Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Defense of Food

Editor's Note: I'm happy to present a guest post written by my co-worker and friend, Marni. She's our foodie in the office, and her knowledge of Twin Cities restaurants and all-around food facts are greatly appreciated. She recently finished In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. (She read The Omnivore's Dilemma a while ago as well.) I have yet to read these books, but I know many people are interested in this theme, so I wanted to share Marni's educated and thoughtful comments. Thanks Marni!

I know it’s the fashionable thing to say now, but seriously, Michael Pollan’s writing in this and The Omnivore’s Dilemma has changed the way I think about food. I no longer pay attention to the “nutrition facts” (you’ll read in the book how we can’t really prove half of what we think we know about nutrition) on a bag of bread or box of crackers—I read the ingredients. I hear Michael Pollan’s voice in my head: “Does this item have more than five ingredients? Would my great-grandmother recognize this item as actual food? Would she ever have cooked with guar gum?”

Of course it’s impossible to expect all Americans to fundamentally change the way we eat—our way of life is dependent on the fact that we can purchase goods that are shipped from far away, that are pumped with preservatives, that last forever in storage and only take minutes to prepare. So while I think Pollan’s general rules of thumb are helpful, most people aren’t going to follow them religiously. At some points he gives some pretty pie-in-the-sky advice too, like how eaters should “involve themselves in food production to whatever extent they can, even if that only means planting a few herbs on a sunny windowsill or foraging for edible greens and wild mushrooms in the park.”

Foraging? For mushrooms? In the park? I think at one point he also recommends people buy a whole pig or sheep and freeze the different parts to make it more cost-effective to purchase grass-fed, organic meats. And while I don’t think there’s any inherent problem with this advice, it’s the best of all possible worlds he’s talking about here. Like I said, too many other things in our lives prevent us from living like this any more. Other parts of our culture—driving to work on highways, telecommuting to get more done, sitting in front of the TV and computer—they’ve all coevolved with this food system that we have today. We would no longer know how to function if we actually had to cook every single meal with natural, in-season ingredients, when really it wasn’t so long ago that that was the case. In that sense, the book causes you to think not just about how you eat, but about how you live. Because Pollan shows you how inextricably the two are linked.

I suppose Pollan can assume a level of commitment to quality food in his audience because of the very fact they have picked up his book. But I think the best of this book lies in what you personally decide to take away from it—not in following everything he says to do. Like tonight, I had a tasty frozen pizza from Target’s organic-imposter Archer Farms brand. It was delicious. But those are more of a treat for me now than a norm. When I go to the grocery store I really do think of the book’s mantra, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” And once you read the book and understand what that means, you can pretty easily begin to apply it in small ways that I think, at least for me, actually make a difference. I cook more now. I eat more fruits and vegetables. Of course I still indulge in frozen pizza, Cheetos and other “edible foodlike substances” from time to time, and I have yet to start an adorable windowsill herb-growing operation or forage in the park for mushrooms, but I guess you’ve gotta start somewhere.


Marni said...

Thanks Amanda! I've got a whole list of food/nutrition/agriculture books I'll be reading soon so I'll keep you posted.

willikat said...

Guest bloggers! Movie reviews! You are big time.

CMS said...

Who is this Marni you speak of? She sounds FASCINATING. And I bet she can recommend a really good hummus at the Farmers' Market, too. (In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting post and made me curious about the book, esp. now that I'm responsible for preparing somewhat healthy meals for a 2-year-old!)

A. said...

Willikat - No, not "big time." Those posts mean I don't have book reviews of my own to write - been a little slow around these parts in the reading department.