I was reading a post by Mr. Money Mustache a few weeks back, and he mentioned a book by Michael Pollan “Food Rules”. I have read a few of Pollan’s NYTimes columns and one of his books, so I figured why not check this one out? So that Saturday after I had finished my study in the library, I started casting about in my mind for what I should check out. I have the horrible habit of never being able to leave a library empty handed. I found the book after overlooking it twice as its small size was overshadowed by neighboring food books.

I read the whole book later that day and started talking about it with my girlfriend Larissa. We live together and like to cook together, so any changes to my diet will naturally affect hers. Luckily, she was on board with many of the ideas and agreed that “Food Rules” was a push in the right direction. Well, Larissa started talking about this with her mother, who gave her an other diet book, “Eat This Not That” by David Zinczenko.

These two books can both be rightly called diet books, contrary to the “Eat This Not That” cover, but their scopes are drastically different. “Food Rules” posits a way of eating unlike the traditional American way, whereas “Eat This Not That” merely proffers paltry changes in your diet. While Pollan wants you to reduce your meat eating, avoid fast food, eat greens, Zinczenko tells you that your diet is fine, you just need to swap out this healthier burger for that one and avoid Grandma’s gravy at Thanksgiving. Which of these two approaches are people more likely to adopt? Which of these two approaches is more likely to give you greater health?

If there is one action you can count on people taking, it is inaction. People don’t like change, and they dislike changing themselves even more. Clearly, people will be more likely to simply make the incremental changes given by Zinczenko. I could see this book being placed in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, rubbing elbows with the celebrity gossip magazines, Women’s Health, and all the cooking glossies too. Just looking at the cover, you can see it is designed to stand out in this situation.

The garish colors, the text-burst proclaiming its features, the eye-grabbing text at the very top of the cover so that it won’t be covered up by the stand all clamor for your attention. As you can see above, “Food Rules” has a much gentler cover that isn’t trying to sell itself so desperately.

You can definitely judge these books by their covers. Pollan’s whole book is very simply laid out with minimal text, no color, simple sketches, and simple paper. This understated style contrasts with the sweeping lifestyle change proposed by the book, whose motto is: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” The book is broken into three sections with a short intro explaining the science behind the idea and then spreads of a sketch of food and a large-type memorable rule to help you practice the idea. Zinczenko’s book also is ordered by spreads with each spread being a fast-food restaurant or holiday meal. Every spread is jammed full of factoids, bright colors, photos, and it is all on glossy paper. Pollan’s book asks you to internalize and remember the rules, while Zinczenko has color-coded the pages as you have no hope of memorizing all the dangers of restaurant menus. While Pollan’s book is broken into bite-sized increments, Zinczenko’s book is further subdivided on each page by boxes, circles, burst-text, and arrows.

Since when is Black Friday a holiday?!

A neat observation that was new to me.

Clearly, the baby-steps given in “Eat This Not That” are more likely to be accepted as no major changes are required. Switching from loaded french-fries to plain fries is not a decision that requires debate. In contrast, Larissa and I discussed the rules in “Food Rules” before deciding to reduce our meat consumption and to eat more veggies.

Which brings us to the next question, “Which leads to a healthier life?” The short answer is that they both do. However, just like most things in life, you get out what you put in. If you settle for Zinczenko’s easy way of changing your restaurant orders, you will improve but not nearly as much as if you follow Pollan’s three suggestions of eating minimally-processed food, greens, and less of both. As “Food Rules” pushes for a lifestyle change, while “Eat This Not That” only pushes for ordering a different dish. However, only a lifestyle change can give you a healthy life. “Eat This Not That” is a step in the right direction, but I worry that it may actually do more harm than good because it gives you the impression that you can make a healthy diet of nothing but pre-cooked meals and fast foods.

While there is a place for both books, clearly I am to taking Pollan’s advice.  To me, his book was mostly common sense. There was nothing revelatory, yet it was enough to push me over the edge and actually start cooking and eating like I should. I had been skimping on veggies. I had been eating a fairly meat-heavy diet. I had been eating a bit too much. Thanks to the redundancy of many of the rules in the book, enough of them of stuck in my head to get me to refocus my diet. It’s been a gradual shift, and it has been difficult at times (cooking tofu flavorfully is a challenge), but it has been rewarding to feel better. I’ll post a couple of cooking adventures in the next few weeks as I continue talking about health.

Cooking Culture

April 23, 2012

For our first graduate engineering math class, our professor had us introduce ourselves. We stated our name, undergraduate institution, and an interesting fact. As the introductions wended about the room, it became apparent that we are either all have the same interest or we cannot think on our feet. “I like to cook,” or “… and I guess I also like cooking,” kept being repeated. Why do so many people think this is an interesting fact? Is cooking really a hobby now?

This “cooking as a hobby” phenomena has to be linked to foodie culture and the Food Network nightly programming. Like an evil twins, these have transformed cooking from a ho-hum everyday experience into a hobby or art. Granted cooking can be an art that transcends the everyday experience, but I think that few people are capable of this wonder.

Hold on. Wait. Since when did cooking immediately conjure  thoughts of exquisitely refined food art? Whenever I think of cooking, I think of simple meals that my mother made. Rice, broccoli, and cheese casserole. Spaghetti and meatballs. BLT sandwiches. I believe that the Food Network is particularly to blame for making cooking seem out of reach to people.

It is now a fact that the average American spends more time watching someone cook than actually cooking. The rise of Food Network has led to people watching, no ogling chefs and fetishizing food. Or maybe the two events coincided. Either way, cooking as an everyday activity is dying out. You may be thinking that Food Network would be slowing this decline, but their prime time programming is all entertainment. Trying to learn cooking from Chopped, Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars, etc is like trying to learn driving from watching Nascar.

Actually, the best way to learn how to cook is to learn from someone else. Sadly, parents neglect cooking the skill lapses in our current generation. Without this handing down of customs, we risk cooking dying out. People should be alarmed as this is culturally equivalent to saying that music is dying out.

That seems sensational, but think about how much custom and culture surrounds food. We go out for drinks with friends. We have dinner, hold a potluck, grill out, do coffee, hell even going to a movie usually involves food. I’ve been cooking from different cultures, and many of the cook books tie the cuisine back to the history of the culture. I’d hate for a future cookbook to say something extremely lame like, “Macaroni and Cheese became a real hit when Kraft introduced individual microwaveable bowls.”

Equally culpable is the foodie culture. “Foodie”. What an ugly word. Foodie culture seems needlessly pretentious and snobbish. Rather than reconnecting people to simple cooking, it is needlessly distancing people from cooking. In this groundbreaking clip, Tim Allen (who hosts “Chopped”) mocks the movement. Clearly, I am not alone in thinking foodie culture is annoying.

Some food blogs counteract these evil twins of Food Network and foodie pretentiousness. Food blogs are usually run by amateurs who are cooking to enjoy cooking. They efface the food as unreachable art by showing photos of cooking in progress. Often a narrative is interwoven with the recipe, effectively recombining the food and culture. For this reason, I applaud food blogs.

So to end this shambling post, cooking should not be relegated to hobby status like photography or numismatics. Rather, it should be just another everyday activity that we take for granted. People think cooking is a hobby or an interesting fact because cooking has become a rarity. Foodie culture and Food Network have done their fair share of discouraging cooking while food blogs have encouraged cooking. Cooking is very culturally significant, and we should enjoy it for its history. Annnd for the delicious food.