I remember when I got to the end of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma thinking, “Well, what the hell CAN I eat, then?” Although the mental image of that potato farmer covered in fertilizer did stick, to the point that I started growing my own potatoes, I was pretty much done with Pollan lecturing me on how everything I buy in a supermarket contributes to the destruction of Planet Earth, and will probably give me cancer besides. I can handle bad news, but not with every mouthful.
So I skipped Food Rules when it first came out in 2009. Then came this edition two years later, which is illustrated by Maira Kalman, whose work I know from her marvelous illustrated blogs in the New York Times. I, too, am in love with A. Lincoln. How could I not at least look at a book she illustrated?
I didn’t just look, I bought, and I’m glad I did, although, I must say, Pollan almost lost me on page 20:
Food Rules distills this body of wisdom into eighty-three simple rules for eating healthily and happily.
Eighty-three rules? Eighty-THREE? Are you KIDDING me? I have to memorize eighty-three rules to eat well? What, I’m supposed to take an 83-item checklist with me every time I go to the store? I don’t care how simple the rules are, there is no way I’m going to be able to remember, let alone follow eighty-three of them.
Maira’s illustration of mom-and-daughter cooks standing on a porch kept the book in my hand instead of flying across the room. I turned the page. Pollan writes
I’ve collected these adages about eating from a wide variety of sources.
which is a vast understatement. Evidently many people took the first edition of Food Rules seriously to heart. The adages contained therein had propagated themselves spontaneously into the wild. Nutritionists, dieticians, mothers, grandmothers wrote in with more sayings. The result is an updated version with the aforesaid, and brilliant, illustrations of Maira Kalman, which make the whole endeavor much more, uh, palatable, at least to me.
Still. Eighty-three rules. Come on. Although he does redeem himself a little by saying
There is no need to learn or memorize them all…Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.
The book is divided into three chapters, with subheadings from his now-famous saying. I extract the ones that mean most to me below.
I. Eat Food
2. Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food
I think it was my great-great-great grandmother who traveled the Oregon Trail. Pretty sure she wouldn’t know a bag of Cheetos if she saw one.
7. Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That a Third-Grader Cannot Pronounce
I went immediately to the cupboard and pulled out the Triscuits, my favorite cracker. “WHOLE GRAIN SOFT WHITE WINTER WHEAT, SOYBEAN OIL, SALT.” No more than two syllables per word. Whew.
11. Eat Only Foods That Will Eventually Rot
The vegetable drawer in my refrigerator is filled with plants that can rot. Too many do. Not only should you buy foods that will eventually rot, you should also eat them. Preferably before that happens.
22. It’s Not Food if It Arrived Through the Window of Your Car
I haven’t been to a McDonald’s since my niece Esther graduated from high school. I’m covered here.
II. Mostly Plants
30. Eat Animals That Have Themselves Eaten Well
My freezer is filled with moose and deer meat, salmon, halibut, scallops and shrimp, all of it hunted or fished in Alaska. Covered.
37. Sweeten and Salt Your Food Yourself
Have you ever eaten a Hot Pocket? I tried one once and it was so salty I literally couldn’t swallow it. Sweetened yogurt makes me gag, you might as well be eating cotton candy. Processed foods are so heavily saturated with salt and sugar that I find them inedible. If you don’t notice this, it’s because you’ve dulled your taste buds eating too much of them. I’m a hundred percent with Pollan on this.
40. Make Water Your Beverage of Choice
Always has been. Seldovia had the coldest, clearest, best-tasting water in the world.
III. Not Too Much
53. Pay More, Eat Less
Support your local farmer’s market. My only problem here is, well, winter.
54. …Eat Less
57. If You’re Not Hungry Enough to Eat an Apple, Then You’re Probably Not Hungry
One of the seminal memories from my childhood is of my mother eating an apple a day. She had dentures, so she’d quarter and core it, but not peel it, and eat it before she went to work in the morning. Mind you, these were horrible apples, one of only two or three fruits that made it all the way to the grocery store in Seldovia, arriving mealy and dry and tasteless. But she ate one every day. I try to.
I didn’t start cooking until I was in my thirties. It’s not only good for your body and for the environment, it’s good for your soul, a creative endeavor that pays off the very same day. Or not. I regard anything that comes out well from my oven as a minor miracle. I do better on top of the stove.
83. Break the Rules Once in a While
Salvation. My life wouldn’t be worth living if I couldn’t have a Dare Maple Leaf cookie now and then.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.