Posted by: Sue Spencer | January 15, 2008

“In Defense of Food” – Pollan in Person

Last Monday, some friends invited us to go hear Michael Pollan speak at the launch of his new book, In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin 2008). It was taking place in Madison, Connecticut, way the other side of New Haven, but the distance and traffic didn’t deter Deb, a new and passionate locavore. Having been impressed with Pollan’s earlier work, the informative and thought-provoking Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin 2006), I was happy and grateful to tag along.

Madison’s R.J. Julia bookstore did a great job organizing the event, which turned out to be Pollan’s first appearance promoting the new book. They realized he was likely to draw a large crowd, and shifted the venue to a large new building in town that could accommodate not only the book audience but also an indoor farmers’ market.

We arrived in time to graze the market for about an hour, circulating through the aisles to sample hoophouse-grown greens, artisanal cheese and bread, Connecticut wines, surprisingly good, and a variety of handmade, herb-scented lotions and soaps. Having brought along a small cooler bag, I found plenty to purchase and take home to the sisters, including a signed copy of In Defense of Food.

Pollan, a tall, fit-looking man in his early fifties, is as good a speaker as he is a writer – warm, funny, and engaged with the audience. His “manifesto” appears on In Defense of Food‘s cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Inside, the book is devoted to unpacking those seven words. The aim, Pollan says, is “to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters.”

Eat food? Sounds simple. But early in the book Pollan states that “most of what we’re consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all.” He takes an entire chapter, 14 pages, to define what food is (hint: it’s not GoGurt) and offers a list of criteria for distinguishing food from pseudo-food.

To get real food, for example, Pollan recommends that we avoid eating anything that our great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food. We should also shop only the periphery of supermarkets, avoiding the center aisles. Better yet, we should avoid supermarkets entirely, patronizing farmers’ markets instead.

How did we get to the state of affairs where “food” needs 14-page definitions? And what is it that food and eating needs to be “defended” from? Pollan finds two culprits: nutrition science on the one hand, and the food industry on the other. Together they form what he calls the “nutritional industrial complex.”

For its part, nutrition science has promoted “nutritionism,” a form of reductionism that emphasizes isolated “nutrients” over food. Meanwhile, the food industry is happy to seize on the findings du jour of nutrition science (carbs over fat? fat over carbs?) to promote the “healthful” qualities of its products. But this only serves to camouflage the reality of the diet they’re selling us.

This is the disastrous “Western diet” of refined grains, highly processed food, and a superabundance of cheap, empty, sugar and fat calories. Over the last 25 years, despite our professed health consciousness, this diet has made us both sick and fat. Even worse, it threatens the entire planet, springing as it does from agricultural monocultures that pollute the environment and narrow earth’s biological diversity.

What to do about this? In response to a question from the audience, Pollan said that we need to “vote” in two ways, both with our forks and with our ballots. This includes paying attention to legislation like the Farm Bills that come up every year. It also involves making sure that good, nutritious, real food is available to everyone – not only those who can show up at a book promotion/boutique farmers’ market on a Monday night.

“It’s all about food” is one of our catch phrases at Melrose. Michael Pollan appears to agree – and also reminds us that food is all about justice.



  1. About those surprisingly good Connecticut wines…I re-invite you and yours to come with us on our next Connecticut Wine Trail road trip. Okay, so not every wine is exceptional, but several of them are indeed surprisingly good.

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