Ruling the Table with Pollan (& a little Wilde)

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What has the world come to when one of our leading food and farming writers is moved to pen a book with the subtitle, “An eater’s manual”? That was my first thought when I heard about Michael Pollan‘s latest work, Food Rules. Now we need a list of rules on how to eat? What’s next: A Human’s Guide to Breathing In and Out?

The title and subtitle of Pollan’s new book are not meant to be ironic; from its physical size (it’s small enough to fit into a pocket), to its pithy writing (few of the 64 “chapters” are longer that 200 words; a few are only a sentence and it took me less than an hour to breeze through the whole thing), it’s clear this is a book meant to be used as a quick reference. But I don’t think Pollan means for people to keep the book in the kitchen or the shopping cart like some sort of culinary field guide, referring to it every time a food choice is brought up.

Rather, these rules are meant to be internalized. The secret to that is to come up with phrases that are easy to recall, even in today’s world of information overload. To do that, Pollan relies on a mix of old standards you may have heard your parents or grandparents mouth and new ones he’s apparently made up. An example of the former is, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” One of Pollan’s own phrases he uses here was actually introduced in his book In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

But do we really need such clever phrases to remind us how to eat? Yes, unfortunately. As Pollan made clear in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and, before him, Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, we have made our food system entirely too complicated—an estimated 17,000 new products show up in supermarkets annually.

And there’s a lot of money to be made from the hurly-burly that greets eaters whenever they walk into a grocery store, turn on the television, flip through a magazine or even drive down the street. The more you process food, the more profitable it is for the processor.

“Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your health,” Pollan writes, providing a clever way of describing the importance of avoiding foods that are backed by mega-advertising campaigns.

So yes, we do need a reminder of the basics: eat whole foods as much as possible, consume them sitting down at a table (preferably with other people), and know the source of those foods.

But, for the sake of our sanity, we need to also keep in mind Pollan’s last rule: “Break the rules once in a while.” An occassional Twinkie won’t kill you, and when it is enjoyed as a treat rather than as a regular part of your diet, then it’s much more enjoyable anyway.

As Pollan writes: ” ‘All things in moderation,’ it is often said, but we should never forget the wise addendum, sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde: ‘Including moderation.’ “

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