Why Read about Food?

Opening a book is an act of commitment. Gabriel Zaid in So Many Books notes that, given the hourly wage of many readers, the cost of buying a book often pales in comparison to the cost of reading one. Reading takes valuable time, attention & effort — why should we do it? And, given that we hope reading in general will reward us richly enough, what sort of reading should we deem worthy? Fantasy, mystery, theology, history, gossip, science, or news? Why read books, rather than other forms of text? And if one is going to read a book, why read this particular book, by this particular author, and not that one?

In our case, why read Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma? That was the question on my mind as I opened up this book, looking forward to enjoying Pollan’s polished journalistic prose, but realizing I was engaging with more than just a passing column in the New York Times. More than other formats, books allow writers & readers to engage our hearts & minds with deep, complex, and sustained thought. Thinking about food is especially rich, because food is connected to everything else: culture, technology, science, economics, health, faith, environment, justice, compassion, politics – on & on! It’s Michael Pollan’s contention that the topic of food in the United States (& elsewhere) could use some sustained thinking; we suffer, he says in his introduction, from a “national eating disorder,” rooted largely in not thinking, in being ignorant of the true nature and source of our food. If the ability to face the risks of knowing & being known are a hallmark of mental health (as some psychologist’s argue), then coping with the risks of knowing our food is a central task for maintaining our own sanity – and the sanity of the world we make. Eating, says Pollan, represents “our most profound engagement with the natural world,” an agricultural, ecological, political act that connects the biology of our bodies with the ecology of the land, seats our culture within nature, and connects us to our fellow creatures great & small. As we read through The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’ll share the reflections, connections, and questions this engagement provokes.

And we won’t stop there! Books also connect us to other books, so we’ll follow this reading with Pollan’s look at food and health, In Defense of Food; Rick Sanger’s tale of alien eating in No Eat Not Food; Ann Vileisis’ history of family food knowledge in America, Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back; Thomas Lyson’s examination of how we might do things differently, Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food, and Community; and Simply in Season along with the other World Community Cookbooks. Have a favorite food title or topic to add to the list? Leave a comment below!

Books also connect us to other people. If you are reading along with these posts, please take a moment to comment & join the conversation, or just let us know you’re out there! I’d also like to invite others to contribute posts to this blog as well. Think you could hold forth for a post or two (or more!) on food? Here’s your chance! If you’d like to get involved as a contributing author for Reading the Table, let me know in the comments or via the Reading Circle Books contact page. Let’s see what we can learn together!

Comments

  1. says

    “Thinking about food is especially rich, because food is connected to everything else: culture, technology, science, economics, health, faith, environment, justice, compassion, politics [ ]”

    I think this statement is true, but not for today’s society. There was a time when food was placed in its proper context, given its due, so to speak. However, in today’s society there appears to be little thought afforded food. I would posit that the reason for this revolves time and the way our society considers time.

    Society’s emphasis on “time management,” the negative results of the “One Minute Manager,” has lead most to view cooking as an inconvenience, sitting and eating as a poor use of time. Gardening is also unworthy of our time. Most people today are so far removed from the process of food production that little consideration is given to “where food comes from” and all of the entangling relationships that process engenders. I recall, as a young boy, pausing on an episode of the Frugal Gourmet on PBS. He talked about the spiritual nature of cooking and the joy to be derived from the experience when we remembered the process. He was talking about an appreciation for the many aspects of how food arrives at our table for consumption. Michael Pollan focuses on the big picture, bringing our attention all the way back to the soil and its preparation. Americans do not think of food in these terms any more.

    People do not see food, either the cultivation of it or the preparation of it, as worthy of their time. Thus, fast food (and by that term I reference both the McDonalds and Swansons of the world) has mitigated the need to pack more work or play into our days and yet have the time to eat. I don’t think food is connected to our culture the way it once was and thus the technology, science, and economics are entirely focused on cutting down the time we use to prepare and eat food insuring it is not an inconvenience. When society sees food preparation and consumption as inconvenient, it becomes possible to divorce it from its impact on the environment or the injustice that results in unequal distribution.

    What is needed, and what Pollan advocates for, is a renewed respect for the process of food. When we slow down and allow food its proper place in our culture once again, we will be headed where Pollan suggests we go.

    • says

      Our current habits of thinking about food may indeed be leaving out some of those rich connections, but despite our personal & cultural forgetfulness, they are still there to be unearthed.

      Your point about time could probably generate a post or two, Gregg! Does how we use our time & attention to engage with food say something about what exactly we value and respect (or devalue & disrespect) about food & eating? Are there other values in which we could invest our time and attention? How could our desire for connection (to the land or to the demands of justice), rather than disconnection, play into our daily time management, including time making time for food? These are excellent questions that your comment provokes–and the fact that you & I are asking them in response to a bestselling book might imply that our culture is not so satisfied after all to be disconnected from its food.

      Another sort of time has snuck into the discussion as well: historical time. Is Pollan arguing that we should turn back the clock to simpler, better times? Does pre-modern = organic/natural = good, while modern = industrial/technological = bad? Was the past really better? How? Do we too easily romanticize the past, or demonize modern technologies? We’ll look explicitly at history when we read Ann Vileisis’ Kitchen Literacy, but keeping an eye out for our own and Pollan’s notions of time & progress will probably teach us something.

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