In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2008), is a book I bought for my foodie ex-chef husband for Christmas, but in fact he was too preoccupied with The Wire, and The Road (apparently only able to digest manly nominalized materials, where I need that feminized genitive connection). So I read it.
Pollan's argument is that we (for 'we', he means Americans, but it's the 'we' of the Western diet) are being fed an enormous amount of calories deriving from a small group of less than nutritious things -- soy, corn, wheat -- all dressed up as an Aladdin's cave of food-like products.
We should, so his antidote goes, be hunting and gathering a vast array of plant foods that have a deeply simple relationship with the land they grew on. We are, thus, to invert the relationship between mono- and multicultural that has been foisted upon us, and are ourselves to seek out diversity from origins that are simple, rather than consuming what is frighteningly simplified, but packaged to look like variety.
I read it, dutifully, to the end, but feel somehow cheated, or underfed. Perhaps because the writing is rich but only composed of a few ingredients, such as the phrase 'reductive nutritionism', or 'industrial agriculture'. There is more than a whiff of conspiracy theory here, I was mildly surprised not to see the phrase 'military-industrial complex carbohydrates' in the mix.
The trouble with this book is that it preaches to the converted. I read it smugly ticking off all the ways in which I've changed my and my children's diet to avoid processed foods, to use farmers' markets, to eat as a family, to enjoy cooking, to live slow, to grow food in the garden... and I bought all the science, though I have no idea if he's right or not, since he himself argues that he has to tap into the very nutritionist science he wants to rubbish.
I also buy all the stuff about food as a dynamic set of relationships between the earth and our eating culture, with symbiosis and synergy accounting for some of the ways in which groups of food are good for us, which we destroy if we take them out of context. This is terroir territory. Of course I love it, I'm an ex-critic of French literature -- you can't get more Romantic than this argument, suffused with nostalgia for a lost past that seems to extend not only back to when we ate more plants, but when we lived up trees.
So what is my niggling doubt? There is a part of me that suspects he is having his cake and eating it.
Although he makes the argument that 'Mom' used to be the educative link which passed down commonsense knowledge about nutrition, food hygiene, cultural practices around food, manners, portion control etc etc, he does not explain how women are supposed to combine working lives, with raising families, and making time to cook this wonderful food.
And although he concedes that sourcing food from markets comes at a premium, he does not seem to understand that in this country, Jamie Oliver himself cannot make a depressed mother on benefits buy more healthy but more expensive produce. He talks blithely about culture, while I think about class. What Pollan can't export from America is a politically-sensitive analysis of why we eat the way we do in the UK.
When we returned to the UK from Australia, in 2006, a revolution seemed to have taken place. We had left with everyone complaining about how crap British food was. We returned to a whirlwind of River Cottage chicken maltreatment outrage; personally-delivered vegetable boxes; and the rise of Waitrose as the premium supermarket (had I just not noticed before?). If your food was not blaring its ecological credentials, and proclaiming its organic origin, you were poisoning your children.
The scales fell from my eyes -- and unless they were wild-fished scales, I was persona non grata. Yet after a few months of squeezing past ladies with very pointy elbows in Waitrose, the scales had to go back on again. I fell sadly back on Sainsburys and Tescos. I just couldn't keep up. I missed the boutiques of Sydney, and the open air markets that happened everywhere, in a city in which food is hallowed, but fully integrated into everyone's lives, not just the privileged few.
After a while of buying organic, I forgot what was better about it, and started to notice how far the stuff flew. I went back to trying to remember what my mother grew in her enormous vegetable garden and when it was in season. And I stopped talking about food with posh friends. It was too upsetting.
We did discover an excellent farmers' market close by, and regularly empty our pockets of cash in a matter of minutes. Actually veg are very good value in a farmers' market. But going to such markets is also, and essentially, a matter of class. They are entirely populated by the upper middle rather than the middle or any other class. I routinely feel like an interloper, wearing the wrong kind of coat.
In other words, I already, and literally, buy everything Pollan is arguing so vociferously for, but as I do so, I don't so much feel healthier as snobbish.