The world of food and eating is made up of a series of strange and contradictory currents that swirl around us to create confusion about what we should eat.
Anxiety about obesity pops up everywhere in the media with the simple awfulness of the statistics telling us that this is really a problem. Australia is one of the fattest wealthy countries, heading for 80% of adults overweight or obese by 2020.
In response, the popular culture universe brings us the torture and humiliation of the overweight and a world of Spartan self improvement where different exercise, weight loss and diet regimes and conglomerates tout their wares.
Meanwhile, the foodie kids are tempering chocolate and making beef wellington on Masterchef, but, like anything else they ‘plate up’ as we watch so avidly, this bears so little resemblance to what we actually eat that we can reasonably assume that it is family friendly gastroporn – a sensual entertainment loosely based on, but totally detached from reality.
Personally, I am rather pleased that Heston Blumenthal has descended from the world of magic and illusion to tell us how to make perfect roast potatoes, even if they take twice as long and use twice as much oil as my standard really delicious roast potatoes, so may only come out on special occasions.
And where does the exquisitely expensive vine-ripened tomato from the farmers’ market fit in? Or the hideous irony of small plastic packs of eternally fresh sliced (plastic??) apple being forced on you at McDonalds? Or the intermittently hilarious product labelling that our yearning for the clean, green and hypo-allergenic have created?
When we see industrial food products with brand names like farmers’ best, we can recognise the greenwash, but we don’t yet have a catchy term for the way manufacturers try to cast a veil of health and wholesomeness over products that don’t need it. When you see a packet of rice labelled as ‘gluten free’, you know that our new-found ignorance about basic foods has created a marketing opportunity, if nothing else.
Michael Pollan is a voice of sanity whose work cuts through the babble of competing interests and our confusion with clear and good humoured counsel about navigating through this crazy food world.
In Defense of Food, and its offshoot, the wonderfully simple Food Rules contain the brilliant distillation of his thinking and observation of our food dilemmas. Once you have read his formulation: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. or his description of the processed stuff you should try and avoid as ‘edible foodlike substances’ you will be hooked.
In the Omnivore’s Dilemma he starts with the question ‘What should we have for dinner?’ and takes on the complex tangle of ethical and environmental issues around the way we farm and eat animals. Although his conclusions are quite different, the book is wonderful companion to Eating Animals which Jonathan Safran Foer discussed at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas last year.
Watch the full Jonathan Safran Foer talk ‘What We Are And What We Eat’
Hear more from Michael Pollan at www.michaelpollan.com