, Gloucester, MA

February 20, 2013

Keeping Mediterranean food culture alive

Food for Thought
Heather Atwood

---- — Remember the Mediterranean Diet? Do you still eat like a Greek widow or have you stashed all that away with Atkins and South Beach?

In 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust launched a symposium with the Harvard School of Public Health, declaring the Mediterranean Diet the optimal diet for good health. We were still living with no-fat Puritanism then; it was the age of the Snack Well’s, that monster unleashed by the USDA when in 1977 the U.S. Senate changed the warning on its Dietary Goals to, “for good health, reduce fat.” All fat. Even the good ones. (Gifford Dun. A symposium: Dietary Fats, Eating Guidelines, and Public Policy. The American Journal of Medicine, Volume 113/ supplement 9B)

The Mediterranean Diet, as put forth by Oldways and Harvard, reclaimed not just a healthy way of eating but a healthy way of living, one that celebrated good food, particularly fresh vegetables, fruits, olive oil and fish, and one that wasn’t shackled to fat content.

Dun Gifford founded Oldways the year he launched the Mediterranean Diet. By all accounts, Gifford was an uber-charismatic man who lived many lives: He survived the Andrea Doria sinking as a child, was legislative assistant to Edward Kennedy, and campaign coordinator for Robert Kennedy. Gifford was beside Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen when Kennedy was shot, and was one of the group who wrestled down Sirhan-Sirhan.

In the 1980s, few people described themselves as foodies; glassblowing and pottery were artisanal, not food. But Gifford had traveled extensively in Greece, Italy and Spain, and was part-owner of the Harvest restaurant in Cambridge. He became passionate about the beautiful food he had experienced in his Mediterranean travels, and convinced of its cultural merits. Gifford was determined to defeat the 1980s’ trend that made dining an unpalatable, exhaustive game of fat hide-and-seek. He wanted to revive not only the nutrition, but the culture these foods symbolized: slow, respectful meals among friends, wine included.

Gifford died in 2010, but his partner Sara Baer Sinnott continues the Oldways work. “Health through heritage,” is the banner still snapping at the Oldways offices on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay.

Here are some interesting anecdotes about the Mediterranean Diet: The first study recognizing that something was going on in southern Europe was done by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1948. Greece had invited the foundation to do a post-war analysis of Crete, examining if industrialization might or might not be a fit there. It was a “comprehensive survey of the demographic, economic, social, health, and dietary characteristics” of the members of one out of every 150 households, run by Leland Allbaugh, published as a monograph in 1953. (Marion Nestle, Mediterranean diets: historical and research overviews. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volume 61, number 6(s).)

In that study, Nestle wrote, Greek Red Cross nurse volunteers inventoried and weighed the kitchen contents of 128 Cretan households for periods of seven to 10 days, concluding that “olives, cereal grains, pulses, wild greens, and herbs, and fruits, together with limited quantities of goat meat and milk, game, and fish have remained the basic Cretan foods for 40 centuries, no meal was complete without bread ... Olives and olive oil contributed heavily to the energy intake ... food seemed literally to be ‘swimming in oil.’ Wine was consumed with the midmorning, noon, and evening meals.”

In the early 1960s Cretans had one of the lowest incidences of chronic disease and the highest life expectancy in the world; the Mediterranean Diet is based on what these families were putting on their tables in those years, wrote Nestle.

American physiologist Ancel Keys, developer of “K-rations,” was at Oxford University in 1951, and was invited by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to chair its first conference on nutrition in Rome. When Keyes asked a Roman physiologist about the new epidemic of coronary vascular disease, the Italian answered, “we don’t have that here.” Alarms rang for Keyes, and he scurried to the Mediterranean with his wife to take random serum cholesterol levels. He found olive oil running in their veins, metaphorically, except for members of the Rotary Club, who were eating a heavier diet of red meat. (Keys Ancel, Mediterranean Diet and public health, personal reflections, Supplement to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volume 61, number 6(S).)

These observations moved Keyes to the Seven Countries Study, the first epidemiological longitudinal study linking diet to coronary heart disease. Keyes, who maintained a second home in Southern Italy, remained a lifelong advocate of the Mediterranean Diet: “The heart of what we now consider the Mediterranean Diet is mainly vegetarian: pasta in many forms, leaves sprinkled with olive oil, all kinds of vegetables, in season, and often cheese, all finished off with fruit, and frequently washed down with wine ... No main meal in the Mediterranean countries is replete without lots of verdure.”

Oldways Preservation Trust understood not only the nutritional legitimacy of the Mediterranean Diet but also its power to preserve cultures: by purchasing couscous and artisanal pastas from countries that hem the Mediterranean, a consumer helps preserve those cultural traditions.

But Oldways has expanded beyond the Mediterranean. Having developed “Heritage Food Pyramids” for different cultures — Asian, Latino, Vegetarian and African — Oldways hopes to remind or re-introduce these groups to foods and a way of eating that is their heritage, dishes that have sustained these people for centuries and from which they perhaps have been distanced. In response to National African Heritage and Health week in early February, Odlways ran programs in 15 different cities promoting the African food pyramid, and teaching its recipes.

Oldways works with consumers, health professionals, nutritionists, scientists, journalists, chefs, food professionals, and government policy makers. Oldways holds conferences, symposiums, and culinary overseas trips in which it introduces food professionals to “nourishing traditions around the world.” A recent trip to the island of Pantellaria introduced guests to the nutritional benefits of capers, for which the island is renowned. Capers, even in the small amounts that season meat or pasta, are a great source of antioxidants, flavonoids, and vitamins.

There are zillions of caper and pasta dishes that look more beautiful, with tomatoes and basil that aren’t in season now, but I think this pasta dish is faultless, piquant with that beloved Vitamin C and flavonoid duo, lemon and capers, the exact dinner to send a sharp elbow into winter’s side, and gain some Mediterranean points.

Linguini with capers


4 tablespoons olive oil

2 shallots, chopped

1/2 cup white wine

3 tablespoons capers, rinsed if salted, or drained from brine

juice and peel from two lemons

red pepper flakes


1 pound linguini

1/2 cup parmesan or pecorino cheese


Heat a large skillet to medium heat. Add olive oil.

When the oil is hot, add shallots, and cook until softened.

Pour in wine, and reduce heat to a simmer for five minutes.

Add capers, lemon peel, lemon juice, and red pepper flakes, and swirl around in pan for a minute on medium heat.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add linguini and cook accordingly.

Drain, reserving a few tablespoons of the water.

Add cheese to the lemon and caper mixture, and pour all over pasta.

Toss well, adding the reserved water. Keep tossing until all is blended and the sauce has become creamy.

Serve immediately. Add extra cheese if desired.


Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to Follow her blog at