Friday, January 11, 2008
Another Pollan interview.
CH: This morning I was looking at what I had in my house for a quick breakfast, and it wasn't much—I haven't gone shopping in way too long. My options were plain yogurt or an energy bar with soy protein isolate and all this other stuff in it. I went for the yogurt because it was actual food, but I was thinking, what if my choice were not between yogurt and the bar, but between a fast-food egg sandwich and the bar? Those are the options that a lot of people have when they're in a hurry—and the sandwich is probably more of a real food than the bar is.
MP: Well, for Eggs Benedict in the abstract that's true; but look at the ingredients in the bread they use [at the fast-food place]. It's a 40-ingredient bread. So although it looks like a real food, the actual way they're making it is more "foodish," or "foodlike." But one of my messages is that taking the 15 minutes to put a real breakfast on the table is not that long—so why has it come to seem so Herculean? I really think we've been sold a bill of goods: that we're too busy and there's absolutely no way that we can feed ourselves [without convenience food].
CH: For me personally and for lots of people I know who care about food, I make the time at dinner, but not always at breakfast.
MP: And breakfast has been the site of so much processing for the reasons you're talking about, the convenience question. It's really the pioneering meal for food science, with breakfast cereal being the big first step, and a continual ratcheting up of the innovations. I don't know if you've looked at a cereal aisle lately, but the latest is the breakfast cereal "straw," a strawlike thing made out of cereal material, with a layer of white "milk" on the inside. Kids are supposed to suck out the "milk" and then eat the "straw." So you don't even need a spoon.
CH: That's disgusting.
MP: It really is. I haven't tried one yet. But I think we're real suckers for innovation at breakfast, because we're kind of in a fog and don't want to have to think. Also, a lot of kids eat in the car or on the bus on the way to school. I talk about the percentage of our eating that goes on in cars, and a lot of that is breakfast.
CH: Yeah, you can't really take a nice bowl of oatmeal or a poached egg in the car with you.
MP: Nah, I can't drive that way.
There's also this bit about the widespread consumption of refined grains:
Somebody at a talk told me a line that her grandmother used to say: "The whiter the bread, the sooner you'll be dead." So there was a wisdom around carbohydrates, and if you go back even to Brillat-Savarin and The Physiology of Taste, he says that the cause of fatness is eating too much sugar and too much flour, and drinking too much beer. It was kind of understood. But the prestige of refined grain is kind of a mystery. It's fairly recent; we've only known how to create it for 100 years, 150 years. And maybe soon there will be a feedback loop discouraging us from [refining grains]. But you're right, that's one area where your great-grandmother may or may not have it right.
With white rice, not a lot of people had it. These foods that have been around for a long time and that we know are maladaptive were not eaten in great quantities. We have always eaten things that were not necessarily good for us, and we call them special-occasion foods. And probably, given the trouble of polishing rice, you would not have that much. Even if you were wealthy it wouldn't necessarily be your staple—it would be like a sugary dessert: You have a little bit of it, and you have it at the end of the meal, where its effect on the insulin level and your metabolism is blunted by all the other food in your stomach.
And frying chicken, French fries—all these foods that are very hard to do, very expensive in terms of time—people did eat these things, but probably not in the quantities that we do today. Because of technology and industrialization we can outsource all the work. Somebody I was reading was saying it would be fine to have French fries, as long as you're willing to cook them yourself. So then how often would you have French fries? Maybe once a month, because it's a real pain, and you've got to clean it up. I was talking to someone from the South, who was saying that everyone thinks she ate a lot of fried chicken growing up, but that fried chicken was so much work and such a mess, and the oil was so expensive, that you only made it when you were having a party. You couldn't justify it for yourself or even just for your family. So it was special-occasion food. But now our special-occasion food has become everyday food—and that's been one of the achievements of industrialization. So you could even include in your dietary guidelines, "have all the French fries you want, as long as you make them and clean them up yourself."
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