Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Penguin Press, 244 pages, $21.95
If you read any magazines or listen to NPR, you probably already
know about Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food.
But I’m going to urge you again to read his terrific advice
about eating, because he’s wonderfully entertaining to read
and he says such sane things in such plain language.
The handsome lettuce head pictured on the cover is bound together
by a twisty that succinctly sums up Pollan’s advice: “Eat
Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.” There, that’s not hard
to remember. To make matters abundantly clear, the author
defines “food” very simply (what your great-grandmother recognized
as food). He measures “not too much” in a way that doesn’t
require knowledge of grams. And “mostly plants” means that
Pollan pushes plants grown in healthy soil to the center of
the plate, displacing the chunk of meat, chicken, or fish
to the side, where it serves as a condiment.
Pollan bases his book on stuff we actually know, but have
long since forgotten. Food, for humans, is not just a biological
necessity. It has, from the very dimmest reaches of our inaccessible
past, been part of our many cultures, a way to be together,
to strengthen our relations with each other, to assert that
the group will look after each other, to enjoy each other.
That huge universe of our relation to food has disappeared
from many modern American lives, and Pollan is doing his damnedest
to make it part of eating again.
Moreover, up until about the mid-20th century, no one needed
professional advice about what to eat. We learned what (our)
people ate from our mothers, and if our lives expanded to
include people from other cultures, we learned new things
to eat from what those cultures enjoyed. Sometimes cultures
stuck in food rules to keep their group distinct and separate,
but the forbidden foods didn’t kill anyone else. Over all
those millennia, people ate wildly different diets, many of
them considered lethal by contemporary standards, but people
stayed nutritionally healthy if a sufficient quantity of their
food was around.
When, in the 19th century, science began to identify “nutrients,”
some of the constituents of food that provided identifiable
benefits, it not only made possible the eradication of certain
diseases, but it also meshed happily with growing industrialization,
which began applying industrial approaches to food production.
It’s a longish story, one that Pollan tells very succinctly
in this little volume, but in much greater and horrifying
detail in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The process resulted
in two major outcomes: Food became mostly a matter of taking
in sufficient nutrients, however generated, and industrial
production eventually created “the Western diet.” That the
Western diet has produced a health disaster is the elephant
in the room. But however little anyone wants to acknowledge
it, the chronic illnesses caused by the Western diet are not
only apparent and growing in our world, but they can be seen
dramatically in every traditional culture that leaves its
original diet and begins to eat ours.
As Pollan moves toward his recommendations, he dwells particularly
on the fact that science identifies only some of what
makes a food work the way it does in the human body. In addition,
when studying a single component of a food, the scientist
rarely distinguishes the environment from which various samples
of the food emerged. What is in the soil, the air, the water
where the plant grew? How and where was the animal raised?
(This is, by the way, another topic that the author examines
in more detail in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)
Pollan recommends we go back to eating food, not nutrients,
and that we avoid food products with many unfamiliar ingredients
whose names we can’t pronounce or with high-fructose corn
syrup. Interestingly, he also urges us to avoid foods that
make health claims. He tells us to shop the peripheries of
supermarkets or, preferably, to buy from farmers’ markets
or community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups. Al though
he briefly sums up why we should choose plants, especially
green-leaved ones, he nonetheless regards meats and fats as
excellent, necessary foods—we should just eat less of them.
But some of his best recommendations have to do with how
we need to start eating—in meals, at tables, with others,
talking, eating slowly enough to taste the food and enjoy
the company. It’s hardly surprising that in aid of meaningful
eating, he suggests that we should cook, and if we can, we
should grow a garden, however small. It’s truly heartening
to read such simple, sane, and enthusiastic reflections on
how we can return food to its proper role in culture, enjoyment,