23 October 2008

Now Where Did I Put My Xanthum Gum?

The take home message from a great evening with Michael Pollan: Use some freakin' common sense, people!

He’s a whole lot more eloquent than that. Here are a few of his “rules” for eating:

  • Don’t eat something that has more than five ingredients on the label, or whose ingredients cannot be pronounced by your fifth grader.
  • Don’t eat anything that won’t rot.
  • If a product has lots of health claims on the label, don’t buy it. (The claims or the product!)
  • Don’t eat something your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.


Your grandmother didn’t have high fructose corn syrup in her pantry, or lecithin, or Xanthum Gum. She didn’t need to put Xanthum Gum on her grocery list in order to feed her family, and there was no HFCS in her bread.

If you’ve read Pollan’s book In Defense Of Food, you’ll remember that he related the story of how then Senator George McGovern tried, in 1977, to develop food guidelines that would address the growing public health concern over saturated fat. After a couple of days of hearings, he came up with language that said, in nice plain English: Eat less red meat.

Seems like good advice. Seems reasonable.

Unless you are the beef industry, in which case it seems like the worst advice ever. So, enter an interested third party into the public policy process and viola! We end up with: Choose meats that will reduce your intake of saturated fats. Blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-blah. That’s not advice that people can easily incorporate into their lives, and this was especially so in 1977, when folks didn’t really know what saturated fats were, or which meats would reduce their intake of them. But Big Food got involved and protected their own special interests, sacrificing common sense and public health in the process. Right on for the almighty dollar.

Michael Pollan made me mad. Well, not him so much as what he is uncovering about food policy, production, and consumption. The way that the food industry has mucked around with public policy in order to protect – and boost – their profits…the way the US has dictated how developing nations feed their poor by buying wheat from us instead of from their own farmers…the way even milk is problematic because of the high levels of hormones now found in it. It’s all fairly overwhelming and depressing. So thanks, Michael, for a lovely evening.

I am trying to inch my way towards a Slow Food lifestyle. We are planning a garden for the spring time, we are learning all we can about the food around us, and we are talking about how to carve out the time and space to cook with whole foods more than we already do. We are trying to go local.

It’s baby steps, though, people. As recently as a few weeks ago, I fed my kids Foster Farms corn dogs – which probably epitomize everything that is wrong with food in this country – and I was relieved to have something quick and easy in the freezer to shove down their throats. Too bad it wasn’t actually food, but let’s not quibble.

One of the more compelling ideas in Pollan’s work is the notion that Slow Food is really about traditional culture, and that the loss of knowing how to produce, prepare and eat food in a sustainable, holistic, healthy way is really a loss – or at least a separation from – the traditions and cultures we have come from. As Pollan points out, people used to know what to eat and didn’t spend much time worrying about food. I have a lot to learn to bring that culture back into my own family and kitchen, but that’s the picture of family I have in my head: people who enjoy preparing and sharing food that is delicious and varied and savored. I want food and eating to be a celebration in this house, not a chore or a utilitarian endeavor.

Okay, so Rick may find that hard to believe, given how much I grumble about feeding people. Even so, it really is true.

And yet, the reality is that I have five kids, one part time job, a few freelance gigs, and one business to help Rick run; Rick has his business to run, gardens to install, two soccer teams to coach, and yes, the five kids as well. We are running from the minute we get up in the morning – always later than we had planned – to the minute we collapse at night, which occurs when we just can’t push ourselves one minute longer. I have no idea how to fit Slow Food into our lives right now; I just know that I want this, I want to learn how to do this.

My next book? Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. More inspiration for my quest!

1 comment:

nicole said...

I am so glad to hear you enjoyed your evening out! You will get a kick out of Animal, Vegetable Miracle. I always love your take on the world.