Friday, August 28, 2009

In Defense of Food - Reaction, Discussion and Off to the Kitchen and Garden!

Welcome to the August Book Club Post! I'm lucky enough to host this month's discussion of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Check out other titles the group has read, see what's coming up next, and join in!

I have to say that I think In Defense of Food is the best book I've read by Michael Pollan. Here he accomplishes what he sets out to do - offer up an eating plan backed up by common sense, history, and science - with great writing. I haven't read Second Nature or A Place of My Own yet, but of the food books, this one is, well, the bomb-diggity.

Thought-provoking, disturbing, depressing, but also inspiring, In Defense of Food made me realize how much I had bought into the concept of nutritionism. It also made me grateful for my little Tokyo garden, canning, and my mother for sharing my grandmother's recipes and family traditions. It also made me hungry for kale, but that's not hard to do.

Pollan also made me think about the Japanese diet I predominantly eat now in a different light. Since coming here in March of this year, R and I have both lost more than 15 pounds. We haven't tried to lose the weight, and to some degree I thought I would gain (The mochi is nearly irresistable, after all). However, I would attribute it to eating a more whole food based diet along with a more active lifestyle.

A traditional food culture is still quite strong here, although the Western Diet is making inroads via McDonald's, other fast food restaurants, and processed foods at groceries and convenience stores. Miso, tofu, seaweed, fish, rice, an assortment of noodles, and more than I could list here are still held in high regard and are a part of daily meals. I also realized during our recent trip to Hokkaido that the Japanese love food, and celebrate foods from different regions of the country with gusto. Travel posters everywhere feature a variety of foods from all across Japan more than just about anything else. The first question asked when we returned was "What did you eat?"

Now, before I head out to the garden to gather up some fresh veggies, here's a list of discussion questions:

- What did you think of Pollan's list of rules to follow? Anything missing or unnecessary?

- Pollan talks about a revolution of food sweeping America. Do you agree?
If yes, how deep do you think it goes?
What role do you think you might play in it?
If not, why not? What's missing?

- Would you recommend this book to someone who someone who is not a "member of the choir"? Why or why not?

- Pollan also mentions that that there are those who cannot afford to do this, but never delves much into what to do about that. He simply says that those who can afford to do it should. What do you think of that? What can we do about it?

- What other books would you recommend with this one to someone just beginning to be interested in this topic?

11 comments:

mlle noelle said...

Sometimes I feel like it's easy for me to think that the "food revolution" is more prominent than it really is, because I'm immersed in an environment where most of my peers are educated about the impact of their food choices. Also, being very involved in this online food blogger community, I sometimes have to remind myself that we are but a small subset of the population at large. I heard Pollan on NPR a couple weeks ago, talking about the decline of cooking, despite the rise of Food Network and things of that ilk.

I think that the affordability and availability of healthy food to lower-income families is a major problem. In Detroit, there are no major grocery store chains within city limits, whereas almost everyone is in walking distance to a convenience store. That said, I think "affordable" is relative. The U. S. has the cheapest food of any 1st-world country, so we are conditioned to think that certain foods are "too expensive", even if in another country they'd be considered affordable. I think there needs to be a priority shift- I'm sure many of the people who consider fresh food too pricey could find the money in their budget if they eliminated other things.

I have recommended this book to non- "choir members", but it's tough- I know someone who majored in nutrition, and have not recommended the book to her (even though I'd love to) because I thought she might take offense. As far as other books to recommend, I would say "Fast Food Nation" is a great starting point.

Jami said...

I think that in reality there is not a huge food revolution. The average person knows they should eat better - but they don't. I think the biggest reason is not money because people can certainly go daily to coffee shops rather than just making it at home, but convenience. It takes more time and planning to eat healthier.

I enjoyed the book, but I don't know if a person that is not willing to look at themselves and what they are eating would enjoy this book.

I would recommend "How to Pick a Peach"

Lauren said...

I think I personally prefer the Omnivore's Dilemna to In Defense of Food. And further I think I didn't enjoy In Defense as much because, with as much food reading as I do, it didn't offer any new insights for me personally. I do think it's an excellent starting point for someone who's new to learning and thinking about food as far as where it comes from, why you eat it, what you eat, etc.

In response to Jami's comment on convenience, I think that's part of it for some people, but not all. For instance, my in-laws are west michiganders and asparagus farmers. Convenience is not so much an issue for them--they LOVE to cook and spend a lot of time doing it, but most of what they eat is full of mayo, sugar,butter, fat, fatty meats, etc. Because it's what they're used to and tastes good. And they are just now beginning to learn about eating more healthfully bit by bit through various sources because a lot of things they'd never heard before. Nutrition isn't widely taught anywhere and so I don't think they really put all the pieces together what they were eating. Now that it's become a mainstream news topic, they are more focused on it.

I really think basic nutrition needs to be taught more widely in schools and other programs.

Jami said...

Yes I do think what Lauren says is true as well. Education is part of the key. I know I am learning every day.

mlle noelle said...

Lauren- I think that a lot of sugar, fatty meats etc. probably isn't the best diet around, but interestingly, according to Pollan's theory, that type of food would actually be "OK" because they're cooking it themselves and it's not processed. He's rallying against the doctrine that we need to focus on "low fat" or "low carb" or whatever other nutrition fad is in vogue. I agree that there's a lot in there that foodie types would already know, but the most prominent "new idea" I got from that book was probably that nutrition can't really be considered a hard science. I felt that he did a great job of backing up that viewpoint with a lot of statistics and examples.

Diana Dyer said...

I do recommend In Defense of Food for a first read to those not already part of the "choir". However, I agree that the multiple reasons contributing to a lack of cooking by the general public are obstacles to healthy eating helping to promote personal health and healthy agriculture.

We had a potluck dinner last week for my husband's co-workers (all under age 40) and only 2 brought something that they prepared from real food. The rest brought chips of every imaginable kind or buckets of fast-food fried chicken. Most astounding of all?? None (none!!) would eat the home-grown or farmers' market purchased fresh vegetables we grilled to share.

The revolution has a long long way to go. I am most interested in the version of The Omnivore's Dilemma coming out this fall geared to middle and high school students. Then, yes, I agree that somehow kids need to learn to cook besides knowing where their food comes from.

Diana Dyer said...

.........I have recommended this book to non- "choir members", but it's tough- I know someone who majored in nutrition, and have not recommended the book to her (even though I'd love to) because I thought she might take offense.........
****************

mlle noelle..........Please recommend this book to your nutrition friend. If she is a registered dietitian, feel free to tell her that I have a monthly book club at my house for my dietitian friends in the Ann Arbor area to read and discuss books, documentaries, and journal articles of just this "ilk". If she can travel to Ann Arbor, she is welcome to join us! Tell her that she can even get continuing education credits.

Tell her also that I have submitted a proposal with two powerful sessions addressing these topics at the 2010 Michigan Dietetic Association meeting in order to better educate dietitians beyond the "nutritionism" that we were taught.

Lastly, as soon as we get our newly purchased (foreclosed) home and land rehabbed, I want to open up our organic farm to nutrition and dietetic students so they can step back several steps from "we are what we eat" to gain some experience and perspective to more fully understand that "we are what we grow".

Jenny said...

I struggle, oh how I struggle, against nutritionism. Because I'm trying to lose weight again and its so tempting to buy the "easy" 100 calorie packets of random processed foods so that I don't have to think about what I'm eating. At the same time it is so unfulfilling, nothing like a meal of slow-cooked greens, etc. So it wasn't anything I didn't know, but not something I'm great at following.

I do think on the cost issue, finding seasonal food at a low cost should be easier than it is. Maybe teaching people to do their own growing, on a little scale, I don't know.

I agree with Fast Food Nation - Twinkie Deconstructed was also interesting. I really do like this Pollan book for someone not in the choir, because it gives an alternative rather than just exposing the bad.

JoanBailey said...

I think convenience is a pivotal factor in people's decisions about what to eat and how to spend their money on food. I also think that the idea of cooking can seem overwhelming to people. Family members and some former coworkers were often shocked when I brought homemade things to potlucks. How did I have the time? The energy? And, even though I understand where they are coming from, my response was how can you not do this and choose heavily processed foods that make you feel like crap? Especially when you start to learn what it does to you and the environment?

I am also not sure about a food revolution. While I feel hopeful about the renewed interest in farming, gardening, and food preservation I don't know how deep it goes. I am hopeful, though, that it will continue to deepen as people find satisfaction in the work, the flavors, the sight of fresh food, and their own burgeoning health.

I'm somewhat relieved to be able to begin letting go of nutritionism. It's nice to think more in terms of whole foods, flavor, and what I'm hankering for than Omega-3's or whatever else. I suppose balance is what it's really all about in the end?

Diana, your farm idea sounds just fantastic! The idea of you are what you grow is great, and I would only add that we are also HOW we grow it. Feeding the soil good, whole foods (compost materials and old-fashioned manure varieties) means good food for us.

Diana Dyer said...

Joan,
Yes, I hear you loud and clear and agree that "what we grow" includes "how we grow it". :-)

I am also recommending the book Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back, an "easy" (albeit depressing) read that also discusses "nutritionism" and "branding" as ways to influence how we spend both our food dollars and our time. That book galvanized me to view what I am buying in terms of who is 'profiting' from my purchases of those '100-calorie' snacks' and other processed foods.

Hunnybee said...

- What did you think of Pollan's list of rules to follow? Anything missing or unnecessary?

I thought his rules were quite simple and easy to follow SHOULD one take the time.

- Pollan talks about a revolution of food sweeping America. Do you agree? If yes, how deep do you think it goes?
What role do you think you might play in it?
If not, why not? What's missing?

Somewhat... I see it because I'm paying attention to these kinds of things, but I know many friends who wouldn't notice.

- Would you recommend this book to someone who someone who is not a "member of the choir"? Why or why not?

If they would be interested in this sort of book then sure but thats because I found the first part really dry and hard to get into.

- Pollan also mentions that that there are those who cannot afford to do this, but never delves much into what to do about that. He simply says that those who can afford to do it should. What do you think of that? What can we do about it?

I'm not a fan of those kinds of statments. We have many many farmer's markets in my city but at least half of them are during the week during work hours only. It makes it insanly hard for everyone to get to fresh local produce. Companies need to make it easier to get access to the local organic foods before most people would be willing to spend their money on it.

- What other books would you recommend with this one to someone just beginning to be interested in this topic?

I loved Fast Food Nation. I think it would be a better first read because in most cases you have to show them the negative/dark side of the fast food industry to make them want to change to a healthier/better diet. Once they are motovatived to change then In Defense of Food would a good read.