Cara’s Reading List: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Published by Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2009

In Defense of Food  was one of the first books I borrowed from Theresa’s collection, before I started blogging. As I finish rereading a chapter of my most recent book (Agrarian Dreams, about organic farming in California – stay tuned!) and taking a few notes for my post, I thought I’d fill the void with a previous read. I read Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma in college. Actually, I read it three and a half times in college – it was assigned for my applied plant science class, my community and environmental health class, another environmental science class, and I read a section of it while researching a paper in my freshman writing seminar. (Omnivore and I are good friends by now.) Having found that book very thought-provoking (it was one of the driving factors in my decision to give up eating meat as a junior at Furman), I was excited to read another of Michael Pollan’s books.

In Defense of Food is Pollan’s argument against the abundance of processed food that pervades American food culture, and against what he labels ‘nutritionism’ – the reduction of food into specific nutrients that are marketed to us. We’ve all seen food packages that exclaim, “Contains omega-3 fatty acids” or “Fortified with vitamin A or D or Q” (yes, I am aware that there is no vitamin Q). Pollan alluded also to an oat bran craze that occurred before my awareness of food systems. This reductionist view of food as nutrients allows, as the book notes, Frito-Lay potato chips friend in peanut oil to claim that they are a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids. (Um, potato chip companies making health claims strikes me as a bit…wrong.)

Pollan’s response to the current food culture boils (food pun intended) down to seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This doesn’t sound that complicated or revolutionary. (What would we eat besides food?) The final pages delve into this mantra further, providing the following guidelines for a healthier American food culture:

Eat food.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              – Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Go-Gurt is Pollan’s example of choice.)                                                                                                                                          – Don’t eat anything that is incapable of rotting. (Ahem, McDonald’s fries and Twinkies.)                                                                                                                                                                                   – Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or D) that include high-fructose corn syrup. These are markers for highly processed foods.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  – Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.                                                                                                                                                                                                                – Get out of the supermarket whenever possible – farmers’ markets, CSAs (shameless plug, courtesy of Michael Pollan), etc. Shake the hand that feeds you. (I’ve researched the farmers’ markets in my hometown so that when I return to the Western Shore, I can check them out!)

Not too much.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     – Pay more, eat less. (Opt for quality over quantity.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            – Eat meals – not in front of a TV or computer, not in a moving car; sit down with family and develop a family food culture.                                                                                                                              – Do all your eating at a table.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              – Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does (i.e. gas station food).                                                                                                                                                                                                  – Eat slowly and appreciate your food.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 – Cook, and plant a garden.

Mostly plants.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     – Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  – You are what you eat eats too – beware of industrial livestock feed, antibiotics, etc.                                                                                                                                                                                        – Buy a freezer – buy in-season produce from farmers’ markets, and store it.                                                                                                                                                                                                     – Eat like an omnivore – choose a diverse range of foods.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   – Don’t look for a dietary magic bullet – dietary patterns are more than the sum of their foods.

Whether you subscribe to all of these suggestions, just one of them, or simply mull them over, they are good food for thought (hmmm… more food puns), Stay tuned for two, maybe three more reading list posts before I finish my stay at the farm at the end of August. I’m also hoping to get out to take more pictures this week – it’s been so rainy lately that photo opportunities have been few and far between. (It often feels like it’s either raining, about to rain, or just finished raining with rather bedraggled plants. I say this as we have a good chance of rain for our harvest day tomorrow.)

Enjoy the last few weeks of summer!

  1. Another book you may be interested in is “Eating on the Wild Side” by Jo Robinson.

    • cwagner4207 said:

      Thanks for the suggestion! I talked to Theresa a bit today about that book, and it sounds very interesting. I’ll put it on my (ever-expanding) to-read list!

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