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In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This was The It Book in food a couple years ago, and I can see why. Its prescriptions are succinct and comprehensible, if not actually easy to follow. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. The "eat food" bit is about, y'know, food, and how much of what we eat is actually the nutritional equivalent of Styrofoam packing peanuts. It's a nice thought, and a pretty sound theory, but Pollan vastly overestimates the degree to which people below the upper middle class have access to food, as he defines it.

And, well. Talking about nutrition is like talking about religion: everyone's got the one and only way to save you. And none of them are particularly credible to me. I made a deliberate choice years ago for the sake of my health -- psychological, I mean, not just physical -- to eat what I want, when I want, discussion over. My current interest in food science is first because becoming a better athlete requires more deliberation and nutritional planning on my part, and second because it's allegedly possible to treat a nebulous endocrine disorder of mine with certain dietary modifications. So I guess you could say my interest in food science is about performance -- change x and y inputs to improve a and b outputs.

Digression. My point is that it doesn't matter how simple and sensible this book tries to be about food, food science is still barely past the 'world is flat' stage of development, and no one can agree even on Pollan's basic principles. Like how one of his big prescriptions is to cut out snacks and emphasize set, regular meals. Whereas speaking athletically and endocrinologically, that is the exact opposite of what the most credible research I can find says I should be doing. Many little things like that. It's not that I mind a field in flux, but I mean really, come on. It's like watching people argue over which Bible translation is the "right" one -- it doesn't matter how much it matters to them, or how much it might actually matter to me. The whole exercise is enough to make me say fuck it and abandon food science to its own devices.




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Before Your Pregnancy: A 90 Day Guide for Couples on How to Prepare for a Healthy ConceptionBefore Your Pregnancy: A 90 Day Guide for Couples on How to Prepare for a Healthy Conception by Amy Ogle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Huh. I’m glad I read this, and I’ll keep it around for the vitamins/minerals charts, but overall . . . not so much. This book pays lipservice to the notion that straight married people aren’t the only ones having babies by using the word “partner,” but then doesn’t manage to include anyone LGBT or single having a child anywhere in over 500 pages that I saw. And they want to cover a lot of ground about health and reproduction, so they can’t really dig into anything, with the unfortunate overall impression that they think diet and exercise can solve anything, which is not even really what they believe.



But mostly, anyone who gives the BMI this much credence has lost a lot of my respect. I am a living breathing example of why the BMI is bullshit as a health measurement tool. According to it, I am teetering on the very top end of normal/acceptable, just a few tenths of a point below overweight. And everyone who has met me is now laughing, because I am, in fact, a U.S. size 6, an athlete, and in glowing health.



So I wrote off the fitness chapters, and was highly suspicious of the nutrition information (the food pyramid website? seriously?). But you know. It was a decent place to start.



However, the phrase “providing womb service” is just never not going to kneejerk piss me off.





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Near a Thousand Tables : A History of FoodNear a Thousand Tables : A History of Food by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Positives: rambly accounts of food history, ecology, cultural and political significance, etc. Lots of great anecdotes – mozzarella from water buffalos! The chocolate bar invented partially as a temperance object to keep people from drinking! (Which sent me lunging for the internet to find out how long it took someone to invent chocolate liqueur. My faith in humanity is sustained by learning that alcoholic chocolate beverages actually predate the chocolate bar by nearly two centuries. Priorities, people).



Negatives: Cheerful use of the phrase “cultural miscegenation,” coupled with an occasionally . . . weird tone when discussing imperial and colonial relationships significant to food history.



Cultural miscegenation? Seriously?





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A book I shouldn't have liked, but actually did. The deeply, deeply, I cannot stress this enough deeply fake fictionalized memoir of the former New York Times food critic, who found it necessary to dress up as various people in order to visit fancy restaurants unrecognized. I should have been put off by the whole story. I mean, I'm sure the encounters have some vague linkage with reality somewhere back there, right? And I should have been put off by the rather shallow treatment of the interesting way people's behavior changes depending on who they think you are.

But dude! It's a book all about food fandom. Helped along, I suspect, by the fact that I've been treated to a series of increasingly spectacular meals myself over the past week and a half (best part about law firm courting, no competition). I think that mellowed me sufficiently to get past the otherwise hilariously inflated stories, the column reprints, the slightly smug anecdotes about how much the previous critic hated her. Food!
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A book which sets out to discuss (not answer, and thank goodness) that rather thorny question of what we should be eating for dinner. Pollan traces four food chains from, uh, roots to the dinner table: the industrial food chain (beef, corn, and all things processed), the organic industry (Whole Foods), an actual self-sustaining organic operation unaffiliated with the industry, and the shortest food chain of all, local hunting and gathering.

The first three-quarters of this book are really fabulous, well-balanced discourses on what we eat and where it comes from. The writing is candid without insisting on judgments, packed with Pollan’s many personal experiences without being obnoxiously drenched in his personality. (I like him, you understand, but many nonfiction authors make the mistake of assuming they themselves are as interesting as their subjects. They are almost always wrong). The last section really fell apart for me, because the book lost a lot of its narrative focus and informative punch and lapsed back into Pollan’s interesting but still rather aimless philosophical and personal observations, a la The Botanny of Desire. Still, I’m very glad I read it. It’s vastly informative, well-organized, and mostly engaging.

I find myself recommending this book to a lot of people, which I usually don’t do – I tend to select prospective audiences very carefully. But food is a pretty universal topic, and I greatly appreciate the style of this book, which encompasses the same horrifying information as something like Fast Food Nation without bludgeoning the reader to death with an agenda. We’re supposed to draw our own conclusions, which is what we all do each day, every time we choose what to eat, and I really appreciate that.

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