Sky Full of Bacon

Books have been piling up at ye olde Baconarium, awaiting fuller reviews, so I will here dispatch three of them briefly but not any less completely, I hope, including one of particular note to LTHForum readers:

I first heard of Clementine Paddleford like almost anybody who’s heard of her did— from a Beard award-winning article in Saveur reviving her memory as a pioneering writer about regional food dashing around the US in her self-piloted plane.  Now the author of that article and the keeper of Paddleford’s papers at Kansas State (her alma mater and hometown) have expanded it into a full biography, Hometown Appetites, which should restore her rightful place as a foodie patron saint.  From the 40s to her death in 1967, she was probably the best known food writer in America, working for what was then the most interesting New York paper (not the Times but the Herald Tribune, employer of everyone from James L. Cain to Tom Wolfe) and its Sunday supplement This Week, which was distributed nationwide like Parade, except that it was actually literate.

There’s a lot about Paddleford that we would like today— her interest in regional traditions, her egalitarian tastes, her no-nonsense Kate Hepburn-style feminism— although it’s unlikely that her writing will enjoy a full revival; the bits included in the book seem chirpy, can-do in a way that’s too corny for modern tastes.  Ironically, in real life she mostly couldn’t do; she wasn’t much of a cook, and stuck to the local color while the recipes were churned out by the Herald Tribune’s test kitchen.  (In this way she may well have inspired Barbara Stanwyck’s kitchen-incompetent magazine writer in Christmas in Connecticut.)

Still, she was respected in her time— H.L. Mencken, who might have made a rich satiric target out of a middlebrow tastemaker like her, instead commissioned a serious anthropological piece from her on church suppers— and deserves to be remembered.  The reason she wasn’t is that everything she worked for went out of business right around the time she died, so there was no institution to promote her memory, as the Times has done for the likes of Claiborne and Franey.

The life is interesting too, at least at first.  Small town girl, gawky and not physically attractive but plenty captivating to men attracted by brains, moves to Chicago and then to New York, hustling her way to various lucrative freelance gigs on both the editorial and advertising sides at once; she marries a fella from back home, and before long he seems to be the one male she’s not interested in sleeping with.  (Paddleford destroyed a lot of personal correspondence, but enough hints of her sex life survive to indicate that she was unabashed and independent; one ex-lover’s ashes occupied her mantle for years, and when she adopted a dying sorority sister’s little girl, it was widely assumed, wrongly, that that was just a story to cover up her own pregnancy out of wedlock.)

At the time she entered magazine writing, women’s magazines were mostly run by clueless men trying to dictate scientific home management notions to women, and she was a leading figure in bringing a down to earth woman’s point of view to women’s magazines and, as a result, expanding their and her own popularity.  Tragedy struck early on— throat cancer nearly killed her and left her with an open trachea covered by a brooch and a throaty whisper, which somehow only added to her odd allure.

The story of her rise in such a male-dominated world is great reading; the story of her long and fairly uneventful survival at the top is less so.  Still, if the story is exciting only up to a point, there are plenty of middle-American recipes that look worth a try as well.  You could do worse than reading the book and then having a dinner in honor of old Clem, the fearless feminist barnstormer of the American kitchen.

UPDATE: As soon as this review went up, the 5-Step site was pulled down. (Of course, it is still available if you know where to look. Not that its availability or not should affect your decision about this book, useful on its own terms.)

Disclosure: When Gary Wiviott first devised his method for teaching the basics of barbecuing several years ago, I built the original Wiviott 5-Step Website; and from time to time reading Low & Slow, a sentence would pop out at me (if no one else, I’m sure) as having been written by me, as I expanded Gary Wiviott’s sometimes cryptic notes or phone comments into prose helpful to BBQ newbies like I was then.

Dozens of people have since followed the program to learn the rudiments of successful slow cooked BBQ, as noted in the otherwise rather exiguous acknowledgements, which raises the question why one should pay $19.95 for 256 pages of something that works in ten pages for free.  Of course, the answer is that no one buys barbecue books, they give them, to middle-aged men they are otherwise stumped as to gift ideas for. As Wiviott himself notes on pg. 13:

It’s a well-known phenomenon that once you have the reputation of being a serious barbecuer, people who know nothing about barbecue will begin giving you books, celebrity-endorsed tools, and accessories that you should never use. My motto: Accept graciously, re-gift rapidly.

If this is one worth hanging onto, it’s because the goal of Wiviott and his cowriter, Colleen Rush (The Mere Mortal’s Guide to Fine Dining), is to undo all the bad habits of all those other books, geegaws and whatnot that you’ve been gifted with over the years.  Barbecue was invented as a way to cook meat while you were busy doing other things, like roping cattle or converting Native Americans to Catholicism at swordpoint, and so not only does it not require a lot of messing with with fancy techniques and tools, it’s usually harmed by them. Keep It Simple Stupid, as Wiviott says (often), and you’ll most likely come out better.

At the same time, even amplified at two or three times the length of the website version, this lesson comes nowhere near book length (hence obvious padding like a quiz at the end of each chapter). It’s also true that while the additional material is often more in-depth in explaining why marinades or brines do what they do, say, that kind of length and digressiveness might be fine for reading on a wintry off-season evening, but isn’t necessarily as direct and, well, simple to consult as the website in the middle of a cook.

So the rest of the book is filled, inevitably, with recipes.  I approached these with a certain skepticism; once you get past the meat, tastes in BBQ-land tend to be pretty whitebread-pedestrian, and the recipes in barbecue books tend to be either the kind of macho appetizer/gutbomb that a sensible person eats warily, or the kind of bastard fusion (Thai sweet and sour ribs with pineapple salsa) that should be confined to chain restaurants named O’Hooligan’s or The Fudge Dispensary.

Wiviott is guilty of the former on occasion— dragon turds, sausage-stuffed jalapeno peppers, make an inevitable appearance under a more family-friendly name in this surprisingly, for him, G-rated and rather sobersided book.  But his considerable grounding in real Asian and Latino ethnic cuisines (he was, like me, one of the founders of LTHForum, a fact the back cover gets slightly wrong) means that when he brings in a flavor from outside U.S. borders, it comes in pretty authentically.  The templates for how to create things like rubs, marinades and brines are quite useful when it comes to offering the aspiring BBQist a platform for their own experimentation and creativity, and there’s an eclectic range of mostly good-sounding, barbecue-friendly side dishes from corn pudding to smoked tomato bruschetta or Thai cucumber salad.

As one of the founders of LTHForum many years and worlds ago, I take pride whenever one of our now mostly scattered company of amateurs graduates to greater professional accomplishments— Morowitz and Gardner with The Local Beet, Hammond’s ever-thoughtful print and radio essays, Cathy Lambrecht’s and Melissa Graham’s involvements across wide and productive spectrums of the Chicago food scene, or my own piece of a James Beard award nomination for Sky Full of Bacon. It’s a well-organized, genuinely useful book, of which both authors (I of all people should not forget Rush standing there just out of the limelight) should be proud.  Father’s Day is June 21st.

Teach a man to cook barbecue and you’ve given him something to talk about for a night, but teach him the cultural history of barbecue and you’ve given him something to argue about for a lifetime. Slowly, we’re building up a shelf of key histories of the major barbecue-producing regions; Texas had Robb Walsh’s Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook (despite the title, more history than recipes) and now North Carolina has Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

Two quotes from journalists in the book sum up North Carolina barbecue: “No man has ever been elected governor of North Carolina without eating more barbecue than was good for him,” and “Write about the succulent glories of Tar Heel barbecue at one’s peril. It’s much safer to take on the National Rifle Association.” That gives some sense of the importance in public life of BBQ, the swaggering white-frat-boy pride taken in it, and the deep and embittered divide between the two main styles (vinegary Eastern style and ketchupy Piedmont style).

Not having a pig in this fight, I sometimes rolled my eyes at the exaggerated xenophobia displayed by the academic authors, engaged in the perennial game of slumming and getting real with the people over barbecue. (Especially since the one thing that unites easterners and Piedmontese is slagging on Texas barbecue. A little of that goes a long way.) Still, the 75 pages of cultural history that launches the book is an admirably thorough and flavorful account of BBQ’s role in everything from labor movements to German immigration (that’s probably who put the ketchup in the sauce), accompanied by a scrapbook’s worth of flavorful photos and graphics.

It’s followed by 100 well-detailed pages on cooking a whole hog, making sauces and sides like cornpone (no Thai cucumber salad here), and finally, a series of oral histories with many of the most noted figures in North Carolina barbecue.

To be honest, the oral histories get a bit repetitive, and I haven’t read them all yet (for a representative sample, read Ed Mitchell on how he got started), but the point isn’t that you need to read them all, but that someone has gotten the words of these BBQ masters down before they’re all gone. That section will make Holy Smoke a primary source for many years to come.

Mark Bittman is a New York Times writer and the author of some highly useful cookbooks which bridge the gap between real cooking and modern lifestyles. So Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating seems at first as if it might be a more practical (“With More Than 75 Recipes!”) version of Michael Pollan’s food-system polemics like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food (the cover of which it especially resembles):

It certainly starts out like the work of a New York Times writer:

Two years ago, a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) landed on my desk. Called Livestock’s Long Shadow, it revealed a stunning statistic: global livestock production is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases—more than transportation.

Unfortunately, the New York Times writer this mainly sounds like is Thomas Friedman, whose standard breathless lead-in was mocked recently by Matt Taibbi: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.'” Everything about this paragraph throbs with self-importance: the report didn’t come in the mail, it landed on his desk at the Times, with an urgent thud (“Bittman! Friedman! I need global greenhouse gas statistics— that means now, ladies!”) The report doesn’t contain, it reveals a statistic, which stuns Bittman (though it shouldn’t be that surprising to a leading food writer that modern agriculture uses a lot of fossil fuels). And all that’s just in the opening paragraph. At this rate, by the third chapter he’ll be spraying cranial fluid every time a carrot arrives in his inbox, demanding action.

Indeed Bittman soon reveals that his is no mere feelbad meditation on food, but an actionable diet plan with truly planetary consequences. And not just in the sense that yo’ mama so big, when she rubs her legs together, it makes global warming:

If I told you that a simple lifestyle choice could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money, and help stop global warming, I imagine you’d be intrigued. If I also told you that this change would be easier and more pleasant than any diet you’ve ever tried, would take less time and effort than your exercise routine, and would require no sacrifice, I would think you’d want to read more.

He might think that. You might be thinking, how do I get away from this relentless huckster before I wind up with a timeshare in Florida and a complete set of ShamWow?

Cutting through the hype, Bittman’s basic premise is that if we eat less meat and more greens, the pounds (and the planet) will take care of themselves. Eating less meat may seem a simple choice, but only in the sense that “Stop drinking” and “Relate to hot girls as people” are simple choices, too, which often prove devilishly difficult to carry out. Eating less meat is no sacrifice only if you find Pan-Cooked Greens With Tofu and Garlic (p. 211) every bit as satisfying as steak. The change is easier and more pleasant only if you have the time to devote to learning new ways of meal-planning. And so on. It’s not that these things aren’t true, possible or undeniably beneficial, it’s that Prof. Harold Hill keeps selling us on all the fabulous benefits of having a band while gliding over any mention of the need to practice.

Most of all, there’s that reference to global warming. I expect publishers have been trying for years now to find a way to make global warming into a diet book, thus bringing two of today’s hottest trends together, and Bittman does valiant work in connecting the dots between industrial agriculture and global warming. Again, it’s not that any of this isn’t true, necessarily, it’s that it’s hyped so breathlessly to make this the most important, most impactful, most earthsaving diet book in the history of mankind:

Could improved health for people and planet be as simple as eating fewer animals, and less junk food and super-refined carbohydrates?

Helpful tip: never answer “no” to the question “Is it really this simple?” in Bittman’s book. For baby boomers, who can turn any personal choice into an issue of planet-sized portent, it’s no longer enough to lose weight to save your arteries or your sex appeal; only the prospect of rescuing an entire celestial body will keep you away from the donut cart.

To be fair, having pounded the podium into organic mulch in his first few chapters, Bittman does tone it down in in the next 100 pages or so, with a more temperate run-through of our present food system that will be familiar to Pollan readers, especially those of In Defense of Food. Familiar, that is, but not comparable in its impact or interest— Bittman does essentially none of the reporting Pollan does, never taking us to meet food scientists or feedlot operators; he’s saving the planet without leaving his desk. (He even explicitly prefaces a section on factory farming by saying he’s going to “skip most of the deplorable stuff,” as if dramatization would get in the way of self-dramatization.)

Nor is his account as well organized as Pollan’s critique, flitting about semi-randomly from topic to topic as long as every factoid he flings supports his general thesis.  That opening statistic about agricultural greenhouse gases returns at the end of chapter 2 as if we’d never heard it before; every activity is reduced to its measure in fossil fuels consumed—as if efficiency alone weren’t a numbers game that industrial agriculture is destined to win.

And not to sound like I’m shilling for the American Michael Pollan Council, but in contrast to Pollan’s coolly incisive dissection of the problems, Bittman’s anger often runs ahead of his grasp on logic:

It doesn’t take a genius to see that an ever-growing population cannot continue to devote limited resources to produce ever-increasing amounts of meat, which takes roughly 10 times more energy to produce than plants.  Nor can you possibly be “nice” to animals, or respectful of them, when you’re raising and killing them by the billions.

Like a soy burger, this looks like it has the meaty fiber of an argument, but crumbles at the first touch of a fork. Set aside the sloppy writing (that first “produce” should surely be “producing”), and it’s a logical muddle: how much meat is taking 10 times more energy to produce than what plants, the meat we eat now or the ever-increasing amounts? And is it the killing or the numbers that make raising meat not nice? Are we talking my individual niceness (hence the second person), or society’s (hence the billions), which are presumably two different forms of niceness? A fiery but confused paragraph like this doesn’t exist to inform, it exists to keep you wound up enough to keep turning the page. Bittman is to Pollan on nutritionism what Dan Brown is to Graham Greene on Catholicism.

Okay, but even if Bittman’s book is a clip job, doesn’t it serve a purpose if it calls more attention to the very real problems in our food chain? I think not, because the lack of nuance in Bittman’s account extends not only to the problems but to the solutions. Because ultimately he’s writing a diet book, which is to say a book preaching hope and salvation for those who follow the one true path, he ignores and even flatly contradicts himself on the sticky dilemmas that Pollan wrestles with.

Pollan recognizes that food prices will have to go up to support better forms of agriculture. But Bittman preaches that you’ll be saving money in no time (and his factoids have food prices shooting up in one chapter and falling, thanks to industrial efficiency, in the next). Bittman pushes buying less meat as a way to reduce the impact of meat on the planet, but never considers the irony that that’s likely in the short term to increase the market share of industrial meat, as the conscientious people support their local farmers less and the unconscientious ones buy 48-packs of lamb chops at Sam’s Club.

Which leaves only the second half of the book, the recipes. How are they? They look all right, in a Mediterranean-diet-with-a-touch-of-Asian kind of way. The breakfast and lunch ones are simple and pretty attractive; there’s no question that Bittman has a genuine knack for idiot-proofing contemporary flavors so that the harried, not-all-that-culinarily-skilled yuppie can turn out something respectable that matches modern tastes in a fairly short amount of time.

The dinner ones are more problematic, because they look less like a change from anything anyway (when Bittman suggests a 40-minute cassoulet containing a pound of sausage or pork chops, he’s not making a healthful cassoulet, he’s just mucking up a classic dish with bad technique), and because many of them are too vague to really help the cook who has no clue what to do with a kohlrabi or a squash. Telling people they can use any old vegetables they want in a stir-fry isn’t likely to be news to them, and it isn’t likely to lead to terribly good stir-fries, either.

And that’s the problem with what ought to be the most useful part of this book: there’s not enough depth to it. Are 77 recipes, even ones that teach basic skills, enough to put my family and the planet on an entirely new basis for eating? It seems unlikely.

To put the comparison in Bittmanesquely reductive terms, at a shipping weight of 1.2 pounds per book, a case of Food Matters uses as much fuel (according to calculations that just landed on my desk) as a 733-mile road trip.  Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone weighs in at a much heftier 4.3 pounds, which is as much oil as 3.6 sperm whales, but it contains over 1400 recipes, making it approximately 20 times as efficient to take those sperm whales on a road trip. Can it really be this simple, that if you want to take Bittman’s advice, you can get all you really need of it from this review and then spend your money more wisely on a comprehensive vegetarian cookbook like Madison’s— or, indeed, Bittman’s own How To Cook Everything Vegetarian? Yes.

Having written about Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food before reading it, I thought it might be nice to write about it after, too.

As noted before, Pollan— the author of the our-food-chain-is-messed-up book The Omnivore’s Dilemma— is here trying to put a positive spin on that message by showing how it’s possible to arrive at a reasonable and healthy diet by, basically, following the principle on the book’s cover: Eat Food.  Not Too Much.  Mostly Plants.

Pollan’s overarching target in the first half of this book is what he calls Nutritionism— the unnatural practice, as he paints it, of breaking our diets down into scientific processes.  He is very compelling, first, on how this has caused a major shift in how we eat that few of us have really noticed:

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Put another way: foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts. [p. 28]

This brings us to one of the most troubling features of nutritionism… when the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods (or to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinctions between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. [p. 32]

This is one of Pollan’s key points: an emphasis on nutrition rather than eating has actually made our food worse for us, because it strongly favors Big Food’s latest product over the little farmer and the real food from the soil.  Food marketing requires novelty.  Carrots are pretty much carrots, a commodity.  But new Totally XTreme Asian Ranch Whole Grain Num-Os are an improvement over last year’s Partially XTreme ones, or at least they can be if some science can be rigged up to let you make a claim that they cure heart disease.  And that’s what nutritionism’s reductive view of eating is: find a magic bullet, hype the hell out of it, and sell sugary salty gloppy glop because it has a supposed single virtue.  A mere carrot hardly stands a chance against such marketing muscle; “the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa-Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters.” [p. 39-40]

The problem with this is not only that the claims are often dubious (he shows how malleable supposedly legally-defined terms such as “whole grain” are) but that the science underlying so much of this is, simply, bullshit.  This is perhaps the most eye-opening and valuable part of the book, a long section in which he shows that, as Dr. Happy Harry Cox put it, everything you know is wrong, or rather, everything the largely self-appointed experts have told you is built on evidence ranging from flimsy to nonexistent.  Take one of the things everyone knows, that a high-fat diet leads to heart disease.  That’s like saying sunlight leads to plant growth, right?

In a recent [Harvard] review of the relevant research called ‘Types of Dietary Fat and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review,’ the authors proceed to calmly remove, one by one, just about every strut supporting the theory that dietary fat causes heart disease… Only two studies have ever found ‘a significant positive association between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD [coronary heart disease]’; many more have failed to find an association. [pp. 41-3]

But at least we know that high cholesterol is bad, right?

As for the dangers of dietary cholesterol, the review found ‘a weak and nonsignificant positive association between dietary cholesterol and risk of CHD.’ [p. 43]

Still, encouraging us to replace all that fatty red meat couldn’t have been all bad– it’s not like what we ate instead could have been worse for us:

By the end of the review, there is one strong association between a type of dietary fat and heart disease left standing, and it happens to be precisely the type of fat that the low-fat campaigners have spent most of the last thirty years encouraging us to consume more of: trans fats… the principal contribution of thirty years of nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one. [p. 44]

If this were fully recognized for what it is, it would be considered one of the great government screwups of all time, nutritionism’s Vietnam.  In the late 70s government started encouraging us all to eat in a new way, eating less fat and, more importantly, different kinds of fat.  The “low fat” or “lipids” theory was embraced by food companies and is evident in thousands of products at every supermarket today.  Yet what was supposed to make us thinner and healthier instead has made obesity, diabetes, every “disease of affluence” far more prevalent.  It has blown the O-ring on American health and sent its flaming wreckage spiraling toward the ocean.  It has done exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to do, and in a real sense the famous joke in Woody Allen’s Sleeper has proven prescient:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

But at least from a food marketer’s, or a diet book author’s, perspective, it’s been an enormous success, because it’s created a massive market whose hunger is limitless for new products– which have the tremendous benefit, from a marketer’s point of view, of never working.

*  * *

So if nobody knows nothing, what the hell do we do now?

Pollan starts by suggesting that we back our way out of the nutritionist mindset and accept that we just don’t know what we don’t know about how food works.  The search for magic bullets has been a red herring, we just don’t know how the combinations of foods produces healthful effects, eating one thing to produce one result almost never seems to work.  We’re in the dark ages still on this stuff.

But what we can reasonably deduce is the basic validity of things like the French paradox– that if we need complex combinations to produce a fully healthy diet, then the traditional diets of most cultures have evolved to provide such combinations.  As he points out, nearly every culture, whether they eat lots of vegetables or nothing but meat and blubber, manages to have roughly the same low incidence of diseases of affluence– except us.  Only we managed to create, scientifically and industrially, a diet that so overdelivers on the things humans crave that it causes us problems.

This is where the advice to eat nothing your grandmother wouldn’t recognize comes in.  Basically, he says, if you eat real foods from before the days of food science, you should wind up with a diet that reflects cultural knowledge of what makes you healthy.

The problem with this is that the apple’s been eaten and we can’t go back to Paradise.  Once we have knowledge of Mexican and Thai and sushi, we’re not going to be happy living on an American farm diet full of English or Germanic touches circa 1910 (which would probably be what most of us, strictly choosing to eat like Grandma, would wind up with).  But the danger of being an omnivore is that in choosing to eat from many cultures, we’ll wind up cherrypicking the most appealing foods from those cultures– and miss out on the balance part.

To my mind, the grandmother advice doesn’t really work, except as a reminder to keep a skeptical eye toward the new foods (or, as Pollan calls them, edible foodlike substances) that pop up every year in the supermarket.  The other problem is that the foods in the supermarket aren’t themselves any more, anyway.  Grandma might recognize a steak (though it’d look pretty darn lean to her) but its cornfed taste would seem very odd.  And that difference conceals the fact that a cornfed steak is lacking precisely the omega-3s that were one of a grassfed steak’s contributions to your balanced diet and health.  It really isn’t the same food it was in her day.

Nevertheless, Pollan does try to identify some basic principles which, if followed, will help you generally work your way toward a diet as balanced and healthy as Grandma would have recognized:

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.  [Since the real stuff tends to be along the walls, and the fake stuff is in the center.]

Avoid food products that make health claims.  [If it had to be engineered and tested, it’s too fake to be part of a balanced Grandma diet.]

Eat meals.  [Grabbing a sack of food and wolfing it down in the car, or grazing all afternoon, is not a meal.  The way the French sit and eat for an hour and a half has all sorts of mechanisms built into it to provide satisfaction and feedback without stuffing yourself silly.]

These principles are the way Pollan avoids falling into the trap he’s set for himself, which is being someone who’s just condemned nutritionism, and then proceeds to write a diet book.  There are no recipes and no weight-loss schedule here– which is why it’s all the more startling when he suddenly turns up advocating we all take supplements.  Isn’t that exactly the kind of nutritionism, healthy eating reduced to a pill, that he’s been against in the rest of the book?  It may be good advice for the middle-aged, but so is making sure to invest in your employer’s 401k, that doesn’t mean it belongs in a book about looking at eating as a part of a rich and happy life, not as a system of self-medication.

One principle is perhaps the most thought-provoking: Eat less and pay more. It’s not that paying more is exactly a positive good, but until you know you’re paying more for your food and spending more time preparing it, you’re not getting the stuff that’s better for you, better for the farmer and the food chain.  If it’s cheap and convenient, there’s something wrong with it, is Pollan’s basic point.  To be that cheap, it must be being grown in a way that’s less than ideal.

*  *

In warning us against the latest breakthrough in nutrition science, Pollan runs the risk of being exactly that— this season’s Scarsdale Diet or The Zone or South Beach, the book that finally Explains It All… until the next one.  And in reviewing it, I run the risk of becoming the acolyte who has Found the Answer… until the next book.

Yet I think the first half of the book, demonstrating how completely farbungled our dietary situation is, thanks largely to science and experts who were just plain wrong, is extremely important— a key text of American skepticism and debunking, up there with Mencken and Jessica Mitford, if not as wittily written.

And the second half, if not entirely news you can put to use today, thinks seriously and practically through the issues involved in trying to get back to a more sensible way of eating in today’s world, as it’s just becoming possible enough to actually do it thanks to farmer’s markets and CSAs and so on.  It may not be possible to live entirely according to Pollan’s principles yet, without growing it all yourself, but living according to as many of them as you can will make that day come a little closer, and probably make your meals taste better— even as they also take longer to make and cost you more.