September 16, 2019

Am I Ikarian?

I just finished Diane Kochilas new cookbook, Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die. I put it down, and announced to my wife, “I'm ready to move to Ikaria.”

She has heard this before– not just Ikaria, but Umbria, Marin County, the Galilee, Rome, Yucatan.  I am at that stage of life, I suppose, when every cookbook becomes a life change fantasy.  Bill Buford hasn't even published his long-awaited book on the food of Lyon, but I'm already planning to want to move there.

But really, Ikaria may top the list.

Oh, to be Ikarian. You wake up, drink two glasses of raw goats milk, and chase it with some wild herb tea and raw honey.  You meander to work– things begin to get going around 11, though nobody seems to have a firm grasp on what “11” is. For lunch, you sauté some wild greens and herbs in olive oil and garlic, ladle some stewed fava beans over them, chew them slowly with some crusty bread and a chunk of homemade goat cheese, wash it all down with a glass of wine you made in your backyard.  Then you nap.  Wait, no, first you have sex, and then you nap. When the day cools, you tend your garden, pick your grapes, and milk your goats. Come nightfall, you eat light, maybe a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers and olives topped with samphire, another couple glasses of wine, and a long conversation with friends, sleep.

That's the Ikarian lifestyle and diet. 

And as Kochilas and numerous studies have pointed out, Ikarians do this for a very long time.  They are among the longest-lived and healthiest people on earth.  Globally, about 1 percent of all people live to reach 80 years old.  On Ikaria, over 13 percent do. Ikarians are 10 times more likely than other humans to live into their 90s and 100s. And they do this while still maintaining their health.  On Ikaria there is no dementia, and no Alzheimers.

I first learned of Ikaria when the The New York Times magazine did a cover story on the longevity of the island's inhabitants.  It was called “The Island Where People Forgot to Die.”  The story I remember is of an American immigrant from Ikaria who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given two years to live.  He decided to go back where he came from and live out the rest of his few remaining days on the island.  By the time the reporter interviewed him, he was 102, and still going strong.  When the reporter asked him what his American doctors made of his miraculous recovery, he shrugged and said he didn't know, all his American doctors were all dead.

Kochlis is not only a well-known Greek cookbook author, she is from Ikaria as well.  No one was better qualified to uncover the island's foodways, and she delivers a book that is authoritative when it comes to recipes. 

The Ikarians eat a slimmed-down Mediterranean diet– a lot of olive oil, fresh vegetables, not too much meat.  They consume loads of wild greens, gathered across the rocky island. They drink 3.5 glasses of wine each day.  Their wine is dark, red and homemade. It is aged in 250-liter clay amphorae buried in their backyards, and it weighs in at 16 percent alcohol.  They water it down a bit before serving, like the ancient Greeks.

The milk they drink is goat’s milk, raw and unpasteurized, and the cheeses are mostly goat cheeses.  They eat meat sparingly, mostly for festive occasions– a roast goat for Easter, some chicken, wild game when it is available, a family pig, slaughtered around Christmas, that lasts and lasts. Of course they eat fish and seafood, but it is increasingly expensive and scarce. They eat sparingly, consuming less but better food.

If those are secrets, they are no longer well hidden.  You can walk into any farm-to-table restaurant on Abbot Kinney and order a dinner whose ingredients at least echo Ikaria.  As I read through Kochlis's recipes, the uniquely Ikarian ingredients boiled down to a handful: those wild herbs and greens, the raw goats milk, and taramasalata, or fish eggs, which Kochlis says are packed with nutrients, and a common Ikarian food.

But you and I and Kochlis know it's not just about the recipes, or the diet. Many Greeks eat like Ikarians, but don't live as long. The secret to a long, healthy and seemingly happy life can't possibly boil down to goat or wild oregano or fish eggs– though I'm sure if Kochlis' book hits the best seller list, Costco will soon offer goat meat capsules with fish egg extract. What we Americans desperate for quick fixes don't get is that it’s not just about the body, it's about the soul.

Ikarians don't just take care of their bodies by eating right.  They take care of their souls.  They are not caught up in the mad pursuit of wealth. They earn far less than average Greeks, and much less than Americans– about 6000 euros, or $7400, per year.  They are intensely social, with long-standing bonds and frequent get-togethers–  a deep, rich communal life. They work hard, with their hands, tending their gardens, their herds. About 4 percent of the oldest Ikarians still work in their farms and small businesses. They sleep a lot, make love a lot, and live pretty much off the clock.

“To this day,” Kochlis writes, “a relative disinterest in material wealth, a penchant for last minute planning, if any at all, and a deep-seated recognition of the fleeting quality of life still pervade and define the Ikarian mind set.”

And that's the difference:  the ability to enjoy, in the words of that great Ikarian James Taylor, the passing of time: To be still, to browse at God's bounty, to hang with friends, to romp.  It's not just to eat goat cheese, but also to be goat-like.

That, I said to my wife, is how we should live.  And Ikaria, I said, is where we should live.

She wasn't convinced.  Maybe for vacation, she said, or retirement.   But what about accomplishment?  What about ambition? How many Nobel prizes have Ikarians won?  How many cures have they invented, or great books have they written?  In Utopia, people don't achieve their potential– they're just content.  But contentment, at least for Jews, is overrated.  If everyone lived like Ikarians, how would the world progress?

I took the cookbook and went off by the fire to fantasize in peace.  I imagined making the wild greens and pumpkin pie, bringing it to the village baker.  I fantasized about dipping into those 250-liter amphorae.  I read and re-read the part about how goats roam the island uninhibited– actually, it's become a nuisance– and I pictured myself happily following them down one stony hillside after another.  Was Nomi right?  Would that life, ultimately, leave me unfulfilled?  I mean, if the Stones sang, “I can get plenty of satisfaction,” they wouldn't be the Stones.

I don't know the answer, not for sure.  I do know that if I eat and live more like the Ikarians, I'd probably have a lot more time to figure it out.