Foodie Underground: It’s Not What We Eat, It’s How We Eat It

ColumnMichael Pollan discusses our unhealthy obsession with singling out foods for their individual properties instead of taking a more holistic approach.

What relation do we have to the food we eat?

As a society, we talk a lot about what we put in our bodies – Is it processed? Is it organic? Where did it come from? – but we talk far less about food and food habits as an integral part of culture. Often, we eat because we need to; because we need sustenance. When we view food as a commodity instead of a cultural good, we head down an unhealthy path.

This weekend Michael Pollan, known for his best selling books like In Defense of Food, came to town for a lecture. Over the past few years he has become one of the figureheads of the food movement, and I certainly wasn’t going to miss out on seeing him speak in person.

I grew up in a Pollan-esque household. Although my mother never put a name to her culinary policy, looking back it very much aligned with Pollan’s branded recommendation: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And yet even with a whole grain, leafy green background, Pollan has changed how I think about food.

For months after I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was acutely aware of what I put in my basket at the grocery store. Where had that asparagus been shipped from? Did I really need mangoes that had traversed a continent? Even worse, I took it out on my parents. Home one weekend, I raised my eyebrows and said to my father, “Do you know how much corn is in this salami that you’re eating?” I started referring to high fructose corn syrup as an acronym. I was verging on obnoxious, but that book got me thinking.

Pollan doesn’t take himself too seriously, poking fun at not only his audience (“Are you all sure you’re in the right place? This is the lecture on food, after all…”), but at himself and the food industry. To kick off the keynote speech of University of Portland’s Food for Thought conference, Pollan laid out two grocery bags from a store run he had made earlier to Fred Meyer. It was an assortment of mostly processed, packaged foods, boasting a plethora of goodness in the form of antioxidants, low fat and Omega-3’s. Yet the items were things like fruit pizzas by Eggo and chocolate Cheerios.

He reminded the packed auditorium that while we Portlanders may be blessed with farmers markets and organic produce that comes from our rich and agriculturally diverse Willamette Valley, most of our population is stocking their shelves with these products.

But Pollan’s message wasn’t to point out our obsession with bad food. It was to point out our obsession with attempting to make bad food sound healthy. Our path has ventured far away from a holistic approach to one based on looking at food as simply a collection of nutrients and vitamins. We’re seduced by packaging instead of sticking to foods that we know are inherently good for us – the foods that don’t need a branded, flashy box boasting the amount of vitamins and minerals are contained within.

“Before we had food science, we had food culture,” Pollan said. In the time that we’ve managed to identify phytonutrients and beneficial elements like Omega-3’s, we’ve gone from taking a holistic approach to food and singled out the parts we think are going to do us well, something Pollan refers to as “nutritionism.”

Maybe it’s because of time constraints, maybe it’s because we want an easy fix, but somewhere along the line of veering away from the multi-course dinner with friends and instead choosing a smoothie with antioxidant boosters in the car, we became very unhealthy. The truth is that it’s not just what we eat, it’s how we eat it. Or how we don’t eat it.

In focusing on the individual components of food products, we have forgotten to take a look at the bigger picture. The French Paradox, for example, is really no paradox at all, it’s simply a culture with a food tradition. Mealtimes are honored and you’ll never find a Frenchman snacking on a low-fat, sugar-free granola bar between meals.

Which is why it’s inspiring to see local movements focused just as much on serving up organic, fresh meals as they are about building community; putting effort into the tradition and relationships that happen around the food. The annual Big Lunch in England is an example of just that, a grassroots project is aimed at getting the whole of the UK sitting down and having lunch with their neighbor.

If we’re going to talk about the food movement, we have to think about the bigger picture. We’re in the midst of a health crisis, with chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease skyrocketing. Opting for the green tea-infused ginger ale instead of Coca Cola isn’t helping. It’s time to start thinking about our relationship to food and stop being concerned with individual food properties.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. With other people. In a way that respects and honors the food in front of you.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, finding what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Anna Brones, Elizabeth/Table4Five

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.