Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," was something of a sensation. Named one of the 10 best books...

Share story






by Greg Atkinson

Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” was something of a sensation. Named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by both The New York Times and The Washington Post, it won the California Book Award, the James Beard Award for best food writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. But Pollan was not entirely satisfied.

“When I wrote ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ ” Pollan recalled when he was in Seattle recently, “people said I was preaching to the choir. Only people already interested in food would read the book. I wanted to invite a larger group into the conversation.” So Pollan wrote “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” At John Sundstrom’s restaurant, Lark, over a dinner hosted by Kim Ricketts’ Cooks and Books Visiting Chef Series, I asked Pollan about that book.

“I thought the way to invite new readers into the conversation,” he said as we launched into salami from Salumi and Cirrus cheese from Mt. Townsend Creamery, “would be health, to talk about the link between our health and what we eat. But when I write about health, it’s really about the health of the soil, the health of the plants that grow in it, and the animals that eat those plants.”

If “Omnivore’s Dilemma” presented the question, “What should we eat?” then “In Defense of Food” attempts to answer it. “Eat food,” says the introduction. “Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The directive to eat food may sound overly simplistic, even flippant. But supermarket shelves these days are filled with “edible food-like substances” that are not real food at all. “These novel products of food science,” writes Pollan, “often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

“My ideal reader,” said Pollan, “is someone who doesn’t care about food, so I write for my father or my friends who are not foodies, just people trying to sort out the connection between what they eat and their health.” But supposed experts in nutritional science are forever changing their minds about what’s healthy and what’s not. So in the first section of the book, Pollan asks readers to consider something called “nutritionism,” a kind of ideology of food that was first identified by an Australian sociologist named Gyorgy Scrinis. “The focus on nutrients instead of foods has led to ‘nutrition confusion,’ ” wrote Scrinis in a 2006 op-ed piece for the Sydney Herald, “which the food and diet industries have exploited to help market processed food and fad diets that often are of questionable health benefit.”

In coining the term nutritionism, Scrinis suggests that contemporary nutritional science might be fatally flawed in trying to break down food into individual nutrients. “Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and slightly mysterious,” writes Pollan, “it falls to scientists . . . to explain the hidden reality of food to us. In form, this is a quasi-religious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.”

Pollan details how we might go about following his guidelines for eating. He directs us to, among other things: Pay more and eat less; do all our eating at the table; cook and, if you can, plant a garden. “Our individual health is indivisible from the health of our families, the health of our communities and the health of our economies. That’s the great lesson of ecology,” Pollan said as we finished our Full Circle Farm sunchoke soup. “And at the center of all this is the meal. It’s coming together at the table that links us to the soil, to our families and to our neighbors.”

Greg Atkinson is an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Recipe: John Sundstrom’s Bluebird Grain Farms Farro with Wild Mushroom and Parsnip Sauté

Makes 6 servings

Bluebird Grain Farms in the Upper Methow Valley of north-central Washington produces high-quality, sustainably raised whole-grain emmer wheat, also known as farro. It can be purchased online at www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com.

For the farro

1 pound Bluebird Grain Farms farro

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 cup mascarpone cheese

1 ounce fresh chives, sliced thin

Additional kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the ragout

4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 cups forest mushrooms (morels, chanterelles, shiitakes, etc.)

½ cup merlot wine

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup parsnips, cut into 1-by-2-inch sticks, peeled and roasted until tender

1. To prepare the farro, cover the grains with cold water in a large saucepan, add 1 tablespoon kosher salt, bring the water to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender. Drain the cooked grain, then pass through a fine mesh food mill or ricer into a large bowl. Fold in the mascarpone and chives and season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Keep the farro warm while you prepare the parsnips and mushrooms.

2. To make the ragout, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the garlic and mushrooms, sauté until garlic is just golden. Add the merlot and cook until the liquid is reduced to half its original volume and adjust seasoning.

3. To serve, distribute the prepared farro evenly between 6 to 8 individual soup bowls. Plant the roasted parsnips and sautéed mushrooms on top of the farro, and drizzle with any extra wine from the sauté pan.