Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 31 2007 7:37 AM

The Holy Church of Food

Preacher Pollan's no populist, but his politics are right.

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I really think it's nonsense. He may not go about organizing food co-ops or marching against Monsanto, but Pollan constantly exhorts readers to bypass supermarkets and seek out the farmer. He encourages people to lobby for changes in the grossly destructive farm bill, and his relentless reporting on agribusiness is one of the most powerful weapons that exists in the whole arsenal of food politics. It's true that the new book trots out some trite advice (eat slowly, don't snack, a glass of wine is good for you). But there's no mistaking this for a wellness primer. Drawing on his own previous work and that of other researchers, he builds a case against the nutrition establishment that's intensely political, because it's about changing the way we think.

The science of nutrition, he argues, has little to do with food and has no business influencing our eating habits. Scientists don't yet understand precisely what makes healthful foods healthful; they haven't identified the full range of nutrients, and they have no idea whether packaged products "enriched" with factory-made vitamins and minerals are adequate substitutes for whole, natural foods. We even lack reliable data on exactly what Americans eat. In a delightful bit of participant journalism, Pollan tried his hand at filling out one of the dietary intake questionnaires that thousands of people contribute each year to major research projects. He couldn't do it. Nobody could, without making up most of the answers. How many half-cup servings of yams, okra, or broccoli did he eat in the last three months? Were they fried? In stick margarine? Tub margarine? Butter, lard, nonstick spray? And these are the studies regarded as the gold standard of nutrition research, the ones that regularly burst in the news with such headlines as "Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks."

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Pollan's point is that we don't need the science in order to know what to eat. (He'd be more convincing on this issue if he hadn't fallen head over heels for omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient he treats as lovingly as if it were a blonde half his age.) The experts he urges us to trust are the healthy people all over the world who still favor largely traditional diets and don't consume half their calories in sweeteners and other refined carbohydrates the way we do. Of course, they're learning our habits fast, thanks to the corporations eager to put a chicken nugget in every pot. When Pollan says, "Eat food," he means bring it back under your control. Accept no substitutes. Don't let the multinationals do the cooking.

His politics are fine. What's keeping him from being a genuine populist are his cultural antennae, which have a tendency to collapse without his noticing. Pollan is a believer, there's a pew with his name on it at Chez Panisse; and though he writes for the rest of us, he can't quite bring himself to take us seriously unless we can prove we've been born again. Early in his new book, he recalls the kind of food his mother served when he was growing up: beef stroganoff, oven-fried chicken, spaghetti, Chinese takeout. "Nowadays I don't eat any of that stuff," he says with relief, "and neither does my mother." But millions of us do (well, maybe not the stroganoff), and truth to tell, there's nothing wrong with any of those dishes if they're occasional rather than constant. Pollan won't have it. Home cooking derived from any era before Berkeley in the 1970s brings out the Cotton Mather in him. If you're "the kind of cook who starts with a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup," he warns, "all bets are off."

That's a whole lot of sinners he's dismissing, and I speak as someone who still lines a quiche pan with a Ritz cracker crust once in a while. Pollan knows better than anyone that a meal is far more than the sum of its parts. A dinner of tuna casserole nowadays isn't just about the chemicals in the canned soup. It's also about somebody's mother, and somebody's dog-eared copy of a Betty Crocker cookbook, and somebody's personal best in the kitchen. Pollan himself ate a canned-soup casserole not too long ago; has he forgotten? It happened at dinner on the idyllic, radically progressive organic farm run by the Salatin family, which he describes in The Omnivore's Dilemma. "Everything we ate had been grown on the farm, with the exception of the cream of mushroom soup that tied together Teresa's tasty casserole," he writes. I wish I'd been there to see if the devil made him ask for seconds.

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