Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)
Americans are world-class consumers, and one of our more enduring shopping habits involves books about diet and health. Our appetite for the latest guide to self-improvement by way of food is as durable as our tendency toward puritanical beliefs. The two habits of the heart frequently collide, cartoon-style, producing a dust-cloud of guilt, as each deviation from the perfect diet leaves the stain of sin, whether visible, as in belly fat, or unseen, as in impure foods coursing through the system. We must then cleanse, ideally with the inedible. These days, raw kale is the hair shirt. There is no balance. The symptoms of our national eating disorder are an obsession with correct eating, status anxiety, and (ironically) poor health. I call it Amerexia Nervosa.
Hoping to save us, many have preached the gospel of food. The Reverend Sylvester Graham is the modern father of whole wheat bread, having invented, in 1829, a loaf called graham bread, made from unsifted flour free from chemical additives such as alum and chlorine, which were already common in cheap, factory-made loaves. In his little book of 1837, Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, Graham hoped to clear the soul—especially the female soul—of sin by restoring real bread and proper baking.
The art of bread-baking, when considered in all its relations and intimate connections with human health, and prosperity, and virtue, and happiness, and with reference to the natural responsibilities and duties of a woman, is actually one of the highest and noblest accomplishments that can adorn the female character.
Like Britain’s Real Bread Campaign and the Maine Grain Alliance of our times, the Graham campaign might be called “organic” or “traditional,” in that he called for healthy soil, good wheat, and an old-fashioned approach to baking, but the heart of his message was moral. He believed that women belonged in the kitchen baking, and that a vegetarian diet would cure alcoholism and curb lust.
Health crusaders have been visiting American towns ever since. A nutritionist with a gift for reaching civilians, Adelle Davis wrote a series of books, among them Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, calling for whole foods and vitamin supplements. Dismissed by the medical and nutrition powers, Davis nevertheless sold more than ten million books and became, as Time put it in 1972, “the high priestess of a new nutrition religion.” In the 1950s and 1960s, her salesmanship for unsexy whole foods such as liver, brown bread, eggs, and milk—and, critically, vitamins—presages our current era of nutritionism, which holds that the value of a food is the sum of its individual components, including macronutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, trace elements, and other ingredients invisible to the naked eye and largely undetectable on the palate. The Davis persona suggested the common-sense outsider, a perpetual irritant to the men in white coats.
Other salubrious diets had exotic origins. In the early 1960s, Michio Kushi, a Japanese scholar of political science and law, founded the Erewhon brand of natural foods and made nutritionally correct Americans aware of macrobiotics, the art of balancing—sugar and salt, acid and alkaline, yin and yang. In his early life, Kushi was a peacenik with hopes for ending war and violence via politics. Disillusioned on that score, he turned to food as a means to peace, this time via individual health. Macrobiotics thrived, and with it sales of brown rice, seaweed, and soy.
In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé defined correct eating, in her bestselling book Diet for a Small Planet, as refusing beef. Her case for a vegetarian diet was largely ecological; a critic of rich-nation table habits, Lappé argued that eating grain was greener and more efficient than eating beef made of grain. Her relentless focus, then as now, fell on hunger and equality. Also in 1971, a perky young cook named Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, the now-classic restaurant in Berkeley, California. Waters is the ur-champion of local, seasonal, and organic food, simply prepared. Her first pursuit, however, was aesthetic. She wanted her restaurant to look, feel, and taste like France, where she lived and cooked as a young woman. Taste and beauty, says Waters, led her to local organic farms and to activism.
Many others have urged us to eat in a certain way, and I would argue that beneath each diet (however worthy the actual foods) lies a personal motive, political agenda, or cultural reform. Usually this deeper motive is anything but secret, and I’m all for changing the world fork by fork. But like the savvy reader of labels, the eater who susses out the non-food agenda is better off than the one who reads without a clue.
Perhaps it’s Michael Pollan who has brought all these reforms, trends, and ideas together in a coherent yet multifaceted disco ball of food politics, and perhaps what makes him the great food-budsman of our time is that he seems to lack any other agenda. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan offered himself as the objective everyman bearing the deeply-reported, fact-driven story. In his civilian duds—he’s not a farmer, chef, dietician, doctor, or vitamin salesman—Pollan is a steady voice, an affable authority. With quiet persuasion, he shows how American eating habits have run amok. When Pollan writes a comprehensive, popular account of feedlot beef or the microbiome, it’s an instant classic because we trust him.
I do have my small disagreements with Pollan, namely the suggestion that we eat “mostly plants.” As measured by volume? Calories? By counting individual species? Moreover, as wholesome as roots, stems, leaves, seeds, and fruits are, the clinical evidence does not support avoiding eggs, beef, and butter. But his message, as I understand it, is largely one of approach, not plate-by-plate planning. Uncle Michael urges us to be skeptical of health claims, to eat real food (not industrial simulacra), to savor the communal pleasures of the table, and to stop when we’re full. Amen, brother.
As for me, I’m just a minor character in a long line of campaigners. So, what’s my underlying agenda? (I have wondered myself. I’m married to a cheese monger, but I believed in butter and cream before I met him. I own farmers’ markets, but I don’t write about real food because I own farmers’ markets; I own farmers’ markets because I believe in real food.) I do want to rehabilitate traditional foods unjustly maligned. But more than that, I want Americans to eat freely, for health and pleasure. By doing so, I believe we’ll make the local watershed cleaner and the view more beautiful, but regional agriculture is not my primary subject. I’m in the liberation business.
In 2005, I tried to trademark my book title and little open-air-market company with an intellectual property lawyer, but he said the words “real” and “food,” when paired, were already in common use. I couldn’t own them, like Monsanto owns Roundup Ready corn. Although I didn’t think the phrase “real food” was quite in common use, my plans for world domination were scarcely dashed. I don’t want to own words; I want to spread them. Now “real food” is on everyone’s lips, and I’m glad. I don’t care which fast-food behemoth borrows the term next. There is no ironclad guarantee of quality in this world. It pays to apply a little skepticism to every label and every claim.
More than ten years later, my motives in writing Real Food are the same. I wish you freedom from the hobgoblins of nutritionism—calories, grams, milligrams—and freedom to eat the foods that suit your culture, physique, and palate. As for me, having personally achieved freedom around food, I plan to retire from reading nutrition journals. I’ll be eating real food, as I understand it, until the closing credits.
One spectacle I shall be watching, however, if only from the cheap seats, is heart disease. The cholesterol theory of heart disease—which holds that dietary saturated fat causes unhealthy cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, and death—has dominated cardiology and nutrition for nearly sixty years. But epidemiological and clinical evidence to support this hypothesis is crumbling. For example, a UCLA School of Medicine study of 136,905 people admitted to 541 hospitals nationwide for coronary artery disease between 2000 and 2006 found that almost half the patients had total LDL levels considered ideal. In 2014, Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury and colleagues found that higher blood levels of margaric acid—a saturated fat found in butter—predict fewer cases of heart disease.
In short, a growing number of facts don’t fit the theory. Thomas Kuhn called such facts “anomalies.” As Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a theory (like the flat earth) begins to wobble when the weight of contradictory facts grows. But it will not topple until its predictive value fails and a superior hypothesis arrives to replace it. Thus, for example, in the years before Copernicus published his revolutionary paper on heliocentrism, every sensible astronomer in Europe knew that Ptolomeic astronomy could not predict planetary paths. But nothing changed until Copernicus supplied a new model, in 1543. Writes Kuhn,
Let us then assume that crises are a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and ask next how scientists respond to their existence. Part of the answer … can be discovered by noting first what scientists never do when confronted by even severe and prolonged anomalies. Though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis … once it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place.
A thoughtful reader of the cholesterol literature will soon notice that the diet-heart hypothesis is in a classic Kuhnian crisis. Even as the medical and nutritional establishment scrambles to explain the awkward data, and to slightly revise the basic theory, the men and women in white coats will not renounce the hypothesis that butter kills. But Kuhn also says, rather brightly, that “failure of the existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.” We await the clever researcher who will unveil a new, scientifically compelling and politically savvy hypothesis.
In these pages, I’ve told you what I think about food. Now it’s up to you. All that I wished for ten years ago came true. Everywhere I turn, I see organic and local produce, lacto-fermented krauts and drinks, grass-fed beef, broth bars, raw milk, cultured butter, whey drinks, savory yogurt, wild salmon, pastured eggs, dark chocolate, unrefined sea salt, and more. This omnivore is terribly pleased. Now, as the scripture says, I intend to sit under my own vine and fig tree. If you pass by, please join me, and we’ll raise a glass of whole milk to our real food nation.
New York City