Michael Pollan Says
Michael Pollan advises that shoppers should stay on the perimeter of the grocery store while shopping–where the bakery, dairy, and butcheries tend to be. When venturing down the aisles, his rule of thumb is “Only buy food your grandmother would recognize.” As long as you stick to the spirit of his comment and not delve too deeply into it semantically or operationally, that’s good advice. He’s trying to tell you to stay away from highly processed food derivatives, preservatives, and other ingestibles that are more like “lab materials” and less like food.*
As I was making myself a tuna melt for lunch, I was laughing at myself for adding Sriracha, the hot sauce deservedly beloved of hipsters and the subject of an Oatmeal comic. In my head, I began constructing a hypothetical, hipster tuna melt. Clearly it would need bacon (and more bacon), Sriracha, sashimi-grade tuna… I went on, and along the way began attempting to construct “Kitchen Tips for Hipsters” which would include such gems as “If you need to add ranch dressing, just don’t tell anybody;” and “There’s probably an ingredient you can replace with Sriracha.” By the time I had constructed my entire melt (and yes, I did add a smidge of [low-fat, yogurt-based] Ranch dressing instead of using my Extra-Virgin Olive Oil-based lite mayonnaise) I had a sandwich (with meat from a can) that my grandmother would have only vaguely recognized. Which reminded me of Pollan’s advice.
My grandmother would not have recognized a lot of the foods we consume. In my grandmother’s kitchen there were only three kinds of fat: butter, shortening, and the kind that rolls off pork products. E.V.O.O.—let alone herb-infused E.V.O.O.— would have been unrecognizable, accept maybe by way of comparison to vegetable oil, which as far as I know, she never used. My grandmother knew about cod and various river fish, but Mahi Mahi and red snapper would have made very little sense. Steak? yes. “Kobe beef”? Not a clue. I’ll give you ham, but prosciutto? Now, I am talking about my grandmother not any possible grandmother. An Italian, Greek, or Japanese grandmother would have had some of these on her shopping or To Do lists, but not mine.
So I wondered what my grandmother would have thought about my Instagram feed. Well, one thing I learned is that either I have less foodie friends than I used to, or that trend of taking pictures of your food is dying out. Here the first twelve food items in my Instagram feed and quick notes on whether my grandmother would have recognized them as food.
- Sushi—not a chance
- Woodhchuck Hard Cider—Kind of. My grandmother certainly knew about “cider” which, if I remember growing up well enough, was always hard, “apple juice” was not. But buying it –and having it filtered and force carbonated would have been odd to her
- Rudolphsuppe (made with reindeer cream)—It’s possible, though unlikely, my paternal grandmother would have run into this dish if she also happened to run into one of the handful of Scandinavians in the Chicago suburbs at the time. My maternal grandmother would have had no clue for sure. The idea (fish with cream sauce) she probably could have handled, but Rudolphsuppe specifically, no way.
- Grilled Green Tomatoes—Well, Granny would have fried them, but otherwise there’s nothing unexpected here.
- Cannoli—probably not
- Ice cream cone—(I think she would have had that one covered)
- Wild Orange Blossom Teavana—[Lipton] Tea, yes. This? No.
- Philly cheesesteak—Again, the concept of chopped beef, cheese, and peppers on a bun, probably, the Philly Cheesesteak? I doubt it.
- Korean Hibachi—Not on your life.
- Berliner Weisse-style 1809—Well, as its name implies, it was “food” long before my grandmother was born, and I know my grandmother knew what beer was, but Berliner Weisse? Nuh-uh
- Campside Session Ale—(see above)
- Starbucks Iced Latte—Like fat, there was only one kind of coffee in my grandmother’s house, robusta beans, Maxwell House specifically, but robusta nevertheless. 20 ounces? of Arabica coffee? iced? that you buy? for five bucks?!?! You might as well have come from outer-space.
Total tally: All twelve foods would have passed the spirit of Michael Pollan’s test, but only two of the foods would be foods my grandmother would have absolutely recognized.
Just to keep this somewhat on topic for the blog, it’s important to note that polices matter. The reasons my grandmother would not have recognized my hypothetical tuna melt and would have been confused by my Instagram feed is because she lived in an age that was poorer than our current one, that was less efficient, when trade agreements were more strict than they currently are, and when America was more homogeneous than it currently is. My grandmother spent most of her life in an era before the Baby Boomers were running the show, which had a range of implications all its own. As the world became more wealthy and more efficient it was the Baby Boomers and their affluent, educated children that reached out across the globe for more hedonic pleasures. It was the Boomers themselves, with their parents’ stories of the Depression to guide them, that nearly unilaterally (politically speaking) decided to start opening trade, which made such exotic faire cheap enough and accessible enough that our culture could latch on to it. Too often we think of the costs of our overseas adventurism, the “exporting of jobs,”and the fragementing of our culture. But in a very real way, average Americans all over the country, including Evansville, Indiana, are able to live in a manner completely alien to my grandmother. They can enjoy foods, drinks and styles of clothing that in the 1920s would have been reserved nearly exclusively for upper class East Coasters. But now, were she alive, she would at least understand if not actually consume a Wild Caught Albacore Melt with Sriracha and Spring Greens served on a low-carb, all-wheat wrap.
* As very famous scientist Neil De Grasse Tyson may or may not have said (according to a Facebook meme), we’re all just chemicals. Food is chemicals etc. So that last sentence is my attempt to rephrase Pollan while maintaining my scientific integrity.
It is somewhat off the spirit of Pollan’s advice, so what preceded is not meant to be an elbow in his ribs.