I knew I was in Paradise the first time I set foot on Ikaria, the Greek island where my father was born that was catapulted a few years ago to unexpected fame as a Blue Zone, one of the world’s pockets of longevity.
It was 1972. After a 14-hour ride, the ferry let us off mid-sea in the middle of the night, where we were tossed, young and old, canes, carriages, and suitcases, into the fishing boats that sidled up to the stern, the norm back then since the ports were too shallow for ferries to dock. There were no tourists, roads that belied definition, and an almost otherworldly sense of being very, very far away and yet, somehow, right at the center. It took me, a New York kid then, decades to fully appreciate exactly what that meant.
Ikaria’s remoteness helped shape a culture of solidarity, self-reliance, and, to use a catchphrase of the day, mindfulness. Ikarians — even many of us who live far from the island — are tuned in to our own unique, honeyed pace, neither wound nor bound by the clock, sometimes much to the frustration of our non-Ikarian friends.
Ikaria’s isolation helped create a living testament to the Mediterranean Diet in its most holistic sense, one in which fresh, seasonal, home-cooked food and community are interwoven in ways that sustain physical and emotional health, human relationships, and the environment. Many Ikarians live long and well, with less cancer and heart disease than Americans, and virtually no dementia, or depression, drinking wine, enjoying sex, walking, gardening, and socializing into their sunset years. They are 10 times more likely to live to 90 or even 100 than Americans, a statistic that embraces men and women almost equally.
Although the island is definitely more accessible than it was 40 years ago, it is still a paradigm of mindful Mediterranean living. The essence of Ikaria’s good-for-life Mediterranean diet is evinced in its simple, pure foods, which are still popular. Most families have year-round gardens, traditionally planted in relatively shady places near streams because water management is an inherent part of life. Gardens provide a source of nourishment, pride, self-sufficiency, and, most important, dignity, irrespective of income, which tends to be on the low end of the scale anyway.
Seasonality of food is a given, with lessons to be had that go far beyond Ikaria’s borders. Eating foods in their season, when nature intended, brings anticipation, which in turn teaches us to savor and enjoy the moment, a notion obscured by the 24/7 availability of almost everything in American supermarkets and the erroneous — and, ultimately, unsustainable — belief that it’s our right to have it all in endless choice.
On Ikaria, many people still forage for wild foods, from nutritionally dense edible greens, weeds, and herbs to mushrooms that would sell for a prize in any American gourmet market. Looking for the likes of fiddlehead ferns, borage, purslane, nettles, thin wild asparagus, thistles, pennyroyal, salsify, and so much more provides both natural exercise and immense pleasure. (Tellingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published many a manual on how to kill the very same plants, considered pests.) On Ikaria, indeed throughout Greece, we eat edible weeds, aka horta, in raw and cooked salads, savory pies, and other recipes that are both purely vegetarian (or even vegan) but also combined with meat and fish, naturally flexitarian before the word was ever invented.
Herbs have a fascinating place in the local culture, as both food and folk medicine. Sage tea with honey was “our childhood antibiotic,” as my friend Yiorgos Stenos, 84, told me. Ikarians still drink this when they feel a cold coming on, as they do oregano for stomachaches, chamomile for insomnia, and more. Most of these infusions are mild diuretics, helping relieve hypertension, perhaps one reason locals have relatively little heart disease.
Ikarians consume antioxidant-rich goat’s milk and cheeses, pure, raw pine, thyme, blossom, and heather honeys, enjoy fresh fish, goat as the main source of animal protein, and a bevy of legumes and vegetables at every time of the year, including the much-maligned potato and taro root, both foods of survival that still have a delicious place on the table. Most make their own wine and readily share it with others.
But the good life here is about more than just food.
What I sensed as a young girl that first pivotal summer on the island was that the perspective on life, in defiance of materialistic pursuits, was more about time, and living in a way that seems to stretch it. There is a telling joke about the time of day always being “late-thirty.” Read that to mean that it’s always the present.
It takes a cultivated mindfulness to live this way, especially today, and Ikarians seem to have a kind of internal languidness in their DNA, a tempo that allows them to be both observers and participants in the moment. It’s what enabled, for example, my 95-year-old aunt to literally be able to feel her body from the inside, as one does, say, in meditation exercises, to know if something was ailing, and to have the empiric knowledge to heal it, typically with herbs and specific foods. Many people on the island possess this ability. On a personal level, it’s what disabled me, as well, from ever aspiring to live within the rigid confines of a corporate job. I had a first taste of Ikarian timelessness at a formative age, and it was sweet.
Life on Ikaria, even in 2014, is still a paradigm for healthy living, sound of body and mind. The island has taught me to cherish relationships that span generations and continents, to enjoy and appreciate the gifts of nature, to eat real food in its season, and, perhaps, most important of all, to do so with an open heart and an open table, welcoming others to it.
This is the Mediterranean Diet in its most profound and holistic. It’s an approach to life and eating that requires you to actually make time for enjoying both.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health, in conjunction with the “Mediterranean Diet and Workplace Health” conference (September 27-28 in Boston at HSPH). This event will feature lectures, panels, select chef-supervised meals and a Greek food and wine exhibition to increase awareness, appeal, and understanding of Mediterranean dietary habits as a vehicle for improved workplace and school health. For more information about Mediterranean Diet and Workplace Health, visit here.