Cooking by the Book

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“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
Those are the subtitles of the three parts of Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules—An Eater’s Manual. Pollan is well known for his unappetizing portrayal of the American food industry in his 2006 Omnivore’s Dilemma, and he most recently brought us the stunningly tasty series Cooked on Netflix. He has done his homework, unearthing the good, the bad and the incredible aspects of food in our world. Some of his pieces you can really, well, sink your teeth into. There is history, politics, and conflict. He’ll make you really think about where your food comes from, and then maybe wish you hadn’t thought so hard about it. He can also make you look at a loaf of real bread and begin to comprehend the glory of flour, water and time. In Food Rules, the tone is decidedly lighter and refreshing—a simple series of 64 simple rules to eat by.
In Part I “What should I eat? Eat food.” We encounter what should be the obvious: we ought to be consuming real food. Not substances pretending to be food. “Rule 2: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” You know, like bright blue yogurt that comes in a plastic tube. “Rule 12: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.” The peripheries would typically include produce, dairy, meat, etc., with much of the middle aisles being packaged and processed foods. One of my favorites is Rule 19, “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” I like to share this book and some of its rules with children. While some of them sound silly, they all make a lot of sense.
The second part of the book —“What kind of food should I eat? (Mostly plants)”— reviews the benefits of vegetables and fruits, and includes the Chinese proverb “Eating what stands on one leg, mushrooms and plant food is better than eating what stands on two legs—fowl, which is better than eating what stands on four legs ‑cows, pigs, and other mammals.” While he extols the virtues of plants, he does suggest a diverse diet, including fungi, fish and proteins from pastured animals. If you’re hesitant about spending extra money on pastured meats from happier farms, you can go back and read Omnivore’s Dilemma. It is also available in an easier-to-swallow younger readers’ edition.
The final section of Food Rules answers the question “How should I eat?” Not too much. What habits, manners, cultural norms or socio-economic factors contribute to how you eat? There’s a lot to be said for smaller portion sizes, less take-out, eating seasonally, and respecting food and cooking. From what I’ve seen, much of our culture lacks a certain reverence for food that is more apparent in other societies. “Rule 49: Eat slowly. Rule 51: Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it. Rule 57: Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does. Rule 58: Do all your eating at a table.” Not in your car, not on the couch.
The shortest rule in the book might be the most difficult to tackle. Rule 63 is simply “Cook.” Take the time to prepare most of your meals yourself. I make a living by preparing food for other people, and I always try to make that food as fresh and real and healthy as possible, but I urge you to cook for yourself. The act of cooking is not so complicated; the challenge is making the time. You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen, but perhaps you can commit to a few more minutes each day. Is there one item in your pantry or fridge with way too many unpronounceable ingredients on the label that you could make yourself? Maybe something as simple as brewing your own iced tea. At the very least, try this: there is a new farmers market in Granby this summer—Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. at the South Congregational Church. Could you stop by there and buy one local ingredient to incorporate into a meal this week? Perhaps fresh mint for your tea?
While Food Rules is not a cookbook, it playfully provides a substantial foundation for the art of cooking and eating. Pick up a copy, or borrow it from the library, and share it with friends, especially the younger ones. They need to know that the neon blue yogurt substance in a plastic tube is not real food.