Joan Gussow is an author, professor, environmentalist and avid-gardener. In 1978 she wrote a ground-breaking book entitled The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology, which tied nutrition to the health of our planet. Recently, Gussow spoke with Rootstock Radio host Theresa Marquez about her roots in the Good Food Movement and simple advice for healthy eating.
“I realized that all my friends were asking my advice about nutrition,” Gussow says of how she got started in nutrition. Attending Teacher’s College at Columbia University, Gussow earned her doctoral degree in nutrition and later went on to become chair of the department.
Entering the field of nutrition, Gussow was the one of the first to put together the idea that good food comes from a healthy environment. She recalls, “I came into nutrition to find out all the answers to all these questions, and discovered nobody was even paying any attention to them.”
With a new book out, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables, Gussow offers sage advice from her years of experience—simplify. Eating well, she says, doesn’t require hours of preparation or three course meals. “They need to know all these really easy things to do, and then they’ll eat well.”
Listen to the full interview above to hear more from Gussow on cooking, gardening and the environment, or read the transcript below.
Rootstock Radio: Joan Gussow
(Transcript edited slightly for readability.)
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, friends. Today we have a very special guest, Joan Gussow. In 1978 Joan Gussow wrote a groundbreaking book. It was called The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology. Joan was the first person to put together this idea that good food comes from a healthy environment. Her current book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables, certainly describes her love for being a vegetable gardener.
Joan is my favorite octogenarian. She’s vibrant and wise. She’s still teaching at Columbia University, where she was the head of the Department of Food and Nutrition for the past many decades. She’s a food activist; she’s still writing; she’s still a professor. I know that you’re going to enjoy this interview.
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JOAN GUSSOW: Well, I was a premed in school. And then I decided, because it was 1950 when I graduated, and in my junior year I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor because I wanted to have a family, and you couldn’t possibly be a doctor and… You know, that was the years when women… I didn’t know any women who worked. My mother didn’t work. We knew one of the mothers of one of my friends worked, and we felt sorry for her because her husband had died and she had to work. You know, it was like you had to work.
And then a professor of mine, a chemistry professor, wrote to Time magazine and said to them, did they have any kind of program for people just out of college? And they wrote back and said they had this training program. They hired five women, and they were trained to be in one of the magazines. And they wouldn’t suggest that I come—they interviewed in the spring vacation, and they wouldn’t suggest I come back because it was very competitive. I mean, all the fancy colleges and everything. I decided, at the very last minute, I got a prize at graduation of about $75 and decided I would fly to New York and see if I could get a job. And I had letters written to Time magazine—that’s the only letters of recommendation I had written. And I came back to New York and I interviewed.
Anyway, so I ended up getting the job. I worked at Time magazine for seven years, and then got married, quit, had two kids. They were pretty active, and I got pretty bored. And I remember trying to decide what I was going to do. I thought of becoming a landscape architect. But I had read Adele Davis, who was considered a faddist by the nutrition profession, but she wrote several books called Let’s Have Healthy Children, which my brother-in-law sent me when I was pregnant, and then Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. And so she was all for eating lots of liver and eating wholesomely and all that.
And I realized all my friends were asking my advice about nutrition, and I didn’t know very much about it. And I suddenly said, well, why have I not thought of being a nutritionist? And I realized, (it was) because of the bad image that dieticians had. And I thought, well, that’s a stupid reason for not doing something, so I’ll give it a good image. So I applied to the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia, which was a full-time program, which I really couldn’t do. We didn’t have any money. My husband was making no money at all, and so I couldn’t really hire a babysitter. So, for complicated reasons, I ended up going to Teachers College, which had a small nutrition program.
And I went through the program, working toward a doctoral degree. And two days after I graduated, I was chair of the department—not a recommended career move! But very complicated reasons. Scary—I was terrified, exhausted, everything. It was probably really a wonderful thing to have had happen, because what happened was, because I had worked…
By the way, I had worked, between the time I was at home, I had worked for somebody who was writing a book, and I had done research for him, and I was a very good researcher—I mean library researcher. And he was writing a book on the effect of nutrition on children’s intellectual development. It was called Disadvantaged Children: Health, Nutrition, and School Failure, and he was first author, and I did all the work. And when that was over, I thought, I’m not going to do this anymore. The only way not to do this is to have a degree in my own right. And that’s when I went back to get a degree.
When I was a graduate student, I actually went and did a study that somebody paid for because they wanted it done—not a food company—looking at television advertising to children. And it got published, so I was notorious throughout the profession because I attacked the foods that were advertised to children on television. And what I realized was that nobody did that. Nobody in the profession attacked the food system.
And I had read Paul Ehrlich’s [The] Population Bomb, and I came into nutrition to find out all the answers to all these questions, and discovered nobody was even paying any attention to them. Additives were not even a part of what you studied. There was nothing in the profession about the environment, there was nothing… In fact, there was an article written in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—I’ll never forget it—a letter written to the editor in 1975 that said, in effect, we have these hunger problems around the world, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse appear to be approaching, and there’s nothing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition about people being hungry. And the editor wrote back and said that’s really not our job—we’re about nutrition. That’s for the demographers and the population experts and the economists and so forth; that’s not our field. So our field was just what happens after the swallow. That was our field. Nothing that happens before the swallow at all.
And so that’s what I did. I just sort of followed my nose and said these are the things that interest me, you know? I had a thing of collecting newspaper clippings and magazine clippings, and I had no time to sort them. And then there would come a time in the fall when I would sit down, and I had these big piles on the dining room table, and I’d sort them into piles, and I’d say, “Now, why am I saving stuff on air pollution? Why am I saving this stuff?” I finally realized they were all called in my file “Agri-inputs,” and I had all these different things. And so I just developed the Feeding Web, which was my course. I developed my course sort of slowly by just adding increments to it, and about what, it seemed to me, were the issues that related to food and the environment.
So that’s how I got there. I mean, it was very exciting to develop that. I mean, it was developing a field, and I didn’t know that. And I was just sort of excitedly putting the pieces together. And then there came a day when I’d been teaching for a while, and I was getting ready to go on sabbatical, and a student gave me a piece of literature from Joanna Macy. I sat at my desk and read it and burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying, and realized that I believed what I was teaching. It took me a while even to figure that out, but that I really believed it.
TM: I loved the quote, you were talking about the famous quote about butter and margarine of Michael Pollan’s that says, it’s something like, “You know, whenever I think I’m saying something new, I start reading Joan Gussow and I see that she said it thirty years ago.”
JG: Well, I made the mistake, which was unfair to him, of sending him a copy of The Feeding Web, and of course that was published in 1978. And it was pretty much ahead of its time, so… But I have to say, as I’ve said to other people, you know, ideas get recycled all the time, and every thirty years everything gets recycled. And he’s got a great trumpet, he’s got a great head, he’s a very smart person, and he’s a very good writer. And I’m happy to see him push these ideas. And his thing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about corn is just brilliant. I mean, his intellectual curiosity leads him to these paths which are quite remarkable.
TM: In his book Cooked, he has this, I think, underlying belief that if people could cook, that life and food production would change. What do you think about this idea that maybe there’s just a couple of simple things that people can do and then their whole life would change? Like, for example, learning to cook, and then the second thing for me is growing food and having a garden.
JG: You have to take into account what people’s lives are really like. I mean, when I spend a whole day in the garden, I realize that if I had a job I couldn’t do that. And the trouble is, I think, that people have been so brainwashed by advertisers and by what’s at the supermarket, and by restaurant eating, which everyone does all the time now—I don’t know how they afford it, but they do; it seems to me everybody’s always buying food out, buying coffee out, buying all these things out.
We have to be willing to be very simple. I mean, my eating habits are very simple. I don’t believe in… I probably spend fifteen minutes making supper a lot of the time. And I think that we have to make it clear to people that they don’t have to do a life-denying hour and a half in the kitchen in order to be able to put a meal on the table, you know?
One of my favorite pasta recipes comes from a cookbook called Italian Home Cooking by a friend of mine named Julia della Croce, who’s written a lot of Italian cookbooks. And this is from the section on feeding children. And it’s, you cook the pasta, probably some little thing for children, you know, the small pasta. And about two minutes before it’s done, you drop a couple of tomatoes in with the pasta, whole tomatoes, and you fish them out when the pasta is done. You dump the pasta on a plate, and you fish out the tomatoes. You peel off the skin, you chop them up, and you throw them on the pasta.
That’s the sauce. And it is amazing how different it is from either raw tomatoes or cooked tomatoes. It is just a different experience. It’s delicious. You can put parmesan cheese on and you can, you know, chop up some basil.
But that’s what I’m a believer in. My first book, This Organic Life, one of the things I think is true about almost all the recipes in that book is that they’re pretty easy, and that’s why I like them. That’s why I like them. I sort of collect quick things to do. I don’t collect complicated recipes.
I looked at the menus they offered for people who are on the minimal cost diet. You cannot imagine what these meals were. I mean, they included Jell-O for dessert. Well, now, my god’s sake, if you’re going to spend money, don’t spend it on Jell-O, right? And they would be three-course dinners. I don’t have three-course dinners. They were absurd, which was a kind of expectation of food professionals, that these people would do this kind of thing. That’s not how to make people take care of themselves.
People need to know how to do it simply. They need to know that you can just take kale and dump it in a bowl and put something on it, let it sit for an hour, and it’s fine, you know. They need to know all these really easy things to do, and then they’ll eat well.
TM: I’m always kind of trying to figure out, how can I get people to cook again? Are there other books you think that I could be recommending to people?
JG: Well, it’s interesting, when I’ve gone out and spoken, and I will get through, and somebody will say—and I’ll say how easy it is and how quickly you can do anything—[and somebody will say], “Well, what did you have for breakfast this morning?” And I’ll say—I remembered this because specifically that this happened—I said, “Well, I had a tortilla, which I put in a frying pan just to heat it up. And then I put cheese on it, let it melt, and I put some sprouts on it.” You know, and people said, “Oh!” And they were writing it down, you know!
But that’s what I think we have to do. We have to constantly, constantly make it clear that you do not have to have these elaborate meals. It does not require a three-course meal. You do not have to do that. I mean, I often have—this winter, a lot, I would have a grilled cheese, which now has a fancy name when you put a weight on top of it and make it into a, what’s it called? There’s a…panini, right. Or a croque-monsieur, or whatever you call it in whatever language. With peppers that I’d roasted and peeled in the winter and had in the freezer, and roasted tomatoes, little tomatoes. And so I had my vegetables along with my bread and milk course, and I grilled that whole thing. And that doesn’t take very long. That’s okay. You can have that for supper. It’s really okay.
TM: And it’s delicious!
JG: It’s really delicious, yes.
TM: Delicious, and a few, especially… And this is one of the great satisfactions, knowing that there are my peppers from my garden.
JG: I’m always trying to figure out what I can do with the things I grow, through the winter, that make them easy to use. And I’ve been drying tomatoes a lot. When I get little cherry tomatoes I do sun-dried. Sun-dried Sungolds are amazing, those Sungold tomatoes, but just generally I would dry tomatoes. And then I would find that I wasn’t using them in the winter. I would reconstitute them with a little vinegar and sometimes use them in sandwiches, but I didn’t use them that much.
So last year, I did a lot of slow-roasting of tomatoes in the oven with rosemary and salt and pepper and olive oil, and just lay them on a pan and just roast them for two or three hours until they’re totally soft and sweet. And then you tray-freeze them—you know, put them on a tray, tray-freeze them, and dump them in a bag. They are like unbelievably good.
TM: Like candy—they get really sweet, don’t they?
JG: Yeah, they are—they’re really unbelievably good.
TM: And then what did you do? Do you put them in sandwiches or sauces or—?
JG: That’s what I’d use in a sandwich. I use that and roasted peppers and cheese in a sandwich, yes. Or just make them into a pasta sauce, just put them on pasta, whatever. But I never had enough left, so I used them for sandwiches.
TM: I know tomatoes must be a real favorite in the garden, and you said peppers. Do you have other favorite things?
JG: Well, I grow soybeans, which most people don’t grow. I don’t eat them as edamame. I grow a lot of soybeans, and then I get a video—I don’t have television, but I’ll get a video and I’ll pop soybeans. You know, you steam them in the pods and then you pop them out. And it’s a great thing to do when you’re watching because you can do it without looking at your fingers. And you know, it takes about the length of a—
TM: Yeah, you’ve got to get the skins off, don’t you, and then—
JG: I take the skins off, yeah. And you can eat them as—you know, in edamame you do it, but you serve it that way, and then you pop them out, but I pop them out. They, to my mind, soybeans are sort of like the perfect lima bean, but they’re not—they’re so much better. They have none of the faults of lima beans and all of the virtues. I mean, they’re slightly crunchy, they don’t get mushy, and they’re delicious. They’re really a delicious vegetable. So I always have soybeans as a vegetable.
And I always grow sweet potatoes, is one of my favorite crops. I grow potatoes and sweet potatoes and onions, and green onions, and tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and broccoli and Brussels sprouts. And I’m growing cabbage this year because I finally figured out that I do like cole slaw if it’s made right, so I’m growing some cabbage—I bought a few cabbage plants this year.
I had such a funny reaction. It’s so funny how some particular thing strikes you. And I’ve just been reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, which is an interesting book. I think it’s got some interesting, really—I think because of where he comes from and because he’s Indian and he comes from a third-world point of view, it has a very interesting kind of framework to it. But of course he’s talking about this sort of narrowing of what’s grown. And I was reading in the paper yesterday, and today, I guess, there were stories about… Oh, I know, today it was about corn and soybean crop, and that there was going to be a record crop, but now they’re saying because so much is not yet planted, that it’ll still be a record.
And all of a sudden I thought, it’s insane, isn’t it? It’s just insane somehow that we just keep growing more and more and more corn, and then trying to figure out what the hell to do with it, you know? First we fed it to cattle, and then we made all these products out of it so that we have all these processed foods. And now we’re making it into ethanol. What next? You know? It’s like it’s a kind of madness. If you think about farming as producing food, we devote all these acres that don’t produce food at all. As a food system, it’s just amazing. It’s like totally out of touch.
TM: It certainly does make me want to talk more about just the food system and just how broken it is.
JG: I remember hearing Michael Pollan years ago, when I first met him. I remember hearing him give a talk. There was going to be kind of a debate about biotech, and he got up in his usual amazingly eloquent and thoughtful way, went through the whole process of how monocropping and all that and the kinds of problems of industrial agriculture, and how biotech was just an attempt to prop it up to keep going, because it was in such bad shape. It was destroying soil, it was polluting the environment, it was doing all these things. And biotech was an attempt to keep it going.
And then that woman—I don’t know if you ever heard of biotech, but there’s a woman whose name I’ve forgotten now, who’s always writing for the biotech industry. But anyway, and she gets up and she talks as if he never said anything. She just gives the standard argument about how it’s going to end world hunger, and all that crap, you know. And it’s like the ideology of it is so powerful for people. It’s somehow people have been driven into this trap, you know. It’s like how do you get out of that?
I think it’s happening. I think there are movements all around. I mean, you’re part of it, I’m part of it. There are all kinds of groups trying to take off pieces of it and trying to… I was just reading something yesterday, I guess it was from Food First, or maybe it was this morning. Food First newsletter came in and it was about the Farm Bill and how the people who have problems with it just aren’t working together. There are all these different groups that have different problems with it. And it’s such a mess, that Farm Bill. I mean, it’s like, who can keep up with what it is?
And it’s like it’s got to be fixed, but it’s like you can’t even get the subsidies off. You can’t even stop—and now the insurance. I mean, they’ve said, “Oh, okay, we won’t give subsidies the same way. We’ll just give crop insurance.” So everybody is given insurance to plow up land they can’t grow on, because if they don’t get a crop they’ll still get the insurance. So those poor soils are being plowed up to be planted so they can get the insurance for it. I mean, it’s…it’s really dysfunctional.
It’s interesting. Well, I gave a speech not long ago in which I listed the topics that I’d taken up in The Feeding Web in 1978, which were limits to growth, the contest between food and population, the food supply, advertising food, food safety, the contamination of our environment and how hard it was to have safe food, the hole in the ozone layer, global warming… I mean, I took up all these topics, and then I said I could say the same list today. We’re nowhere. You can mention organic in polite company now, which you couldn’t at the time. We’ve done a little about the ozone hole—you know, we did get the Montreal Protocol and we’ve done a little there. Other than that, nothing. Nothing!
TM: It doesn’t seem like there’s anything significant.
JG: Soil erosion, the loss of the Arctic, the bottom of the Arctic food chain, which we’re now—we’re now fishing for krill in order to get EPA, you know, so we can get little capsules, so we can take little capsules of fish oil, right? We’re fishing for krill, which is the bottom of the food chain, that the whales live on, everybody lives on. And we’re doing it without awareness of whether it’s sustainable or not—and the way we’re going, it ain’t.
I’m trying to write a book on hope at the moment, for complicated reasons which I explain in what will be the first chapter if the book ever comes out, which is that when the manuscript of Growing, Older got to the publisher they called me and said that they’d had a young person read it. And she came back to them and said, “Oh, I love the way she writes, but she’s going to die. What am I supposed to do?” because I kept saying things like I’m glad I won’t be around to see what’s going to happen to the planet, and things like that, you know. And so I decided that if I were going to ever write anything more, I had to write on hope. So I’ve been struggling a lot with that question.
And I’ve finally realized that the only hope I have, really—I mean…if you assume that, then we’re doomed, because we’re breaking all the rules and it’s getting worse and worse. And I go nuts when I hear things like, “Well, in thirty years we’ll have cars that drive themselves.” Yeah, right—two of us, and the other how many billions will be dead. You know, I mean, it’s like nobody’s internalizing what these storms mean, and where are we going to have the money to fix up what’s going to be damaged by nature in her rage, you know?
So my hope is that we don’t understand how nature works, and that at some point along the line, something will happen that is totally unexpected and positive—that there will be some, you know, Mauna Loa will explode and the clouds will cool it off enough that we’ll wake up and we’ll do something. I don’t know, Theresa, I really don’t.
I know too many young people, and I teach—and I have to tell you, teaching does not get easier when you teach what I’m teaching. But it’s interesting to me that last year’s class particularly—I mean, I teach limits to growth, the end of the world. I mean, I’m teaching the end of the world, right? People get very depressed the first two or three sessions, they really do. They get very depressed. They have never heard this before, which in itself is pretty startling, depressing. But somehow, as we work our way through and we get to local and organic and…, they come through it. And they feel differently. It was amazing. I find them very…I found them very much more responsive this year than I have in previous years. Maybe it’s finally reached the point where people know.
I had a conversation the other day with a therapist who lives in this town. I was out in my driveway and she was doing something, and we started talking. And she wanted to ask me a favor, which had to do with her bicycle, and I told her to come in and talk to me. She said she was too busy to be in the community garden anymore, and I said, “You mean you’re too busy doing therapy?”
She said, “Yes, I’m really busy.”
I said, “Do you find that people are expressing anxiety about the world situation?”
She said, “Oh no, never. Never. Never.” She said, “They’re much too absorbed in their kids or their marriage or whatever.”
And I said, “Really?” I said, “But do you think that part of what they’re dealing with underneath, part of their anxiety is because they do?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “They’re all scared to death.”
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TM: I want to thank Joan Gussow for being our guest today. Pick up her most recent book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables. I know you’ll enjoy it. And thank you all for being with us today.