Friday, 15 January 2010

Let Them Eat Brioche

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.


peter said...

I'm intrigued by your point about time and its impact on quality food access. Do you suppose you meet so many upper middle class women at the farmer's market because they have more time than you and your fellows -- perhaps because they can afford round-the-clock live-in childcare? And that is why the lower middle class women hardly ever make it there, even if their food bill would come out the same or cheaper if they did? Or are there deeper reasons?

As a recently unemployed artist/house-husband, who has radically changed the way his household eats over the last four months (tho not along exactly the lines Pollan would propose - my 'nutritional plan' is probably even more complex than his!), I'd agree that time is an issue, at least in the early stages of the process. Indeed, if I hadn't quit my day job last November, I might never have had the leisure to question the way I was eating in such depth, or to read enough about nutrition and food, to the point where I was able to come to at least a few preliminary conclusions for myself. But while I certainly 'lost' a lot of time during those first few months reading the small print on every label, however illegible, and suffering from various species of mid-aisle paralysis, thanks to that groundwork I now find shopping is a much simpler and much quicker process than it ever used to be. Whether in the local supermarket, organic grocery store, or Sunday market, I know before I start that 90% of the produce on offer (95% in the organic shop, even), is just irrelevant to me. The whole process has become both more 'elegant', and more efficient, as a result.

Because I am less overwhelmed by the idea of going shopping for food, I also tend to do it more often (say at least 3 times a week), buying smaller quantities each time. That makes it easier to adjust what we buy to all the unpredictable variations in the rate at which we get through it. The result: our food wastage bill, which used to be huge, is now more or less non-existent.

Still your underlying question remains. There may be a lot of anecdotal evidence from across the developed world that low-income couples find eating less processed, more locally sourced, natural food, both cuts their grocery bill and makes their shopping process simpler (once it is set up). So why isn't it particular attractive to those who are less well off and have less time? (This begs, of course, another big question: why do those who have less money also seem to find they have less time as well?)

Or to put it in more materialist terms: Are food access patterns simply a direct reflection of class structure (better food = richer consumer)? Or is there something in the kind of food 'prefered' by those on more limited incomes which makes it particularly difficult for them to behave 'rationally', either in economic or in physiological terms, once they have passed the portals of Tesco or Netto?

I don't know if Pollan touches on this in his book, but I suspect not, from what you say.

However, the theme of hunger and addiction is a major undercurrent throughout Gary Taubes' The Diet Delusion, which I just finished. If you haven't read that, I'd highly recommend it: especially as it the kind of book which is written not to preach to the converted, or even to convert unbelievers, but rather to encourage everyone to start asking a lot more questions.

PS This is also a great book about what is meant by 'scientific method', and why scientists (aka a subset of human beings) don't always live up to their own (demanding) standards.

Kirkegaard said...

Fascinating comments, Peter. i agree about it taking a while to set up new habits, but that it makes shopping easier once you have done so. Pollan does talk about what holds people back from changing their habits. The answer is: sugar. I think there may be more overlap with the Gary Taubes book than I suggest. The politics of sugar consumption would presumably be a theme that interests you a fair amount? Ingrid x