Sky Full of Bacon

I’ve been asked this more than a little, and back when I was mainly in advertising, I was asked the same thing about that field, too, and really, the advice isn’t all that different, though the economic conditions are. On the minus side, it’s not a great time in history to make a living at writing about food and drink, but on the plus side, at least it’s never been easier to break into the field. That’s because it’s never been easier to get people to see your work without already having been published.

The first thing is that you simply must write. Writing is not just about being smart and clever, it’s about having the energy and focus to do a lot of it, and quickly. So go get yourself a free blog at Blogspot or Tumblr, and start writing. A lot. Write about what you eat, but also start doing the kind of thing that someone would like to publish—interviews, lists, think pieces, whatever. Blogging about your personal experiences is good practice, but you need to show you can do more than talk about yourself.

Yes, it’s true you’re working without getting paid. You and everybody else. Every mathematician started by doing geometry in high school. Every baseball player played it in the street with other kids before signing with the Yankees. You need to do a bunch of writing for free first, to 1) get better at it 2) prove you can do it, day in and day out. That’s the way the world works. (Believe me, a year from now you’ll be glad some of what you wrote wasn’t paid for, or seen, by anybody!) Don’t think of it in terms of a living yet, because that’s too depressing— the only way you’ll make a living at it right now is with the rare staff job at a paper or magazine.

In fact, I’m all for having a different job entirely when you’re young; I think you’ll be a better writer for being out in the world, working and interacting and gaining a wide range of skills, than if you spend 12 hours a day typing inside the cramped confines of your own head. Go work in a cannery like Steinbeck or sail on a whaling ship like Melville or whatever it takes to have some experiences and observe other people. (Tending bar is good too, especially for food writers.)

Two more things: learn how to promote your stuff in a non-obnoxious way on social media, and use it to make new contacts online. And if you can take pictures with a decent camera, do. Being able to supply photos with an idea always makes it easier to sell. One more thing to start getting practice at now.

A few months pass, you’ve got some pretty good pieces, and you want to actually get published. There are a lot of places that will give you a shot… for free. Well, eventually you’ll want a firm policy against doing that, but for now, the exposure is worth more than the tiny fee you’d make anyway. So look for publications, see what they actually publish—don’t pitch Best River North Bars For Hooking Up to a publication that focuses on recipes for moms—and pitch them ideas that are like what they do, but not exactly what they’ve already done.

Here’s the secret of pitching (indeed, any job search). The person who hires is not looking for someone who is fabulous to be their new best friend. The person who hires has too much work and is looking for someone who can take a chunk of it out of their hair and come back with a finished piece. That’s it. Be their no-fuss solution, show them you can solve that problem for them with no drama and minimal help from them and return with a perfectly good piece, and you’ll soon get more assignments than you ever expected.

Respect the parameters of the assignment. If they say 500 words, turn in 475 to 510, not 1200.

You’ll get edited at this point, and one important thing is learning how to respond to editing. Some of it will be very good advice about sharpening your points and making your writing more compelling. That’s the best thing that can happen to you, even if it stings a little; that kind of editing is your grad school. Some of it, alas, will be somebody who knows less than you about your subject, screwing your well-thought-out piece up. Learn the difference and how to take it in stride. If someone is really hard to work for, simply fade out of their pool of pitching writers without a fuss, getting a reputation for being a pain to work with will get around.

Now you’ve got half a dozen pieces published. It’s time to professionalize your online image. This could be your blog, or it could be on a new site, but you need to find a way to look like a pro, not just a blogger, and to highlight your published work and direct people to it. The game here is, you pitch an editor who never heard of you, the first thing she’ll do is go to your site and see who you are. You want her to see your published pieces and instantly know you’re a pro who can get assignments done (see previous point about “solving that problem”).

And from there, it’s just a matter of getting better at writing and at networking over time— and pitching places that pay better. The things writers have always done, but you happen to live in the time that offers more online tools for doing it without having to have gone to the right school and made the right friends than ever before. Good luck.

Finally, the world is full of more advice about actually writing than I could ever repeat, but when it comes to food writing, an especially sensual subgenre, you can’t do better and pithier than Mr. Samuel Clemens:

Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream. —Mark Twain

Apologies for the bad language but if you follow my Twitter feed, you know what this is about. I went to Andy’s Thai Kitchen, the new restaurant from the longtime chef of TAC Quick, and ran into a group of— I don’t want to say LTHers because that could be anybody; LTH insiders will do for now. There were three of them and four menus, so I didn’t presume to sit down, but as the place is small, I chitchatted with them from the adjacent table. When I addressed one of them, a former friend and now a Tribune contributor, directly he instantly turned belligerent, and in no time was screaming “Go fuck yourself!” at me. (Needless to say, I decided there was other company for lunch that wasn’t barking mad to be had, and left.) I now regard that as the unofficial motto of LTHForum, since when I called him out on it on Twitter and Facebook, the response of present-day LTHForum management was to deactivate my account. Calling out bad behavior was an unforgivable offense, but they apparently approve of an LTHer bullying diners out of a restaurant. (No word yet on how the Tribune might feel about a Trib stringer chasing other food media out of an establishment.)

Hmm, chasing people out of the great ethnic restaurants in town— now that is a strategy shift from when I ran the place. I don’t really have anything beyond that to say about the incident itself, but it does point to something I’ve never really talked about, which is the broader implications of leaving LTHForum when I did at the end of 2007 to pursue what would become Sky Full of Bacon and all these other things I’ve done.

David Hammond has mentioned that the growth of our community on Chowhound seemed to be spurred in some oblique way by 9/11— my time there certainly coincided with that post 9/11 period of foreboding— and if that’s the case, then you have to see our central mission, cherishing and promoting Chicago’s richness of ethnic food, as in some way being a response to 9/11, a celebration of the American ideal of immigration and cross-pollination, of the city as a place where peoples met peacefully and shared food and culture. We went to Thai and Arabic and Mexican and Indian restaurants, whether we thought about it or not, to keep our world from closing down into fortress America, to celebrate the polyglot world that comes together, uniquely, in American cities like ours.

And of course a big part of our spirit of adventure, on Chowhound and explicitly in how we founded LTHForum, was sharing it freely, staging dinners, inviting strangers, and above all, not keeping secrets— if you discovered something, you might sit on it long enough to feel you’d investigated it fully, but always, the idea was to get it out there for others to try as quickly as possible. It was as inclusive as possible, and we took joy in total strangers acting on our suggestions— or vice versa.

Beyond its social gathering role, I think LTHForum had a mission, at that point, to get the food media in Chicago to pay attention to more than just the strip along the lakefront— downtown and Lincoln Park, with a minimal awareness that there was such a thing as Chinatown. And the thing is… that mission was largely complete within a couple of years. Suddenly the food publications in town routinely dropped the names that had once been our secrets— Katsu, Katy’s Dumpling House, Uncle John’s BBQ, TAC Quick. (Even if they had heard of these places before, as they sometimes surely had, they hadn’t assumed their readers had, or would care to, until we showed them that we were their readers and we cared to.)

So when I left LTHForum around the end of 2007 over some personal and monetary issues (if you’re reading this, I expect you know how that turned out, many years later), part of the reason I did so without a lot of regret was a feeling that, hey, mission accomplished. And also maybe a sense that after four years, personally it was time to graduate.

Which has sort of made LTHForum the small town where the people I went to high school with still live, and where they haven’t changed, even though I have. At least that’s how I look at this incident; the anger of the person who is still there towards me who left is 1000 times stronger and more vehement than the fairly pallid regret I feel that things worked out a certain way.

But why is the LTH inner circle so worked up in the first place? I think one answer is that the evolution of interactive food media has continued. LTHForum, when we founded it eight years ago, was the cutting edge of democratic, populist food interaction online; newspapers had been one voice speaking to many, Chowhound was many voices speaking to many, but in a constricted way that didn’t let discussion really flow and community form. LTHForum was, at the time, as open and welcoming a platform as you could imagine. There were restrictions and moderation to keep the community peaceful, but beyond that, it was as democratic a platform as you could wish.

Jump ahead half a dozen years, though, and we have a very different world— the flattening of the food world into equals which was implicit at LTHForum has become the anarchically classless free-for-all of Twitter and Facebook, the universal achievement of “freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one” through blogs. The unity of a well-behaved, fairly likeminded community which was our strength in 2005 or 2006 seems too constricting when Twitter gives you an outlet to snark at the person who the moderators just pulled your post mocking. Instead of belonging to a relatively stable community, we are all continuously reshaping our food worlds and the audiences we talk to and belong to.

So the people who rose to become LTH insiders and the center of adulation in the wake of the departure of so many of the original LTHers, find that they’ve done so right when it stopped counting for much. You can be fawned over on the board but Twitter and Facebook will be out there, arguing (if a Tweet counts as an argument) that that place blows, or worse yet, snarking on, even parodying your purpler prose— and you may in fact have no way of even responding.

The instinctive response, which seems to be theirs, is to circle the wagons closer, guard the community against outsiders that much more. This is not irrational— it increases the value of the social side of things to those for whom that has value— but it obviously isn’t going to matter to those already outside the circle. And it’s led to a clubbishness and insularity— a suckup atmosphere at times, different rules for different people— that is antithetical to what LTH was founded as. (For instance, discoveries have been kept quiet, out of the awareness of the hoi polloi.) If this is a problem, I don’t have a solution; all I am doing is observing that just as LTHForum felt so cutting edge and like it was putting an end to boring, old school newspapers, now something else, basically anarchy, is making it seem out of date, not responsive enough to a community which isn’t likely to be moderated by anything except itself.

But I still don’t think that even if I was still at LTHForum to this day, knowing that that was happening out there would be enough to make me angry enough to scream “Go fuck yourself!” in a Thai restaurant at someone who’s simply moved on. I’d hope I’d have the vision to see that that’s just hastening the demise of one model for participation, and there’s no sense in going down with that ship. It was an exciting time to be at the cutting edge in 2004; it is now, too, whatever the cutting edge proves to be next.

UPDATE 9/15: So I am told– I can’t log in at LTHForum and see that it says that I can now log in– that there is a post at LTHForum explaining that, oh no, I wasn’t banned, that was a “probationary” period. Probation, obviously, is what you do when someone has done something wrong and you want them to cool down and think about the error of their ways. But they don’t tell me what I did wrong.

Was going to Andy’s Thai Kitchen wrong? There was certainly a likelihood that LTHers would be there that day, but since only a few LTHers would go nuts like that at the mere sight of me, it’s hard to know where I’m allowed on any given day.

Or am I supposed to stop being yelled at public places by enraged LTH insiders? I’ve actually gotten quite good at that in the last 5 years, versus around 2008 when it was more common, so I feel I’m being judged unfairly here for one little misstep on my part.

In all seriousness, talking about this in terms of my alleged offense and its disciplining shows that they remain clueless about the real offense here, which is a member who believes he can turn abusive in public with no consequence. (I have since learned this was by no means the first time other members have been abused by him in some fashion.) Yet the moderators specifically refused to answer a member’s question about whether he had faced any consequences for this behavior (which obviously means no).

Besides the disrespect for and even danger to other members, this obviously disrespects the restaurant and restaurateur to turn the restaurant you’re supposedly honoring with attention into the site of a brawl. Any word of respect paid to Andy’s Thai Kitchen on the board is a lie if you respect the man’s place of business so little. It will do LTH grave harm if it becomes known that its attention, and winning a GNR, means its members consider that license to treat your restaurant as their drunken clubhouse and have fights there.

This issue is not going to go away, though individual members already are, until the management of LTHForum recognizes that it has to deal with three serious issues:

1) What is the appropriate code of behavior for LTHers in public places? If you’re going to suspend members for what they say on Twitter and Facebook, clearly their actual behavior in public at a lunch that produces a post, or at other events, is within your purview. (One of the issues here is the reported feeling that this individual’s verbal abuse was, in some sense, coming with the approval of the management.)

2) What is the standard for respectful treatment of the restaurants written about at LTHForum?

3) What is the disciplinary system for members who violate these rules, and how can you ensure that it applies equally to all members and close friends of the management don’t get a pass?

Not to idealize the early years when myself and others were in charge, but we did strive to have transparency, to explain decisions (especially bannings) carefully, and I believe there was trust in our basic fairness and intentions. LTHForum needs to act now to regain that trust.

Note: This is a customer dissatisfaction rant, if you want food stuff, go to my latest video podcast, In the Land of Whitefish. Or click Video Podcasts at right.

Like a lot of folks in creative pursuits, I’m an Apple partisan going back to the dark days when it seemed to be hanging on by the skin of its beige plastic teeth in the face of imminent annilhation. And like a lot of Apple fans, I may have enjoyed seeing The Dictatorship of Steve fire missiles at the lumbering Microsaurus, but I also knew that if Apple ever had me by the short hairs, it was unlikely to be a fun experience. Though Apple vs. Microsoft may be a duopoly, it’s one made of, basically, two individual monopolies; they’re competitors the way Christendom and Islam were competitors during the Crusades, not a lot of free flowing traffic between the two sides to make a real marketplace.

Surprisingly, the place where Steve has applied the iThumbscrews to me is the one that ought to be one of the shiny happy places where they convert you to the cult: the Apple Store. (Woodfield mall in the Chicago suburbs, specifically, if you want to know where.) Apple software I mostly revere, Final Cut Express for $99 is like getting a BMW for $150, but the much-admired Apple Store is actually a pretty poor user experience, beautiful… but dumb. Because Apple’s too cool for things like nametags with job titles and clear directional signage, you have to go in and find someone with an orange shirt who finds you someone with a blue shirt to tell your troubles to who then has to get you someone with a yellow shirt who’s not already helping three other people, to actually get anything done. All I can say is, I’m sure glad I don’t have to go through that to get corned beef at Paulina Meat Market on Saturday morning.

Oh, but I found a user experience within the Apple empire that is even dumber than that— maddeningly so. And in the process it revealed other, deeper dumbnesses in the Apple experience that had me thinking, for the first time in a quarter century and probably $20,000 of Apple purchases (not counting what ad agencies have purchased for me to use), what alternatives might possibly exist.

It’s the process of getting to the Apple Store— that is, of getting an appointment with one of the geniuses or, as non-pretentious human beings call them, repair guys. You go to, you click a few choices to narrow it down to your area and your equipment, and then you select times. Because it’s a widely-held opinion that Apple build quality has slipped as the prices have gone down, they’re very busy and you’re always at least a day (if not two or three) out from an appointment. Apple can get away with that in a way Best Buy could only dream of.

And here’s where Apple’s website team made an absolutely staggering, shoot your own foot and kill your customer when it ricochets bungle. Let’s assume you’re on your laptop, since it’s your desktop computer that up and died, like mine did. You’ve picked your time and location, and—this is very important—you’ve clicked a button called Confirm. Sounds very final, doesn’t it? Here’s what you see next:

What do you conclude from this? That you have an appointment for this time, right? After all, you Confirmed, no? You are “scheduled,” no? No and no, as a matter of fact. Scroll down, past the border of the box that seems to be the bottom of the meaningful content, past the border of the box it’s within, to an area beyond both of them:

You don’t have an appointment until you’ve both Confirmed, and clicked Done. Confirm was, in fact, Hmm I Don’t Know, Maybe, Let Me Think About It Some More.

And lest you think I’m the only person who would miss that button, realize that this was on a bestselling size of Apple laptop using Apple’s default browser. Probably 40% of all people who ever go to the page see it the way I did. How many never scroll down on that final looking page and thus miss that final crucial step the way I did? All of them, or just nearly all? It’s an amazingly lunkheaded bit of misthought-out user experience for a supposedly in-tune, online-leader company like Apple. 10 years ago Amazon put up a prominent message that says “Stop! Your order is not placed until you press ‘Place order.” But Apple thinks you’ll happily poke around for more buttons to press all night long. Everyone will.

But it can always get worse! So like me, you go to the Apple Store and find an orange shirt. And you discover that you don’t have an appointment like you thought, and the default response to that is the latest upgrade of Apple’s iDon’tGiveaShit ’09. Their only product at that point is 31 flavors of Start Over And Click the Right Invisible Button This Time, Dumbass. You might as well be asking the TSA if you can carry your timebomb collection on a 747 as to try to get any information about your screwed up Apple product from the Apple Store at this point, or to get moved up in any way from their next availability, which is Christmas morning at 6 am. You have qualified for a free upgrade to iHaveNoMouthandIMustScream.

The irony is, customer satisfaction in my case was amazingly close at hand, and yet Apple has deliberately designed their system to frustrate it. I pretty much knew my problem— a crash had farbungled my OS, and my question was, could I run Disk Utility etc. and try to repair it if the computer had the old operating system (Mountain Goat, I think) and I used the new one (Blue-Assed Baboon, I believe) to do it, since I couldn’t find my old Mountain Goat discs. In a restaurant, in a clothing store, even in freakin’ Best Buy, I suspect, the system could have worked like this:

Customer has no appointment, is turning purple with rage —>
Say “We’re really booked, but let me see if I can get someone to see if we can do something”
=Blue shirt comes out, answers my one question, sends me away happy

Instead it was:
Citizen has no appointment —>
=Say: “No appointment, comrade! Back to end of line!”

Apple makes a big deal out of training these geniuses in Cupertino but it’s clear that much of the training is, in reality, focused on making sure none of them ever deviate from the scripts to perform real problem solving on their own initiative. Your local geniuses are no more free to act to keep you happy than a call center in Mumbai. It is, in its own way, an oddly inhuman, binary-thinking kind of approach to customer service— if I fit the needs of Apple’s system perfectly, I will get service, but the slightest deviation and I’m ejected as a bad cog in the machine. It is an experience that not only belies the hippy-trippy atmosphere so carefully created in the Apple Store, but more crucially, the brand promise of Apple as a computer for creative individuals thinking outside the box. Not if you’re trapped in this box:

It may be a sky full of bacon, but Tang got to the moon first.

If you feel like commemorating this amazing and now apparently irreproducible feat, TCM is showing a bunch of moon movies on the 40th anniversary, which is Monday the 20th.  I recommend First Men in the Moon, which is a rather fun Jules Verne pastiche which begins, cheekily, with American astronauts finding a plaque claiming the moon for Queen Victoria; Destination Moon, which was an attempt to forecast in 1950 what a moon mission would really be like; The Mouse on the Moon, a very funny Cold War comedy (sequel to, and better than, The Mouse That Roared); and finally an outstanding documentary, For All Mankind.

And of course, here’s the proof it was all FAKED!!!!

Several years ago my son Myles was given a small goldfish tank by our then-nanny. To say we were poor caretakers of goldfish would be putting it kindly. One time the nanny killed the two fish we had and hurriedly bought two new ones, and Myles came to me declaring “Lora cleaned the tank and the fish changed colors!” We went through numerous fish and soon stopped bothering to name them.

In mid-2005 I helped my friend Melissa Graham (now of The Local Beet and other fame) start an organization for educating kids about food, called Purple Asparagus. One of its first events was arranged by the chef John Bubala at his restaurant Timo (where Piccolo Sogno is now), with its spectacular back patio. John went all out— it really was the best Purple Asparagus event ever— and he had all kinds of activities for the kids including apple bobbing:

And goldfish races (I think that’s John’s son at left, I’m sure it’s Myles at right):

Blowing a fish down a Home Depot gutter with a straw would not seem to be a recipe for long life, but we came home with that fish— and amazingly, despite the rough beginning, the tiny and infrequently cleaned tank, and the fact that he never managed to gain any name more personal than “Fish,” Fish proved to be by far the hardiest and longest-lasting of our goldfish, by a factor of about 50, living nearly four more years until he was found floating head down tonight.  We paid him little attention in life, though Liam at least insisted in including him in any inventory of our family:

“So these are my favorite people in the family, from most to worst.  Buster [our dog], Mom and Dad are tied, Fish, and Myles is worst!”

I look at the pictures from that event and so much has changed— my kids are twice are big and don’t need a special event to eat interesting food out, friends of back then are, well, not so much, Timo is gone and John’s teaching at Kendall College— but Fish lasted through it all till now.  Requiescat in pace, Fish.  I’m glad my wife didn’t drink you by mistake before we got you home.

You read a million things on a subject and then you finally read the one that explains it all. Michael Barone, veteran political analyst, explains why GM and its unions have become a marriage made in Hell:

Unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.

The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea. The answer, I think, is that unionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That’s not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies. As Robert Kanigal sets out in The One Best Way, his biography of Taylor, he believed that there was “one best way” to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.

Taylor’s work was regarded as gospel by many industrial managers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, a time when many factory workers were recent immigrants, often with a less than perfect command of English. Auto assembly lines were organized on Taylorite principles to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of low-skill workers. And squeeze some more…

Interestingly, management often sought to deny that things were run this way at all— hence the video clip at the top of the page, from a 1936 industrial film called Master Hands, which seeks to show that GM workers (right at the moment of the violent strikes in the late 30s) were not interchangeable automatons but skilled artisans, like sculptors or bootmakers.  (The conclusion naturally being that Michelangelo didn’t need a union.)  (Note the additional irony that Master Hands, beautifully made corporate propaganda, shows so much influence of Soviet filmmaking.)

Barone draws the expected conclusion that the unions are what keeps the automakers from changing:

Japanese automakers… managed their plants not according to Taylorism but by giving their workers more autonomy and more responsibility—by treating them like sentient human beings and not like dumb animals as Frederick Taylor taught. The Detroit Three by all accounts I have seen were slow to learn from this—and were even slower to apply the lessons the Japanese taught—because of Wagnerism. Japanese management required cooperation between managers and workers. Wagnerism insisted that all interaction between managers and workers be conducted on an adversarial basis. The 5,000 pages of work rules mean that GM can’t manage the way Toyota does…

Taylorism is pretty much dead in our society; no automaker free to make a choice chooses it as a way to manage its workforce. But its antidote, Wagnerism, remains.

I’m not so sure this is true— that Taylorism is dead.  Watch the Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” and you’ll see an awful lot of conveyor-belt, repetitive-motion production that sure doesn’t look like kaizen management in action.  But let’s accept that cars are not made in quite such a robotic function (except for the parts made by actual robots).

Nevertheless, there is clearly at least one industry that still has Taylor’s fingerprints all over it—one which a high percentage of Americans will have had some experience with, mostly in their youth.  Fast food.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school and my freshman year of college (the sum total of my professional culinary experience, incidentally, in case anyone was wondering).  And the whole secret of McDonald’s processes was that they were broken down into such simplified, repetitive processes that even a slackjawed, inattentive teenager could be instructed how to turn out perfectly average Quarter Pounders in about a half hour of training. And once learned, the processes were indelible— almost 30 years later, I could walk into a McD’s during lunch rush today and take over the Quarter Pounder grill without a hitch.

That this was something less than really learning to cook was a lesson driven home to me when I tried to get a summer job the next year at a Denny’s-type coffeeshop— and it was explained to me that by the time I was trained to be even a barely competent grillman, I’d be leaving to go back to school. Ironically, though I had to recognize the truth of what he said— I hadn’t learned to cook, I’d learned to cook Quarter Pounders— there was one part of McD’s menu where the desire to impose Taylorist processes had run into the customer’s expectations, and real cooking was required.

Breakfast. Sure, the Egg McMuffin might have been a pure McD’s automa-food invention— eggs cooked to unnatural circles, each yolk broken on purpose so that there will never be an issue of customers wanting it runny in the middle or not. But the pancakes are pretty much pancakes, like at any other place; the scrambled eggs are pretty much scrambled eggs, and not screwing them up means exercising a grillman’s judgement as to when things are done and how to arrange them on the styrofoam plate. We might have been Taylor-trained baboons in every other area of the menu, but at least in this one small corner of the menu, we were Master Hands.

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.

My wife bought a box of these cards. Someone at Topps decided it would be smart business to make a complete set of cards under the name of the original baseball card company, celebrating… totally random stuff like the Battle of Thermopylae, James Fenimore Cooper, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Someone at Topps is on crack.

And I have trouble getting mildly clever ad headlines through a couple of layers of management.

Check out this slideshow at the New York Times’ site about the home of the film director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day). It is every bit as jawdroppingly stupid as his last few movies (10,000 B.C., The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla), though in a much more pretentious, Sprockets-y way. Really, you will have to see it to believe it.

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