By Celia Barbour
When I was a kid, natural food was something you found in an out-of-the-way little shop run by a patchouli-saturated guy in a caftan whose beard hung down from his chin like Spanish moss. As you entered, he would greet you by pressing his palms together and bowing slightly in a prayerful gesture. To buy food there was a major lifestyle decision, a declaration of nonconformity.
I once walked out of our local natural foods store and ran smack into the mother of one of the meanest popular girls in my junior high school. “You shop there?” she asked. “Well, that’s diffrunt.”
I was mortified. In Richmond, Ind., “different” was about as devastating an insult as you could get away with in polite company.
These days, coiffed moms pull their CR-Vs and BMWs up to Whole Foods, Wal-Mart or Food Town and shop for healthy, natural and organic food. Eating well has gotten simpler in this way: It’s more normal and accessible. You don’t have to risk being ostracized to do it.
On the other hand, making good choices remains profoundly confusing, not least because the words used to describe our food don’t tell us what we think they do.
I heard a great TEDxManhattan talk last year given by Urvashi Rangan, entitled “From Fables to Labels.” She outlined the definition of all the different words that appear on food labels, some of which mean virtually nothing. “Natural,” for example, can mean whatever the company that adds it to its label wants it to. It is a word without a regulated definition. “Artisanal” and “free-range” are also themselves fairly free-range, definition-wise.
But wait a minute: Haven’t we all been taught that labels can’t lie? A box of crackers can’t say, “Made with real cheese,” if the contents are made with only cheese-flavored chemicals, for example. True. But the meaning of words has grown increasingly complicated in these legalistic times. We all know what “cheese” means, more or less. But what does “natural” really mean? What about “healthy”? Turns out, it’s often whatever the company in question wants it to.
“Organic” — a word that existed only in biochemistry books when I was a kid — is one of the few labels that currently holds weight; for a company to add that to its product, the contents have to meet a long list of requirements. Likewise, terms that relate to health issues, or to food allergies and sensitivities, like “gluten-free,” “sugar-free” and “made in a plant that also processes peanuts.”
Of course, ever since the first Twinkie hit grocery store shelves, the best way to ensure that you’re eating what you think you’re eating has always been to make your food from scratch. But when it comes to treats, that can be a tricky proposition. For one thing, your desire for potato chips and/or peanut butter cups invariably outstrips the time you have to prepare them. Moreover, it may be preferable not to know what goes into such things.
Which is why I was thrilled by the chocolate truffles served at a birthday party the other day. The birthday girl is a modern-day free spirit and alt-food aficionado. So her treats had to be “good” in every sense of the word. And they were. They tasted amazing — as good as those in a chocolate shop. And they were made with just three very good-for-you things: dates, walnuts and unsweetened cocoa.
I wrote about the health benefits of dates and walnuts last fall, in an Oct. 19 column, Heart of Scone. And we all know about dark chocolate’s life-sustaining powers. I couldn’t wait to experiment with them on my family, which I did last weekend. As I passed them out, they fell to gobbling them up, which meant they were too distracted to notice me bowing, ever so slightly.
1 cup pitted dates
1/3 cup walnut halves, or ¼ cup walnut pieces
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
sweetened cocoa powder, coconut or confectioners sugar, optional, for rolling
- If the dates are dried out (as mine were), poach them for 5 minutes in a small amount of gently simmering water; drain.
- Pulverize the walnuts in a food processor until they are the texture of corn meal. Add the dates and cocoa and process until thoroughly mixed, about 15 seconds.
- Roll the mixture into grape-size balls. If desired, roll each ball in cocoa, coconut or powdered sugar.