Monday, February 04, 2008

Michael Pollan Returns II--Recipe for a Best Seller

I posted before on this book. Now I've read it, so I can take up the challenge of the commenter:

Recipe for a Best Seller

I note that Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food made number 1 on both the NYTimes and WashPost's list of nonfiction bestsellers. When I checked on Jan 27, it was no. 5 on Amazon's bestsellers. And he's getting glowing reviews, both in the Times and Post. (See his website: MichaelPollan) What's his recipe for this success?

1 First, you need a subject--food is always good. (The books that beat Pollan's on Amazon were the recent John Grisham and Stephen King novels, and two books at least partially on food.)

2 Second, you need a narrative, preferrably one with conflict. So you need some good guys and some bad guys. Pollan's good guys are old reliables: common sense, tradition, and mother; the bad guys are also familiar types: nutrition scientists with their reductionist science, the food industry which shoves empty calories down the throats of good Americans, and journalists who push food fads and get things wrong.

3 Third, you need some evil deeds, like the beef industry defeating Senator McGovern in 1980 after he had chaired a committee which challenged the beef industry.

4 Fourth, you need the good to be threatened, a declension, a decline and fall, an ejection from the Garden of Evil. Pollan's declension runs like this. In the good old days people and their food systems had evolved together so Eskimos and Mediterraneans lived comfortably within their ecosystems. But we in the U.S. eat the dreaded Western diet, which threatens a "global pandemic" (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). Sauron must be gaining power. The clouds from Mordor are spreading.

5 You need some interesting quirky characters. Pollan has a whacky dentist who studied diets in remote areas before WWII. Pollan doesn't mention the guy's claim, reported in the NY Times in 1934, that vitamin D could slow the progress of cancer, heart disease, etc. The bottom line is whether you're an Eskimo, eating an all-meat diet, or whatever, your food culture has evolved so you're healthy. But the Western diet is not evolved so it causes disease.

6 Above all, you need a sauce of great writing to pour over your other ingredients. Pollan as usual rises to that challenge.

And, as the strawberry on the creme, the finishing touch, you need the magic seven words to summarize your teaching: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He supports those words with specific advice, most of which are pretty good. Indeed, although he doesn't recognize it, I think he comes out at about the same place as that temple of nutritionism, the USDA. I don't see much in teir suggested 21 day menu that's contrary to Pollan's advice. So, in the end, one could call him a lamb in wolf's clothing.

I've some problems with the book. (Surprise!) The romanticism, the anti-scientific bias, the suspicion of the motives of his bad guys, all rub me the wrong way. (See Daniel Engber at Slate for a challenge to this line of thought. Also this piece on the Scientific American site.) While I've no expertise in nutrition and can't check his facts, where I know the subject he's often wrong, particularly attributing McGovern's defeat to the beef trust. (McGovern moved away from his South Dakota roots as he moved into national politics, he was saved from defeat in 1974 by Watergate, but lost in 1980. 1980 was not a good year for Democrats you may recall. Indeed, a brief search of the NYTimes archives doesn't support the breathless description of McGovern's nutrition commitee changing its recommendations.) I think I've commented previously on his lack of comprehension of agricultural policies and the roles of Nixon and Butz. He brings in the myth among the foodies that Nixon and Earl Butz made a dramatic and final change in agricultural policy that gave us cheap food. (Not so, agricultural policy is made by Congress, not the President or USDA, and it's wiggled back and forth over the years but no dramatic break occurred in Butz's reign. What was dramatic was selling grain to the USSR, but that was more Kissinger than Butz.)

When Mr. Pollan cites traditional food cultures, he praises human ability to adapt and adjust diets to circumstances. When he discusses American food culture, there's no adjustment, just a bunch of suckers for the reductionist science of nutritionism, the false panaceas of journalists, and the advertising dollars and machinations of the food industry. I think he inadvertently nails it when he reminisces about his mother cooking meals--to give herself a rest she served TV dinners. That was a rational choice, a part of Americans adjusting to their new environment. There's been lots of changes in society over the last 60 years, changes that impacted our choices of what to eat and how we eat. Pollan doesn't recognize them.

As a way of recognizing those changes, and mocking Pollan's lessons, here's my advice for good eating:

1 Sell your car. Surely the fact that we have 765 cars per thousand people (leading the world) relates to our obesity.
2 Get a job digging ditches. Manufacturing, moving metals, has declined while services, moving bytes, has increased. The food culture that supported steelworkers and auto workers isn't right for programmers and screen writers.
3 Don't live alone. The percentage of single-person households doubled between 1970 and 2002, It's harder to cook for one person--much easier to buy TV dinners.
4 Don't grow old. Many oldsters, particularly living alone, opt for the ease of TV dinners as opposed to cooking meals from scratch.
4 Move to the inner suburbs. Commuting is a prime time to eat on the go, i.e., unhealthily. Cities are bad because of the lack of supermarkets.
5 Cook. Of course, that means no two-job households, and no feminism.

Pollan admits he wants to make Americans pay more for their food, work harder at preparing it, and have fewer choices. It's not a prescription that sells broadly, certainly not one that any national candidate is going to run on. It's elitist. So USDA and Pollan both are preaching to the choir, IMHO.

No comments: