Thursday, January 10, 2008

In Defense of Food

Last year, I slowly made my way through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learned a lot as I read. I followed it up with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. All of it seemed to go hand-in-hard with our move into making our own jams and cheese and our addition of new vegetables to those grown in our garden. So, when Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto was announced for an early January 2008 release date, I preordered it. On the day it arrived, I sat down and read it—and was a bit disappointed.

It’s not that the general content of the book isn’t good; it is. And it’s not that Pollan doesn’t raise important issues; he does. It’s just that a lot of In Defense of Food contains simple stuff that we already know—don’t snack, eat food your great-grandmother would recognize (as opposed, for example, to Gogurts), and eat at the dining room table. Pollan may be right that people “would not have bought this book and read this far into it if your food culture was intact and healthy” but I’d hoped that, while adding its pragmatic focus, In Defense might have a bit more of the depth to it that Ominvore’s Dilemma did.

In his earlier books and essays on food, Pollan has often been called an elitist and some of that view continues to be felt in this book. At one point, for example, after arguing as Kingsolver does that it’s important to return to local, basic food, Pollan suggests we foragein the wild for our salad greens. Where in Westchester, for example, should I do that?

And yet, despite its shortcomings, In Defense of Food calls us back to some important truths—that trying to reduce food to its nutritional components misses a lot of what matters about eating, that we should “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”, and that we should restore civility to the traditional idea of the meal, replacing fast food and eating out with the time and money it takes to cook and share a meal around a home dinner table. Such reminders, coupled with Pollan's enjoyable and easy-to-read style of writing makes the book entertaining and worthwhile.

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