Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: Gourmet Health Recipes

Title: Gourmet Health Recipes

Product Details

Author: Paul and Patricia Bragg

Authors' web site:

Patricia Bragg on social media: Google +patriciabragg ; Twitter @patriciabragg; Facebook

Date: 1992 (eighteenth edition; Amazon has a picture of an earlier edition with a similar cover)

Publisher: Health Science

ISBN: 0-87790-031-0

Length: 402 pages plus 30-page index

Quote: “It is not what we eat that feeds the body; it is what we digest.”

This historic document contains recipes for all the classics of the “California Health Food Store” or “Granola” culinary tradition, from the family that founded that tradition.

If the Braggs open their book with a bit of, well, bragging, they’re entitled to it. It’s not an undisputed fact that Paul Bragg was the “Father of the Health Movement in America.” He was born a little too late for that; his life spanned most of the twentieth century, but Sylvester Graham, the Kellogg brothers, Jethro Kloss, Krishnamurti, and George Washington Carver had all “fathered” their parts of the health food movement in the nineteenth century. The autobiography he shared with customers has also been challenged on important facts, and at least one of his earlier books has been suppressed as containing dangerously misleading advice. 

Paul Bragg was, however, the pioneer of the California style (as distinct from Seventh-Day Adventist style) Health Food Stores, marketer of pineapple and tomato juice, seven-grain cereals, herbal tea bags, wheat germ, papaya extracts as a digestive aid, and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (a naturally gluten-free form of soy sauce). He gained publicity by being related to an early Olympic gold medalist, Don Bragg. (He also tried to compete with previous celebrity health lecturers Ellen White and Charlotte Selver , two "mothers" of the health food movement, as having survived tuberculosis; there is some doubt whether he ever really had that disease.) As a celebrity nutritionist Bragg was consulted by Gloria Swanson, J.C. Penney, Jack LaLanne, and others. With Patricia, the daughter-in-law he presented as an “angel of health” and “symbol of perpetual youth,” he went on to advise various Olympic athletes, U.S. presidents (in 1980 Ronald Reagan claimed that California “health food” was keeping him fit to be President), and members of the British royal family. At 87, Patricia Bragg is splendidly preserved and still actively involved in maintaining the Bragg business.

Scientific research suggests that Patricia Bragg and Jack LaLanne had chosen their ancestors more wisely than President Reagan--or, according to skeptical researchers, than Paul Bragg had done. Aging slowly, being active and healthy for about 100 years rather than the standard 70 or 80 years, seems to be genetic. Some “long-livers” eat “health food”; some don’t. Whether people are destined to enjoy average or extra-long life spans, most people feel their best when they eat a reasonably balanced diet. The diet that worked so splendidly for the Braggs works well for many people, but not for everyone. If it does work for you, you might enjoy “Vital, Healthy Living to 120!” as blared on the cover of my copy, or you might enjoy vital, healthy living to the age predetermined by your own genes, like 80. (My family includes some "long-livers" and some people who age normally; I'll take whichever I can get.)

Do I really need to write any more about what a sickly child I was, as a direct result of my loving (and sick) mother’s adherence to the same diet and exercise guidelines that served Jack LaLanne so well? It’s familiar to regular readers, and not my favorite topic.

Instead I’ll say this. Lots of health food gurus preached that, in order to be healthy, everyone needed to stop eating certain things (the list differed from guru to guru) and, usually, substitute certain other things. “Eat honey, not sugar, but if you must eat sugar make sure it’s ‘raw’ or ‘brown’” was one rule. It actually worked for some people—specifically, people who were allergic to beets. “Go vegetarian, eat milk and eggs but never meat” was another rule that actually helped some people but not others; most people go vegetarian for spiritual reasons, but some people don’t digest meat and there’s certainly a high risk of contamination in meat. In the 1970s a “macrobiotic” diet, with elaborate rules that included “Eat unprocessed brown rice, never pre-ground flour or meal,” was popular, and it actually helped some people; if my mother had been willing to consider that whole wheat might not be such a health food for her or for me, the macrobiotic diet might have done wonders for us, since our primary health problem was wheat gluten intolerance. 

It now appears from broad-spectrum studies that any mindful approach to eating is better than mindlessly ingesting whatever is cheap or easy to get, that most of the various "health food diets" have helped some people to some extent, that nearly all of them have worked miracle cures for a few people with the specific nutritional needs each diet regimen targets, and that most of them have been epic fails for a few people who happened to have nutritional needs not addressed by the diet regimen they tried. 

I learned to cook according to various “health diet” plans: Pritikin, and Atkins, neither of which I like for myself; McDougall, and Sinatra, both of which I like for myself. The Braggs don’t offer a formal “health diet” plan in this book, only recipes, with some suggestions as to which recipes fit different doctor-recommended diet needs.

Now that I know which of their rules do and don’t work for me I can use and enjoy their recipes, and can say honestly that this is an excellent cookbook. If the Braggs were in error when they gave this style of cooking all the credit for their own good health and long lives, nevertheless they had a long time to perfect and select the best recipes from the nutritional regime that served them so well. You may or may not actually be either a “long-liver” or a super-rich and legendary entrepreneur, but you can eat like one. If you know which foods do and don’t serve your body well, then you can use this book to “eat healthy.”

There is some outright preaching in this book. The Braggs were evangelical Christians as well as evangelical “health food store” magnates. Their marketing campaign featured “crusades” like Billy Graham’s. Their cookbook contains Bible references and prayers along with solemn exhortations:

“Simply eliminate these ‘killer’ foods from your diet…Refined sugar…Salted foods…Catsup & mustard…White rice & pearled barley. Fried & greasy foods. Commercial, highly processed dry cereals…Saturated fats & hydrogenated oils…palm & cottonseed oil…Oleo & margarines…Peanut butter that contains hydrogenated, hardened oils. Coffee, decaffeinated coffee, China black tea & all alcoholic beverages. Fresh pork & pork products. Fried, fatty & greasy meats. Smoked meats…Luncheon meats…Dried fruits containing sulphur dioxide…Canned soups…any additives, drugs or preservatives. White flour products…Day-old, cooked vegetables…”

“Nothing can be more unpleasant or confusing to the taste than the improper or unwise use of herbs and spices…It is not always wise to follow exactly recipes calling for herbs. So much depends upon the strength of herbs.”

“Take time to Work—it is the price of success. Take time to Think—it is the source of power. Take time to Play—it is the secret of youth…”

A tasty raw vegetable salad, which (as regular readers expect me to note) needs no “dressing” if the veg are California-fresh, is called “Skin Beautiful Salad.” A fruit and nut dish is “Rhythm Salad.” (California schools used to use a series of Health Science books that tastefully discussed the concept of regular bowel movement under the heading of “Rhythm & Regularity.”)

There are informal menu suggestions for either “Gaining” or “Reducing” weight. (This is one of the little touches that identify Gourmet Health Recipes, despite frequent updating, as originally from the early twentieth century.)

When cookbook writers preach, to my mind, they need to be debunked. When they simply present recipes…my perception is that most of the savory recipes in this book are likely to give satisfaction if made with good fresh ingredients.

My perception is that most of the sweet recipes, which feature honey, are yucky. Honey is a tricky ingredient to use in a recipe because, even if one could assume that all readers are willing to swallow insect vomit, which one cannot, the flavor of honey varies wildly depending on what the bees were eating. As a result, it may be possible (occasionally) for experienced cooks to guess how much from a particular jar of honey they can add to get a pleasantly sweet dessert, but it’s not possible to write recipes that reliably predict pleasant results. Almost half the honey-sweetened foods I’ve eaten in my life weren’t sweet; almost half were sickeningly sweet. The minority of honey-sweetened desserts I’ve enjoyed were made from fresh berries, cherries, summer apples, pawpaws, or persimmons, all of which were so delicious that it hardly mattered what a cook did with them, although generally they would have tasted better if they hadn't been cooked with honey. This should not necessarily discourage beekeepers and their friends from using honey, if they can be reasonably sure that the bees’ “pastures” have not been sprayed with poison, but it should warn everyone who does choose to use honey to use it with caution. (See the Braggs' comment on "herbs" above.)

One thing that put a lot of people off all “health food stores” and the whole Granola School of cooking was yucky honey-sweetened desserts. There were two others: nutritional yeast, which doesn’t have to taste as bitter as most of it used to taste in the 1960s and 1970s, and blackstrap molasses, which so far as I know is just plain vile whatever you do. I know middle-aged people who still lose their appetites when they remember those yeast-flavored “veggie burgers” (I suspect Green Giant was the brand to blame) or blackstrap-flavored milkshakes they sampled in 1972. I’m glad to report that, although the Braggs deserve some of the blame for the original marketing of these abominations, the Eighteenth Edition of Gourmet Health Recipes contains no recipes for either. Some Granola gourmets sprinkled nutritional yeast on veg as a seasoning; the Braggs’ recipes for corn on the cob and a few other things mention this tradition, but it’s optional.

So what are you getting, aside from the preaching? This is the Braggs’ “big” cookbook; it contains nutrient charts and explanations of techniques and so on. You get lots of reminders to focus your diet plan on fresh veg, raw or simply cooked, and fruit. You get a wide selection of recipes for fancier things—mixed salads, salads with meat or egg, soups, baked beans, stuffed veg, creamed veg, veg with rice, veg with cheese, meat dishes, vegan protein dishes, egg things, yeast breads, breakfast breads, pancakes, desserts, ethnic specialties, even canapés.

You get a lot of recipes—literally hundreds. You could test these recipes on your family daily for more than a year. If you’re looking for dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, vegan, or other special-interest recipes, Gourmet Health Recipes contains several in each category.

Most recipes feature traditional food items found in supermarkets everywhere. Some are written to work with “duck or game” or “mixed greens, including wild greens” specifically for hunters and gatherers in California. Seafood recipes include one for abalone; fruit salads feature mangoes and papaya; desserts that don’t rely on honey for sweetening rely on dates, figs, prunes, and/or raisins. As Euell Gibbons was demonstrating on the other side of the continent, it is generally possible to substitute edible things found “in the wild” for more common food items with similar textures. Yucca roots aren’t potatoes, pawpaws aren’t bananas, piñon nuts aren’t almonds, and so on; substituting them in recipes is like substituting strawberry ice cream for chocolate ice cream.  This book does not discuss wild foods that need special processing, like acorns. It does feature foods whose image has progressed from “exotic” to “health food store specialties” to mainstream, like fruit and vegetable juice, pineapple, papaya, maple syrup, carob, wheat germ, tofu, sprouts, and avocado.

Some of the savory recipes suggest (usually a small amount of) Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and/or spices. None specifically mentions salt. Many “health food diets” restrict sodium, so leaving salt decisions up to the individual was a Granola Thing. For real authenticity, instead of seasoning your Baked Soybeans or Parsnip Patties with salt, sprinkle them with dried powdered kelp; its salty-but-still-herby flavor will be a nostalgia trip for anyone who’s ever shopped at a California-style health food store.

What “California” means to diners in the rest of the world is, primarily, salads. A climate where more plants reach, or can be coaxed into, their edible phase in midwinter than in summer, seems to inspire a wonderful variety of salads year-round. The Braggs give relatively few recipes for salads because you don’t need a recipe for salad. To make a great salad you go out, to the garden or the forest or the grocery store, and select an appropriate volume of veg that you recognize as being fresh and ripe; wash them, cut them in bite-sized pieces, mix them up, and offer seasonings and dressings at the table, although really good vegetables exude their own tangy, oily, savory “dressing” of mixed juices all over the bowl and hardly even need salt. Salads containing really good tomatoes, especially, should be served in individual bowls, with spoons.

This principle of cooking may be associated with California in the commercial media but it’s common to all places where food plants grow well, actually. In the Southern States it’s sometimes announced as “what poor folks eat”—nothing expensive or hard to find, but goodness gracious, it is good.Unfortunately, although the Braggs talk about it, neither a book nor a store can really enable you to feast on “what poor folks eat.” You can get most of the vegetables from a big-chain supermarket, and the salad will be acceptable, but mundane and probably in need of fancy dressings. To make it fabulous you have to cultivate either the vegetables, or the friendship of farmers.

One Bragg recipe for “Grand Slam Salad” calls for an industrial-size salad bowl in which “The purpose…is to see how many varieties of vegetable you can put into one salad.” The Gold Rush State has never been known for frugality, so if you want to feed enough people to appreciate all of it you can indeed put seventeen different kinds of greens, carrots, eggplant, peapods, raw baby peas, broccoli, stringbeans, asparagus, turnips, parsnips, lima beans, tomato, cucumber, radishes, chives, cabbage, celery, artichoke hearts, beets, celeriac, cauliflower, peppers, avocado, and okra (1/2 cup or more of each except perhaps the chives) into one salad. In California it’s sometimes possible to get all of these things in good enough condition, at the same time of year, that this salad will taste delicious. If it’s not possible, the Braggs advise, no worries. 

If you live in the country, Gourmet Health Recipes lives up to its own hype; it contains more delicious, nutritious recipes than other cookbooks. If you don’t, it’s less of an essential cookbook, still good for “something different” or perhaps nostalgic, but noticeably self-overrated.

While Patricia Bragg would obviously prefer to sell you her new, up-to-the-minute "e-books" directly from the web site linked above, Gourmet Health Recipes qualifies as a Fair Trade Book. To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package (four copies would fit into one package, if you wanted them, for a total of $25) + $1 per online payment, to either of the addresses at the very bottom of the screen. If you use Paypal, I have to collect a surcharge to pay them. If you send a postal money order, the post office will collect its own surcharge, so I don't need to. You can mix up as many different books as can be squeezed into one package for one $5 shipping charge. For each Fair Trade Book, this web site will then send 10% of the total of book and shipping costs (typically $1, as in the case of Gourmet Health Recipes) to the author or a charity of his or her choice.