Book review: In Defense of Food

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

These are the seven words that began Michael Pollan's New York Times Magazine piece "Unhappy Meals," printed in the beginning of last year. They are also the seven words featured on the cover of his new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. (You'll notice it printed on the cord that binds that delicious-looking lettuce - an odd choice of imagery, if you ask me. Even if you don't ask me, actually.)

The ironic thing about this book is that my main criticism of it was summed up by Pollan himself, in his Times article:

I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words.

Which is basically what he's done in In Defense of Food.

The book is divided into three parts: the first two (which are rather ill-defined and therefore run together in my head) describe how the "Western diet" values nutrients over actual foods (and to a lesser extent the ways in which this attitude has been shaped by capitalism); how lifestyle-related ailments (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) are so prevalent in the U.S. compared to cultures with traditional diets, for a time they were known as the "Western diseases"; how the science of nutrition is not a good thing to be basing your diet upon. You get the picture.

And frankly, it's a dull, stretched-out sort of picture, taking the premises laid out in his magazine piece and spinning them out to a hundred or so book pages.

The premise of these sections is, "Look, two hundred years ago we thought we knew everything there was to know about food. Then we discovered vitamins and thought that was the key. Now everyone's talking about omega-3s and antioxidants, and again we think we know it all. Well, we probably don't - so why not look at the diets and lifestyles of cultures that are healthier than us and try to emulate them?"

Which you kind of get the point of after just one reading, right? But Pollan just keeps hitting us over the head with studies and history and details, striving for that magical page count where he can justify selling the book as a hardback for $21.95. The only way he could've been more obvious is if the book were typed in double-spaced 13.5-point Courier New with 1.25-inch margins.

After these rambling pages, the third section is a big improvement - a fleshing-out of those seven words Pollan keeps repeating. He lays out five or so guidelines under the heading of each sentence in his "manifesto": under "Eat Food" you'll see things like, "If your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, you probably shouldn't eat it" and "Shorten the chain between you and the farmer." This, he says in the book's introduction, is in response to people asking him in the wake of his immensely popular The Omnivore's Dilemma - at its best, a polemic against the industrialization of the American diet - "Well, then, what should we be eating?"

Mr. W won't like to hear this, since he's anti-Pollan for reasons far too numerous to mention here - but one of the guidelines actually reminded me of him. Mr. W prefers to choose his bread based on what has the fewest ingredients, explaining that good bread has no need for things like high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Pollan is right there with him - only he expands this rule to include all foodstuffs. "Don't buy foods with more than five ingredients," he says.

Hmm - no foods at all with more than five ingredients? That's a bit impractical, isn't it? Which is kind of the point of this Slate review of In Defense of Food:

Buy a hog? An entire hog? Cut it up and put the pieces in a freezer? I'm a fan of Michael Pollan's work, but he does have a tendency to hurtle himself into the stratosphere like an errant missile, then plummet back to earth and casually pick up where he left off. This time it's on Page 168 of his latest book, In Defense of Food: One minute he's carefully explaining the difference between "free-range" and "pastured" eggs, the next minute he's perched on his own private planet brandishing a grocery list that might as well be headed "carrots, magic."

It's a nice review, worth reading especially for the "gotcha" moment in the final paragraph, when the Slate reviewer points out that even Pollan cannot always live up to his own lofty foodie standards.

So, the first two sections of In Defense of Food are clearly stretched out to fulfill a page count, and the last section suggests I forage for wild field greens and buy a freezer for storing entire pigs.

And yet ... I enjoyed this book. (Not enough to pay list price, though - I bought it at the Enquirer book sale for $3, and it was worth every penny.) I liked the idealistic picture it paints of people coming together and sharing fresh food they've prepared (perhaps even grown) themselves. I like the idea of passing up processed and pre-prepared foods in favor of whole foods. Not all of it is practical, but it is inspiring. Pollan's "manifesto," in more words than he himself used, is really, "Think more, and more critically, about the stuff you put into your body." That's a philosophy I can get behind.

So, gentle readers, my recommendation to you w/r/t In Defense of Food: If you crave inspiration and a few nice tips on how to eat more thoughtfully, pick up this book from the library or bargain bin. (I wouldn't pay more than $5 for it, though - that's how much it would cost if it were the slim paperback treatise it really ought to be.) If you find your eyes glazing over at some point during the first hundred pages, feel free to skip ahead to that third section; you won't be missing much.


Anonymous said...

Does Pollan present the five-ingredient-limit idea as his own? It's a common rule of thumb in some American "whole" food cultures (although the specific number--five, in this case--varies).

Kelly said...

*checks book* Hmm, he refers to the guidelines in general as being "collected or developed" by him, but he doesn't source most of them.

(He does, however, say that the "eat food" rule - two-sevenths of his point! - came from a speech by someone named Joan Gussow.)

Gina said...

Excellent review KHud.

I feel like I could talk about this book to someone as though I have read it, even though I haven't.

AE said...

I don't think anyone in the U.S. needs to be told "Eat food." Or have it defended. Still, I agree that his philosophy of thinking critically about food is a sound one. Or as Michael Stipe put it: "Watch what you put in your mouth."

Kelly said...

Pollan draws a distinction between food and the processed foodlike products that line so many of our supermarket shelves.

Did you ever read Good Omens? Remember how Famine had this plan to sell food that was scientifically engineered to make you obese even as you were dying of malnutrition? That's actually kind of happening now, Pollan says - overweight kids with rickets are showing up at clinics, probably because they're drinking soda instead of milk with their Happy Meals.

AE said...

That is really, really sad. Endtimes. I did read Good Omens but it's been a very long time; it'd be nice to revisit the pre-"Beowulf" Neil Gaiman.

Anonymous said...

"probably because they're drinking soda instead of milk with their Happy Meals" : now, see, that's where you might have spent a little more time reading, really reading the book, then you would know exactly why this is happening! It is actually quite important to understand what is happening with food in this country and why Pollan is in defense of food (and what he is not in defense of and why, exactly).

Kelly said...

Sigh. Really? You honestly read that comment and thought I believed Pollan thinks our food system could be fixed by children drinking industrial milk with their fast-food burgers and fries?

I was using "eating Happy Meals" as the unhealthy condition that leads to "drinking soda instead of milk," which leads to "rickets," a softening of the bones caused by a deficiency of vitamin D and calcium, generally seen only in populations suffering from malnutrition.

I actually thought I was paraphrasing Pollan (page 123):

"But when children subsist on fast food rather than fresh fruits and vegetables and drink more soda than milk, the old deficiency diseases return - now even in the obese."

I'm sorry that I didn't make it clear in my comment that Pollan's disdain for soda extends to fast food; I guess I thought it was obvious.

TravisG said...

You might enjoy The Taste of America. The authors are pretty stringent and grouchy as hell, but they're basically right about everything so it's okay.

Kelly said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Travis! Good to see you're still, like, alive and stuff. :)