipe in a couple of places, including one in the New York Times.

Polenta and fontina with tomatoes


  • Prepared polenta roll
  • Fontina cheese
  • Small tomatoes
  • Fresh basil
  • Olive oil
  • Butter


Gently sautée ¼" slices of polenta in a little olive oil and butter. Turn when the first side is slightly browned, and top with basil, cheese, and tomatoes. Cook until the cheese is melting and then drain.

I like yellow tomatoes so that the overall color scheme is united. I expect others might have different preferences.