Let there be Real Food

I approach this book with skepticism

book_real_food.jpgThere is something off-putting about the first chapter title in Nina Planck's book: "I Grow Up on Real Food, Lose My Way, and Come Home Again."

I put down the book and check copies of Twain and Thoreau for an influence, hoping to disguise my aversion to the author's style in a roundabout fashion based on outdated modes of writing. It is not until I return to review the book, having read slowly and then eagerly, that I admit the real source of my aversion. The chapter heading strikes me as the beginning of a sermon. I have experienced my share of food lectures based on personal anecdotes and little else. I roll my eyes at the author's earnestness, mentally dismiss the book as not serious, and set it down. This ritual repeats often as I struggle to read the first fifty pages, until it dawns on me.

This book is personal and serious, if occasionally uneven, and it intends to be taken seriously. And so I shall.

The "no food culture" argument

Dietary writers like to point to the lack of a single food culture as the source of all food problems in the United States. The argument is that Americans lack a long tradition of culinary wisdom to guide their eating, and the consequence is that we eat things that are bad for us or that are, at the least, nutritionally incomplete. There is a charming naïveté to this argument that leads us to think, wistfully, that if only we had a food culture or were to build a food culture, all of our food issues would be resolved.

America is rich in regional food traditions derived from other cultures — for example Creole, Cajun, and New England. Other nations' culinary traditions are easily displaced by newer foods, else why would American fast food franchises have gained footholds in many parts of the world where local food traditions are older than the United States? A friend conveys the anecdote that, during his travels in Europe, he observed that Europeans ate mostly prepared foods, often taking vegetables and fruits from cans. Although Europe is thought of as a foodie paradise, industrialization is no stranger to them. Europe's vaunted cuisines have evolved after hundreds of years of interaction with other cultures, sometimes for the worst.

Hot borscht is a sumptuous Russian dish that dates back to medieval times, yet I recall standing in Pushkin Square in Moscow in 1990 in front of the new McDonald's. An American classmate and I asked a man why he was willing to wait several hours and pay part of his week's wages for a Big Mac. His answer?

"I cannot get fresh vegetables or meat any other way."

Some things trump cuisine and tradition.

Industrial food and real food

Planck gives a slight nod to this theory, but her objective is broader in scope and has a longer history than any one ethnic cuisine. She does not waste time lamenting the absence of a food culture, instead focusing directly on food itself. The problem, she finds, is with the past century of industrialized food and with our ignorance about what we eat. It is apparent from her book, and from the references and resources listed at its end, that she undertook considerable research into the positives and negatives of industrial and pre-industrial, or "real," foods.

"Real food" is the term Planck gives to foods that humans have eaten for thousands or millions of years and that are "traditional."

[T]the traditional method of farming, processing, preparing, and cooking enhances nutrition and flavor, while the industrial method diminishes both.

Industrial food not only is the opposite of real food, it is recent, synthetic, and impersonates real food.

Planck introduces the reader to the problems of industrial food by way of her personal journey — from farm girl consumer of fresh, seasonal, and local food to industrial eater and back to real food. One envies her experience of eating fresh foods, much as she envied those of her friends who ate store-bought packaged food. The approach establishes her credibility about food and proves engaging, but she doesn't overuse the tactic. She focuses her attention squarely on what science has to say about food. Planck has written the book to discuss "what to eat and why," and she reserves her cheerful anecdotes to temper occasionally dull discussions of omega fatty acid imbalances.

It would be unfair to say that she focuses the book on meat and fat, as there is a chapter on fruit and vegetables and another on other real foods. However, fat is a favorite topic — particularly butter, milk, cheese, and lard (derived from pork fat) — with generous attention given to the benefits of fats found in meat and fish. She devotes full chapters to milk products, meat, fish, fats, and fruit and vegetables, explaining the benefits of the real versions over their pale industrial copies. Separate chapters address the health problems caused by industrial fats — such as margarine, vegetable oils and canola — and the villanization of cholesterol. Planck puts up a convincing defense of cholesterol, which in recent years has changed from being "all bad" to including "good" and "bad" cholesterol, and discusses the important roles of both kinds of cholesterol.

A number of important foods are grouped in a chapter called "Other Real Foods," which ends with a discussion of dark chocolate. Her tastes are not those of the food police or of the diet hawks.

Eating and obesity

A number of studies have shown that biology plays an overriding role in the problems of poor diet and obesity. Planck puts it succinctly:

In the short term, at least, availability seems to determine what we eat, rather than instinct for health.

Given an unlimited source of food, it is in the nature of animals to gorge themselves to the point of sickness. Humans are no exception to this biological rule and, in nations where industrial food is plentiful, are increasingly susceptible to overindulgence.

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Planck largely avoids commenting on the excess quantity of food eaten in industrial nations and gives only passing mention to our lack of activity compared to two generations ago. This is a defensible choice, as the book is not intended to be a diet or exercise manual. However, she has the frustrating habit of comparing the eating habits of disparate groups and pointing to the health of the "real food" group to support her views, notably on fats. To Planck, the ability of certain groups to eat large amounts of saturated fat belies other aspects of their lifestyle, such as living in sub-Arctic regions. Let me tell you — living in Alaska burns a lot of calories even when you are standing around. Planck would say simply that processed vegetable oils are the cause of health problems, without accounting for increased consumption or reduced activity. She gets it partly right.

Her near-exclusive focus on food as the source of health problems can be frustrating, especially when one agrees with the premise that industrial food is unhealthy. As omnivores, we not only have the ability to investigate what foods are edible but to control how much we eat. Changing our consumption from industrial food to real food will not solve all of the problems.

Planck seems to realize the role of personal responsibility — she lays her own choices out clearly as an example to the reader. Wisely, she avoids the role of food police and assumes the role of food detective, delving into the hidden problems with industrial food. It's a long list. Industrial foods contain incomplete nutrients, unbalanced amounts of omega fatty acids leading to depression and other health problems, and excess amounts of mood-destabilizing sugars. Planck lays out facts and provides supporting evidence for her arguments, mostly in a consistent fashion, and provides a wealth of footnotes, a bibliography, an index, and a glossary.

If you read this detective's information and still turn away, you can't blame her for not informing you of the risks.
New Puritans, New Greeks

It was inevitable that the proponents of the new Dietgeist would be misjudged and mislabeled. Food is not only culturally conservative but individually conservative, with each person's food preferences established at an early age. Generations of post-WW II children have grown up on industrial foods and are attuned to the taste of processed, salted, sugared foods and generous helpings of high-fructose corn syrup. Challenging the relatively new conventions of fast food, microwavable mini-pockets, take out, and super-sizing is bound to ruffle feathers among people whose omnivorous thinking begins and ends when they open and close their mouths. Already, the Dietgeisters have been called The Food Police and, more puzzlingly, New Puritans (annoying registration required for that link). The latter moniker carries with it the burden of their oppressive moralizing and harkens back to the word's origin as a term of abuse.

Calling Planck a Puritan is as absurd as calling her a New Greek, though the latter name would be slightly more appropriate. Planck does not ritualize her food, as did the Greeks of legend, but she does respect her food and take it seriously. Puritanical views on food are what have gotten us into this mess, what with bleached everything, sugar-free this, fat-free that, and frosted those — guaranteed not to spoil for at least a year. What the Dietgeist advocates is something much messier and less stultified than the current puritanical-yet-hollow industrial food system, a system that would horrify Puritans and Greeks alike.

Changing the system

After reading Planck and Pollan, there is no question that changes need to be made to the industrial food system. Planck does not lay out a plan for making these changes, other than to mention the farmers' markets that she started in London. There is more to be said on the topic, and she has taken up the issue in recent articles.

Her closing chapter addresses the omnivore's dilemma (her book was published shortly after Michael Pollan's), and Planck returns to her personal approach. She openly advises the reader on what to eat throughout the book, but here gives a complete list of foods, and reminds us to be thankful for the variety available.

[W]hen I am shopping for food or cooking dinner, I try to remember the rich array of life in the last supper of the Iron Age man, and I feel lucky to be an omnivore, blessed with a thousand ways to eat well and be well.

There is a homiletic tone to this closure of the book, but I would direct you to an earlier sentence in the same chapter.

Now I am satisfied that butter and eggs are good for you.

So are we. Welcome home. Let there be real food.

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Photo notes: Trevisio raddichio from Oxbow Organic Farm, Carnation, Washington; foraged huckleberries purchased at Ballard Farmers’ Market, Seattle, Washington; house salami from Salumi, Seattle, Washington; organic patty-pan squash, Helsing Junction Farm CSA, Rochester, Washington; Black Creek Buttery Cheese, Estrella Family Creamery, Montesano, Washington; Madeleine Angevine from estate organically grown grapes, Lopez Island Vineyards, Lopez, Washington; organic, pasture-raised brown eggs, Skagit River Ranch, Sedro-Wooley, Washington.

Photos of Big Mac and Washington real food by Man of La Muncha. Book photo courtesy of Bloomsbury Press.

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided on request by the publisher.

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