Thursday, 31 January 2008

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Leaves.

I've been a fan of Michael Pollan's writing (and thinking) since I first read an extract of Botany of Desire, in which he speculates on how plants and us humans are in a implicit pact to fulfill each other's needs. I was eager to read his follow-up book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which he explores the implications of being an omnivore and traces four different (and differently sourced) meals to the origin of all their component parts. Not an easy read at times, for a large part because it makes you face the reality that eating industrially produced meats and foods are not just harmful to the animal (which we all know but chose to ignore in varying degrees) but are tremendously, horribly harmful to the environment and make us all petroleum addicts. It's made me really question how I approach foods and prompted me to start making changes to my eating and buying habits.

This week, an email came around work announcing that Michael Pollan would be giving a talk that afternoon. I had to read it a few times while almost jumping out of my seat, and began thinking of how I could ask my manager for the approval
to go to the talk while not coming across as something of a sad groupie (even if that's not far from the truth of what I am). Access to this talk, I thought, is the first time in many years of working in higher education that I had the chance to get excited about my own learning.

Michael came to talk about his new book and to talk to our own food gurus and students. His latest book, In Defence of Food, was born of The Omnivore's Dilemma: people kept approaching him to let him know they got the book's 'message', but were confused as to what they should do now and how best to go about eating well. Hence the 7 word distillation of the book: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Leaves.

I was interested to hear him address an aspect of the debate that I consider thorny. How can we all access better produce and healthier eating, particularly the urban and the poor and those groups that are identified as the least healthy eaters. Michael made the point that if someone wanted to eat more in the style he was recommending, they would have to chose between cheap food or fast food. Healthy produce doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive, but we do also need to devote time to cooking some of these less expensive foods - such as setting a large pot of dried beans on to boil and leaving them there for a few hours. Many people are unwilling to take the time to make food, and consider it an intrusion rather than a pleasure to spend a weekend afternoon cooking with the family to prepare ahead for the week's meals. Cooking a pot of beans might not seem as much fun as taking the family out to see a film, but these are the choices we make.

I'm sure to many this will come across as the privileged telling the less well-off what to do. That's certainly the accusation that has been leveled at Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall and his chicken campaign, for example. And wrapped up within these debates is the environment issue, about which I'm acutely paying attention to but don't always find it easy to figure out what to do - hearing variously that eating beef is more polluting than taking a 3 hour drive, that animal feed production is a large contributer to deforestation, that eating naturally fed New Zealand lamb might or might not be less carbon-emitting than eating locally fed lamb, and that, unsurprisingly, all these statistics and claims are a lot muddier than most of us would consider them to be, can make the whole issue very confusing, and make every trip to the grocery store a moral maze.
These sort of uncomfortable debates about food and eating are coming around more often and although they might not sit easily with everyone, I'd rather be confused and thinking about them than not addressing them in the first place


Emiline said...

This is something to definitely think about, and you make some good points.
That is so cool that you got to listen to him lecture.

I don't know what to think, anymore. Maybe we should all become vegetarians.

Julie said...

I know how you feel! I get really confused with all the varying information, and sometimes it's really hard to know what's best. But being totally unaware of these issues is not the way to go. You mentioned this in your post, and it really bothers me that the pursuit of morally and ecologically correct eating seems possible only for the upper classes. I really wish this could change soon.

Su-Lin said...

Hi Annemarie! Just to let you know that I've tagged you for a meme here!

Jasmine said...

I read OD last year and really enjoyed it.

In total agreement re the onslaught of info thrown at us by all sides: growers, manufacturers, environmentalists, lobbyists, scientists hired by lobbyists working for PR firms on retainer by manufacturers...

It's probably best to truly develop our own critical analysis/thinking skills when faced any sort of info. I've been accosted by far too many who hook onto the tagline du jour, without really thinking about what they are saying..

All we can do is follow our own personal economic and ethical guidelines.


MrOrph said...

Thanks to Su-Lin I have found and bookmarked your site. Excellent content! I will be reading regularly.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Brilliant post Annemarie. I haven't read any of his books but will look them up. I think it's important to try and do your bit. There is information overload sometimes and we could all stick our heads in the sand and think it's not our problem but if everybody just took little steps then it would surely achieve a huge result.

On a lighter note. I think we should all go eat worms... and I know a song about it too.

Elle said...

Very cool that you got to listen to him. He raises some interesting points. One of the things that I find really interesting about food bloggers is that many really are interested in the challenge of feeding ourselves without destroying the planet. Very confusing, but important to consider and learn more.