Sunday, November 22, 2009

Laying the Eggs of Doubt

I shared my scattered thoughts on Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma about a week and a half ago, and, since then, I have moved on to his more recent book In Defense of Food. The Omnivore's Dilemma was more descriptive than proscriptive; it is a natural history of the foods we eat, and ends with Pollan encouraging us to make ethical decisions about what we eat, whether it be plant or animal. In Defense of Food (subtitle: An Eater's Manifesto) is more proscriptive than descriptive, and criticizes different aspects of America's government, industry, and consumer culture for conspiring to fill our supermarkets with "food products" (i.e. Twinkies, low-carb pasta, genetically altered foods, reconstituted foods, etc) instead of "food": produce, meat, and whole foods like breads and pastas made from natural ingredients.

Pollan's best argument, in my opinion, is that food has changed more in the 20th century than it did in the previous several hundred years, if not longer. Cultural norms and taboos developed around the world, guiding people in their eating choices. Many of these cultural practices were surprisingly sophisticated - Japanese put wasabi on sushi because Wasabi is an anti-microbial; Mexicans eat corn with beans and lime because that combination forms complete proteins from the incomplete proteins of its component parts, making a meal of beans, corn and lime as efficient a protein source as eating meat. The animal fats (butter, lard, tallow) which hold together many ethnic cuisines are not as unhealthy as once thought; in fact, animal proteins, like margarine and hydrogenated oils, which were meant to take the place of dangerous animal fats, are actually worse for our health. In other words, "food" is good for us, and traditional eating habits are, counterintuitively, healthier and more sophisticated that our eating habits are today, influenced as they are by decades of shoddy, controversial, or corporate-funded science.

Science breaks down food into its component nutrients, and encourages us to eat more of them - more vitamins, more fatty acid, more protein, less fat, etc. However, most attempts to feed people with nutrients instead of food fail; for example babies reared on formula generally struggle in comparison to babies fed on breast milk, though science has for decades continued to add nutrients to formula to make it more similar to breast milk. The natural food is healthier than the scientifically designed food product, no matter how much is invested in formulating the food product. However, science and advertising have successfully persuaded Americans to buy food based on its component nutrients, instead of its properties as a whole food (think of what you look for on a package of food in the supermarket) and, as a result, we as a nation are susecptible to fad diet and new food products.

So far, so good. Pollan's advice, when taken at face value, is difficult to argue with. For the past couple of weeks, I have been shopping at farmer's markets and cooking more of my meals from scratch. I feel healthier. I do. I have also spent a significant amount of time and money on food. For instance, I just bought a dozen free range eggs at a farmer's market, and made an omlette from them. The eggs were beautiful - the yolks are dark orange, like the color of the University of Texas' jerseys, and so firm that you can reach into the pan, grab them with your fingers, and flip them over repeatedly without them breaking. When you crack one of these eggs into the pan, the whites plop into the pan and just sit there - they don't run themselves thin over the entire bottom of the pan, the way that eggs from factory farms do. Perhaps not surprisingly, my omlette was 'eggier' than anything I had eaten in a while - the egg flavor held its own with the cheese and ham, instead of the egg merely being a form of conveyance. But, they cost $4.50 a dozen. That's not expensive enough to break the bank for most people, but it is expensive enough to make them a once-in-a-while treat. If I have to cook something for a dinner party, I'll probably buy the eggs from the farmer's market, but I won't pay $2.00 per dozen above super market price on a regular basis. (Farmer's market vegetables are less expensive relative to those found in supermarkets.)

Also, I am single, and cooking is labor-intensive when it feeds only one person. What do you pack for lunch? Can you take a break from your busy work day to eat something fresh? For that matter, can you find the time in your work day to eat at a table? Even if we all lament the fact that 20% of American meals are consumed in the car, can we realistically change our culture enough to find time to eat sit-down meals on, say, a busy weekday? I routinely get home from work after 8pm. Who wants to cook from scratch at that hour? A generation or two ago, most women stayed home all day, and could cook meals from scratch - if not the 'wife' of a family, then perhaps a grandmother in a three-generation household. For single people, or for families where both parents work outside of the home, Pollan's recommendations - and, for that matter, the recommendations of most food writers - are difficult to follow.

1 comment:

NJMetal said...

Bravo! A well thought out review of In Defence of Food. Obviously you are on board with Michael Pollan's points of view in regard to nutritionism and the state of agribusiness in this country.

What grabbed me most about your take is the same sort of feeling I had after all the good vibes of the book settled down... How practical is this really? I think the answer is this; You find you can shop and eat this way at times when it best suits you but not ALL the time. And you feel that applies for a majority of people in this country today. I'm fairly certain that even Michael Pollan agrees with you.

What is most important is not that you eat a whole food diet everyday. What is important is that you now recognize how ingrained food companies have you believing that the processed food you are buying as cheap and/or quick alternatives are not in any way shape or form as healthy as they may like for you to think. You understand that pitfalls of high fructose corn syrup and how that single ingredient has found its way into almost every processed food out there.

You have already explored the better alternatives. Your not all in and thats OK. By simply trying a free range egg you understand that drastic difference between a responsibly bred egg and a commercial egg. I truely belive over time of practicing this eating better when you can approach will slowly ween you off the garbage. You will come to appreciate taste over the dollar menu items.

I too struggle with the ability to eat responsibly on a daily basis as well. I can say that after reading both In Defence of Food and The Omnivores Dilema that I make much more concious choices at the super market. I shop a whole lot more at the Farmer's Market and I buy a wider range of vegetables then I used to. I also pay attention a lot more the processed foods that I do buy. Always checking for that pesky high fructose corn syrup in items. Sometimes is unavoidable and sometimes it's not. I am not 100% whole food and I may never be, but I've come a long way baby.

I'm sure if your really commited to changing your eating habits and really believe in what Michael Pollan believes in then you'll find more and more ways to get on board. You'd be surprised by the variety of meals you can whip up in relativly short order 'from scratch'. In fact be on the lookout for Michael Pollan's new book due out next year dealing with the very issue. It will be a cookbook of sorts with recipes strictly geared towards the type of eating he preaches. I look foreward to it, hope you do too!