The time has come for me to pay homage to the food and environmental journalist and writer Michael Pollan, whose book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, partially served as the inspiration for my blog’s name. I say partially because I am fully aware that I have been waist-deep in food dilemmas way before his book came to be.
Many years ago, when I was a mere neophyte in this work, way before food and eating was the omnipresent topic that it is today, I was simultaneously working my first nutrition job with a WIC-Women, Infant and Children Program in some small-town communities while also serving at a hip vegetarian cafe in a cool college town–all the while trying desperately to figure out how to feed myself. By day, I talked the language of subsidized foods; by evening I enjoyed brown rice and salads with sunflower seeds, sprouts, and lemon tahini dressing; and, by night, I chowed down more than my share of the wonderful cookies we baked at the cafe.
Though I knew how to address pellagra and beriberi, I could barely identify, let alone address, my own anxious eating. Back then, in the late 1970s, I also had friends who were struggling with serious eating disorders–but the terms anorexia and bulimia were barely widely recognized. And, I still thought that the main problem with nutrition was hunger in remote places on the globe. Starving children in Biafra fueled my imagination and passion for helping when I was a kid and inspired my decision to become a nutritionist. Today, I don’t even know where Biafra is. Are there no longer starving children in the world or have they just gotten lost and forgotten in this modern feeding frenzy?
In 1981, my husband, Peter and I found ourselves seemingly teleported to Dallas, Texas in my Oldsmobile Cutlass with our total life belongings and two cats–for the purpose of a new job. For us, it was a strange new world. Though I still held strong to my Frances Moore Lappe-inspired vegetarian lifestyle and its accouterments of grains and legumes, my heady purist beliefs were no match for that southern heat. One day while staggering around the city looking for an apartment, we stumbled into a Mexican restaurant. Suffering from heatstroke, we feebly ordered some food. I slipped back into consciousness just in time to see Pete about to dig into some dish covered in carne. Honey, I managed to say, we don’t eat meat. Though we did preserve our herbivorous habits in that cattle raising land, we dove headfirst into 7 Eleven’s newly christened, enormous 32-oz. Big Gulp in order to quench our super-sized thirst. It was just the beginning of the marketing of many super-sized offerings, and it was then that I began to realize that the food universe was shifting.
Within just four years of finishing my nutrition studies, I was working in a clinic addressing eating disorders; and only six years later, I found myself in another clinical setting witnessing the cusp of the obesity epidemic. Neither of these issues was ever addressed in my schooling. My nutrition education taught me about the functions of macro and micronutrients; gross deficiency states; approaches to some diseases and food chemistry–but it never really talked about food–where it comes from, how it itself is nourished, or about the importance of quality and vitality. Nor, how to eat it. Thankfully, by then, I had figured out for the most part how to separate my emotions from my eating, so I was a little better equipped to tend to the cares of others–just in time, for the food and eating tornado had really begun to swirl.
I am grateful then for the prolific body of work and its attendant context that Michael Pollan has so poetically brought to us–rounding out the story of understanding food. However, as it clarifies, it adds to the complexity of my work–and so too, to my dilemmas. Trying to translate this information for the folk I speak with on a daily basis is not easy.
Just the other day, I had a chat with my adorable new friend, Tomazeo, a kid in one of the schools where I work. At just eight-years-old, he is really smart and has good penmanship. He told me his teacher says he is a role model. When I told him that nutrition was a big word, and we were going to write it on his folder, he told me that he knows lots of big words, including especially, absolutely and scrumptious. I agreed that those were quite big words. I asked him if he knew what scrumptious meant and he said, “Especially yummy in the tummy”. I said, “Absolutely.” His big brown eyes then asked me, “Are hot dogs healthy?” Oh my, tracing a hamburger from bull to bun, is one thing–a hot dog is yet another. How do I break the news to this innocent child that scrumptious may actually not be so easy to define.
I am guessing that Michael Pollan got stuck in this quandary as well, which led him to publish his elementary primer, “Food Rules-An Eater’s Manual” which he describes as ‘samizdat’ nutrition. I am not familiar with that big word, and I doubt Tomazeo is either, but Pollan uses it to promote a cultural reference point “as an informal and unsanctioned way of negotiating our eating lives.”
If anyone sees or knows Michael, please let him know I am out here and I could use a big chunk of samizdat. To get his attention, tell him that I think he and I have sprung from the same natural island habitat. A vague mention on his website supports but does not confirm, my suspicion that we are from the same exit off of the big native walking path. We may have hunted the same forests, foraged the same fields–and maybe attended the same high school. Emphasize that I am down here in the trenches and need reinforcements to help me with those who are not yet in the choir. Just today, from Stephen Colbert, I learned that those 32-oz. Big Gulps had actually increased to 44-oz. since my last swallow so many years ago. Yikes!
But, mainly thank him for me. He has truly helped to change and widen our understanding of food and nutrition by leading us to understand what we are eating, where it has come from and its many implications for our health and environment. His investigations have accelerated the positive redirection of policies and practices that we are beginning to finally see come to fruition. And, I bet his writings are now included in most nutrition curricula.
And, just one more thing if I may. While only a few know this about me–and have now probably forgotten–I was a (junior) high school cheerleader–yes. Though I have certainly lost the school spirit thing, this may be a reason to revive my hometown pride along with some perky and breath-draining chants. So when you do speak to him on my behalf, can you add in a little — Goooo Michael!!!!– to help cheer him on? Thanks so much.
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My Plate Haiku
Don’t eat anything
Your great grandmother wouldn’t
Recognize as food.
by Michael (Pollan)