I tore open my copy of Food Rules, the slim new eater’s manual by Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, with an appetite well whetted by his earlier In Defense of Food. The fun-sized Food Rules packaging suggested the literary equivalent of a bag of chips, but I was glad to see Pollan better targeting his intended audience; the kind of person unwilling to turn on the stove is unlikely to commit to a full-length book on eating better. In all his work, Pollan supplements a no-nonsense attitude towards food with investigative rigor and a dash of wit, a recipe that appeals to any graduate student with a culinary conscience.
Food Rules elaborates and expands Pollan’s pithy food protocol – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” – into 64 “rules.” Pollan’s goal is less to chastise than to serve up advice in bite-sized pieces (“Pay more, eat less”) and offer mnemonic devices (“The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead” – yikes!). Pollan recognizes that the standard American diet, invested by corporate money and government policy with an aura of natural inevitability, is a hard habit to break, and complicated criticisms of the food industry’s fourberie can be difficult to digest. Exposing our diet’s absurdities – and offering appetizing alternatives – makes the case better than just telling us over and over that we really shouldn’t be eating those Cheetos.
Pollan is most convincing when he plays the bricoleur, taking useful tools for thinking about food from both nutritional science and traditional wisdom (which, as he demonstrates, is often eventually backed up by science). He counsels us to “eat our colors” because, as mothers have known for centuries, brightly-colored vegetables are good for you (or because, as scientists have recently found out, they contain polyphenols, flavonoids, and carotenoids). His appeal to simplicity helps counter the notion that only well-educated elites have the time and means to enjoy good, healthful food. Not everyone can afford organic, and busy working moms might scoff at “slow food,” but we can all agree to spend less money on soda and stop obsessing over antioxidants. Pollan wants to suggest that, if we just consult our common sense, we can have our occasional local, grass-fed, organic beef and eat it too.
With its piecemeal approach, Food Rules is more concerned with making eating better easy on an everyday basis than with tackling the deeper issues that make eating well so hard. But Pollan does plant the seeds for how our food choices can help restore ethical and economic balance, on a personal and a societal level. Yes, farmers’ market produce can cost more; but cutting back on meat, restaurant meals, and mindless snacking is good for your body, your bank account, and the planet, and that’s no coincidence. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan outlines how traditional agriculture’s perfect economy – cows eat grass; cow manure fertilizes grass; cows eat grass – has been ruptured on both ends: cows eat processed corn; toxic cow manure requires fiscally and environmentally costly storage. It’s easier to see how absurd, unappetizing, and inefficient our diet is by looking not only at multiple pictures, but also at a single bigger picture, by situating our alimentary attitudes in a larger social, political, and economic context.
Some readers of Food Rules may find it not quite substantial enough to satisfy their hunger for nutritional information. The book’s breezy tone, and its reluctance to address its premises, are understandable: publishers, like snack-food manufacturers, push products that require minimal processing on the consumer’s part; we want things that melt in our mouths, not stick in our teeth or wedge stubbornly in our brains. After all, if you suggest too strongly that the way we eat has everything to do with the way we work, sleep, play, medicate, produce, and consume – in short, with the very fabric of our society – you’ve far exceeded the bounds of a snack-sized airplane read. But for those whose tastebuds are tantalized by Food Rules, Pollan offers up heartier fare in books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with analysis that, for all its density, is surprisingly easy to swallow (if you’re willing to chew a little first).
Pollan’s philosophy can only become a staple in our cultural cupboard if we abandon the notion that our bodies can be hermetically sealed off from the body politic. Just as we should aim to eat whole foods, not polysyllabic nutrients or numbers of calories, and adopt whole diets (like that of the French) instead of just their most appealing aspects (more red wine, anyone?), we need to live whole lives, choosing diets that make sense in our own social, political, and economic contexts. The fact that “food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies” requires further consideration than the passing acknowledgment Food Rules affords it. Italian cuisine, driven in large part by fresh seasonal produce, may translate better than the Inuit reliance on seal blubber, but even European eating strategies are incompatible with many Americans’ workaday lives. After all, you can only “After lunch, sleep awhile. After dinner, walk a mile,” as rule #54 prescribes, if your schedule allows for siestas. If Professor Pollan’s students take his advice, he might end up with some sleepy afternoon seminars.