Friday, May 25, 2012

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

I’m probably the last person on the planet to read In Defense of Food, but I’m glad I finally got around to it.  As Pollan himself states in the introduction, the fact that anybody has to write a book emphasizing the need to eat real food rather than processed food, shows how mixed up we’ve become.   There are no earth-shattering truths here, but we’ve become accustomed to so many lies from food manufacturers, that Pollan’s reality check is fresh and interesting.

He begins by debunking “nutritionism,” which he calls an ideology and not a science. When nutritionists began breaking foods down into nutrients and vitamins and isolating certain nutrients as “super” and others as “harmful,” they opened the door for food manufacturing.  Suddenly anything could be injected with the proper nutrients and come out a “health food.”   By the same token, nutrients that are out of fashion (carbs or cholesterol) could be eliminated from these food products. 

The typical whole food has much more trouble competing under the rules of nutritionism, if only because something like a banana or an avocado can’t quite as readily change its nutritional stripes. (18)

It’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a  few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound “whole-grain goodness” to the rafters. (40)

Pollan goes on to say that we’ve become so obsessed  over the latest scientific discoveries (Think “antioxidants”) that many have developed “orthorexia”, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

So this is what putting science, and scientism, in charge of the American diet has gotten us: anxiety and confusion about even the most basic questions of food and health, and a steadily diminishing ability to enjoy one of the great pleasures of life without guilt or neurosis. (80) Instead of worrying about nutrients, we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature. (143)

Except for a couple of silly comments about the evolutionary process, this book is filled with practical and refreshing insights.  Pollan’s parting advice is to avoid food with more than five ingredients (or any food that your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize).   I’ve enjoyed putting it into practice.

Quote on "Book Food" by Amy Carmichael

"It matters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meat.  We are what we think about.  Think about trivial things or weak things and somehow one loses fiber and becomes flabby in spirit."

(Letter from Amy Carmichael in Candles in the Dark)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Jane Austen Blues

I often say that Anthony Trollope ruined me for lesser books.  After completing one of his novels, I often struggle to find something else to read that measures up to his superior writing.  Now that I’ve finished Mansfield Park, I am having the same dilemma.   I’ve picked up and put down four different books today.  It’s not the quality of the books themselves because all of them come highly recommended.  It’s just that after the decorous behavior of Miss Price and the word precision of Miss Austen, everything else seems tawdry.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was too gritty.  Bud, Not Buddy too sad.  White Fang too bloody. Even the highly touted One Thousand Gifts came off as histrionic.  Obviously, I need some kind of therapy. Cyrano de Bergerac may be just the ticket.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park  is the story of Fanny Price, a young girl who is shipped off to live with a wealthy aunt because her own home is too crowded and poor.  She is treated with kindness, but almost everyone in the new household considers her no more than a glorified servant - except for cousin Edmund who dares to accept her as a true sister and friend. 

If you are new to Austen, I would not recommend this book as your first attempt.  Fanny Price is widely considered one of the most boring heroines in literature.  I am thankful that the first version (from Penguin Classics) I ever read contained an excellent introduction by Tony Tanner that dispelled this myth.  Tanner wrote that Fanny represented goodness, and that goodness doesn’t have to “do” anything.  It just “is.” While all the other characters in the book are rushing after pleasure with little regard for principle, Fanny waits quietly and bravely.  In the end her virtue is richly rewarded.

The writing is very good (of course!), but this book is slow moving and not nearly as witty as some of Austen’s other novels.   If you stick with it, though, the closing chapters tie things up beautifully and it’s a satisfying read.

This was my first book completed for The Classics Club Challenge.