Memory And The Mediterranean Diet
Wed, 05/08/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
The famed Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
The famed Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.

When Golda Meir first visited Kibbutz Merhavia in 1921, she found the members eating “terrible food” like uncooked vegetables and olives.

She joined the kibbutz, worked in the fields and then later in the kitchen, where she took over and “forced,” in her word, her companions to start their day with hot, cooked mush. She hadn’t yet heard of the Mediterranean diet.

The idea of following a diet based on the traditional culinary habits of those whose lands surround the Mediterranean has been gaining favor internationally in recent years. Meals based on straightforward cooking, featuring fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, fish rich in omega-3 fats, lemon, herbs, whole grains and wine too, in moderation, are thought to be good for the heart and also helpful in keeping extra pounds off. Studies have suggested that the Mediterranean diet — which varies slightly between countries — reduces the risk of heart disease and can reduce the incidence of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

And now there’s more reason to cook in the style of the Greek Isles or Jerusalem alleyways. Just last week, a study found that a Mediterranean-style diet may help preserve memory and thinking abilities, as reported in the journal Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. This was the largest study of its kind.

“Diet is an important modifiable activity that could help in preserving cognitive functioning in late life,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Georgiou Tsivgoulis of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Athens, Greece, said in a statement. “However it is only one of several important lifestyle activities that might play a role in late-life mental functioning. Exercise, avoiding obesity, not smoking cigarettes and taking medications for conditions like diabetes and hypertension are also important.”

What’s not in the Mediterranean diet is lots of red meat, convenience and processed foods, sugar-laden pastries, saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats). The Mediterranean lifestyle also emphasizes the importance of enjoying meals with friends and family.

More poetically, the late Israeli poet, novelist and essayist Shulamith Hareven described the food of the Levant, in an essay, “On Being a Levantine”:

“It is a way of life. It is a vegetable in its time and season, a tomato ripened in a great sun, olive oil from the press, seasoned with basil and thyme from the early morning mountainside. It is the end-of-summer grapes, awaited all year, and it is the fig that has absorbed all the light. It is the fish caught in the bay, eaten without any special purpose or bottom line or haste, washed down with a drink made of anise that grows nearby. It is soul food; it is the basis.”

But not all contemporary Israeli eating habits are so exemplary. One the one hand, home cooks can find local produce and other products in bountiful open-air markets like Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market (founded in 1927) and Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda (founded in 1928), and many restaurants favor Mediterranean-style cooking with recipes developed by a generation of new chefs or passed down from grandmothers. But then, on the other hand,  there’s also a growing interest in fast foods, American-style hamburgers and other meats in plentiful portions, as Dan Lenchner, the owner of Manna Catering in New York, explains in an interview.

The foods that he grew up with in Israel, in the 1960s, including lots of salads, fish, whole grains, low-fat cheese, pita and hummus, even falafel — now still the core foods of Israeli cuisine — were healthy. But he says, “with affluence comes people wanting to eat more meat.”

Lenchner also points out that Israeli cuisine is a “real melting pot in every way,” incorporating the foods of people from so many different lands who now live and cook in Israel. And, because Israelis travel so much, they also enjoy incorporating foreign cuisines.

In their excellent new cookbook, “Jerusalem,” Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi concur that the city’s cuisine is a great mix of traditions, with so many cultures and subcultures.

One healthy dish that “everybody, absolutely everybody” serves is “chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad, or an Israeli salad, depending on point of view.”

That salad was probably the mainstay of the kibbutz breakfast Golda Meir frowned upon. But even in the early years, not everyone agreed with Meir. In “The Book of New Israeli Food” (2008), Janna Gur recalls the first Zionist cookbook, published in the 1930s, “How to Cook in Palestine,” by Dr. Erna Mayer, published by WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization). Mayer writes, “We housewives must make an attempt to free our kitchen from European customs which are not appropriate to Palestine, We should wholeheartedly stand in favor of Palestinian cooking.”

Bonnie-Taub Dix, a dietician and nutrition consultant and author of “Read It Before You Eat It,” says in an interview, “You don’t have to move to the Mediterranean to eat like someone from there.” She suggests that Americans can adjust their diets to incorporate what she refers to as the Mediterranean lifestyle (rather than diet) by thinking of fruits, vegetables and grain as the cornerstone of their meal and considering protein as a side dish.

And, she says, even the herring that’s served at shul kiddishes — and those extensive breakfast buffets served in Israeli hotels — is a healthy choice. 

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