The Sicilian Food Project

Jeff Hush and Rachel Hedrick

Rachel’s Clinical Food Therapy, CHC

”Why are diet-related chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, continuing to increase worldwide?” Dr. Daphne Miller, in The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World (2008: p. 37), realized that to heal her patients she needed to use food not medications. “Returning to one’s dietary roots can have great health benefits” (p. 47). Middletown, Connecticut—because of its high concentration of Sicilians from Melilli—provides a direct link to the past, allowing us to uncover these dietary roots. Thousands of Melillesi now live in Middletown, with the migration starting in 1895 with Angelo and Vincenzo Magnano and their friend, Luigi Annino. For decades Sicilians came to Middletown from Melilli (pop. 12,555) to work in local Connecticut factories and farms. It is rare to find two communities so closely bound to each other.

The Sicilian Food Project investigates what happens when a culture is transplanted to another land. Food is our focus because with food we either build disease or health. Nutrition science shows us again and again how cultures that leave their homeland for the West change their diets and acquire the chronic diseases of affluence. This is called the “migration effect”: “the modern chronic health problems we face when we abandon an indigenous lifestyle in favor of a more industrialized one” (Jungle, p. 18).

Too often people who have migrated imagine that they are being faithful to their original cultures because their recipes still have the same names. The process of “abandoning” their “indigenous lifestyle” is, however, gradual, with many small steps, as one healthy ingredient after another is replaced by processed foods filled with chemicals. Seemingly insignificant changes in the preparation of foods lead to significant shifts in people’s nutrient intakes. These changes are the reason Americans have such high levels of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Dr. Miller gives the example of her grandmother who came from Ukraine and who kept cooking what she thought were the same Old World recipes. “The dishes prepared in my grandmother’s village in the early 1900s bore only a limited resemblance to those served in her New England kitchen sixty years later” (p. 40: whole grains were replaced by white flour and fresh beets by “canned sweetened” ones; “Lipton’s instant onion soup mix” became the “secret” spice, replacing the fresh “chives”). A big part of the health problem with these translated foods, then, is the lies people tell themselves about their traditional authenticity. “The diet my relatives developed over generations in the Old Country was irrevocably altered when my grandmother crossed the sea and encountered modern foods” (p. 46). As traditional food cultures are lost, our health suffers. “With this distance, we have lost our opportunity to learn how to grow, collect, and prepare our indigenous foods” (p. 42).

Veggies At Standing Rock !

Less than 1% of US adults and children make mostly healthy choices when eating, according to a recent study from the American Heart Association (Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, Chair: “Defining and Setting National Goals for Cardiovascular Health Promotion and Disease Reduction,” Circulation, 2010; 121: 586-613). On pages 596-7 and 599 this study stresses that to reach “ideal health status” the patient must “achieve control of all metrics through lifestyle alone” [“without medications”]. These cardiologists state that the way to robust health is not through medications but through lifestyle behaviors centered on food and movement and on not smoking. “Ideal Health” status in food choices requires choosing “4-5 components” of “healthy eating”: 1) fruits and vegetables (4.5 cups per day); 2) fish (2 servings per week); 3) “fiber-rich whole grains” (3 1-oz servings per day); 4) sodium (limit); 5) “sugar-sweetened beverages” (limit); 6) “avoidance of trans fat”; 7) “avoidance of processed meats”; 8) “displacement” of these meats and “other highly processed foods” with “unsalted nuts, seeds, legumes, and vegetable sources of protein” (4 servings per week minimum). When we compare this modern scientific list of healthy eating with the “indigenous diets” favored by Dr. Miller, we find a complete congruence. The simplest description of where both the scientific and the indigenous diets meet is to say a person should eat whole foods, in large variety, with lots of fruits and vegetables, and no processed ingredients or chemicals; animal products should not dominate the meals, but should be flavor enhancers.

Killua’s Kale

The Mediterranean Diet gets a lot of scientific praise: the principles just mentioned are derived from its traditional practices. Two recent studies show the positive effects of a “Mediterranean Diet”—“without energy restrictions” (meaning, no calorie restrictions)—and how this diet helped reduce both “diabetes risk among persons with high cardiovascular risk” and “major cardiovascular events . . . for a relative risk reduction of approximately 30 %, among high-risk persons . . . initially free of cardiovascular disease” (An Int Med 7 Jan 2014; 160 (1): 1-11 and NEJM 2013; 368: 1279-90). Both studies are based on the PREDIMED “multicenter trial after a median follow-up of 4.1 years” with “7447 persons . . . enrolled (age range, 55 to 80 years).” Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, raw nuts, and little meat and dairy, is proven to be the way forward. The original Sicilian Diet—that the Melillesi brought to Middletown starting in 1895—would have been a classic example of a Mediterranean diet.

What matters to our work, however, in The Sicilian Food Project, is how this “original Sicilian diet” has been transformed (in an unhealthy direction) or maintained (keeping to healthy food principles) from 1895 to the present. This will involve interviews in both Middletown and Melilli (and in surrounding villages), statistical analyses of diabetes prevalence and change through time in both the US and Italian Sicilian communities, reading old and new cookbooks, studying gardening and cooking practices, speaking to and observing young and old chefs and skilled home cooks, especially elders, and subdividing both communities into a range of healthy/unhealthy groups, depending on their specific gardening, cooking, and eating practices (including portion size). As Dr. Miller puts it, what really matters is how people “grow, collect, and prepare” their “indigenous foods.” Remember, it is not just the US Sicilians whose food choices have been influenced by the Western food industry; most people in Melilli have had their food choices radically transformed since the 1960s by advertising and international food industry penetration into their market.

Tofu Sliders At Steve Macri’s

The Sicilian Food Project is focused especially on helping people with Type 2 Diabetes—to change what they eat, to lose enough weight to bring down their health metrics, and to eventually get off their medications and cure their diabetes. When people understand that they can cure their own diabetes, that the way to do it is through food practices and choices, and that we all have a lot to learn from the generations that came before us. This project is about respect for our elders, for the wisdom of intact human communities.

Food & Movement Therapy (famtusa.org)

Changing the Healthcare Landscape of America One Body at a Time !