Thursday, 6 March 2008

eat food. not too much. mostly plants

In case you can't tell from this, this, this, or this, I have kind of a thing for food. Mostly I like to eat it, but sometimes (on a full stomach) I read about food. Not whole books, in most cases. Reviews of books, or possibly a page or two from Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. With colleagues, I have even threatened to start a philosophy of food movement (one basted in experience, obviously). Michael Pollan has a thing for food, too.

Pollan came to Toronto Wednesday, and I was there to watch him perform. He read a bit from his new book, In Defense of Food, drew applause by claiming that the best food he's had on the book tour has been here in Toronto, and made clear, wide-ranging, and (nevertheless) fairly nuanced pronouncements about the state of food culture in the United States (and, by extension, Canada).

Pollan's narrative is simple, practiced and engaging: because the United States is a nation of immigrants, no single food culture has dominated the others, likely because what might have been the presumptive favorite (British food) is the worst of the available alternatives. What grew up in place of culture, then, was 'nutritionalism', a marketing tool to make processed food more appealing (New Cheesypoofs!* Now with beta-carotene! *real cheese flavor).

Thus his mantra: eat food. not too much. mostly plants. "Edible food-like substances," says Pollan, are not things your grandmother would recognize as food--and that's the problem. It is a miracle of modern science (or was that economics?) that we have 99-cent burgers, that 1 individual can produce food for 125 others, that high-status foods have such a low cost (when processed). Of course some of this is due to advances in scientific knowledge of agriculture and efficiencies of scale. But a large fraction is literally or effectively subsidized. The farm bill is part of the problem, as are costs externalized to the environment or shifted toward increased health-care costs as a result of unhealthy diet. These systematic problems are daunting, but at least some of them appear soluble.

A problem with the real food movement is that although purveyors form a lucrative niche, they are a niche market--namely, the very market that buys books by Michael Pollan. These middle-aged, middle-income middle-managers listen to CBC (or NPR in the States) in their hybrid cars as they drive to Whole Foods, where they use cloth bags to buy produce from the outside edges of the stores (avoiding the canned and boxed processed foods in the aisles). They have the disposable income with which to make that kind of lifestyle choice. The vast majority of North Americans have neither the cash nor the time to do more than feel guilty that they aren't making better choices for themselves or their children.

One big problem, says Pollan, is that people don't cook. Their lives are so unnecessarily harried that they don't have time to sit down to dinner, much less breakfast. Perhaps the nation needs better alarm clocks, he quips. The real trouble, he insists, is that we lack a cooking culture. If we didn't think of cooking as what one does on Thanksgiving or on Iron Chef, we might have a chance. But cooking has become an elite activity--or a chore. Chores, we make more efficient. Elite activities are leisure activities.

Will it ever be possible to walk into McDonald's, spend less than $5, and get a wholesome, balanced meal? Well, if it is possible to subsidize beef enough to get 99 cent burgers, then it is surely possible. It's a solution in search of a market. Are you buying it?

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