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in defense of food

29 july 2009

I sat down to read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food over a Burger Box double double cheeseburger with large fries. A day later, after reading it, I made myself a bowl of bulgar pilaf with fresh bell pepper, chickpeas, and homegrown parsley – and ate half of it. I've got the other half in the fridge for tomorrow.

Actually I was fixing to do that anyway. But Pollan's screed certainly reinforced my culinary plans. For Pollan, the Box burger doesn't qualify as "food" at all. Hormonal, antibioticked beef with cheese food on an uncannily white bun, monocultural potato product of the kind Pollan deconstructed in The Botany of Desire and I've continued to eat all the same, high-fructose tomato ketchup: this isn't food, says Pollan. It needs attack rather than defense.

Pollan suggests that "food" should include nothing that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as such. Well, I may have to go back a few generations more. Roadstand hamburgers were probably what gave my great-grandmother the stroke from which she never recovered. My grandmother inherited a taste for frosted cinnamon rolls slathered with hard margarine: a stroke felled her even younger than her mother. Grandma fed my grandfather Kellogg's Corn Flakes with half-and-half every morning of their married life: congestive heart failure. If I want to start eating like a healthy ancestor, I'm going to have to think back beyond any ancestors I actually knew.

Pollan's emblem of a foodstuff that great-grandma wouldn't have recognized is Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt. In fact my great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized yogurt at all – tubed, tubbed, frozen, drinkable, smothered on raisins, or for that matter straight out of an organic goat. She was more an Eagle Brand kind of gal; even Philadelphia cream cheese would have been vaguely exotic to her. I have no healthy foodways to return to.

Instead, I've had to make my own, which largely correspond to those that Pollan lays out schematically. I avoid foods with unpronounceable ingredient lists. I cook quite a bit. I eat a much wider range of things than my parents or I did growing up. Except for an infrequent Box lapse, I don't eat much meat. Just this afternoon, I stocked up on canned sardines and tinned roast eel, from which I've been making lunches lately, chasing them with a tiny tablet of organic fair-trade antioxidant-laden dark chocolate endorsed by Jane Goodall.

I get food cravings, you see: not the stereotypical ones of sitcom moms-to-be, but weeks where almonds, or oysters, or spinach, or tabouleh taste like ambrosia, and I must have them. I think I'm responding, unconsciously, to Pollan's directive to diversify my diet. The American food supply (nowhere more than in Arlington, Texas) is dominated by wheat, corn, and soy. I usually breakfast on just those three with a side of cane sugar. No wonder that I crave okra pickles by the middle of the afternoon.

Pollan's rules are not foolproof. He discourages packaged foods with more than five ingredients, or that make health claims. Unfortunately, earlier this summer, I found that plain Fritos have just three ingredients (corn, corn oil, salt) and make no health claims whatsoever (probably because they are exceedingly unhealthy). But they look fibrous, taste good, and exude simplicity. Best of all, my great-grandmother was quite familiar with them.

So one has to do some critical thinking to follow the Pollan Diet. But it is really no diet at all; the last thing that Pollan wants to do is to add another catchy neurosis to our national portfolio of eating disorders. He just says (in words he prints on the cover of the book): "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

For the most part, I follow Pollan's advice, relative to most Americans at least. Now, my take-home pay is about the median for my working-to-middle-class suburb. Though I work at a profession that evidently gives me the leisure to write countless book reviews, I work very hard at that profession, teaching nights, summers, and "intersessions" just to keep earning my extremely average income. Pollan acknowledges that you have to be at about my socio-economic level before you can start to eat the healthy regimen he prescribes. "Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America . . . . many people simply can't afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both" (184; 187). I'm probably at that break-even point where I have the freedom to stroll a farmer's market and even invest a weekend now and then in making my own stock from a whole halal chicken.

Halal chicken brings me to another of Pollan's points: traditional cuisines are preferable to bizarre new processed products. And they're cheaper. Here in Arlington, Texas, halal markets and Vietnamese markets sell fresh, delicious, and wonderfully nutritious foods for prices that make one do a double-take when the checker announces the total.

Why don't poor Americans shop at the cheapest food markets? Here, Pollan would certainly agree, it's a matter of culture. In Defense of Food gets stuck, as its author ruefully acknowledges, at the level of the nutrient, a reductionist level that Pollan actually abhors. But I sense that he's really most interested in the magic of food cultures. Pollan, who made his name as a home-gardening writer and then as a popular ethno-botanist, still feels "more at home in the garden than the kitchen" (197), but I think he's working his way toward the stove.

Culture means that, for many Americans, Popeye's is food. McDonald's is food; Chipotle is food. For my grandparents, Spam and Wonder Bread were food. Bulgur pilaf may be more nutritious and significantly cheaper, but I had to undergo an acculturation away from the foodways of the American heartland (where I still dwell) just to see bulgur as edible.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An eater's manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2008.