A Critic's Meta Review: 4.5/5

In Defense Of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan (REVIEW)

A Critic's Meta Review: 4.5/5

Food - we need it to survive, and yet somehow our relationship with it, at least in the modern age, is quite possibly more toxic than the relationship between a slick-talking Hollywood agent and the young starlet he has been tasked with representing. This has not always been the case - in fact, in many places, it is still not really the case. It is mostly only the case among us here in the United States, and that is because our outlook on food is quite literally insane.

Let me begin by first clarifying that I am not exactly operating from an objective standpoint here; I am incredibly biased when it comes to food. Aside from music, I believe that food is one of the few things in the world that has the power to unite people from all different walks of life, across all cultures. Indeed, if food was ever to be put on trial, I would be more than happy to vociferously defend it in court, pro bono. In my view, this would be the least that I could do for food after all it has done for me.

This is why I was quite surprised to see that Michael Pollan had already beat me to the punch on this one (damn you, you gorgeously bald bastard!) with his exposé on the current state of our relationship with food entitled In Defense Of Food (which, admittedly, is a far better title than the one I was planning on going with: Order (Up) In The Court!). In this book, Pollan sets out to determine what exactly the most optimal way to approach food is, and his research ends up leading him to the following conclusion:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, that’s what I thought, too. But after reading this entire book cover to cover and then watching the accompanying documentary on Kanopy (a free streaming service provided to anyone who has a public library card in the District of Columbia, which I use pretty frequently to watch foreign films with English subtitles, as it has quite a substantial collection of classics to choose from), I now realize that these seven words carry a lot more weight than meets the eye.

Take, for instance, the instruction to “eat food”. What, exactly, is “food”? Well, I can definitely tell you what it’s not: most of the stuff that is sitting in your pantry. In fact, I am willing to bet that almost everything in anyone’s pantry would have a hard time passing the “is it food?” test - a test which consists of fairly simple and straightforward questions, such as “does it have more than five ingredients?”, “can you pronounce all of the ingredients?”, and “would your great grandmother recognize it as food?” - questions that all seem a little silly, until you start to apply them to the things you tend to eat and realize that most of the “food” that makes up your diet is not really “food” at all but rather, as Pollan calls them, “edible food like substances.”

Sure, you can eat these things. And, no, they probably won’t cause you to start convulsing and writhing on the floor while foaming at the mouth screaming for your mother - at least not right away. But food they are not - far from it. Honestly, you know it isn’t food, too. You know what food is. It’s an apple. It’s an orange. It’s a banana. It’s broccoli, it’s kale, it’s spinach, and, yes, it is even salmon and chicken (though not for me, at least as of last summer).

But we here in the West have fallen so far down the endlessly convoluted rabbit hole of “nutritionism” (as Pollan terms the nefarious conspiracy hatched by processed food manufacturers to trick the average consumer into buying their edible food like substances as opposed to the food you know you should be eating) that it is hard for us to conceive of any other way to classify the things we mindlessly dump into our digestive systems. Vitamin C, Vitamin D, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated cottonseed oil - when did we start talking about all of this stuff? What happened to just going to the store and picking up some sweet potatoes, or a grapefruit?

However, lest this turn into a lecture about eating more fruits and veggies, it is worth making note of a study Pollan mentions in the book in which a group of people from France and a group of people from the United States were both presented with an image that featured a piece of chocolate cake and were asked to say the first word that came to their mind. To the French, the picture brought to mind words like “delicious” and “celebration”; meanwhile, all we could think to say was “guilt” and “shame” when confronted with the very same cake.

Is this purely a byproduct of America’s Puritan roots? Possibly, but I think the whole nutritionism thing has a whole lot more to do with it. I am not sure, though - like all of you, I am still trying to figure this stuff out for myself. In fact, while watching this documentary, I found myself questioning whether I should be taking advice from doctors and nutritionists who, at least based on appearances alone, did not exactly seem to be in the best shape themselves.

Furthermore, per Pollan’s suggestion, I have recently taken it upon myself to do most of my shopping at farmer’s markets...but, good Lord, is that a huge drain on my finances. I get that he says food is something that we all should be spending a lot more money on - after all, our health is at stake - but, I mean...eight bucks for a jar of jam? Five bucks for a tomato?

And don’t even get me started on those CSA boxes he recommends - you’re better off starting your own farm!

Honestly, that is probably what I will end up doing - once I am finally off the grid, that is. Whenever that happens.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that I was in one of those African villages shown in the documentary - where they have to climb a tree and forage for honey if they want to satisfy their sweet tooth. Meanwhile, all I have to do is step into my walk-in pantry and shove shortbread cookies down my gourd like there’s no tomorrow.

As a matter of fact...those cookies sure do sound pretty good right about now.

What have I learned? Nothing.

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