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.

Michael Pollan's 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." He acknowledges the possibility that some readers might not have room at home to install a hog-sized freezer, but that pretty much concludes the reality-based portion of this suggestion. Two pages later and he's off again, explaining why it's a good idea to go foraging in the wild for your salad greens. Pollan has been called an elitist for years, and his critics are bound to seize on the new book as fuel. But these bouts of the surreal don't reflect his politics, they reflect his religion—the holy, catholic, and apostolic church of food, where only martyrs and lost souls have to shop at Safeway.

There's always been a streak of the willfully impractical in Pollan's worldview. Like the other great, radical writers whose subject is the death grip of the food industry—Joan Gussow, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser—he's eloquent and persuasive; but come the revolution, he probably doesn't belong on the tactics-and-logistics committee. What he likes best is spinning long, mesmerizing tales from his immense research, as he did in The Omnivore'sDilemma, the book that made him a star. It's a beautifully handled polemic against modern agribusiness until you get to the last chapter, the one that's supposed to bring it all home.

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Pollan's way of doing this is to stage a kind of faith-based dinner party he calls "The Perfect Meal"—perfect because everything on the table will be made from ingredients grown, shot, or gathered near his home in the San Francisco Bay area, from the wild-boar pâté to the cherry galette. By the time he heads out to collect local yeast spores for the bread dough, you feel as though you're not even reading a book anymore but instead gazing stupefied at some sort of life-sized diorama in the Museum of Natural History ("Northern California, ca. A.D. 2000—Worshipping Plants and Animals").

The new book tries once again to bring it all home, and this time the results are more plausible. Pollan says he wrote In Defense of Food because readers who had just finished The Omnivore's Dilemma kept asking him, "OK, now what should I eat?" His answer rounds up many themes familiar from Omnivore but tucks them into a brisk little handbook on making right-minded food choices. He's still got a tin ear for the how-tos, but the whys are stirring enough to compensate. And Pollan, whose usual writing style is relaxed and discursive, turns out to have an unexpected gift for teaching the CliffsNotes version of his research. His master stroke is a ringing declaration of nutritional independence: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

It sounds like a grass-roots rebellion—literally—and that's pretty much what he has in mind. But to his critics on the left, the very notion of starting a food revolution by changing what you personally eat is wrong-headed, and Pollan is Exhibit A. Last summer the journal Gastronomica published a special issue on food politics in which Pollan's work was energetically trashed by scholars who can't abide what they call his emphasis on "individual dietary purity." In their view he's got a bully pulpit and should be using it to rally a mass movement against Big Food, instead of encouraging people to believe that having an organic soyburger for lunch puts them in the front ranks of political activism. "No suggestion is made that we ought to alter the structural features of the food system, so that all might come to eat better," wrote Julie Guthman of the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Rather than making political choices, we pretend ... that our dietary choices will solve our personal and national problems," said E. Melanie Du Puis, also from Santa Cruz. Aaron Bobrow-Strain of Whitman College called Pollan "more and more a lifestyle guru than a muckraking campaigner."

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