Understand that Food is Medicine Says ‘Wise Woman’ Herbalist
Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with Barbara Volk of West Virginia with a focus on the Wise Woman Tradition, the oldest healing tradition in the world. You can read the first article, “Functioning in the Chaos” and a sidebar feature on Barbara’s “Fairy Land” photo.
WESTON, W.Va. — Barbara Volk, who lives according to the Wise Woman Tradition, has a simple message with profound consequences. “We have to look at food as medicine,” she emphatically insists. “Nutrition is the first part of medicine. It doesn’t mean we’ll never get sick, but even if we do get sick or have a disease, we are in better shape to recover.”
There is much truth, she says, in the maxim “We are what we eat.” In her matter-of-fact delivery, she offers, “It is a major phrase we all hear. It’s just known.”
Volk argues, “We all know that our food system is broken and our medical system is broken. Because of the dominant American culture standard diet, people are not being nourished. There are a lot of health issues and we know this. All who eat the standard American diet know it. They may not want to admit it, but they know deep in their heart it’s true. This is why there are so many people with diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other disorders.”
Eating habits of most Americans consist largely of processed food. Volk notes, “It’s highly processed food. It is nothing like it claims to be.”
Another problem is fad diets, argues Volk. “One of the things that is occurring now is that people know they’re not healthy. So they go on a diet. There are these really bizarre diets out there. There’s this mindset that has developed that if you go on one of these diets you’ll be healthful. So people restrict one food or another.” However, notes Volk, “There are consequences with restricting food from their diet. They are feeling starved. There is still a craving. So, then they go off the diet. Then go on a new diet. It’s a cycle that never produces health.”
The Wise Woman Tradition teachers a different approach shares Volk. “So I eat and suggest other people eat a well rounded diet of well cooked food.” She continues, “In the Wise Woman Tradition, rather than restrict yourself, we say add more nutritious foods to what you are doing.” For example, says Volk, “Our bodies need some meat. We don’t need to eat it every day. Some of us do, but just once or twice a month is sufficient.”
She knows her views are at odds with many, but she says she was once a vegan and it made her unwell. She points out, “Deer, horses, cows and goats are vegans. But they have the stomachs and intestines that can process and break down those plant materials into the nutrients they need. We don’t.”
In addition to nutrients, we also need the minerals that natural, nutritious food provides says Volk. “We need a variety of food.” Cooking is critical, because she says, “We don’t get much nutrition from raw foods. Plants have strong cell walls. One of the ways we can break down the cell walls and make food more nutritious is by cooking it. Cooking releases the minerals. Cooking your greens really well releases those minerals.”
For those wishing to make the transition to more nutritious foods, she knows it can be difficult, so suggests going slow. “I feel like this is really important. You add one thing at a time if it’s a challenge for you. Then what happens over time, as your body starts getting the nutrition it really needs, you stop craving things you don’t need. What we are missing is minerals.”
She also argues that by cooking a variety of items, one won’t need to buy vitamins. “Vitamins are relatively easy to get from food. But minerals are not. So what do people do? We go to the store and buy supplements rather than eat the food that has the minerals.”
So, Volk suggests several methods for improving one’s diet. Freezing foods or buying frozen foods; drying or dehydrating; coating food with oil; and, utilizing the fermenting process all work she explains, “The freezing and the cooking releases the nutrients. Dehydrating fruits and vegetables cause the cell walls to break down.” She continues, “Another way is coating food with oil. On a salad, use a fair amount of oil.” Oil, she notes, immediately starts cooking the greens.” She adds, “The last way is by fermenting.”
Explains Volk, “All of the above processes break down the cell walls which is why the nutrients are more available.”
She acknowledges transitions in how we eat can sometimes be difficult, so she suggests a few things to try to get started. “Learn how to make soup. It is so easy,” she shares. “Everyone has days off from work, even if it’s the weekend.” It only takes about a half an hour to prepare and then is simply allowed to cook all day. “I start with two days of cooking a stock. I use bone broth or vegetable ends.” Then, she adds vegetables and allows it to cook all day. Of course, a two-day broth isn’t necessary, points out Volk, as one make broth any number of ways.
She also emphasizes the importance of cooking greens for at least an hour. “The best way to begin this process is to start with leafy greens, like kale. Cook it for an hour. Don’t throw the water away, because you’re throwing the minerals away.”
For people not able to grow their own food or get fresh food, she recommends frozen vegetables from the grocery store. “Even in food deserts, you can find bags of frozen vegetables. The quality might not be organic and it might not be locally grown, but it’s still going to nourish you more than that McDonald’s hamburger.” She also notes that bones for soup stock can be purchased in a grocery store.
She encourages folks to give it a try. “People can learn. Soup is a really easy way to learn how to cook. It’s an easy way to store food so you can have a quick meal. Put it in containers in the freezer. Soup and a piece of whole grain bread is a good meal.”
Volk also champions herbal infusions. “Another way to add nutrition is to start drinking nourishing herbal infusions instead of water. The reason people have a hard time with this is because it’s an activity you have to do everyday.” She adds though, “Most people make coffee everyday. It’s really no different.”
She explains, “One of the beauties of this is your body can absorb the nutrients. They go into your bloodstream and give you the nutrients you need.” She uses and recommends Nettles, Red Clover, Oatstraw, Comfrey Leaf, and Linden Flowers among others. All of these products can be purchased online notes Volk. The insert below contains some of her nourishing herbal infusions.
Eating whole foods, brown rice, whole grains and whole wheat bread is also a good beginning for those who are accustomed – or addicted – to white food products. Volk recommends, for example, trying some brown rice instead of white rice.
The transition to a more nourishing diet is not easy, acknowledges Volk. Yet, the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to learn how to cook, and do so in a nourishing way. Most importantly, she reminds us, good food is the first step of good medicine. She reflects, “We are of that generation when food was cooked at home. That’s not happening much anymore.” Yet, insists Volk, cooking healthy food is good for more than our bodies. “It is more than just making meals. I love cooking. For me, it is a spiritual process. It is prayer.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2021. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of Grassroots Appalachia LLC.