Headed up to Brookings on Thursday afternoon for a Dakota Rural Action Small Farms Committee meeting. It was my first time at one of the meetings, so it was good to see some familiar faces as well as meeting some new folks.
My hostess and host made me feel very welcome in their home, and my host had homemade honey-wheat bread and potato-leek soup ready for dinner when my hostess and I returned from the meeting. I broke out my gift contribution (bad form to show up empty-handed) of crabapple jelly, and we had a nice evening of good food and conversation before turning in.
I had left Verm a bit early that afternoon in order to have some extra time in Sioux Falls. I had in mind that I was going to buy Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (I’d called the library before I left and it’s out ’til early January–Doug?). But I didn’t buy it. I sat down in a comfy chair in that big corporate bookstore and flipped through and read it for about an hour before putting it back on the “Thought-Provoking” table.
It’s not that it isn’t good, and it’s not that it doesn’t contain an important message. I know it’s an important message because it’s one I’ve been living by for years, and my mother promoted before me: much of what’s on the supermarket shelves really shouldn’t be called food.
When I walk into a typical grocery store, much of what’s there does not register as food in my mind. So, when Pollan says the most important thing we can do to be healthy is to eat (actual, real) food, it’s pretty clear to me what he’s talking about. I’m not one of those snobs who peeks at other people’s groceries and sniffs, but I can’t help see the carts full of frozen pizzas, sodas, microwave “meals,” and chips.
I haven’t committed to memory each and every bit of scientific wisdom and “nutritionism” history that is contained within the pages of this fairly small hardcover, but you don’t really have to know those things to know what is and isn’t food.
Lunchables are not food. Go-gurt portable yogurt tubes (one of his favorite examples) are not food. Soda is not food. And bread that contains a list of ingredients a half-mile long should not really be called bread, and should not really be thought of as food.
My own favorite example is Vitamin Water. If it’s not clear, and it’s got “stuff” in it besides H2O and maybe some minerals, it’s not water. And I’m not convinced by the nutritious-sounding name that something in a plastic bottle that’s bright blue or orange or green or pink without blueberries or oranges or spinach or beets is an actual food.
I’ve been instilling this anti-fake food propaganda in my son’s head for the last year or two. When he has excitedly pointed out a box of some cracker or cereal or “fruit” snack with a favorite cartoon character on it, I’ve asked, “Is Batman in that box?” “Does eating that make you like Batman?” and other meany-mom questions so that now when he sees Batman or Shrek or whatever on a box in the grocery store, he still points it out, and then he says, “they’re just using the picture of Batman to sell the cereal.”
This isn’t to say that I never succumb, never let anything pass my lips that isn’t pure. The other day I bought us a (horrible! terrible!) pink lemonade to share. You know, the ones with the ingredient list half a mile long and containing about 3% lemon juice plus high fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient after water. Awful stuff.
We were drinking it, and I was telling M what was in it (I know, I’m a total crumb-bum), and he was like, “no way!” and I was like, “yes way!” and he was like “no way!” and I was like, “to-tally.”
And then he said, thoughtfully, as he was squinting at the now-infamous bottle, “well, it’s not good for us, but as long as we don’t drink it all the time, it should be OK.”
My lovely little moderate.
Another discussion in Pollan’s treatise is about ingredient or claim-hype. Cholesterol is deemed “bad,” so everything in the market suddenly begins to sport a “Zero Cholesterol!” badge. Then scientists figure out that some cholesterol is “good,” so the packages suddenly claim to be a good source of LDL or Omega-3 or whatever else the new thing is.
I remember when the lowly oatmeal suddenly became this curative wonder-food, and the package of Cheerios we ate as kids suddenly sported a heart-shaped bowl and claims about how eating it could save your imperiled life. I wondered if maybe they’d added some kind of medicine or something, and I should stop eating it. But oats themselves (as well as other whole grains) have always been good for us, whether the package they’re in sports a festive label or not.
One of my favorite recommendations in the book is for people who want to eat better to start cooking (and also perhaps to grow something–even if it’s on a windowsill). I have been accused, and rightfully so, of having one of those kitchens where you open the fridge and there’s hardly ever anything that can be simply grabbed out and consumed. There’s all kinds of food in there, but it’s more like ingredients than grab ‘n go.
But at the same time, if I didn’t work from home like I do, or love growing and cooking food like I do, Pollan’s advice might seem like some kind of pastoral dream–not particularly practicable. Our society has become so lulled by convenience, so sated by a seemingly huge variety of easy “fuel” foods, and so busy with other things, that cooking has become for most either a luxury or a chore.
It’s hard to see food as anything but fuel if you haven’t spent time immersed in a culture where food was elevated to communion. Heck, even the communion wafers in most churches in this country can’t rightfully be called bread, even metaphorically.
Overall, what Pollan preaches in his cult-of-real-food is a good message, an important message, a positive message. But for the most part, without major policy changes on a governmental level, and without a serious cultural revolution, his back seems turned to the majority of the congregation, and the choir, steeped in farmers markets and good restaurants and foodie culture, has embraced a message they’re already living.
I remain hopeful that the local food revolution will continue to grow, but paradoxically I think the best chance for a widespread local food revolution will come as part of a serious economic downtown, when real, good, nutritious local foodstuffs become the only affordable way for people to fill their bellies.
It’s hard to hope for something as catastrophic as that, but even without hoping for it, we can certainly prepare for that possibility. As I’ve written before in this blog, the effects of food transportation costs at the supermarket have already made it possible for local growers to charge less than grocery stores for some basic produce items in season.
These price increases and concern over the economy have also fueled a renewed interest in home gardening, canning, and other types of preserving. Worry about a total economic meltdown might not be the ideal path toward the celebratory local food culture that Pollan advocates, but it might be the most likely way to get there.