Ministry of Controversy

Just In Time To Really Irritate Amy…

Pollan …Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto arrives on the scene.  If the excerpt and review yesterday in the New York Times are any indication, Pollan appears to make the basic argument all of us vegetable growers make…that the closer the food is to the garden, the healthier and more satisfying the meal.

Of course, I’m really unusual among Americans my age in that this has been an article of faith with me since I was a kid.  My mother is German, and she’s always found Americans’ eating habits utterly whacked, self-destructive, whimsical, ignorant, and gross.  So while my friends ate Wonderbread and built strong bodies 12 ways, I had rye bread from the bakery.  My friends ate Perdue, the tender chicken made by a tough man.  I had chickens whose necks were broken in one surprisingly deft twist by my gorgeous Aunt Rose.  Everybody else ate canned peaches.  I had stewed rhubarb from the backyard.

The question is, how did the nation as a whole get so utterly weird?  So confused as to trust food that comes from factories over food that comes from backyard gardens and bakeries and farms with actual farmers in the fields? I have my theories, some of them thanks to historian Daniel Boorstin, who covers the growth of brand identities brilliantly in his third volume of The Americans.  Not just an uncritical love of progress and technology, but also a touching combination of wealth and cultural insecurity.  In a highly diverse, immigrant-rich, and far-flung country, people could all feel that they belonged, if only because they all ate Kraft and Nabisco, just like everybody else. 

Still, it’s long past time for us to grow up as a culture and change the way we consume many, many things, and food is just one of them.  Clearly, if Pollan has to talk himself blue to help us do it, he will.

Posted by on January 4, 2008 at 4:40 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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15 responses to “Just In Time To Really Irritate Amy…”

  1. susan harris says:

    Well, I may be irritating, too, because I’m now deep into ordering seeds for edibles and have a food-growing mentor already on board. Here’s his post about a scrumptious salad he served me and others just this week – from his very own DC garden – and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies that stole the show (I’ll admit). http://theslowcook.blogspot.com/2008/01/peanut-butter-whoopie-pies.html

  2. Shira says:

    michele, your comment about the rye bread made me chuckle. I grew up with a similar background, we used to beg for wonder bread and american cheese! I’m a fan of Pollan’s other books, so i’m looking forward to this one.

  3. It’s cool that you can rib Amy a bit about this. A sense of humour on serious topic is a wonderful thing.

    “The question is, how did the nation as a whole get so utterly weird?”

    I think part of the answer is the never ending quest to try and save time and make things easier. What did we end up with? Crummy food and harried lives trying to pay for all this convenience and time saving devices.

  4. Tibs says:

    I’m same background. I can still remember riding my bike to the local bakery with 22 cents and ordering “A-large-loaf-of-Vienna-bread-with-Seseme-seeds-sliced-please”. Wonderbread was a treat because you could roll it into these little grimey balls and pop them in your mouth.

    My mom’s mom, german background, was quite the cook with fresh veggies etc. My Dad’s mother, also german background loved and embraced all the modern food conveniences. Loved canned milk, always would have a jello dessert, thought coolwhip was the greatest (she milked cows as a girl and couldn’t stand anything that “smelled like the barn”.) I have her clipped reciepes from the 30-s thru the 60’s and they are all for the new convenience food. But she didn’t really like to cook.

  5. Tibs, my mom, too, was all about escaping the stalls. As soon as she was old enough to bolt that Bavarian pig farm, she did, eventually engineering a life of suburban splendor in New Jersey. Lots of gold leaf, no pigs. Still, thank God, she wasn’t totally ruined as a cook by her desire to rebel against her childhood. She liked good food and knew what it was.

  6. Jeremy Dore says:

    Here in the UK it’s not just a debate between factory produced food and home-grown produce. Supermarkets have responded by jumping on the organic bandwagon and promoting vegetables that have been air-freighted huge distances, wrapped in plastic and labelled as healthy! It’s so far from the original organic pioneers vision of home-produced pure produce. There are some good local organic farm ‘box schemes’ that deliver a selection of local vegetables each week but it’s hard to compete with peoples perceptions of perfectly shaped vegetables being healthy. Books like this are great at highlighting such issues but are rarely read by those who aren’t already convinced of the home-grown benefits. I’ve written about this on my blog at http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=12

  7. Victoria E says:

    I’m still in the first of the three sections of the book, but so far, Pollan has done a good job at explaining just how the American food culture changed so much … and guess who was the star?

  8. Give me a hint, Victoria. I haven’t gotten the book yet. Corn? Madison Avenue?

  9. Reading Dirt says:

    “…it’s hard to compete with peoples perceptions of perfectly shaped vegetables being healthy.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head with that, Jeremy. Our culture is so afraid of “germs” that any scab on an apple causes people to recoil in horror, fearing that they’ll get sick from eating it.

    I didn’t realize what a weird kid I was when I grew up. For years, we canned fruit, froze home-grown sweet corn and other veggies, and even gleaned fruit from abandoned orchards. To this day I think store-bought canned peaches have all the appeal of plasticine. Home-canned peaches packed at the peak of ripeness are the food of the gods.

    Thanks for this post — I enjoyed The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ll look forward to reading Pollan’s new book.

  10. bs says:

    there’s a quote i’ve recently become fond of: “Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” – Alfred Whitehead

    what we’re seeing is the result of all that not thinking. each generation can only solve those problems they know. apparently one of them was how to get milk/veggies without getting anywhere near stinky dirty farms (or, without owning any land!). another was making food cheaper. in 1933 the average person spent 25% of their income just on food. i appreciate what michael pollan is doing, but i think it’s a shame that we’re not more grateful for the problems that were solved. we can improve upon them, but lets not act like our parents were flat-out retarded. to the untrained eye, this was all a big improvement. i guess i’m just tired of hearing about how wrong this is, as if it didn’t come from the best intentions. civilization is a team sport. and in 20 years, i look forward to hearing about how we’ve fallen short from my kids. but in the meantime, i still feel pretty darn lucky whenever i read the jungle.
    http://www.salem-news.com/articles/july192006/food_prices_71906.php

  11. Ed Bruske says:

    We could easily turn back the clock to a time when everyone grew their own food or had good, wholesome food growing close at hand. All it would take is a complete collapse of our current economy, the fizzling out of our automobile culture as the oil wells run dry…

    Oh, wait. I’m describing Cuba, 1991. The Cubans eat pretty well now, in fact. And they all dropped a few pounds after the Soviet Union crumbled and yanked all their aide.

    Americans, on the whole, would rather die–literally–than give up their current lifestyle.

  12. chuck b. says:

    Speaking of growing food in a time of economic collapse, I’m currently reading Steve Solomon’s book, Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series). He believes the intensive style of vegetable gardening is not sustainable, and advocates older methods–which requires a lot of land because the plants get spaced out much more. Anyway, it’s an interesting book so far.

    FYI.

  13. bs, so completely true. We’re all always rebelling against the world of our parents.

    But I’m not sure I feel a whole lot of good intentions when I go to the supermarket. A lot of profiteering on the part of the manufacturers is the vibe I get–and a lot of sullen indifference on the part of the shoppers.

    Food has never been cheap in Europe–but those populations are now a lot healthier than we are–and taller.

    Chuck B., interesting–I’ve been meaning to do some research on the subject of soil exhaustion. I met a woman whose vegetable garden, in the same part of the world as mine, is just a sewer of diseases and pests. She thinks it’s because the garden has simply been in one spot too long–about 40 years, by her calculations.

  14. Just heard Michael Pollan talking about his book today on NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow. As always, Pollan was surefooted and entertaining, and mostly right on. Here’s the link:

    http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/200801043

    and

    http://www.michaelpollan.com/indefense.php

    Interestingly, bs, Pollan puts the origins of “nutritionism” well after The Jungle, in the 1970s and 80s, when we stopped thinking about food and started obsessing about “nutrients”.

    I agree with Michele that we are always rebelling against the past generation (and my 15-year-old doesn’t let me forget that pattern, either!). bs, your general point is well taken about being all of us being too ready to complain about problems than see a larger, more balanced picture.

    On the other hand, _The Jungle_ was an indictment of the beginnings of the same “nutrition industry” that we still have with us today, not the rural food system at the time. If I’m not mistaken, Sinclair, like Hardy, was appalled by the ugly impacts of the industrial revolution and the urban food system it spawned, dark satanic mills and slaughterhouses. Today, it is hard to imagine life without the (sometimes) sanitized descendants of those same institutions – what would we find in the supermarket without the? – but I’m disinclined to grant them a Panglossian free pass. I’m happy Pollan is doing some good critical analysis, it benefits us all.

    I was a little surprised and disappointed, though, to not hear him speak at all about veggie gardening (this from the author of _Second Nature_, one of that handful of garden books all gardeners should have on their shelf, I think). As the segment ended,I actually began telling my radio (my computer, actually) “…Hey, Michael, yoo hoo, we can grow some of our own food, y’know. It’s fun, even (usually…)! …”

    Bringing me to Solomon. I also liked his book quite a lot, Chuck and Michele, and reviewed it for the American Community Gardening Assn’s newsletter. I think there is a lot of truth to what he’s saying, and many of his observations click with what I’ve seen over the years in different gardens.

    Although Solomon doesn’t really address the larger question, Michele, I absolutely agree that we all need to be concerned about the sustainability of intense production (and of lawns and “heavy intervention” landscaping that many of us as gardeners love).

    Ecologically, we’re stalling out at ‘first stage’ succession with most of the annuals and biennials in our veggie gardens, and not allowing brush and forest to grow. Eventually, pests have to build up, even with organic techniques keeping soil fertility high. First Nations agriculturists would abandon fields for 30 years before returning – we may need to be thinking about some version of accomplishing the same “resting period” for our gardens. Not sure, but it’s certainly been on my mind, especially for the community gardens I work with.

  15. bs says:

    michelle, that is the problem. society is all of us, not just the well-intentioned or the well-informed. there’s a digestion process for the whole group, where good ideas evolve into the ones that turn a profit and some people don’t ever get the memo. but is that wrong? i don’t actually think it is. for example, i shop at whole foods and try to buy the most ethical products i can. however, i couldn’t do this two years ago when i was putting my husband through school. and so i went to safeway and we relied on the cheapest food we could. i don’t blame the people who continue to do so out of necessity for not examining the system that guarantees that there is an abundance of cheap food… that’s my job now that i can make choices about it. i know the manufacturers are always out to make a buck, and i’m more dismayed to see modern folks blaming their grandparents for being trusting.

    and don, i wasn’t saying the jungle marked the beginning of nutritionism. it’s clearly a doublewide pamphlet for socialists. if you read about the aftermath, sinclair was dismayed by how it was received because the problems of inhumane treatment of workers were not addressed in favor of making the food system safer and cleaner for consumers. and especially for europe who kept refusing our nasty beef. i mentioned it as an example of the problems we seem to have largely fixed… for example, adulterated food -like the melamine tainted dog chow out of china. if you haven’t read the jungle i encourage you to. it can be found online easily, and even if it’s not completely true, it nonetheless helps shed light on where we came from.

    that’s how i’m encouraged by the whole process, even though the snapshot can be depressing. i can clearly see how much better things have been here, but it comes from a reliance on institutions like the usda because largely, you’re right. us umeruhcuns don’t know much bout food no more. we gots to relearn it. it’s like a pendulum, we fixed it too hard and now we have to back off again.

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