The Art and Science of Eating and Living Well


Art, food and health. These are three of my passions, and I want to share with you a unique opportunity I had to combine and experience these in an exciting new way. I took part in a program called Art Bites, run by gracious chef and art museum educator, Maite Gomez-Rejon. We met at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, right around dinnertime. Over the course of an hour, Maite led us to view six famous paintings – beautiful works by French painters Boucher, Manet, Monet, and Cezanne created during the 18th and 19th centuries.

It turns out some famous painters liked to cook and were pretty good at it, too. Friendly and very knowledgeable, Maite gave us a mini-lecture about each artist, their paintings, and how they were regarded by their fellow artists and the art critics of the time. Then, she described the foods that the artists liked and were known for, and the foodie culture of people who lived during the time of each painting. We learned about the cooking philosophy, ingredients used, when people cooked at home and when they dined out, and about prominent cookbooks that were written during each period. This was amazing information you can’t get by renting a museum headset. It was a whole new dimension for visiting an art museum: Seeing art within the context of food.

After leaving the museum, we boarded a minibus and drove to a nearby industrial kitchen. When we arrived, Maite handed us recipes and, with her team of assistants, gave us a cooking lesson to create foods inspired by the paintings we saw, including many with cancer-fighting properties. Let me tell you about some of the dishes we cooked, and why they are healthy.

Simple Green Salad

This was an incredibly simple but tasty salad. We used fresh Bibb lettuce from a farm stand. Lettuce contains a number of natural cancer fighters, such as apigenin, quercetin and luteolin. A study of more than 34,000 women showed that consuming one cup of lettuce per day reduces the risk of colon polyps by 22%[1]. The dressing was the tastiest part: A few anchovies mashed up in a bowl with garlic and a little salt, with lemon juice, some mustard stirred in, extra virgin olive oil, and a dash of freshly ground black pepper.  This vinaigrette contains cancer-fighting omega-3s from the anchovies (there was no fishy taste at all), allicin from garlic, polyphenols from the olive oil, and piperine from the cracked pepper. Light and extremely flavorful, this dish proves that salad can be delicious and healthy – with no cheese, bacon bits, or creamy dressing in sight.

Roasted String Beans

We washed and trimmed away the hard end of fresh string beans. Rather than boil them (guaranteed to take away flavor), we drizzled them with a little olive oil, tossed them around a bit to coat them evenly, and then simply roasted them on a baking sheet for 10 minutes at 425 degrees. String beans contain a cancer fighter called quercetin, and studies of more than 490,000 people showed eating at least a half-cup of beans, like string beans, can reduce the risk of both lung cancer and cancer of the head and neck[2]. When the beans came out of the oven, we zested a lemon over them. Lemon zest from the peel contains a cancer fighter called limonene. These beans were full of amazing flavor.

Stuffed Tomatoes With Fresh Herbs

Tomatoes can be cooked by stuffing and roasting them. One cancer fighter in tomatoes is lycopene, a well-known antioxidant. Studies involving 70,000 men have shown that eating cooked tomatoes 2-3 times per week is associated with lower risk of prostate cancer[3]. We cut the tops off the tomatoes, hollowed them out with a spoon, and removed the seeds and most of the pulp.  Then, we filled the tomatoes with a stuffing made of breadcrumbs (using fresh bread keeps the stuffing moist; you can put whole wheat bread with crust removed through a food processor), scallions, basil, parsley, garlic, thyme, fresh cracked pepper, a little salt, and some grated Gruyere, a type of hard cheese.  Parsley contains many cancer-fighting substances – including brassinin, indole-3-carbinol, glucosinolates, luteolin, kaempferol, and quercetin – and it reduces the risk of lung cancer[4]. The other herbs also contain blockers of bad blood vessels that feed cancers. After drizzling a little olive oil on top of the uncooked stuffed tomato, we placed them on a baking tray in the oven for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. When they came out, the aroma of the tomato and herbs was mouth watering, and they tasted awesome. This dish was a cancer-fighting meal in itself.

Chicken With Leeks and Tarragon

We cooked a classic French chicken dish with leeks and tarragon. Leeks are a relative of the onion, and contain the cancer fighter allicin. Tarragon contains a natural cancer-fighting substance called limonene, which is antiangiogenic – it can prevent blood vessels from growing toward cancer cells. Chicken thighs are ideally suited for this dish, and they have a secret benefit: Not only are they less expensive than breast meat, but the dark meat of chicken thighs contains a cancer fighter called vitamin K2, also known as menaquinone. Increased dietary intake of menaquinones has been reported to reduce fatal prostate and lung cancers in a study of 24,300 people[5].

We dusted the chicken in flour and browned it in a bit of extra virgin olive oil, then removed the meat from the pan. Then, we sautéed pieces of leek with garlic, added some chicken stock, and simmered the whole thing for 10 minutes to reduce the liquid. We then added the chicken back to the pan, and kept the simmering going on low heat for another 10 minutes. At that point, the chicken was done, and we squeezed in the juice of one lemon and stirred in a large handful of chopped fresh tarragon.

The highlight of the evening was, of course, eating the delicious meal we all worked together to make. French cooking has a reputation for being notoriously difficult to pull off – and not always the healthiest – but the recipes we followed were simple and straightforward, and easy to make in 30 minutes or less. And a bounty of healthful ingredients was integral to each dish.

Oh, and for dessert? Chocolate brownies (cacao contains proanthocyanins that keep your good blood vessels healthy) with fresh berries (they contain ellagic acid that starve cancer cells).

Who said you can’t eat well and be well!

[1] Nurses Health Study (Cancer Res. 2006 Apr 1;66(7):3942-53)

[2] NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study (Int J Cancer. 2008 May 15;122(10):2330-6; Am J Epidemiol.  2008 Nov 1;168(9):1024-34.)

[3] Harvard Health Professionals Follow Up Study

[4] Iowa Women’s Health Study (Cancer Res., 53: 536-543, 1993.)

[5] Heidelberg Cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:1348–58.)