The best non-cookbook food book of 2008
Michael Pollan's recent bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is one of those scary looking, thick nonfiction books. You know the kind: you're quite proud of yourself when you checkout or buy this big, hefty book because it's going to make you smarter, but then it sits on your shelf, making you feel guilty and, let's face it, kind of inferior because you just aren't ambitious enough for your pleasure reading to become project reading. Worse yet, you put it on your coffee table to impress guests, but then must sheepishly admit that you haven't started reading the darn thing when they ask you if it's good. Well, I actually proved myself wrong this time and managed to read (and enjoy!) this big, fat nonfiction book, but if this practice sounds vaguely familiar to you perhaps you should try Pollan's latest, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.
Published two years after The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food is a slim and succinct follow-up book. The Omnivore's Dilemma is Pollan's journey into the origins of our food. He takes the reader along for the ride as he uncovers exactly how four distinctly different meals came to be- from a McDonald's meal, to a Whole Foods grocery run, to an old fashioned "hunting and gathering" meal, Pollan covers all bases as he describes exactly what it takes to make our food and exactly what is in our food. Turns out the answer is a lot of corn. Think of In Defense of Food as a nice companion piece to The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you haven't read Omnivore's Dilemma, think of it as the abridged newer edition with answers!
If the first book presented the problem, then the second book offers a solution to the dilemma. The premise (or solution) of Pollan's manifesto is simple: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Sounds quite simple, but Pollan's extensive research and convincing argument both prove that what sounds easy in theory might not be so easy in practice. For starters, food marketing is a multi-billion dollar industry and the average American's definition of "healthy" food is deeply flawed since the advent of processed food and the advent of restrictive dieting (Atkins, low fat, no carbs, etc.) In addition, the manner in which we eat and our relationship with food has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Pollan argues that Americans often eat processed and packaged "food" alone and on-the-go rather than cooking a meal to share, slowly, with friends and family.
In the hands of another writer, the argument and solution could have easily come off as boring, too geeky, or difficult to understand. Pollan, however, is a gifted writer who understands the notion of too much information, yet never dumbs it down. His advice is practical and relatively easy: e.g. avoid food products that contain ingredients that are unpronounceable, eat well grown food from healthy soils, shop at farmers' markets, cook and, if you can, plant a garden. If you want a condensed version of the manifeso, check out Pollan's open letter to the next president, which was published in the New York Times magazine shortly before the presidential election.
Maybe I can handle the big, smart books after all... I think I'll give Pollan's Botany of Desire a try.