The Locavore’s Bookshelf: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is Michael Pollan’s follow-up to his immensely popular and influential book,The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which documented his own personal journey as he discovered the ins and outs of various food systems in the United States, including corporate agriculture, confined animal feeding operations, small pasture-based livestock farms, foraging and hunting.

I have to be up front and say that I, like nearly everyone else in the known universe, loved The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Not only did I think that the points Pollan makes throughout the book are valid and useful, and I am thrilled to see it as widely read as it has been and continues to be, but I was also vastly entertained by his personal ruminations on his research, as well as the way in which he related his experiences in various settings. As a former farm girl and all-around country mouse, I was particularly amused by his thoughts and feelings as he did some of the nastier work involved in food-raising and gathering such as butchering chickens and field dressing a wild hog. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the city feller’s antics, but even as I snickered, I was cheering him on in his discoveries as he pushed his personal limits and stretched the boundaries of his life farther and farther in the search for a more authentic and honest relationship with food.

That said, I have to very sadly admit that I didn’t think much of In Defense of Food.

I appreciate that it is meant to be a more practical book that deals with the question raised by many readers after they finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma: “What, then, do we eat?” Pollan answers this question in seven simple words. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” right at the beginning of the book, and then goes on to expand upon that statement for the next two hundred pages or so.

And that is fine and good. I agree with Pollan on that point. We should eat food, which he defines as whole foods which would be recognizable to our grandmothers, and we should eat less than we do, and we should eat less meat than we currently eat, though it is not necessary to give up all of it if we do not want to.

He advocates eating local, sustainably grown and produced foods, preferably organic, and I can’t say that I disagree with any of that.

In fact, the reason why I didn’t love this book has nothing to do with whether I think Pollan is right or wrong; I happen to agree with him on most of his major points.

It has to do with the fact that the book is not cohesive and reads like two separate smaller books melded together into one longer book.

Or, more accurately, it reads like two long, investigative magazine articles (which is where his seven-word thesis statement first appeared–in an article published a year ago for the New York Times Magazine, which I read when it came out) somewhat clumsily edited together. The truth is, the other theme of the book, that America’s dietary issues are part and parcel of the ever-changing nutritional advice we are given by scientists, a practice which he calls, “nutritionism,” is also from the same article in the New York Times Magazine. (In fact, for the first couple of chapters, I kept thinking, “I’ve read this before. Where?” By the third chapter, I figured it out. and looked it up online and found the article in question.)

However, in the article, these two themes were more elegantly woven together into a cohesive whole.

When the ideas were expanded into this small book, however, the weaving began to unravel, and what could have been a deftly written, fascinating look at why American’s obsession with health and nutrition may not in fact be healthy, and what to do about it, becomes instead a clumsy, rushed attempt to get a sequel to The Omnivore’s Dilemma out to the reading public as fast as possible.

I can understand the appeal of this approach. When Pollan wrote his New York Times Magazine article, entitled, “Unhappy Meals,” he made a concise, cogent argument that we should stop listening to the nutritional advice of the experts who use reductive science to study foods, which result in a plethora of theories which seem to be adopted and then discarded with dizzying speed, leading to great confusion on the part of consumers. He said we were better off ignoring any processed food which had health claims on its packaging and should instead go back to eating whole foods, which we cook for ourselves. He advocated ignoring the center aisles of the grocery store as much as possible, and only shopping on the edges, where the produce, dairy, meat and eggs are displayed, and we should reject any food which our grandparents would not recognize. (Of course, the problem with that advice is that all of the very traditional Chinese food I eat would have been a mystery to my grandmothers–but I am sure that a Chinese peer of my grandparents would recognize my Cantonese and Sichuan foods readily. Thus, I figure I can “grandfather” those foods into my diet and still follow the spirit, if not the actual words of Pollan’s dictum.) (And yes, that pun was intentional.)

That was a great article, and I can understand why Pollan would want to get those words out to as many people as possible, not just the folks who read the New York Times.

The problem is that he had to expand on that article to make a whole book, and that is where he got into trouble.

I don’t think that the expansion was very well done. I think it was rushed, and he ended up putting too much emphasis on the evils of nutrition science and its ties to the food processing industry, and wrote too little about what it is we should be eating instead, with practical advice on how to change the typical American’s lifestyle, shopping and cooking habits. The fact is, he could have made his point about “nutritionism” in one chapter, and then spent the rest of the book formulating answers for the difficult question of exactly how one is to change everyone’s relationship to food when not everyone has access to farmer’s markets and inner city folk don’t even always have access to real grocery stores.

To me, these are more pressing issues, although I will admit that I may be a special case in that I have been reading critically about nutrition science for quite some time, and have always been somewhat cynical about such spurious claims like margarine being more healthy than butter. (Which, of course, it isn’t: artificially hydrogenating liquid vegetable fat to make is solid introduces trans-fats which are more unhealthy than naturally solid animal fats.)

In other words, all through the majority of the book, where Pollan reiterates his indictment of “nutritionism,” I was bored to tears.

Also, I noticed that while he tells us to eat less, he makes little to no mention of exercising more. Much like Nina Planck in her book, Real Food, Pollan mentions that humans can exist on any number of diets: all meat, mostly meat, some meat, all plants, mostly plants, no plants. However, like Planck, he tends to downplay the fact that in human societies where people eat these rather extreme sounding diets, they always are more physically active than we modern Americans are.

I am of the firm belief that it is as much our couch-potato/desk-jockey lifestyle which contributes to our expanding waistlines and declining health as it is the typical processed crap food American diet.

To have both Planck and Pollan downplay this rather large elephant in the room is curious.

The other thing I missed while reading In Defense of Food was Pollan’s personal touch. This is a much less personal work, and so there are no engaging stories and anecdotes about Pollan’s discoveries and adventures. Those are my favorite parts of all of his books, and in this one, they were completely lacking.

But it need not have been that way. If he had spent longer researching this book, rather than rushing it to press, he could have done more exploration on the question of how to get more fresh, whole food to more people in this country, and I think that the book could only have benefited from that treatment.

That said, while I don’t really like the book–I think it has many good solid points.

However, all of those points are available online in the better written, more concise, “Unhappy Meals,” which is free, instead of being $21.95.

And then, you can dash off to the grocery store or farmer’s market and spend that cash you saved on some good food that someone’s grandma somewhere would recognize as wholesome and tasty.


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  1. I agree completely about the “somebody’s grandma, somewhere” interpretation of the dictum — I remember arguing it when the NYT article was first published, with people who complained that for THEIR grandparents in northern climes this would have meant just meat and potatoes; that seems like useless nitpicking. It’s obvious what he MEANT.

    Comment by Andrea — January 17, 2008 #

  2. Thanks for the review, Barbara, it’s much appreciated!

    My complaint about Pollan’s “food your grandmother would recognize” is that the grandmother I knew better growing up made almost every meal with a can of Campbell’s soup of some sort. (My other grandmother grew and canned many of her own vegetables, and had killed plenty of chickens in her day. But I barely knew her.) Anyhow, my point is, many Americans now have to go back more than two generations for that admonition to work.

    Comment by Kristi — January 17, 2008 #

  3. Great review! I think you have convinced me not to buy the book, even though I also love Pollan, because I too have read that article. Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed overview.

    Comment by Shannon — January 18, 2008 #

  4. Good thoughtful review. Thankis.

    Comment by Ann — January 19, 2008 #

  5. I think that a possible reason why these authors ignore exercise is because, while changing your diet is daunting for many Americans, changing your lifestyle to fit in more exercise is even more dauting. I know I for one have done fairly well with the former but have been neglecting the latter. Eating delicious whole foods is one thing, but hitting the gym? Eek!

    Comment by Neohippie — January 20, 2008 #

  6. I appreciate your review, but I actually couldn’t disagree more. Not having read Omnivore, I took In Defense of Food on it’s own merits and found it a compelling and engaging read. I found his research and thoughts on nutritionism incredibly timely, astute and something I’ve not heard in the mainstream media. I felt the three sections of the book were well thought out, and built on each other. I didn’t find the absence of an argument about exercise glaring because he’s talking about food. “In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants”. Those statements are about the state of food in our country, not the state of obesity. Sure it would have been good to bring it up, but I didn’t feel it was necessary. I found his book to be incredibly valuable and could affect the way people eat, taken on it’s own merits. Previous works or not. You, of course are entitled to your opinion, but to discourage people from reading it, I think is actually counterproductive when you say that you actually agree with his assertions.

    Comment by Bri — January 25, 2008 #

  7. Bri, to each his own–I did encourage people to read his article, which states the same exact argument in a more concise fashion.

    Now, after reading the article, if the reader wants more of the same, they can read the book.

    But I see no reason to suggest someone read a book which gives the same information that is available for free by the same author that is better written in another venue.

    But that’s just me.

    Comment by Barbara — January 25, 2008 #

  8. “and wrote too little about what it is we should be eating instead, with practical advice on how to change the typical American’s lifestyle, shopping and cooking habits.”

    Perhaps he wrote what he knows…he just don’t know enough to write more about this part? (There’s also the huge, Almighty Problem in that People Do Not Want To Be Told What To Eat.)

    “…he makes little to no mention of exercising more…I am of the firm belief that it is as much our couch-potato/desk-jockey lifestyle which contributes to our expanding waistlines and declining health as it is the typical processed crap food American diet.”

    I’m not. People were slothful in the 1960s but were mostly not obese or diabetic. But food changed more and more in the 1970s, with HFCS and Fast Food restaurants coming into play along with stepped-up marketing. Trans fat kicked up more. People stopped cooking. PEOPLE STOPPED COOKING.

    Cooking with real food, to me, is much more important than exercise. (And just think about the bottom 80% who exercise regularly and are still gaining weight.)

    Excellent review, as always.

    Comment by Jack at Fork & Bottle — January 27, 2008 #

  9. Today’s NY Times – Mark Bittman has an excellent article:

    “Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago.”

    (See, I’m not sold on lack of exercise – that doesn’t cause the average person to eat 50 more pounds of meat/poultry/fish per year.)

    Comment by Jack at Fork & Bottle — January 27, 2008 #

  10. I loved Omnivore more than Defense, and was glad I got Defense from the Library. Botany was wonderful. I just found your site, and it seems that you are where the rubber meets the road. Great stories combined with great recipes and lots of info. Pollan missed the recipe part. Thanks.

    Comment by Les — September 18, 2009 #

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