“San Anselmo?” a friend said, when I mentioned we keep a cottage there for summers in the US. “Where’s that on the crunchy granola spectrum?”
Here in quirky Marin County, just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the further you are from the city, the less mainstream and more offbeat your town is likely to be; locally this is known as being crunchier on the granola spectrum. When it comes to measuring cultural outliers, granola is the perfect benchmark. It was first developed by wild-eyed health fanatics in the nineteenth century; early versions were made of twice-baked graham flour that was so hard you had to soak it overnight in milk if you didn’t want to risk breaking a tooth or dislocating your jaw. Later, in the 1970s, more consumer-friendly versions became a sort of edible manifesto for the counterculture’s protest at the rise of chemical-laden, sugary breakfast cereals.
Today, corporate giants produce many versions of granola, but aficionados still shop for purity of ingredients and social consciousness, buying boutique brands such as Beautiful Day from the Providence Granola Project, which was created to give international refugees a fresh start in their new country.
Last year, the FDA forced a Massachusetts bakery to remove the word “love” from the ingredients list on its granola package, insisting it wasn’t a genuine component. I think the refugees working at the Providence Granola Project might disagree.
I first made granola when I was twenty, and it wasn’t for any high-minded countercultural, political, or humanitarian reasons. Having moved to Boston, where I was supporting myself on two part-time jobs (a lunch counter and a CVS), I often whipped up batches of granola to stretch my food budget. As my life got busier and my income a trifle more robust, I gave up homemade cereal for the convenience of grabbing a box of breakfast off the supermarket shelf. But lately I’ve been re-thinking my food policy. I’m no purist, but I can’t help feeling a bit squeamish when I’m munching along and my eye falls on a label that informs me I’m downing spoonfuls of potassium benzoate, butylated hydroxyanisole, carcinogenic food dyes, aspartame, guar gum, and partially hydrogenated oil, to say nothing of vast amounts of white sugar. Not exactly the breakfast, lunch, or dinner of champions.
But figuring out what’s healthy isn’t easy; there’s a flood of conflicting opinion online, some of it funded by large corporate food chains and possibly not quite as impartial as we’d like. I began my research with Michael Pollan’s bestselling book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. After a lifetime study of nutrition, he summed up his best advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Hmmm. That sounded sensible. But where to start?
I decided to make an effort to keep my consumption of processed food, white sugar, and harmful chemicals to a minimum, starting with breakfast. Rich, who loves sugary cold cereals and loathes oatmeal, was appalled at the idea.
“What am I supposed to eat in the morning?” he asked. “Those organic health food store cereals that taste like cardboard?”
“Nope, homemade granola,” I said. He rolled his eyes.
I’d long since lost my old cookbook but found a great recipe online. After the first batch, Rich made me promise our home would never be without a jar of this stuff.
So before we go any further, I give you fair warning: my healthy, homemade granola is absolutely, positively addictive. But that’s OK, because it’s filled with wholesome ingredients (oats, nuts, dried fruits), sweetened with honey (which has been used medicinally since ancient times), and held together with olive oil (see my post “Hot News! Olive Oil Doesn't Make You Fat”). And it’s easy to make. How easy? I’m so glad you asked. Here’s Rich, cooking up a batch in our kitchen.
Back when “You are what you eat” was a catchphrase, people loved to joke that it was certainly true about California and granola, because both are full of nuts and flakes. I’m not going to debate that, especially living in San Anslemo, which happens to be on the crunchier end of the granola spectrum. And that’s fine with me. I enjoy being part of a community of wild-eyed idealists who believe that food should be nutritious, that locally sourced honey is sweeter than high-fructose corn syrup, and that love is always an ingredient in homemade granola.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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