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January 29, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—January 29, 2008

Michael Pollan would be the last person I’d expect to write a book called In Defense of Food. Up until now, what I’ve read by him has been mostly in what you might call a hostile vein. His last big hit, the stirringly polemical The Omnivore’s Dilemma, attacks so many American calorie sources that you’re left wondering, by the tale’s end, whether it would be ethical to eat at all. From explaining that your typical McDonald’s meal is basically 100 percent corn, to exposing Whole Foods as basically a typical mega-supermarket, he argues fairly persuasively that, unless you’re lucky enough to live within cycling distance of a fruitful northwestern forest, or perhaps the one particular “beyond organic” farm he found in Virginia, you probably just shouldn’t eat anything grown in the continental United States.

So I was pleasantly surprised by the simple eating ethic proposed by the buzzkiller himself in In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The basic premise is to refuse to eat repackaged “nutrients,” such as cereal bars and Twinkies, preferring recognizable edibles such as, say, carrots, or maybe ham. Control your eating habits by...not eating when you’re not hungry. Create a balance by...not eating too much meat. To sum up much of his argument, eat like your grandmother did. The idea is that we have already inherited all the wisdom needed to discern the correct food to eat from the incorrect food to eat, so long as the foods we’re choosing from are actually, well, food. Other than that, he offers various useful recommendations and essays, such as a chapter in favor of eating whole vegetables rather than their processed byproducts, or formulas used in various cultures to regulate portion size.

As a follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, however, the book rather pales, being both much less solidly researched and much less peppy to read. If you’ve already read and loved Dilemma, though, you will get a Pollan-fix, replete with his patented witticisms, occasional offbeat characters, and usual histories, which are perfect for repeating at parties. And, if you were left wondering at the end of Dilemma, as I was, what in god’s name he expects us to do about the dire situation food has gotten into in this country, here you get your answer.

If you haven’t read Dilemma, by the way—do. It’s a gripping read that will completely change the way you understand our modern food culture. Pollan approaches that culture not just socially, historically, or biologically, but ecologically, as a natural adaptive response to the ways our needs have changed. He even seems to understand a little bit about economics, which is a pretty rare faculty for a foodie, let alone for a proponent of small organic farming. My favorite of his many surprising theories, though, has to be his way of looking at the “invention” of agriculture: Perhaps, he suggests, we ought not to think of humans as having domesticated plants, but rather of plants as having domesticated humans. After all, we’re the ones doing all the work!

If you don’t bother to read either book, at least know this: Do not ever, ever eat a chicken nugget, if you value your life and health one iota. Oh, and that a brand of beef is “corn-fed” is no mark of quality—it’s quite the opposite, actually. Opt for grass-fed beef whenever possible.

Strolling through Hyde Park Produce’s wonderful new Kimbark Plaza location, I felt compelled to put his advice into practice. I think that’s what everyone loves about HP-Pro: Everything they sell looks like something that grows somewhere or eats something. I like walking past a produce stand that actually smells like something, and especially one that smells like something good at that. They may not have the largest meat selection in the world, but at least the beef looked like beef, and some grass-fed offerings were available. I ended up grabbing leeks, potatoes, and carrots to make a little soup, some stuffed gnocchi (made locally, relatively speaking, which is to say in Indiana) with a can of tomatoes and some snow peas heated up in a pan for a sauce. In honor of his “eat like your grandmother did” advice, I bought smoked herrings and rye bread for breakfast. I hope Pollan would approve—I think he would.