Curse you, Michael Pollan!

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.

387:1000 Cake baking

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 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.

Deep breaths.

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.

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

16 thoughts on “Curse you, Michael Pollan!”

  1. I agree – it makes sense, all of it, but I wish there was someone who would come show me how to shop and how to prepare food. And do it all without having to spends hours in the kitchen, at least not every day.

  2. I know exactly what you mean. But I personally think my hybrid fresh/packaged meals are much better than fully packaged meals. And definitely a step in the right direction. You (like me) work full time. There is no way we have time to make our own tortilla’s or every single item we use. Do you follow “100 days of real food”. Her philosophy is no prepackaged food that has more than 5 ingredients (i think it is 5). I remember last year she was questioned on how much time it takes her to prep food for her family and she put out info and it averaged at 3 hours a day. 3 HOURS A DAY. A full time working mom can’t do that. I know a lot of moms who don’t work would wouldn’t have time for that. I think we can find a happy medium and it is okay to be satisfied with that.

  3. Wah wah wah I’m a poor working mom and I don’t have time to take care of my family. Try putting down your camera and picking up a cookbook and getting your priorities straight.

  4. I have made homemade tortillas, and yes they are delicious, but they are a time consuming pain in the butt. I make them for a treat. I also try to follow the “no more than 5 ingredients” rule for prepackaged stuff. I bet if you look at that jar of sauce and that pasta, you are right on track. I think you are doing the best that you can and that’s all any of us can do.

  5. I also believe everything Michael preaches makes total sense. In an ideal world I would feed my family wholesome organic homemade food 7 days a week. I honestly try to make good choices most of the time. I think what is more realistic for me is simply making a “better choice” as often as possible. This may mean choosing a partially prepackaged meal at home over a restaurant meal.

  6. Truth…didn’t have the guts to use your real name? Easy to spout off when you are hiding behind a pseudonym.

    Dani…as I was reading your post all that came to my mind was what I would call ‘meat & potatoes’ cooking. While I could probably pull off a few meals a week (chicken, steak, pork chops) that were just meat, veggies and potatoes and no Big Food ingredients…I’m not sure how tasty they would be. Would need my BBQ sauce, butter and some oil and balsamic vinegar. But even that sure beats McDonald’s, Wendy’s or a packaged meal any day.

  7. There are so many meals you can make that don’t require a lot of effort or processed foods as ingredients. What about fresh fish and roasted potatoes? Or a broccoli salad and a marinated flank steak? Or lasagna? Or a stirfry? Or mash potatoes and meatloaf? Or salmon steak and a side of rice and cauliflower? Stew? Pot roast? Roast chicken? This is not rocket science

  8. There’s a venn diagram of what I can cook quickly and entirely from scratch and what my kids will eat, and the overlapping section on that diagram is miniscule. I just refuse to feel guilty about my store-bought buns or my store-bought sauces or my store-bought chicken broth, because there are not enough hours in the day. Not enough hours, not enough money really (because come on, I’m going to buy an organic free-range chicken and then boil it for broth? and it’s going to be cheaper than the organic low-sodium broth on the grocery shelf? I do not think so), and not enough space in my head for that guilt, either.

    I am resolving to serve more veggies this summer. Also more fish. Calder does a ton of baking from scratch. But I’d love Pollan to acknowledge the gender issues for households who want to follow his advice, and the economic reality, which is that most of us cannot afford to live the way he wants us to.

  9. I am celiac, which means that I can’t actually eat a lot of prepared foods. I also meal plan a month at a time (started doing so to force a certain variety into my formerly picky child’s diet). I found that deciding to cook certain things in advance worked for me, but there were some meals that I wanted to make in theory, but in practice I was always skipping them. Like Swedish meatballs. Now the recipe is actually simpler than my lasagna, or our “Greek night”, which involves homemade pita (can’t buy it before you feel intimidated!) and flaming cheese. But I make lasagna & Greek once or twice a month & meatballs are just … unfamiliar and involves squishing meat in my bare hands which I find offputting.

    But if I think about it I remember when making the pitas felt like so much work & took forever. It’s like making muffins from scratch. Mixes really don’t save that much time – the average recipe doesn’t even have that many ingredients, but compared to locating a recipe, checking/buying all the ingredients and then baking – it starts to feel overwhelming.

    That’s why I meal plan; puts the decision making all together and reduces my likelihood to grab a mix because I’ve already decided on the recipe & bought the ingredients & tried to avoid adding too many new recipes at once.

    Just being aware of why I was feeling overwhelmed & what kinds of things made me feel like it was “hard” to cook something from scratch (eg touching ground beef!) helped me.

    I do have to comment on Jody’s chicken broth example. Pollan suggests mostly plants (meat in his world is an expensive luxury). He’s probably usually using veg broth. But secondly: I make my chicken broth from scratch (can’t eat most of the store bought stuff). It is DEFINITELY cheaper than the store bought stuff because I use the leftover chicken carcass from other meals. Just the cost of water & electricity…

  10. Be gentle with yourself and take baby steps. We can only make change as we’re able, so just keep going in the direction you want. Pick one thing you want to change first and normalize that before you take on another change.

    It’s been just over a year since we discovered that my youngest can’t tolerate gluten, soy, most dairy, corn (although he does now) and tomatoes. We were mostly vegetarian who ate a lot of pasta and cheese. I too thought we were already cooking a lot from scratch. But what an eye-opener the intolerances were. Suddenly there was pretty much zero convenience options (except rice crackers and rice noodles and quinoa bread). That year was pretty overwhelming and it was months and months before we felt semi-comfortable with our new diet. (Now it’s mostly pastured meats, vegetables and eggs. We discovered last Aug. that he was severely anemic due to B12 and iron deficiencies, so we’re heavy on red meats these days.)

    BTW Bone broth isn’t all that time consuming per se (I simmer mine for 24-72 hours but it requires virtually no attention and many ppl use a crock pot) and it IS cheaper than storebought if you use bones and carcasses from your meals. I even buy dedicated bones and it’s much cheaper. And real bone broth is super nutritiious – rich in very digestible forms of protein, minerals like calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, and things that are often used as supplements like condroitin, and glutamine. It helps heal the gut and arthritis too.

    Also, butter is a health food. The whole animal fat is bad thing is all wrong. It was based on very faulty research by a guy named Ancel Keyes who later went on to work on marketing for the vegetable oil industry. There’s tons of info online about this. Also books like Nourishing Traditions, Full Moon Feast and The Vegetarian Myth. I had the goal to eliminate vegetable oils but I figured it would be hard and take a long time. So instead I focused on adding the fats I wanted to use in its place and suddenly vegetable oil is mostly just not showing up in our cooking.

    Hippocrates’ second rules, after “First do no harm,” was “Let medicine be your food and food be your medicine.”

    (Sorry for the rant. I’ve become rather passionate about this…)

  11. Loved this post Dani. It really resonated with me as I have a lot of the same feelings when it comes to feeding my family. I have great intentions, and then time, money and other factors get in the way and we resort to a box of Annie’s all natural pasta and cheese! (At least it’s all natural – no KD!) Love the suggestions from your other commenters, I will try to implement some of them! Really what I would like is to be able to hire a personal chef to do it all for me!! lol …

  12. I love this post, and I love Michael Pollen. and I think that if he were a working mom withlittle kids, he would totally feed them a frozen meatball or two. As in anything, I think it’s baby steps – for example, if I don’t have time to make my own sauce, I’ll add some extra veggies and call it good.

    Another book that opened my eyes recently is salt, sugar, fat – really compelling look at the food industry and marketing, especially to kids. Made me look differently at a number of things I often buy.

  13. Every year I find there’s something new that I learn and try to change – last year we switched our eggs for example to free range/organic, the year before was fair trade coffee, before that the type of sugar I buy. I feel I have to phase it in because doing it all at once is so overwhelming.

    I love to cook, so I think one of the only reasons we can eat well sometimes is simply because I love it, which isn’t for everyone. Not to mention I’m not battling traffic and schedules with work. Take it one step at a time and try to replace a few things each week. Make your own salad dressing etc.

    Also, almost all of my recipes are actually super simple if you want some ideas! 😉

  14. Baby steps…I keep on thinking we’re making progress but we certainly haven’t tackled homemade tortillas. We’ve been working towards more completely homemade meals due to allergy issues and the only thing that has saved our busy family is the freezer. We focus on components that allow us to put together ( rather than cook from scratch each night) a healthy fully-homemade meal quickly. We will BBQ 10-20 chicken breasts at a time ( using homemade BBQ sauce or spice rub or plain) and then slice, portion and freeze. In the morning, we take out what we need for the evening and it thaws in the fridge. The chicken tops salads or pasta or wraps or gets added to brown rice with some homemade teriyaki sauce. We do the same thing with ground beef and grilled salmon, as well as cooked beans. We cook up a huge batch of brown rice and package it into 1/2 cup servings (shape like a snowball) and then freeze – great for lunches or dinners. Our biggest change in the past 6 months has been switching to homemade sauces ( BBQ, teriyaki ect). Still lots of sugar but I know exactly how much. We do still buy canned tomato sauce in the winter but we only buy the sugar-free 4 ingredient version. We also make big batches of homemade waffles on the weekend and freeze the extras. Pop them in the toaster just like the storebought.
    I guess the other big thing is that we have just cut down on the number of menus that we serve…we generally rotate through about 6-7 dinners for around 2 months and then we switch. Keeps things from getting too boring and also lets you keep seasonal ingredients in the plan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *