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Different Rules to Eat By

What our ancestors knew that Michael Pollan doesn't.

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 2009 • By PATRICK COOKE
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In case you missed it, the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday rolled out its "food issue." It would not be the Times, nor would it be a true media food fiesta without the appearance of Michael Pollan, the cultural elite's perennial guiding light, and the lord mayor of the Saturday morning farmer's market.

About half way into the magazine banquet, Pollan serves up a short essay entitled, "Rules to Eat By." (Aren't all of Michael Pollan's food writings called "Rules to Eat By"?) True to the Pollan form, this one begins with the obligatory condemnation of the modern food industry, the "treacherous food landscape," as he calls it. Why treacherous? Because consumers can trust no one: food marketers lie, nutritionists collaborate with the marketers, and federal government regulators are limp zucchini in the presence of Big Food's insatiable appetite for profits.

So whom can one rely upon for nutritional guidance? Pollan goes on to warn that you must trust your ancestors whose simple wisdom from a simpler time will guide your family's dietary decision making. We should rely, he says, on "the accumulated wisdom of the tribe . . . your mom and your friends." To that end, Pollan has, in fact, begun harvesting personal food policies, "for a book I'm publishing in January."

The contributions from his disciples are mostly cornpone: "If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, you are not hungry" . . . "Don't eat anything you aren't willing to kill". . . "Don't eat anything that took more energy to ship than grow" . . . "Make and take your own lunch to work; it saves money and you know what you're eating."

I wish my grandfather had lived long enough to contribute to Pollan's collection of tribal wisdom. I cannot say precisely what old saw he would have offered this dubious aggregation, but I assure you it would have involved at least one term for fertilizer.

My grandfather was born in upstate New York in1900, one of nine children. His early life was no picnic, and he came of age as a young married man just in time for the Great Depression. For much of his life daily meals were a problem to be solved, not an occasion for philosophical musings. Meat spoiled quickly. (Mustard had been used since the Middle Ages to disguise the taste of spoiled food.) Fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce, wilted, and flyblown by the time they reached the family kitchen. With few, if any, safety checks, food illnesses were common. You ate what you could, when you could.

Toward the end of his life--he lived to age 96--my grandfather loved nothing more than eating at Applebee's or Friendly's or McDonald's. He was the old man in the hat you saw sitting there mornings. "You can come in any time of day and you know it's going to be good and hot and always taste the same," he would say. To him a Filet-O-Fish was a kind of miracle.

Pollan insists that, "Deciding what to eat, indeed, deciding what qualifies as food, is not easy [today]." He says that the nation has now arrived at a point where, "official modes of talking about food have suffered a serious loss of credibility." Really? For whom?

Have you ever watched an immigrant family push a shopping cart through the aisles at a Super Stop and Shop? They are not befuddled by Wheaties. They do not feel soul-crushing shame as they pass by four different varieties of crisp salad greens. Nor do they seem to need cracker-barrel aphorisms to justify their purchases. What they feel, and what my grandfather felt in his final years, was awe and gratitude at delivery of such abundance.

There's certainly nothing wrong with today's farmer's markets or home vegetable gardens, and if you have the time to invoke ghosts of generations past for your rules to eat by, indulge the luxury. But there is more than one acceptable set of rules. Forget the scolds. If you're not hungry enough to eat a Whopper, you're not hungry.

Patrick Cooke is a writer living in New York.