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In Defense of Food

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Food may be a strange thing to feel the need to defend, but in his latest book, Michael Pollan explains: "For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket."  These foodlike substances have risen out of food science and what Pollan calls "nutritionism," a food philosophy that pays more attention to the individual parts of food -- you know many them well: cholesterol, fiber, saturated fat, vitamins -- than to the sum of those parts.

in defense of food.jpgIn Part 1 of In Defense of Food, Pollan describes the evolution of nutritionism, while in Part 2 he describes how nutritionism is, counterintuitively, detrimental to our health.  "[There] is a global pandemic in the making, but a most unusual one, because it involves no virus or bacteria, no microbe of any kind -- just a way of eating."

It's funny -- although Pollan is obviously horrified by nutritionism, he is not immune from its clutch.  At one point, talking about omega-3 fatty acids, he says, "Could it be that the problem with the Western diet is a gross deficiency in this essential nutrient?"  But at least he's cognizant of his position, admitting that "the undertow of nutritionism is powerful, and more than once over the past few pages I've felt myself being dragged back under."  For those of us who grew up in the age of nutritionism, or really for anyone who has been shopping in supermarkets or watching television since the 1980s, it's hard not to think primarily about the nutrients in our food.  I feel like I'm stuck in the nutritionism matrix!

In Part 3, Pollan lays out a set of personal policies to guide readers in their eating choices.  This was the part I was really excited about reading -- and the part that Pollan set out to write after leaving his Omnivore's Dilemma readers with some questions about what the heck they should eat on a regular basis.  Happily for us, these guidelines are incredibly simple.

Eat Food: E.g., Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as a food, and Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Not too much: E.g., Do all your eating at a table (No, a desk is not a table), and Try not to eat alone.

Mostly plants: E.g., Eat well-grown food from healthy soils, and Have a glass of wine with dinner.

While I have to say that I enjoyed reading The Ominvore's Dilemma more, I'm very happy that I read In Defense of Food and got some perspective on a lifetime's worth of food brainwashing.

Scary food #1:  Kale 

When I opened our recent Boston Organics box and saw kale I was both excited and scared.  Excited because I knew it was a great winter veggie and I'm trying my best to eat more seasonally.  (Er... ignore the tomato in the photo.)  Scared because I really had no idea how to cook kale and I had some preconceptions that it would be tough and bitter. (Wrong.)

kale - raw.jpgbest recipe.jpgAs it has on many other occasions, my Best Recipe cookbook saved the day.  (Apparently kale is an "assertive green."  Who knew?)  Best Recipe's "kale with bacon and onions" was excellent and the dish even stood up to reheating the next day.

1.5 teaspoons salt
2 pounds assertive greens, such as kale or collard, mustard, or turnip greens, stemmed, washed in 2 or 3 changes of cold water, and chopped coarse

Bring two quarts water to a boil in a large, deep saute pan. Add the salt and greens and stir until wilted. Cover and cook until the greens are just tender, about 7 minutes. Drain into a colander. Rinse the pan with cold water to cool, then refill with cold water. Pour the greens into the cold water to stop the cooking process. Gather a handful of greens, lift out of the water, and squeeze dry. Repeat with the remaining greens.

2 ounces (about 2 slices) bacon, cut crosswise into thin strips
vegetable oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 recipe Blanched Assertive Greens
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons cider vinegar

1. Fry the bacon in a large saute pan over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels.
2. If necessary, add oil to the bacon drippings in the pan to make 2 tablespoons. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add the greens and stir to coat them with the fat. Add the broth, cover, and cook until the greens are heated through, about 2 minutes.  If any excess liquid remains, remove the lid and continue to simmer until the liquid has thickened slightly, about 1 minute longer. Sprinkle the greens with the vinegar and bacon bits and season with salt to taste.  Serve immediately.

kale - cooked.jpgScary food #2: Aloo gobhi 

Not scary to eat - I love this stuff! - but scary to cook.  I've had an Indian food cooking phobia for about 15 years because I once spent what seemed to be that same amount of time in the kitchen slaving over what I thought would be a relatively simple Indian meal.

For this dish, Boston Organics came to rescue with one of the consistently good recipes that they include with each delivery.  As my brother Tom likes to say, I have just five words for this dish: mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.  And, aside from all the chopping, it was quick to prepare.

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 onion finely chopped
5 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs chopped ginger root
3 medium potatoes (1 lb.), peeled and cubed
1 head of cauliflower
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbs ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon fround turmeric
1/4 - 1 cup water
1 - 2 tomatoes chopped

1. Heat oil in wok or 3 quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add cumin seed, sizzle 30 seconds.
2. Add onion, garlic and ginger root; stir-fry about 5 minutes or until onion is golden brown. Add potatoes; stir-fry 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook 5 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients except water and tomatoes; stir-fry two minutes. Stir in water to desired consistency. Cover and cook about 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
4. Stir in tomatoes, cook 2 to 3 minutes or until tomatoes are hot.

Serves two to four.

ominvores dilemma S.jpgI recently read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  Wow.  If you haven't read this book, go buy it now.

Pollan traces a simple McDonald's lunch to the US's surplus of government-subsidized corn, its abundance of cheap high-fructrose corn syrup (the overconsumption of which contributes to high US obesity rates), the pesticide-induced dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, toxic and cruel factory farms, resistant strains of bacteria, and even the war in Iraq. He also sheds light on the darker side of the industrial organic food industry, digs into increasingly rare sustainable farming practices, and explores the subcultures of modern-day hunters and gatherers.

One of the most enlightening aspects of his book was his approach to calculating the true cost of food. Yes, local organic lettuce or a free-range chicken may seem more expensive than traditional alternatives, but they've also accounted for the cost to grow, harvest, and transport the food.  Traditional food items (including that McDonald's lunch) have enormous hidden costs to tax payers' wallets, the environment, own our personal health, and (some could argue) world peace.

However, Pollan leaves one big question unanswered, specifically the one with which he opens his book: What should we have for dinner?  

By the end, I had made some progress deciding what I wanted to have for dinner - to borrow words from Slow Food, a meal that was good, clean, and fair - but I wasn't really sure where to get it. I started checking the labels on my organic milk and eggs in the fridge, no longer sure if they fit the bill. My next trip to Whole Foods was distressing. I no longer trusted the USDA Organic seal. I couldn't tell where some of the vegetables I wanted to buy were grown. I tried to read between the lines of the ubiquitous "pastoral narratives" on product packaging. (How much was accurate and how much was marketing fluff?) Everything I thought I knew about eating (and shopping) well had been turned upside down.

Enter Wicked Flavory. I've decided to start this blog for others like me in the New England area who think about where their food comes from and want to feel good about what they eat.  

I won't get preachy and I won't be a pain in the ass to feed if you invite me over for dinner.  I'm not a perfect eater and I don't expect anyone else to be either.  But I'll do the best I can to eat deeply satisfying food and to share my finds with you.


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