Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: In Defense of Food

I love to eat, and have the shape to prove it. I grew up with an Italian grandma (dad's side of the family) who had to feed 8 sons on a very limited budget, and an Irish mother who couldn't cook anything very exciting (she never learned how). When I was 8, my father parked me in a Brownie troop with instructions to the leader that I was to earn the cook badge as early as possible. From age 10, I did most of the family cooking. Next to reading, food is still one of my top three hobbies. So I am often very tentative about anybody telling me what I should or should not eat, and how to grow, purchase, and prepare food. I love to watch cooking shows; I own--and peruse often--100's of cook books. Ieven have 6 different food feeds in my blog list. This book held my attention, made a lot of sense in several areas, and really got me thinking. It presents an excellent explanation of how the field of 'nutritionism' and marketing forces in the US have changed the diet (and-- the author posits--the health) of the western world, specifically the US.
"Nutritionists pay far more attention to the chemistry of food than to the sociology or ecology of eating." and.... "Gas stations have become processed corn stations: ethanol outside for your car and high fructose corn syrup inside for you."
Michael Pollan offers easy to understand explanations, somewhat supported by experts, although I'm not quite ready to entirely buy something because "scientists commonly report", or 'are heavily leaning toward', etc. The author does point out the cyclical nature of all of these theories about what is healthy or not, and that they are heavily dependent on the science of the moment. He makes a cogent agument for returning to the days of grandma, before large food manufacturing conglomerates started tinkering with foods and making claims for health by eating this or that. He is especially believable in the campaign against engineered foods (or food products as he is quick to emphasize.) His explanation of how we went from a nation eating food to a nation eating manufactured food products, rather than food as it is grown or grazed, is eye-opening. The author has drawn up several "food statements", AKA rules, that make quite a bit of sense to help people return to eating the diet he claims human beings are biologically designed to eat. Among them (in no particlar order):
  • Eat well grown food from well-known sources.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner.
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Cook your own food and plant a garden.
  • Eat more like the French, Italians, Indians, or Japansese. (I'll drink to that!)
  • And, perhaps my favorite - Eat wild foods when you can. I just remember my Italian grandfather setting off with his basket to the woods and returning with mushrooms, and fresh dandelion greens. My grandmother would be in ecstasy. Of course that was over 60 years ago, and no one in a big city has that luxury anymore.
Finally he admits that while he doesn't pray before meals, the practice of saying a blessing helps insure that we don't eat thoughtlessly. He finds a statement offered by Wendall Barry to be a perfect meal starter:
"Eating with the fullest pleasure...that does not depend on ignorance is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we can not comprehend."
I learned a lot reading this book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in sorting through the current maze of food/eating gospels. I had it on the list for the food category for my 999 challenge, and look forward to reading his earlier work The Omnivore's Dilemma. For the record, my 85 year Mom, who is now a widow, has become an excellent cook over the years, and her food sense is still pretty sound. Let's hear it for Moms, nonas, tutus,common sense and fad avoidance.


  1. nice blog and have lots of stuff here......

  2. I thought this book was well done. i love to eat too - too much LOL


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