Friday, November 20, 2009

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Let me begin by saying that I love food. Eating it, cooking it, talking about it - it's all good. So it stands to reason I'd be pretty fascinated by a book like this, even though much of it I already knew and agreed with. Still, I learned a lot as I read, and I found reading it to be a surprisingly emotional experience (but then again, I really like food, so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised).

Basically the book talks about the history of food in America, and how we as a society have gone from eating our traditional foods from our various cultural backgrounds to eating a diet that, for many of us, is made up of things that, when you think about it, can't really be called food at all. They are a concoction of broken-down nutrients, artificial colors and flavors, and unpronounceable chemicals. Our own government, under the thumb of major players from the food industry, has allowed them to remove the once required "artificial" label from their products, and people are confused about what to eat because of so much conflicting advice from "experts." Don't eat butter, eat margarine. Wait, no, don't eat margarine - it turns out partially hydrogenated oils are way worse for you than butter ever was! And that fat we told you to avoid? Looks like there's no connection between saturated fats and heart disease after all...

So what is a poor eater to do? After discussing the food industry, its history, and "nutritionism," as well as the way our agricultural methods are harming the earth and rendering our food less nutritious than it was fifty years ago, Pollan offers some simple tips about what to eat and why. For example, it turns out that organic produce actually contains more nutrients than commercially grown produce. Some of his tips are kind of funny, but sad at the same time - like don't eat food that doesn't rot. Has anyone else seen the footage from the extras in Supersize Me, in which the filmmakers take various kinds of food and put them in glass canisters to see how long it takes them to rot? The restaurant hamburger was pretty nasty in a few days, but that McDonald's burger took much longer to start decomposing - and the fries still looked pretty fresh after over a month! Ick. I wonder how long it would take an Oreo to start to rot? A Ritz cracker? A Dorito?

The book takes a fascinating look at American culture and food, and Pollan examines questions such as why do Americans obsess so much about their food yet are still, as a whole, so overweight - not to mention unhealthy? Why do Americans consume so many more calories than other cultures? It was particularly disturbing to hear about children seen in health clinics who are overweight yet malnourished.

I feel so grateful for the years I spent in Italy, because not only did I learn a beautiful language and get to know an amazing country and some wonderful people, but I was introduced to a way of eating that I brought back home with me when I returned almost a decade later. Before I lived in Italy, I had no idea which foods were ripe in any particular season. At the supermarket in America, I could always find oranges and berries and squash, no matter the season. I loved my corner fruit and vegetable shop in Bologna. They were always a bit amused by ignorance, but they were happy to tell me all about anything I wanted to know - how to prepare certain vegetables, what herbs went with which dish (and they usually threw those in for free). And the flavor of that produce was unforgettable. I remember when the cherries came ripe, I was there almost every day to buy a huge bag of them - I'd never tasted anything like it. Then there was the fresh bread at the bakery around the corner - and don't even get me started about the cheese....

In Italy, I learned not just how to prepare food, but I learned how rewarding time spent in the kitchen can be - not just to the palate, but to the spirit. Time spent with good food - and wine - in the company of friends is time well spent, in my book. The memory of those meals and that amazing produce is what has spurred me on to prowl through farmers markets when I returned to America, where I search for the perfect ingredients, the ones to build a delicious meal around.

So Pollan's advice to buy locally, stick to the perimeter of the supermarket, to avoid food with health claims, to spend more, if possible, for quality food, was really preaching to the choir. But this was still an inspiring, fascinating book, and it's been fun to share what I learned with my children (who are, admittedly, less than thrilled these days when they ask me to buy a particular a snack food, and I ask them, "How many ingredients are in that?"). Pollan suggests no more than five - if there are more, be suspicious that it's not actually food.

At any rate, I listened to the audio version of this one, and I thought it was fascinating. It might be a bit too detailed for anyone who is not as interested in health and nutrition research as I am, particularly with the audio version, which is more difficult to skim. It is an important book, though, and it should be required reading in high school science classes, to make kids think about their own assumptions about food. Pollan mentions that the kind of people who take vitamins are generally healthier than those who don't, but it is likely not the vitamins that are making them healthier - it might just be the fact that they are focusing on taking care of themselves. The same might be said about this book - those who most need the information contained in its pages are probably not nearly as likely to pick it up, and that is unfortunate.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan; narrated by Scott Brick (Books on Tape, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Books I Done Read: "Michael Pollan makes sense of complicated things. Well, maybe he isn't making sense, but he's simplifying things enough that I feel like I get it."
DogEar Diary: "The strongest impression I came away with after reading this book was: less is more (you feel more satiated eating better quality food), and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (additives will never make up for what processing has removed from foods)."
Shelf Love: "Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I did Pollan’s previous book. There was some fascinating information about why nutrition research tells us to avoid fat one year and carbs the next. But there was more information here than I wanted."

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