In Defense of Food
September 9, 2009
In Defense of Food: a great book and must read by Michael Pollan.
What really took me aback about this book was how it was really the modern elaboration on The Art of the Commonplace (Wendell Berry), if only specific to food. Not only does Pollan embrace Berry’s all encompassing concept of health, but also uses Berry’s logic to explain the ills of our food system: separation.
Firstly, we must stop separating nurtition from food-no matter how much marketers try to convince us to and no matter what research persuades processing companies it is the right (most profitable) thing to do. Nutrition research singles out specific nutrients that are supposedly crucial to our health, and food companies then incorporate them into processed foods. Aside from the fact that nutrients in plants act in a synergistic way that we cannot understand, adding the ones we do know about to overly processed, unbalanced food is only making the problem worse.
These reassembled, processed “foods” claim that the value of eating is measured by which constituent nutrients are present and not by the nutrition of the soil, or for that matter, the joy of eating, the art of cooking, or the enduring importance of food culture.
We must reconnect with our food culture. Humans have never depended on health claims printed on packages to get their essential nutrients. Instead, people have relied on whole foods and the ways of preparing them that have been passed down for generations. These whole foods haven’t been broken down into their constituent parts and reassembled according to the rules of capitalism instead of evolution. Food should form family recipes, and memories of sitting around the table, not anxiety over omega-3s or carbohydrates. And indeed, as Pollan points out, people who eat traditional cuisine are much more healthy than nutrition-crazed Americans.
Lastly, we must not separate food from the food chain. We often forget that we are in fact members of a circle of life. Processed foods cheat the circle of life by substituting quantity for quality, health, and respect for the land (not to mention biodiversity). This quantity is responsible for overeating and the exploitation of soil, farmer, the environment, and the neglect of tradition. Organic farming, and the farming of many types of produce (not just corn and soy), put fertility back into the land and support many types of organisms. By getting to know and investing in your farmer or growing your own food you become accountable for what you take from the circle of life.
Wendell Berry gives us a theoretical basis for the suggestions Pollan makes. But lets face it, Americans own computers (Berry refused to buy one), they work in an industrial society and they eat in one too. Listening to Berry rant about how evil it all is won’t change anyone’s eating habits.
Pollan’s book offers a way to reclaim the important principles that Berry feels have fallen out of our society: to connect food to the land, the people you eat it with, your ancestors who taught you to cook it, and the farmer who grew it. Pollan helps people realize that they have the power to change-or in the very least that there is a problem with the way our country is trying to feed us. He offers great suggestions about where to buy food, what to buy, and how to eat it. He shows that being a responsible member of the food chain and of food culture is not that hard, but incredibly rewarding to the health and well being of each its members. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Berry says “eating is an agricultural act,” it is also an act of culture, connection, communication and pride. Make it that way. Take food back from industry-vote with your life style.
Some favorite quotes from the book:
“Biodiversity in the diet means more biodiversity in the fields. What’s good for the soil is probably good for you too.” 169
“To reclaim…control over one’s food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subersive acts.” 200