Mark McDermott

The wisdom of ancient kitchens

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Dan Buettner in the Okinawa blue zone. Photo by Dan McLain/National Geographic

National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner investigates the food and culture of those who live the longest, and comes back with recipes

by Mark McDermott 

Most mornings, Cowboy Jose Bonifacio rides his horse Corazón five miles to go see two old friends. Bonifacio is known far and wide as one of the great vaqueros, or cowboys, of the Guanacaste province on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. He began riding horses in 1921, at the age of 4. He’s 102 years old. His two friends are both over 100. 

Two years ago, National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner went looking for the great cowboy, who he’s known for years. Buettner has led several expeditions to the Nicoya Peninsula because it is home to some of the longest living humans on Earth, and longevity has been his area of inquiry for the last decade and a half. He’s written four books and dozens of National Geographic articles about the so-called blue zones, the five areas scattered across the planet where people live the longest. He sought out Bonifacio — who is not hard to find, having lived in the same house all his 102 years — for his newest book, “The Blue Zones Kitchen.” 

Buettner’s intentions were simple. He wanted to share a meal with Bonifacio and his family, and take notes. Buettner has spent more time with 100-year-olds, known as centenarians, than anyone on the planet who is not 100. His research has been about the ways of life that lead to the kind of health in which people not only live a century but do so, like Bonifacio, with gusto. He’s examined everything from habits of human connection to physical activity and even the composition of the soil and water in the lands where people live longest, but all these roads lead back to the most fundamental of human activities: sharing a meal. And this is why he found himself back at Bonifacio’s humble dwelling in Guanacaste.

“We arrive early, waiting for him in the cool shade under the 100-year-old mango trees in his courtyard,” Buettner writes. “He trots up on a horse wearing blue jeans, a checkered shirt, and a jaunty-angled cowboy hat. He dismounts with a bounce and welcomes us warmly with a handshake and a half toothed smile. He’s lived in the same house his whole life, now with four generations of descendants. At 100, he still recites romantic poems and professes his love of women.” 

Buettner has spent time with over 300 centenarians, but none cooler than the cowboy, who on this occasion asked his daughter and granddaughter to prepare a special lunch for his visitors, Buettner and famed National Geographic photographer David McLain. The lunch was served in an outdoor kitchen, centered around an oven used by the Chorotega, a tribe of corn farmers who historically were the most powerful of the Native Americans in the region.

Dinner is served in Ikaria. Photo by Dan McLain/National Geographic

“They cook over a fogón, which is a Chorortega oven that dates back before the age of Christ,” Buettner said in an interview. “It’s sort of a U-shaped adobe appliance, so to speak, with a wooden fire. So there you are, smelling roasted corn and woodsmoke and the aroma…The beans they are making tend to be more aromatic, with peppers and onions and garlic and cilantro. And it’s a wooden structure with slats in it, so sunlight is angling through the slats and hitting the floor in long parallel lines, but it’s sort of beautifully, smokily illuminated on the inside. And you are smelling the same smells that the ancient Maya were smelling in 1,000 B.C.” 

Lunch was chunky vegetable soup, a veggie hash with corn and onions, hearts of palms with herbs and garlic, creamy lima beans and herbs, and fried green plantains. It was accompanied by mugs of what Buettner described as “shockingly refreshing” horchata and citrus fresco. 

“The Blue Zones Kitchen,” which includes recipes for each component of the lunch, was released last week and achieved a somewhat unusual feat for what is ostensibly a cookbook: it was the bestselling book in the United States across all categories. The book’s success shocked even Buettner. 

“It’s surreal,” he said. “After years and years of these high-minded literary pursuits, I realized what people want are just pretty pictures and a great bean recipe.” 

“The Blue Zones Kitchen” isn’t like any cookbook ever before published. In it, Buettner visits kitchens in each of the five blue zones: Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California (a Seventh Day Adventist community); and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. An earlier book, “The Blue Zones Solution”, also included recipes, but not presented in this way, with McLain’s vivid photography showing the physical beauty of the people and the food of blue zones. Its pages emanate with the warmth of human conviviality. 

“David and I are not cookbook writers. David and I are a writing and photography team for National Geographic,” Buettner said. “This book is essentially a 300-page National Geographic article, centered around food and recipes. And that’s how we approached it. For the recipes, I didn’t just go find some other book and copy them; I sat on stools in 80, 90 and 100-year-old women’s kitchens, and I watched them. I wrote down fastidiously everything they did. I estimated quantities — you know, they don’t use cups or teaspoons or any of that crap. I captured these recipes, which by the way will be gone in half a generation.” 

The recipes from Buettner’s notebooks were then taken to a test kitchen and proofed out for exact quantities, and now run alongside hundreds of photos taken by McLain, which are also not the typical, prettified pictures usually found in cookbooks. 

“Not a single picture in the book is shot in a studio,” Buettner said. “It’s all editorial and it’s all with the gifted David McLain. He shot the ingredients, the setting, the people, the cooking techniques, and then the rituals around it. So it’s a very different book than a ‘cookbook.’” 

Dan Buettner in the Costa Rica blue zone.  Photo by Dan McLain/National Geographic

Buettner is well-known locally because he launched the first Blue Zones Project in the Beach Cities. The projects, which now number over 50 nationwide, are public health initiatives which take the wisdom derived from Buettner’s studies of actual blue zones and apply lessons programmatically; locally, the Blue Zones Project is administered by the Beach Cities Health District (see last week’s Easy Reader cover story, “Tripping Over Health”).  Buettner’s central insight is that healthy behavior happens not when we focus on changing behavior, but when the environment in which we live makes healthier choices easier to make. 

“The Blue Zones Kitchen” follows this ethos. It’s easy to use. Not one of its 100 recipes requires more than a handful of ingredients. It is peasant food; simple, cheap, easy, and – by the way – healthy. 

“It’s organized by genres of cooking,” Buettner said. “There is Greek, from Ikaria; Italian, from Sardinia; Asian, in Okinawa; Latin American, Costa Rica; and American, Loma Linda. So they are easily recognizable categories of food. They are just simple. You can add cheese if you want to some of them, but the quotidian day-to-day eating in blue zones was plant-based. They ate meat, but it was a celebratory food, and I don’t need to put a recipe for roasted meat in so all the recipes are plant-based. And they all have the most important ingredient, which is taste. These recipes, they’ve been cooked for at least 500 years in most of these places. The reason they survived is not because people think the recipes are healthy. It’s because people like them. They are tasty.” 

Cowboy Jose Bonifacio in Costa Rica. Photo by Dan McLain/National Geographic

Another aspect of the book that sets it apart is its beautiful array of story, science, travel, and cultural exploration. For example, in Costa Rica Buettner found what he believes might be the most perfect breakfast in the world, featuring what locals call the “tres hermanas,” or three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. He recalls in loving detail enjoying this breakfast in the Cooperativa Nicoya, where a dozen women begin preparation before dawn each morning and people stop by on their way to work. The meal is the locally beloved gallo pinto, rice, and beans with garlic, onions, peppers and squash, served with freshly made tortillas, a vinegar-based hot sauce called chilero, and locally grown coffee. 

“At 6 a.m., the first customers file in, most of them market vendors or laborers,” Buettner writes. “They take seats on benches at long green tables. Cooperativa waitresses, wearing simple dresses and flip-flops, serve giant cups of weak local coffee, steaming plates of the gallo pinto,  and baskets of warm tortillas. As muddy ranchero music plays from a distant radio, customers fill their tortillas with beans topped with chilero hot sauce. This is arguably the most perfect food combination ever, and for some it brings forth tears of joy.” 

The meal is perfect because tastes great while providing everything the human body needs for sustenance. The corn tortillas are whole-grain, low glycemic (meaning more slowly digested, absorbed, and metabolized) complex carbohydrates, Buettner reports, noting that the wood ash of the stoves breaks down the corn’s cell walls, thus making niacin available and freeing amino acids for absorption into the body. The black beans are rich in both antioxidants and fiber, which is colon-cleansing, lowers blood pressure and regulates insulin. Combined with rice, the beans form a perfect protein; the pepper sauce that tops it all off is a probiotic (meaning good for gut health). Even the coffee is rich in antioxidants. The total cost of the breakfast was $4.23. 

Buettner writes that this meal is what the poorest people in Costa Rica subsist on. His research partners found that these very people have the longest telomeres — the DNA tips that mark biological age — of any in Costa Rica. He says their bodies tend to be a decade younger than their age would suggest. 

“It’s really kind of the Zen of eating,” Buettner said. “It’s so simple. It’s like great sushi. Most cuisines are additive — for example, French cuisine is cream and butter and herbs. Sushi is just beautifully one ingredient. This is three ingredients. Imagine slow-cooked beans; the beans are perfect, kind of al dente, they still have their flavor, they still have the anthocyanins, which are the anti-oxidants you find in blueberries. Add a roasted whole-grain corn tortilla: all it is whole grain corn patted down and roasted. And then some roasted squash. You put the beans in a tortilla, maybe put some hot sauce on it, or in Costa Rica it’s chilero, and man, you do cry tears of joy…It’s so easy and so cheap and the stuff is good for a long time.” 

Buettner’s blend of storytelling and science is so seamless you don’t really realize you are learning. Simplicity is key. Part of this is his sources. We don’t live in a time when we often have access to the elders of our tribe, and their practical, well-worn advice, as most previous generations of humanity did. Buettner shared a meal with another centenarian in Costa Rica, a 106-year-old former lumberjack named Jose Guevara.

“He’d actually done a good bit of thinking about his longevity and boiled it down to three secrets: Start your day with fruit, eat beans at every meal, and practice absolute honesty,” Buettner writes. “Words to live by, methinks.” 

Much of the wisdom that comes from the blue zones is essentially remedial human training: knowledge that was baked into the way people lived for eons before the disruption caused by more modern ways of living. 

“It’s relearning what our grandparents instinctively knew,” Buettner said. 

Women in Ikiaria work together in the kitchen. Photo by Dan McLain/National Geographic

The links in that chain are mostly unbroken in the blue zones. Generations know each other, and cook together. Meals are shared multi-generationally, and often communally. Some of the recipes in “The Blue Zones Kitchen” contain varying versions, as each village or family has its own idea of how to do things. The Melis family in Sardinia (nine siblings with a combined age of 852 years) shared their version of minestrone soup, which they told Buettner they’d eaten every day of their life. Another family shared another version. 

“A 100-year-old cooked me Sardinian minestrone,” Buettner said. “The rest of her family cooked me other things and then we sat down and drank a good bit of wine, Connoneau, which is almost always an accompaniment with meals there. And then toasts ensue, and you get that sort of perfect combination of familial warmth and alcohol, and there’s no better drug.” 

There is science underlying the warm feeling of this scene. Sardinian minestrone is a “pot of healthy amino acids” with all the protein a human needs for sustenance along with huge does of fiber and healthy gut bacteria. Its cruciferous vegetables—onions, cabbage, kohlrabi—regulate thyroid function, a key to longevity. And even the wine, Connoneau, is particularly flavonoid-rich and brimming with antioxidants. But the biggest factor underlying long-living is the gathering itself. 

“I didn’t set out to try to write a cookbook from the beginning. I realized, though, that the runway for people for a healthier life is often through their mouth,” Buettner said. “But what makes it work, what makes it stick, and what makes it last is building a meaningful social network, or social circle, around the food. And that is in an almost hormonal sense—if you are eating with somebody you like, you have less cortisol interference as compared to eating on the run or eating with some sort of existential stress, and there is a love and a joy in that which I believe adds to longevity. But more important than that, if the people you are running with are also eating largely a whole-food, plant-based diet, it’s not a chore. You are not getting tempted by the burgers and the baby back ribs and the chips and all the other crap that people gather around.” 

We are, in fact, genetically hardwired for human interaction. Previous generations of humans could not have fathomed the idea of fast food or how much we eat alone. Another common trait in all blue zones kitchens is they are social places. 

“We tend to be genetically endowed with a propensity for things that ensure our survival,” Buettner said. “And humans, unlike so many other mammals that haven’t been as successful, are eusocial. That we’ve been successful because we come together as a tribe. We naturally are drawn to each other and we can take on bigger tasks together than we can by ourselves. So to all of sudden fast forward to 2019 when everybody is imploding in their devices — maybe for survivability, on its surface, we don’t really need other humans. But we still have that genetic yearning for it, and the meal is the natural time to give in to that. It’s the natural time to socialize because you are slowing down, you are sitting down.” 

Research shows that people who eat socially, particularly families, eat more nutritiously than those who eat alone. 

“Because when you are eating by yourself, it takes about 20 minutes for the full feeling to travel through your belly to your brain,” Buettner said. “So if you are eating by yourself to your favorite TV show and wolfing down your dinner, there’s a very good chance that you will already be full long before your stomach knows it, long before your brain knows it. Conversely, if you are sitting down with four or five friends, you are having a conversation, you are telling jokes, you are laughing, then you take a bite of food — you are less likely to overeat.” 

The biggest piece of advice implicit in the “The Blue Zones Kitchen” is simply to cook. The benefits are myriad. People in the blue zones, and those who cook in general, tend to rotate between the same 10 or 12 meals. They thus have a more consistent diet, meaning their immune systems don’t have to work so hard to always counter different potential threats. A worn-out immune system is one of the things that catches up with us in older age when the body can no longer fight off cancer cells, among other things. 

“Cook at home. You don’t have to buy my book. There’s lots of other books,” Buettner said. “I hear all the time, ‘Well, I don’t have time to cook.’ And if you take a moment and you think clearly, people who are eating junk food their whole life are probably shaving a decade off their life expectancy. If you take those 10 years and average them back through the rest of your life, you’ve got about 2.5 hours of a day of time that you could be spending on making good food. And you’ll have just as many hours in your lifetime. We fail. We get misled by a certain cultural thrust that is wrong.” 

“I think there are a lot of people out there marketing longevity. The Blue Zones kind of genre is not just about getting more, piling on more years, it’s about quality along the way. It’s a holistic look at longevity. And the value proposition is about 14 years. The maximum average life expectancy for humans is about 93 or 94. We are getting about 80 in America right about now, so we are leaving about 13 or 14 years on the table. We could be getting those years by living a blue zone lifestyle. But if you are living with purpose, you are socializing and connecting with friends, you have that faith-based component in place — and that could be going to church, it could be going to yoga — you are enjoying the journey. It’s not just living long. It’s living well.” 

It is, in a sense, the oldest story in the world, and one that is increasingly being forgotten. Buettner said that all the blue zones are increasingly being encroached upon by the disease of convenience. His reporting is documenting ways of life which are disappearing. 

“Okinawa in 1990 was a fantastically exotic place, and now it’s a jungle of Pizza Huts and A&W Root Beer. Junk food,” Buettner said. “There’s only a few little pockets of originality left. Costa Rica — there’s a damn KFC as you enter the city of Nicoya. And here is this beautiful food tradition that in Nicoya anyway it’s been around for 5,000 years, the Mesoamerican three sisters of corn, tortilla, beans, and squash. Which are three foods that can wholly sustain you. They are being pushed out by buckets of hormones-suffused chicken and burgers. Just like when they came to America, they are incredibly alluring. They are fast and they are cheap and they are like an orgasm in your mouth when you been used to eating sort of subtle flavors.”

His mind drifts frequently to a scene on the coast of Ikaria. A woman named Athina was cooking in a kitchen crowded with women. 

“She is about 60, and she’s been cooking for 50 years, and she learned it from her grandmother who learned it from her grandmother,” Buettner said. “So sitting on a stool in a tiny kitchen watching her work…You can sort of see the Aegean Sea out the kitchen window and you kind of see 500 years of history unfold. Above your head, there are all these pans, and there is this wonderful cacophony of chopping and pans bubbling and pans clattering and kids running around squealing and these sort of nomadic aromas of sage and oregano and rosemary and olive oil and the pungency of roasting squash. And I’m sitting there with a glass of wine, the type of wine that is produced in Ikaria, the Pranos, the same wine that Ulysses gave the cyclops to get him drunk so he could knock him off—they are still drinking that wine in Ikaria…It’s just happiness.”

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