Why I'm not buying Michael Pollan's new book

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.”

Good boy.

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.


8 responses

  1. It wasn’t me — I took the easy route and listened to the audiobook version, mostly while cooking meals at home 🙂

    I see where you’re coming from. I think a lot of the time it was a feel-good read (listen?) for me. I did feel like the choir being preached to, but there were a few a-ha moments as well.

    The beginning about the history of nutritionism (and the role McGovern of all people played in it) was eye-opening for me.

    Near the end where he talks about how much time people spend preparing, partaking in, and cleaning up after meals was one such moment. I spend an hour or more each day preparing supper and almost that long cleaning up, but until recently supper itself lasted only 10-15 minutes. Now we make a conscious effort to eat more slowly, talk to each other, and make meals a bigger part of the day.

    I also liked the part where he talked about eating potentially richer, but more wholesome foods in smaller quantities. Part of me wanted to call this book In Defense of Butter.

    L is planning on lending the book to a friend who has no particular stance on eating whole foods or many of the other points discussed in the book. It’ll be interesting to see how they react.

  2. D had a lot of points but I think the biggest thing for us as a couple was that we’ve tried many times in the past to cut down our grocery budget because it seems exorbitant but reading that book made us realize that it’s perfectly reasonable considering the kinds of foods that we buy (actual FOOD).

    Our poor 5 year old has an obsession with McD’s even though he hasn’t eaten there in 2 years (he was with his grandparents at the time). He’s been brainwashed by us to say that it tastes good but it isn’t good for you…let’s hope that he realizes what that means someday…and that we are only looking out for his future by teaching him that.

  3. oh, and in defense of our high grocery budget — as our budget has increased, our waistlines have decreased. I hardly think that is a coincidence and this book helped reaffirm that.

  4. Prairie Geeks–

    Thanks for your responses! I hear you about the food budget–even though I grow and can and preserve a lot of my own food, my grocery bills are probably still higher than most who don’t.

    I also probably spend a lot more time doing dishes than most–no dishwasher and can hardly bring myself to make a meal without several pots and pans.

    What I don’t do–and should–is spend more time actually eating what I’ve prepared. I’m horrible about gobbling my food, and then I wonder why I’ve gone to all that time and trouble (well, it’s not really trouble) to prepare it. But it always is worth it to prepare something REAL. (Heck, I’ve been known to wheedle H into choosing a “real” soda instead of a diet one–I figure if he’s going to drink a soda–drink the one that’s at least got real high fructose corn syrup in it instead of some derivative-of-a-derivative artificial sweetener.)

    I think Pollan’s book has a great message, and I’ll definitely wait to borrow it from the library–I just couldn’t justify spending over twenty bucks for it. If I could find a used copy, I would definitely read and then pass it around.

    Too, for me, it’s like my friend at the DRA meeting said–“I feel like I should read it–but sometimes when you live a thing and work a thing, you just want to think about or do something else for awhile.”

    Like finish the dishes from last night’s solstice feast!


  5. I read this book right after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and was disappointed. There were some good bits, but if you’d been following his journalism and media interviews, it felt like there wasn’t enough content for an entirely new book.

    Years ago I used to organize a cooking party that met once a month. We’d pick a world cuisine, find recipes for it, and then gather to cook a feast. What I’d love to do now–once there’s local produce to be had again–would be to do a once-a-month cooking party based on whatever local is in season.

    When I was able to get folks to cook together, not just bring food to a potluck,it was a wonderful opportunity to learn new ways to cook things. It seems like everybody who cooks has little tips and secrets not everyone knows.

  6. Kelly–

    You’ve just described something very like my plan for a “Friends of Market Fridays” feast once a month in conjunction with the farmers market season. I envisioned focusing on specific ingredients/dishes rather than cuisines–salads in June, cold soups in July, maybe some canning/preserving in August or September.

    I’m going to apply for that SD Dept. of Ag grant to see if we can get some financial support for such an endeavor and to help defray the cost of advertising and extension kitchen rental.


  7. Pingback: Eating Locally in the Pacific Northwest » Blog Archive » Slow Food

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