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    Yosemite Sam and His Grits

    November 1, 2007 by Brandy Vencel

    If you grew up watching Looney Toons, perhaps you recall the infamous Yosemite Sam? He was a red-headed southern man with a short temper and a long rifle. The stereotypical Yosemite Sam voice is simply yelling in a Southern drawl. Such a persona seems to be in conflict with the idea of a Southern gentleman.

    Being from California means I don’t really know what I’m talking about, although I did visit Georgia once when I was thirteen.

    This idea of the raging Southern man made so much more sense to me when I recently learned about a medical condition called pellagra. On September 24, 1911, The New York Times ran a story about the pellagra epidemic. At that time, it was known that the high intake of corn was somehow related to the disease, but no one was sure exactly how or why. Was it an insect consumed with the corn? Was it the importation of bad grain? Was it the consumption of the grain itself?

    The article says that 50,000 Southerners had the disease, which starts as a skin problem {looking like a sunburn}, and then progresses. In the end comes what is called pellagrous insanity. In 1914, it was recorded that pellagra causes acts of violence, and…irresistable impulses to homicide and suicide. I have read elsewhere that this stage begins with a simple case of bad temper.

    Could Yosemite Sam have been inspired by the pellagra vitims in the early 20th-century South?

    A lot of what I have read about pellagra explains that the eating of poorly processed corn caused the disease. Excessive and almost exclusive consumption of corn led to a niacin deficiency that caused first the skin problems and, later, mental illness and death.

    In one sense, this was a disease of poverty. The poor couldn’t afford much more than corn for their meals. Eating an unvaried diet {especially when it is devoid of animal protein and saturated fat} can quickly lead to vitamin deficiencies, in this case niacin {vitamin B3}.

    In another sense, this was a disease of irresponsibility. The South had so focused on cotton production that it no longer produced its own food supply. Beyond this, there were very few cows in the South. This is important because the consumption of raw milk is a known antidote to pellagra. Adding it to the porridge {grits} can prevent chidren from contracting the disease in the first place. By specializing in one crop {cotton}, the South lived on an unbalanced, practically vegetarian diet, and they paid the price. {This is, by the way, not because milk contains vitamin B3, but because it contains tryptophan, and the higher the intake of tryptophan, the less B3 is needed, more or less.}

    In yet another sense, this was a disease of ignorance. Americans and Europeans had adopted the use of Indian corn without the accompanying Indian practices. In 1951, J. Laguna and K.J. Carpenter from Rowett Research Institute in Scotland pointed out that in Mexico, there were low instances of pellagra even though the Mexican diet was strikingly similar to that of the South: high intake of corn and low intake of animal protein. One notable difference, however, was the tradition of preparing the corn using lime water.

    We know now that the lime water treatment of corn releases the bound niacin into the food, making it now available as a nutrient. A tradition that was seen as no longer necessary because we had more “advanced” machinery to serve the purposes of the lime turned out to have much more to it than an easy way to husk corn kernels.

    The Point
    If your kids eat grits in the morning {mine do}, treat it with lime. This will also add calcium. By the way, this is the chemical lime, not the fruit.

    Also, please note that Mission brand tortilla chips are made from properly prepared corn. Not every chip is like this. We don’t eat a lot of chips, but if we did, this would be a consideration.

    Finally, the real reason I went into all of this. Besides the fact that I find this sort of thing absolutely fascinating, there is a greater purpose. There has been an ongoing discussion in the comments of this post from earlier this week. A lot of it has focused on nutrition as a cause or contributor to disease.

    Obviously, in the case of pellagra, the doctors spent years and years debating the cause while people died. The people continued to eat as they normally did {the Great Depression didn’t help matters}, even though the Italians were insisting that corn was somehow at fault, either directly or indirectly.

    Diet is not the cause of all disease. If you want to get theological, sin is, and we will all die of something sooner or later. However, if you want to begin to combat what ails you or your children, I might suggest a closer look at your food intake.

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    4 Comments

  • Reply Justin May 13, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Thanks for the info. I’m aware of the issue with grain preperations, but I wondered about grids and I have not been able to find much info on them. Do you know what type of grits I should buy (i.e. stone ground?). Should the package so processed with Lime? Can I tread grits with lime my self, if I buy whole grits maybe? Thanks!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 13, 2015 at 11:07 am

      I don’t make grits very often, but my husband is from the South, so I can’t avoid it entirely. When I’ve dealt with any corn products, really, I’ve tried to buy the whole, treat it with the lime, and then grind it myself. A dehydrator helps a lot with this because otherwise wet corn can mold before it is dry enough to grind!

  • Reply Brandy November 5, 2007 at 6:27 am

    I have been wanting to read Price’s book! Actually, one of my new favorite “books” is a cookbook called Nourishing Traditions that incorporates a lot of Price’s work, along with more recent research. I cook from this cookbook all the time and so I can verify that it is child-approved!

    One of the things I have been thinking about based on my reading is transitioning from a reactive to proactive stance on health. Reactive would be where we react to bad health. So maybe we get an infection and take an antibiotic or get a headache and take a Tylenol. Proactive, on the other hand, would be where we are working toward a state of good health. Ideally, this “state of good health” would mean that we are naturally resistant to many diseases (including tooth decay, if you listen to Price).

    All of that to say I would LOVE to borrow your book! 🙂

  • Reply babyjackbabysack November 5, 2007 at 4:02 am

    Have you read Dr. Weston Price’s work NUTRITION AND DEGENERATIVE DISEASE? It is the book that has most shaped my ideas of nutrition and health. I don’t remember if he specifically discusses pellagra, but he points to “activator x” (animal fat, specifically, butter from grass-fed cows) having healing properties for those affected by malnutrition. Back when he wrote his work (mid-1930’s), not everyone could afford lots of animal products so many families subsisted on white flour-, white sugar-heavy foods so many people were sick. Anyway, I just loved this piece. It turned everything I thought I knew about nutrition on its head. You can borrow it if you haven’t read it. 🙂

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