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Michael Pollan Plays With His “Food”

Michael Pollan food rules – In Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin Press, paperback edition January 2010, illustrated edition November 2011), Michael Pollan hopes to supply you with a back-to-basics food guide that you can read in 20 minutes, pore over and consider for hours, and then carry with you to restaurants and grocery stores to inform your every food-purchasing decision.  Kind of like Mao’s “Little Red Book,” only for food instead of Communism.  Sadly, he then put out a hardcover edition (illustrated by Maira Kalman) that costs twice as much and isn’t nearly so portable.

A lot of the rules will make you laugh, and hopefully think.  I love “Eat only food that will eventually rot.”  I have noticed that many bread products seem to have suspiciously long shelf lives.  When you have a nice fresh baked baguette that starts growing mold about Day 3 and a loaf of generic wheat sandwich bread that is four days older and looks perfect, be very afraid.

Other rules seem sensible until another rule contradicts it.  “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” is pretty clear, but then you get “Eat like the Japanese.”  I promise, my great-grandmother would have taken one look at tofu and used it as furniture polish.  (And “Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not.”  Tofurkey, anyone?)   Also, “Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.”  If you sat my great-grandmother down to a table full of platters of grains and vegetables, she’d ask if the roast was still in the oven.

Then there are rules that simply make me question Mr. Pollan’s personal experience.  “Avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients.”  Really?  You don’t make a lot of soup, do you?  Darned few of my favorite recipes contain fewer than five ingredients.  As long as those ingredients are in themselves “food” by Mr. Pollan’s definition, I can’t see that taking them together as a group should be a problem.  Oh, and “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.”  I have an awesome whole foods restaurant near my house, and they have curbside takeaway.  I get it, he doesn’t like fast food, and neither do I, but a few of the rules seem to be more generalized than what I’m sure he’d like to say, which is “Don’t eat at McDonald’s.”michael pollan food rules

One of the most shocking rules to me is “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”  Happily, I know how to cook and I enjoy it, so this would give me carte blanche to weigh 300 pounds in no time.  I don’t deep fry stuff very often, not because it’s a big deal, but because I know it’s bad for me (and I hate to waste that much oil, because I will NOT store and reuse it). This rule will certainly achieve Mr. Pollan’s goal of weaning you off processed food, because once you’ve tasted home-made potato chips, you will never want to open a bag again.  Unfortunately, a lot of food that is really, really bad for you is really, really easy to cook.  I am completely behind rule #63, though, which is “Cook.”  We are getting fat on stuff we’d never put in our mouths if it wasn’t handed to us in disguise.

The one that really bugged me was clearly there to be clever.  At least I hope so.  “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”  Can’t it be both?  A lot of canned and frozen vegetables are processed in plants, but they often retain more vitamins than fresh vegetables because they were left on the vine or tree longer and then harvested just before cooking or freezing (often within 24 hours– that head of spinach in your grocery store was on a truck longer than that).  And I am not going to buy cacao beans and render my own chocolate.  And if Mr. Pollan expects me to give up chocolate, we are going to have a problem.

But I’m with him on many things, like “Pay more, eat less” which has something in common with my “Eat like a Millionaire”plan.  Pollan believes, as do most foodies, that American food businesses have been so busy trying to make food cheaper that they have sacrificed both taste and nutritive value.  I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I can buy Prime organic beef (and right across the street) if I want to; not everybody can.  On the other hand, not everyone can afford to pay three times as much for organic bananas, especially when you’re going to peel them.

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