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Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 08:39 pm

Feasts and Food Rules


Michael Pollan

One of my first catering jobs was for a dinner party given by a cardiology group to honor a colleague who’d come to lecture at SIU Medical School. I thought it would be a creative challenge to come up with a meal that would be “heart healthy” as well as delicious, satisfying, sophisticated and beautifully presented, and spent hours planning and refining low-fat, high fiber menus.

As I enthusiastically made my presentation, I began to realize that my audience was silent. She wasn’t frowning, but she certainly didn’t look happy.
When I finished, she hesitantly said, “Well, I was thinking more along the lines of beef tenderloin.” I was flummoxed. “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I thought, being cardiologists, you wouldn’t want things like that.”

Just like Ralphie’s teacher in the movie A Christmas Story, she looked at me as if I had lobsters coming out my ears and replied, “But this is a special occasion!”

Duh! I don’t remember the entire menu she settled upon, but the main course was herb-roasted beef filet with a choice of three sauces: Bordelaise (a stock-reduction wine sauce, finished with butter), béarnaise (a classic variation of egg-yolk-and-butter-based hollandaise that adds shallots and tarragon) and a green peppercorn stock-reduction finished with cream. It was accompanied by twice-baked potatoes with caramelized onions and bacon. Dessert was white chocolate cheesecake with fresh raspberries.

“Now there’s a heart attack on a plate,” people snicker. It might be about a steak and twice-baked potato, or a horseshoe, or a heap of fried walleye. But the reality is that no single plate of anything, no matter how many calories or how much fat or sugar it contains, will ever cause a heart attack. It’s every day eating habits over the long run that determine health – heart or otherwise – not occasional splurges.

The problem is that so many foods that used to be special treats have become the everyday norm in many Americans’ diets, not the exception. Contributing to the problem is that we’re eating those things in increasingly larger portions. Locally, not least among them are horseshoes; I’ll be writing about the super-sizing of that Springfield specialty soon.

To counteract the effects of what’s become Americans’ everyday eating, we lurch from one dieting extreme to another. We’re equally seduced by ads for weight-loss businesses whose chipper spokespeople tout their programs’ ease and effectiveness as we are by corporate advertising for chain and fast food restaurants and packaged and highly processed products containing lots of sugar and fat and little of anything nutritious: “Thickburgers,” “Fourth Meals,” buckets of fried chicken, and 64 oz. (½ gallon) sodas for 89 cents.

 “How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?” asks Michael Pollan in his seminal book, The Omivore’s Dilemma.

“For me the absurdity of the situation became inescapable in the fall of 2002, when one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table,” he writes. “I’m talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight, Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia seized the country, supplanting an era of national lipophobia [fear of fat] dating back to the Carter administration.”

“So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. ...there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of “unhealthy” foods, and… wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are. We show our surprise at this by [calling it] the “French Paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox – that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

I’ve quoted Pollan before and almost certainly will again. Author, UC Berkeley journalism professor and frequent New York Times contributor, Pollan is not a food writer as the term is commonly understood. His food-related books aren’t about recipes or cooking techniques. He’s achieved national prominence because of his investigative food journalism: discovering how America’s food is produced, how it’s manipulated and how it’s consumed.

In his latest book, Food Rules, Pollan says that when he embarked on his investigative food journalism quest, he wanted the answers to simple questions: “What should I eat? What do we really know about the links between our diet and health?”

But this quest turned out to be different from previous non-food-related investigations where he says that things “quickly become more complicated and ambiguous than I thought going in. Not this time. The deeper I delved into the confused and confusing thicket of nutritional science, sorting through the long-running fats versus carbs wars, the fiber skirmishes and the raging dietary supplement debates, the simpler the picture became. “

In fact, it became so simple that in Pollan’s book that followed The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, he “realized that the answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat wasn’t so complicated after all, and in fact could be boiled down to just seven words:”

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

In Food Rules, Pollan expands on those seven words – but not too much. This slim paperback contains 64 “rules.” Not rigid dictums, they are eminently sensible guidelines – some even humorous – pointing the way to healthy, sane eating habits.

Pollan’s first rule is “Eat Food.” Seems obvious, but Pollan’s point is that much of what we see on grocery shelves are “highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists consisting mostly of ingredients… that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted.”

Other Pollan rules include:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce
  • Avoid food products that make health claims (the healthiest food in the super market – fresh produce – doesn’t boast about its healthfulness, because the growers don’t have the budget.)
  • It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)
  • Drink the Spinach Water (see below)
  • Eat animals that have themselves eaten well
  • Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it
  • Treat treats as treats (not every day occurrences)

Don’t forget occasional splurges, and don’t feel guilty about them as long as they’re occasional. Pollan’s last rule is “Break the rules once in a while – especially if you’re observing the “Treat treats as treats” rule. Renowned Chicago chef Rick Bayless recommends scheduling weekly special meals which he says “help me reinforce the distinction between simple, lean everyday eating and pull-out-the-stops celebratory fare. Without both on a regular basis, life is out of balance.” 

Michael Pollan


My grandmother’s “creamed” spinach contains no cream; rather it uses the water the spinach was cooked in. It remains my most favorite food; and is the only thing I’ve ever eaten so much of that once, when I was a child, I got sick.  The recipe can be found online at IT’s website.

  • 1 1/2 lb. fresh spinach
  • 3 slices good quality bacon, diced
  • 2 –3 slices homemade-type white bread
  • 4 - 6 small green onions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour

Kosher or sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and freshly ground nutmeg to taste
Remove any large and/or tough stems from the spinach. (If you’re using “baby” spinach without large stems, decrease the weight to around a pound.)

Wash the spinach well to remove any grit and dirt, but do NOT drain. Cook the spinach in a large pot JUST until wilted. Do not overcook. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large bowl to cool. DO NOT DRAIN!. When the spinach has cooled, squeeze by handfuls, reserving the liquid. Measure the liquid and add enough water if necessary to measure 1 c.

Place the squeezed spinach on a chopping board. Top with the bread and onions. With a large knife, chop the spinach, bread and onions. Some prefer the mixture more finely chopped and some with more texture.

Meanwhile, sauté the bacon in a large pan until crisp. Remove from the pan and reserve, leaving the fat in the pan. Add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Whisk in the reserved spinach liquid, bring to a simmer, and cook for about 2 –3 minutes or until thickened. Add the chopped spinach/bread/scallion mixture and cook for a couple of minutes to heat through. Season to taste with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Serves 4 - 8 

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