In May I had the honour of meeting the man partially responsible for turning me vegetarian.
Michael Pollan‘s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ an exposé of where are food comes from, (spoiler alert: don’t look into it if you enjoy meat), despite being written by a meat-eater with no agenda except revealing some of the seedier (pun intended) side of the food industry, pushed me to the edge of a meat-free existence. Jonathan Safron Foer‘s more personal ‘Eating Animals‘ pushed me over the edge.
Pollan was at the Hay festival to promote his new book, ‘Cooked: a natural history of transformation,’ on the rôle of food preparation in both society and ecology. I wasn’t so interested in this theme as in his previous works, and instead got my copy of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘ signed, whilst discussing with the author the timeliness of his adopted topic, (Pollan stresses that he is no scientist or macrobiologist, merely an investigative journalist), on a day when two shocking stories had appeared in the British national media.
A week later, visiting a friend in Brighton, I discovered a mini-book by him which I had never heard of: it looked a little gimmicky, but for a pound or two in a charity shop I couldn’t resist. It is an offshoot of his earlier ‘In Defence Of Food: an eater’s manifesto,’ in which he attempted to rectify the problems of the Western diet, and found that it essentially boiled down to the seven word manifesto which made up last week’s blog. (As he said, this thrilled him, although “…it was also somewhat alarming, because my publisher was expecting a few thousand words more than that.”).
‘In Defence Of Food‘ became the story of how such a simple thing had become so complicated, (brief answer: evil food companies and spineless government), and this pint-sized pamphlet is Pollan‘s attempt to answer, simply, what we can do to get back to basics: 64 rules or guidelines to bare in mind when shopping, or eating out, when all the psychological pressures of advertisers and food myths are calling our names.
As my mum pointed out, many are simple and obvious, but Pollan believes that, as is often said about the maxims of famous philosophers, humans often need to remind themselves of the obvious. Thus some of the rules come without any required explanation:
“No.37: The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead,”
“No.20: It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car,”
or one of my favourites:
“No.21: It’s not food if it’s called by the sme name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles)”
These last two underline one of the fundamental points of the book: what we think of as ‘food’ today usually isn’t, and it’s causing us all sorts of problems. Most of the book is therefore different ways of reminding ourselves to eat as much real food as possible, and these are the rules I have tried to internalised and used several times already in the days since reading it: from avoiding things with too many ingredients, (five is the author’s recommendation), to skipping foods which have sugar or some derivative of it in the first three ingredients.
I think my diet is going to undergo quite a change…and I leave you again with those seven all-important words which have set me on my way:
Not too much.