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Good Eatin’

By Margaret Black

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

By Michael Pollan.

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, and health.

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