When I read Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto in 2008, it radically changed how I thought about food and eating. I took to heart then and still try hard to live by his simple prescriptive advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Every time I visit the grocery store, I think about his tests to ensure you are consuming actual food and not just foodlike substances: “would your great-grandmother recognize it as food” and “don’t eat it if it has ingredients you don’t recognize and/or can’t pronounce.”
Because I was so deeply moved by In Defense of Food, I knew I would like his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. About two months ago, I read an interesting interview with Pollan in a blog on the NY Times. In that interview, he said:
“Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.”
When you cook, you choose the ingredients: “And you’re going to use higher-quality ingredients than whoever’s making your home-meal replacement would ever use. You’re not going to use additives. So the quality of the food will automatically be better.”
I believe that, wholeheartedly. I believe in just about everything Pollan in preaching, and so I was delighted last week to be stuck in the car for drive across the city long enough to catch all of Jian Ghomeshi’s interview of Michael Pollan on the radio program Q. Pollan discussed Big Food and how (pardon me as a paraphrase from my memory of something I heard a week ago) any industrialized food production will automatically choose the least expensive (and therefore lowest quality and least healthy) ingredients, because companies are all about making profits. But to cover up the fact that they are using marginal ingredients (think of the quality of cheese and flour, for example, used to make a frozen pizza) they add all sorts of other things that are salty or sugary or fatty because when our body detects those things it says YUM, and those salty/fatty/sugary additives mask the meh of the mediocre ingredients. And it’s those salty/fatty/sugary additives that are the problem, the huge problem, the biggest food problem of them all.
Jian Ghomeshi asked Pollan about adding things like butter, gobs of butter, to a home cooked meal to make it tastier and Pollan said that you basically can’t go wrong with home-cooked food, and no matter how much salt you shake out or butter you slather on, if you are cooking real food you are ingesting a mere fraction of what you get in pre-packaged Big Food foodlike products.
This makes so much sense to me. SO much. I totally buy this argument. Eating at home is a touchstone in our family. I’m also a rabid believer in the whole “family dinner” concept, and while we do takeout pizza about once a week, we mostly eat meals I cook at home.
Before we had kids, cooking dinner meant taking a box from the freezer or fridge and making it warm. I’ve come a long way since then, I have to admit that much. But as I am listening to Michael cursed Pollan and nodding my head in agreement, I am beginning to think critically about what “cooking” means in our house. I think about how I make spaghetti and meatballs, for instance. Box of (whole wheat, natch) noodles, jar of sauce, frozen meatballs from M&M. Um, okay, so not exactly home cooked. But my veggie primavera with noodles and fresh zukes, peppers, snowpeas and mushrooms – I cook all that from scratch. Well, except for the noodles. And the jarred pesto. Hmm. Oh wait! Fajitas, my specialty, with guacamole from scratch and Farm Boy (but fresh, dammit!) salsa. Totally from scratch. Except the spice rub on the chicken. And the prepackaged tortillas.
Damn. There is almost nothing I cook that doesn’t come somehow from Big Food, that is not processed. Even hamburgers with meat I go out of my way to get from the local butcher (ethically and sustainably farmed!) goes on buns from a bag beside beans from a can.
I want to make the good choices, I honestly do. I have a local, organic CSA farm share, for god’s sake. I am trying.so.hard. But I stood in the grocery store the day after I listened to that interview and I was paralyzed. What can I buy? What can I make for dinner? How can I possibly conceptualize and home-cook from scratch seven dinners that all five people in my house will eat and not completely lose my ever-loving mind? And then do it all again the next week? And the next?
By the time I reached the check-out, I had completely capitulated. Not only were the usual suspects in my cart (cans of beans, jars of sauce, those amazing chicken dumplings from the freezer section) but also several signs of my utter resignation: sugary cereal, frozen waffles, a bag of chips so big it needed its own shopping bag.
Curse you, Michael Pollan. Curse you for opening my eyes, eyes which I thought were already wide open for the love of god, and making me think about eating all over again. I’m afraid to read your bloody damn book in case it makes me think even more because my head may just explode.
Now that we’ve eaten the can of beans and the pre-prepped macaroni salad, I’ve shaken off my ennui and vowed to try again. If I’ve made the leap from simply heating crap up to making large swaths of most of our meals, I can incrementally start to cook more and more from scratch, right? Maybe even start with the basics?
You think the family will mind if we have home-made from scratch spaghetti sauce on noodles from a box four times next week? Because the older I get, the harder it is for this dog to learn new tricks.