Read it and Eat: A (Jewish) Review of In Defense of Food

good-food.jpgMany people complain that it’s difficult to find a synagogue to join in New York City. There are just so many options, that none of them feel exactly right – you might call it The Shul-Goers Dilemma. These days, however, I’m feeling pretty good at Temple Bet Pollan.

Michael Pollan gets his fair share of love on this blog, and his new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto has already joined its predecessor, The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a New York Times Best Seller. Pollan is in the middle of his second whirlwind book tour in two years (I guess he sleeps on the plane) – and I hear the same account every where he goes. Huge venue, sold out show, knockout performance.

Like any effective leader – Martin Luther King included – he’s charismatic and big on the big ideas that change the way we think – or in this case how we eat. But as I devoured (pun intented) Pollan’s new book on my subway commute, I wondered what, if anything, does his worldview offer to the Jewish community? And, perhaps more interestingly, what wisdom does the tribe have to offer back to him?

After The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan found himself bombarded by the question, “Ok, I understand the food system is messed up, but what should I actually eat?” In Defense of Food, attempts to lay out a set of guidelines that people can take with them to the store, or hopefully farmers’ market and CSA (either in their heads, or laid out like the Twelve Commandments).

The first two sections of the book follow in typical Pollan style – exhaustively researched, user-friendly explanations of the ”Western Diet” and American’s unhealthy obsession with nutrition. In the introduction Pollan writes:

All of our uncertainties about nutrition [e.g. what’s worse: fat or carbohydrates?] should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy.”

According to Pollan, the Western Diet has wreaked such havoc on our bodies that citizens of this country (and countries that now eat like we do) are ironically both obese and malnourished. “At a health clinic in Oakland, California,” he writes “doctors report seeing overweight children suffering from old-time deficiency diseases such as rickets, long thought to have been consigned to history’s dustheap in the developed world.”

“Nutritionism,” he says, is our nominally scientific and vastly unsuccessful attempt to tinker with a broken diet by focusing the blame for our poor health on one discreet piece of it after another. (Fat. Calories. Sugar. Carbs. Trans Fat…).

defense.jpgIn Defense of Food’s third section – the one where Pollan breaks down his now-famous food mantra: “Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants” – introduces readers to a different side of Pollan.  It’s a side that doesn’t hide behind his self-imposed journalistic humility (Pollan’s favorite words seem to be “I’m not a food expert” and “This is not my idea”).  And a side he no doubt reveals when he tries to inculcate his son Isaac with a set of food values.  This time around we meet Michael Pollan – the man with strong opinions.

Pollan does not tell readers food-specific dos and don’ts – like to eat more beta carotene, or avoid all fat. Instead, his guidelines preach the values of good intuition and common sense. “Don’t eat foods that contain ingredients you can’t identify.” “Remember that you are what you eat eats too” (think hormones pumped into cattle). “Eat meals at a table, with family and friends, instead of relying on a constant stream of mindless snacking.” “Cook, plant a garden, and get involved with your food.”

What struck me as I read this last section, is that Pollan’s approach feels remarkably Talmudic. What else did the Rabbis do but seek to uncover existing universal truths and use them to shape a code of ethics and commandments for Jewish people to follow? (We can only hope that Pollan will end up as Hillel, and Nutritionism as Shammai.)

After The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan became a rebbe for many foodie Jews (myself included). We now look to him as our source of reason as we attempt to nourish our bodies and, hopefully, our spirits. This status is only heightened by In Defense of Food - and it feels like Pollan is more willing than he once was to accept this role (although, he’s said that his next book will probably not focus on food.)

Although Pollan chastises the Eastern European Jewish diet of his ancestors as one of the least healthy “traditional diets,” I think Jewish tradition actually has something significant to add to Pollan’s food view. American Jews certainly still need Pollan as much as anyone – despite having our own definied set of “food rules,” we have soaked up some of the worst aspects of the Western Diet into our kosher-certified foods. But here are a few distinct places where we can look to Jewish tradition as a living framework for Pollan’s ideals:

Don’t forget Your Mother - Throughout the book, Pollan says that as a society, we have abandoned “mom” wisdom – the food norms passed down through culture that have kept us relatively healthy. Consulting tradition while making decisions, however, is one of the primary values of Jewish life. What would it mean – for our own health and the health of our community – if we examined Jewish food-based traditions more closely, and found ways to incorporate them into our daily lives?  For example…

Celebrating Shemitah - Pollan tells readers to eat well-grown food from healthy soils. Jewish tradition mirrors this idea in shemitah – the practice of letting the land lie fallow once every seven years. Of course, the idea of shemitah has been poked with so many loop holes that it’s lost much of it’s original meaning – in Israel and elsewhere. But the wisdom remains, just under the surface.  And, as Jewish Farm School Director, Nati Passow pointed out at Hazon’s Food Conference, like a seed, it holds great power.  Read Nati’s conference keynote to find out how.

Bless Your Food – One of Pollan’s fundamental instructions is to eat slowly – in other words, to “eat with a fuller knowledge of all that is involved in bringing food out of the earth and too the table.”  If we practice Jewish tradition’s notion of blessing food – not simply being thankful (though that too), but taking the moment to remember where the food literally came from (a tree? the ground? a vine?), so that you can say the appropriate blessing – it becomes almost impossible to take the food we eat for granted.

Finally, Keep Shabbat Holy – Pollan tells readers to spend more time eating meals and celebrating with family and friends? Well, we’ve got that covered. Whether someone is traditionally observant or finds other ways to observe the ”rest, rejuvenate, repeat” spirit of Shabbat by enjoying consciously and lovingly-prepared meals with loved ones every week, they’re well on our way to Pollan’s ideal. 

So yes, I’m happy here as a member of Pollan’s synagogue. But to be an active congregant I realize that I can’t just follow everything my Rabbi says – I have to bring myself – and my own wisdom – to the table.

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12 Responses to “Read it and Eat: A (Jewish) Review of In Defense of Food”

  1. Shev Says:

    thanks for this article. beautiful.
    wishing you a nourishing Tu b’Shvat,
    Shev

  2. carol koenig Says:

    A wonderful post, Leah. Most definitely “food for thought.” I hope Michael Pollan will read it. Enjoy the Tu B’Shvat seder. Wish I could be there with you. Love you, Mom

  3. arr307 Says:

    I look forward to picking up this book. It’s wonderful to consider the importance of where our food comes from, particularly at tu-bshvat. I knew this blog would have something delicious! Just one thing – if its hard for you to find a “nourishing” synagogue in NYC – try Romemu (on the UWS). Its a different kind of satiation.

  4. chanie Says:

    great post, and review.

    the ‘don’t forget your mother’ reminds me of an article written by hayim soloveitchik a little over 10 years ago where he talks about how people have traded in the family tradition for experts (in this case rabbis and books) when it comes to following halacha. it was much discussed in the modern orthodox community, and is the same thing that pollan is talking about in terms of food traditions versus experts.

    happy tu b’shvat!

  5. Leah Koenig Says:

    Thanks Shev (and Mom – I’ll miss you at tonight’s seder too) :)

    Thanks for the Romemu reccommendation, Arr307. The bad news is there are too many different types of synagoguges. The good news is, there are many many different types of synagogues.

    That’s great Chanie – I often find that the things I read in Michael Pollan’s books have relevance somewhere in Jewish conversations. I think the idea of “forgetting our mother” has probably come up in just about every generation of most western cultures, but it seems particularly relevant here.

  6. Kate Says:

    An excellent round-up of ideas and ideals. It was great to see you this weekend, and hope we can share so much laughter and good food again soon! Love you, Kate

  7. Jennifer (Baklava Queen) Says:

    What a beautiful, thoughtful review, Leah. I think many of us have an unspoken spiritual component of our food choices, much as Pollan elaborates in his writings, but I love how you’ve made the connection between the inspiration and sense he provides and the wisdom and what is truly good and right about our religious traditions. Celebration, community, gratitude, stewardship, generosity… it’s all there. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Leah Koenig Says:

    Thanks Kate – great to see you too, and nice to see you on the blog!

    I’m a big fan of your writing on Ethicurean, Jennifer, so I really appreciate your writing :)

  9. David Rosenn Says:

    Leah — I’m just now making my way through The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s making me think harder than any book I’ve read in a long time.

    One of the persistent themes throughout the first chapter (the one on corn) is the way that government policy has had massive shaping impacts on the way we eat, the foods available, and the hundreds of ways that food issues impact every other aspect of our lives.

    For example, thanks to federal corn subsidies, it costs more to grow a bushel of corn than what you can sell it for, and yet the production of corn in this country is immense. And because there is so much cheap subsidized corn, it gets used in strange and harmful ways. Like the fact that most beef cattle are now fed on corn, even though a steer’s anatomy was not built for digesting corn and requires a dose of antibiotics to pull off the trick.

    So if we are making a Shulhan Arukh of food topics, I’d like to suggest that the laws of political engagement constitute a topic among the chapters of that code.

    Choosing what to eat is important, but choosing the politicians who pass the laws that determine how we eat probably has significantly more impact.

    David

  10. Esther Says:

    Hey Leah – thanks for reviewing this book. I have heard him speak on NPR about it. He’s really come full circle now with his food topics.
    I would like to add about not forgetting “your mother”. It’s funny, but that’s what the starter culture of many fermented liquids is called. So, let us also remember Our Mother when we look to more traditional foods or drinks: fermentation is very healthy. From kefir to kombucha and many fizzy drinks in between: almost all dairy, grains and legumes are much better digested and assimilated when they’ve been fermented. Not to mention, fermentation used to be the norm 100 or more years ago for a large percentage of what any person consumed. That is also a Mother’s wisdom. ;)

  11. Cara Says:

    Thanks, Leah! I’m impressed by how (seemingly) effortlessly you weave all of these ideas about food and faith together. Looking forward to learning more from you…

  12. Leah Koenig Says:

    Agreed David – as Michael Pollan has said, we should vote with our forks (or wallets), but we should also vote with our votes.

    I had the same thought Esther – perhaps that’s why I was recently compelled to purchase a sourdough cookbook recently…

    Thanks Cara – it’s nice to see you on the blog! :)

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