Everything my mother taught me about food was wrong: a reflection on Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food

Written by Christine Cross on November 9, 2011

in-defense-of-food-cover1It turns out that everything my mother taught me about food was wrong.

Maybe not all of it. There were some useful lessons in how to separate eggs and sift flour and measure accurately. But the unconscious philosophy of food with which I was raised is something I am still recovering from. Reading Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, is the latest step in my efforts to create my own philosophy of food and break free of the guilt I feel when I spend “too much” on healthy food.

There is no earth-shattering new information in the book. The well-informed reader won’t be surprised by the broad strokes of Pollan’s arguments. We’ve been reading for years that processed foods are bad for us and that we ought to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where the fresh fruits, vegetable, and meats are, while avoiding the packaged foods in the center aisles (or avoid the grocery all together and shop the farmer’s market). I don’t know many thoughtful consumers who actually trust the government or food processors to tell us what is good for us. Pollan is, in effect, preaching to the choir — after all, anyone who picks up this book must already be open to a critique of the Western diet.

Yet somehow the experience of reading Pollan’s book is earth shattering, at least it was for me. In many ways it was the push I needed finally to make some big changes in the way I eat and how I feed my family.

Pollan’s main arguments seem simple enough. The much quoted opening line of the book sums it all up: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The directives to eat less in total but eat more vegetables are straightforward, but “eat food” is a bit more complex. Pollan argues that the Western diet is killing us as it is made up not so much of food but of “edible food-like substances,” many of them with trendy health claims on the packages. “The chronic diseases that now kill most of us,” he argues, “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and 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 the biological diversity of the human diet to a handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy.”

Hmmm….could this explain, in part, the fact that my mother has had cancer four times, has high cholesterol and blood pressure, and has had three semi-major and dozens of mini strokes?

My mother was born in 1929 to a working-class family. She and her sisters helped their mother She learned by her mother’s example to raise a vegetable garden and prepare healthy food from scratch. There was really no other choice in times of economic crisis followed by the war years, when consumer products were scarce. By the time she married and presided over her own household in the 1950s, the economy was booming. She had many more choices about how to feed her husband and herself, and eventually two daughters. While she always kept her childhood training about thrift in mind, she rejected the labor intensive methods of her mother. She embraced the new packaged foods whose marketing surrounded her with claims of convenience and quality and even health. She was a housewife, but she would not be a drudge.

I was probably eight years old when, reading some sort of historical novel, I realized that cakes and even pancakes could be made without mixes. I knew that bread could be made by hand (although I had never seen it), but I had assumed that birthday cakes and pancakes were inventions of the modern age. Tomatoes came from my father’s plants in the backyard and were served fresh, but peas and green beans were from cans and broccoli and even carrots were from the freezer. All became limp and pale in that miraculous new appliance of the 1970s, the microwave. Potatoes came from boxes, and the really good ones were au gratin or scalloped, with little packets of dehydrated sauces. Salads were pale green iceberg lettuce (“regular” lettuce, my mother still calls it), and were covered with bottled Thousand Island dressing. Macaroni and cheese did not come from a box, however. It was “homemade” with Velveeta. We ate meat nearly every day, beef or chicken or pork for supper and sandwiches made of “luncheon meat.” My father refused to give up butter no matter what the experts said about it being unhealthy, but the rest of us ate margarine out of little white tubs with “heart healthy” logos. (Those tubs, by the way, were saved to store leftovers and were run through the dishwasher until they lost their shape. Yikes.)

I grew up thinking that food was inseparable from thrift. Everything was bought on sale or with coupons, or ideally both. Ours is not a religious family. The closest thing to sin is paying regular price. Long before Costco, my mother bought in bulk when items were on sale and she had good coupons, something you can only do with packaged foods with long shelf-lives. It never occurred to me that perhaps the least expensive way of all to feed the family might have been to grow more than tomatoes on our suburban lot and cook from scratch more often. And until I breastfed my own children, I never saw my mother’s decision to feed us canned formula as an economic indulgence in supposed convenience.

With my mother’s health problems, a few health issues of my own, and a son who gets loopy when he eats highly processed foods, it’s no wonder that I have become quite interested in the role of diet in health. I’ve come to reject many of the foods I was raised with. I buy more fresh food, much less packaged food, and do more cooking from scratch. I eat a wider variety of foods than my parents ever did, and a lot less meat. I buy some organic foods, and would like to buy more, both for our health and the health of the planet. But it is so very hard to break free from the lessons about thrift that were ingrained in me. Organic foods and natural foods cost more. There aren’t many coupons for fresh foods. I feel guilty when I pick up the conventionally grown produce that costs less because I might be exposing my family to nasty pesticides, and I feel guilty when I buy the more expensive organic food because I’m betraying every lesson of frugality I was raised with. With the current price of groceries, this is really tough.

All of this brings me to my reaction to Michael Pollan’s book. After laying out all the things that are wrong with how people in North America tend to eat, in his final chapter Pollan gives some guidelines for how we should eat. He says we should eat meals together with family at a table, not at a desk or in a car or on the couch. We should savor the food we eat, and of course cook our own food and grow it if possible. I’m already doing a lot of that (I can’t quite break the couch habit after the kids are in bed.). But the bit of advice that had the most meaning for me was the very first: Pay More, Eat Less. I’m not sure why I need Michael Pollan’s permission to do something I’ve known for a long time is right, but somehow reading how simply he justifies paying more for quality food, but eating less of it, has allowed me to break free from years of conditioning that has had me feeling guilty when I buy the healthier food that is not on sale and does not have a manufacturer’s coupon.

So now I’m spending more on some items, but trying to save money in other ways that are also healthy. I now make almost all my own bread (without additives) and yogurt (no artificial ingredients, no plastic containers, and less sugar). We don’t have a huge garden this year, but my plan over the winter is to learn about growing almost all my own vegetables next year. It’s not nearly as convenient, and maybe I’m at risk of becoming a drudge. If I didn’t have the luxury of working outside the home only part time, I don’t know how I could do it. But for right now, it feels like a good start.

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