Sunday, September 27, 2009

Better than donuts

Michael Pollan touched on a number of food culture and policy issues at his two lectures in Madison this past week. He brought up so many great ideas, not to mention hilarious observations and quotable quotes, that I suspect my next few blog posts will be peppered with Pollanisms.

[Gushing aside: I anticipated the talks in much the same way my dad would a papal audience, to give you an idea of the excitement level leading up to my first in-person, shared airspace with one of our nation's greatest contemporary minds. Sitting in the Kohl Center -- yes, they used half of the giant hockey arena as a venue, so clearly I am not the only Pollan fan in Madison -- waiting for the Thursday night talk to begin, I was worried that I'd built up the event so much in my head that I would surely be disappointed. Oh, no. Smart, funny, thoughtful, and with just a touch of irreverence, Mr. Pollan builds arguments like a french master chef builds a chocolate souffle: with both art and skill...and both are a pleasure to witness.]

He started with the basics: why is it that we eat so poorly? Largely, he suggested, it is because we have become so disconnected from our food -- where it comes from, how it grows, when it is in season, what it should taste like, and forget about taking pleasure in it or valuing it as more than a collection of calories -- that we have come to rely on experts to tell us what to eat. Well, it turns out they're often wrong. (And thank goodness: I feel vindicated to know that my predilection for butter is now back in fashion. At least this year.)

In the food industry as in healthcare, there always seems to be a new magic bullet that will solve all of our problems: a breakthrough medication or procedure, a novel diet that praises some food group or nutrient while demonizing another. Fat, sugar, butter, carbs...all have been vilified at some point. "High fructose corn syrup seems to be the satanic nutrient of the moment," Mr. Pollan joked, and food packages are starting to highlight "real cane sugar" on their labels. Sugar. You know, that stuff that was more evil than communist Russia back in the late 80s.

"Nutritionism," as it is termed in Pollan's latest book, "In Defense of Food," is a relatively new field... "Much like surgery in, say, 1650," the author posited. "It's interesting, sure, but are you ready to get on the table?" It is a complicated field, and no doubt nutritionists are doing their best, but when things like Froot Loops get a healthy choice checkmark, you know something's amiss. "Instead of 'a healthy choice' label, how about 'better than donuts?'" Pollan quipped. How about getting to know food -- real food, not foodlike substances -- again? Grow it, cook it yourself, share it. I concur with his proposal that we as a culture move away from the "American Paradox" of nutritional obsession amid our collective decline in health and pursue something more akin to the "French Paradox" that embraces the pleasure and cultural richness surrounding food. We'd likely be happier -- and healthier. Now bring on the red wine and creme fraiche!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. Ah! "Better than donuts" makes it into the New York Times:


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