Have you ever considered purchasing an entire hog from a local
farmer and sticking it in your freezer? I hadn't either, but after reading
Michael Pollan's impassioned "eater's manifesto", I must admit, the idea is
growing on me. Rather than presenting a faddish list of do's and don'ts that
might change next year, Pollan presents a concept of food and eating that shakes
out as remarkably sound and sustainable not just for ourselves, but also for
our environment and fellow man. With a small but impassioned return to whole
foods; free-range meats; and fair, local farming brewing among foodies; Pollan
will inevitably preach to the choir, but some of his research is sure to get
even the most thoughtful eaters scratching their heads and changing the way they
shop, cook, and think about one of their most basic needs and pleasures.
After Pollan eye-openingly followed four meals from seed to table in The Omnivore's Dilemma, he was repeatedly asked one question by his readers: So what should I eat? His answer is simple: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," but further reflection reveals this simple concept to be surprisingly elusive, at least among the majority of us in the Western world. Pollan spends most of this book examining the rise of western nutritional science and the industrialization of food production, and explaining why both have served to eradicate our food culture and unwittingly create what he terms "'the American paradox': a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthy." We've been well trained to follow sound judgments about the foods we eat as studies reveal their benefits and dangers (saturated fat bad, antioxidants good) but Pollan argues that isolating the various elements from the whole foods tells us little about how those elements actually act upon the body in concert with their myriad other parts, and scientists are beginning to agree. Most illuminating are Pollan's criticisms of nutritional trials as he reveals the inevitable flaws in their executions that make their findings inconclusive at best and dangerously misleading at worst. While skeptical readers may find fault with the lack of hard evidence, most will be impressed by how Pollan introduces an extremely complex examination in under 200 conversational pages, trusting that if you want the nitty-gritty, you'll refer to his 22 pages of sources that follow his elegant abridgement of an obviously detailed and comprehensive body of research.
The last section of In Defense of Food presents a new way of thinking about food and eating that's quite beautiful, attractive, and simple to understand, and this is really the gem of the book, though you have to read the rest to fully understand why. Luckily, the solutions Pollan posits are far less complicated than the problems he outlines but it doesn't mean they'll be easy. We could take more care with one of our most basic needs, and return to the pleasures of cooking, dining and savoring, and thus a return to a respect for the ways in which our food is produced, how it reaches our table. We could eat less food of much greater quality, and our bodies would benefit, as would our soil, small farmers, laborers, and other animals. It's harder to do, but as Pollan would argue, it will be much, much harder on our bodies and the planet if we don't.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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