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September 13, 2006

From Nina Planck

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In a recent posting I raved about Nina Planck's new book "Real Food." One quality the book has that I neglected to emphasize enough is that -- unlike many books on food, eating, and food-production -- Planck's is undogmatic. Her attitude seems to be: "It's probably possible to do better than you're doing, and to do it without becoming a neurotic pain in the neck. Why not give this a try and see if you experience some real satisfaction? You might! Many do! Here's some information. And here are some suggestions and sources."

I see that Nina Planck herself dropped by the posting. The comment she left gives a taste of her enthusiasm, her brains, and her attitudes:

"I grew up poor on real food. My mother's simple approach was to eat around the edges of the supermarket, where the real food is: meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, produce. We didn't eat from the middle, where the highly processed, low-nutrition, high profit-margin foods are.

Vegans and most vegetarians (unless they are extremely careful about nutrition) and any American who eats industrial food, junk food, and fake foods (I'm referring to corn oil, corn syrup, white flour, and various fake soy 'burgers' and 'milk') would be healthier eating real food from the supermarket perimeter EVEN IF the food is not grass-fed, raw, organic, and artisinal.

If you can find and afford the best real food - grass-fed beef, pastured poultry - great. But eat real food first, and delete industrial foods."

Nina Planck's very generous website -- where she makes available numerous recipes, articles, and links -- is here.



posted by Michael at September 13, 2006


Poor food was always the best, hearty and good for you. Growing up in Brooklyn, not too long ago, we had everything we needed delivered by merchant's trucks. There was the fish guy, the poultry guy (or you could walk three blocks and have a fresh chicken killed for you while you waited). Seltzer and naturally-flavored sodas from yet another truck. The butcher a few blocks away provided the best cuts while you waied on a sawdust-coverd floor.

Ahh, the memories... good food and healthy childhoods.

Posted by: Matt on September 13, 2006 1:59 PM

Not being educated in the science of nutrition, I find myself in a similar position to that on global warming: my knowledge of the human mind and the history of ideas makes me skeptical when I sense an appeal to what strike my as nearly universal, probably largely congenital, mythoi. This especially includes the "fall from grace" story.

I like "real foods" as a foodie, but I'm just not predisposed to believe that pre-industrial diets had developed to maximize individual health. It seems more likely that efficiency of production and distribution became the driving force long before industrialization, and that the human genome played catchup to the extent that it could (e.g., lactose processing). And eating anything like today's recommended diversity of fruits and vegetables was pretty rare, wasn't it, in the pre-industrial world?

Nostalgia for the bucolic is pervasive, and in other areas it doesn't tend to survive much scrutiny. The "real food" position taps into this broad mythos -- I can feel it in myself -- and I react with skepticism, even as I often derive pleasure from acting in accord with it.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 13, 2006 3:18 PM

It's funny: when I was a kid I liked the American food my Mom cooked over the Indian food. She feels guilt now, she says, over the processed food she served. "The ads used to say it was good, everyone else cooked it....," but we still probably ate more around the edges than almost anyone I know. I tell her she was great about food! She had this sort of americanized version of Indian food because we didn't have as much imported stuff back then and Mom didn't like the quality of the imported stuff in Chicago, where we would go to buy Indian groceries.

Anyway, homemade yogurt with cucumbers, lentils (dal) and rice, roti with butter and mango pickle, keema made with ground beef and peas. Potato and okra and green beans and....and, egg curry! I loved my mom's egg curry. Not very spicy, maybe not very 'authentic' (India is so mixed up, what's authentic anyway?) but so simple and fresh. Always fresh ingredients. Sigh. I can't eat tomatoes anymore, so a lot of the simple dishes I learned to cook aren't the same :(

Posted by: MD on September 13, 2006 5:31 PM

Oh, I disagree about the soy products, I think they are fine as long as you are eating lots of other real foods, as it were, but that's the point. Make the real foods the main part, and the not real foods the minimum part.

*I refuse to give up my soy lattes....homemade because store bought is filled with sugar.....

Posted by: MD on September 13, 2006 5:34 PM

I think mostly this whole issue is about regaining some control over what we put into our bodies. To know that a carrot came from the farmer down the road is comforting, even if the carrot in question is not necessarily any better or worse for you than one from Safeway.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 13, 2006 6:49 PM

Our bodies are energy processing machines. All foods are converted to glucose anyway. The only thing your body cares about is whether it gets enough caloric input to balance output.

All the rest is just personal taste, aesthetics, and whatever brand of connoiseurship is fashionable at the moment.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 13, 2006 7:27 PM

I wrote about a beautiful Raymond Carver short story 'Fat' on my blog below. I think it beautifully captures the essence of old-fashioned basic yet beautiful food. The story should be read while looking at Hoppers 'Nighthawks'

Posted by: Stuart on September 14, 2006 5:45 AM

Peter Winkler's comment above isn't borne out by the facts, although I sympathize with the nihilistic response to nutrition alarmists and faddists. To pick a quick, easy example of something that goes beyond calorie input/output: vitamin C and scurvy.

J. Goard is right, I think, to be sceptical of reflexively thinking that preindustrial = good. American Indians, for example, often had hideous teeth from a lifetime of eating stone-ground corn meal with rock powder in it. But that doesn't mean the processed food, of the kind that I grew up eating a fair amount of in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, is the best thing for you, either.

I think that we have the chance now to have the best of both worlds: real food, brought to us by really developed industrial infrastructure. After all, even if you restrict yourself to organic produce (and I sure don't), it didn't come to you on a horse-drawn cart.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 14, 2006 9:31 AM

MD -- No tomatoes? That's a sad fate -- my sympathies! But I'm able in NYC to find unsweetened soy milk pretty easily. Tastes like chalky water on its own, but it's actually pretty good in tea and coffee. It isn't available up your way?

J. Goard, Peter, Derek -- You aren't going to find anyone who thinks we should return to pre-industrial times around these parts! If only for the dentistry and the refrigeration ... That said, why not demand that the industrial system serve our needs and preferences, rather than vice versa? At least to some larger degree than we do now ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 14, 2006 10:03 AM

Steering a sensible middle course between the "better living through chemistry" crowd, and the "food is a sacrament" Crunchies, Nina Planck sounds like just what American diets need...

Posted by: tschafer on September 14, 2006 10:57 AM

MB: Oh, I agree - and I think that that's happened, to an extent, over the last 25 years, as more companies and entrepreneurs realize that there's money to be made providing people with good ingredients and quality food. Of course, there's still an awful lot of money to be made providing people with cheaply produced crap, too, but I don't see much that can be done about that.

I often try to tell my Iranian-born wife, who came to the US in 1979 (a lot of Iranians showed up here around that time, by no coincidence whatsoever), how much food has changed in the US since my childhood. Changed for the better, that is. You couldn't find a piece of ginger root for sale within 60 miles of the town I grew up in, to pick one trivial example.

The key is demand, and part of getting that going might be to expose more people to good food without scaring or alienating them. The "food-is-a-sacrament" attitude won't help, I think, and neither will the impression that to cook well you have to buy a set of new $100 pans and shop only for ingredients that cost $29/lb or more.

I mean, a package of store-bought pasta, not cooked to mush, with some homegrown or farmer's market tomatoes, some half-decent olive oil, real garlic as opposed to powder, and some basil from a pot in the back yard is already a lot better than average.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 14, 2006 1:32 PM

Michael -- Thanks for the link to Nina’s web site. I found much of it entertaining even though her opposition of real vs Industrial food remains unconvincing, and some of her statements are just flat out obnoxious (“I've been working for poor people all my life. They're called farmers.”)

One bit in her article on “The Virtues of Raw Milk” caught my eye, and may be contain a significant bit of dis-information. She writes that “In 1938, The Drug and Cosmetic Industry reported that certain pathogens do not grow in raw milk but proliferate in pasteurized milk.” There never was such an entity as the “Drug and Cosmetic Industry.” Maybe she meant to refer to the 1938 Federal Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act, with which Congress enabled the FDA to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics, but even here there is no documented reference to the “proliferation” of pathogens in pasteurized milk.

On the other hand, I also ran across a fun historical anecdote from food scientist E.M. Foster that demonstrates how historical changes in lifestyle indirectly impacts food safety:

When I was growing up on my parents' farm in East Texas, we never thought about food poisoning or unsafe food. The only foods we bought were sugar, salt, flour, and oatmeal; everything else we produced and preserved on the farm. My mother spent all summer canning fruits and vegetables for winter. We had no refrigeration; we cured our own meat and drank raw milk. But I never heard of botulism, staph poisoning, or salmonellosis or perfringens poisoning until I studied bacteriology in college. Only then did I wonder how we survived with no refrigeration in a hot climate. Finally, the answer came to me. We just did not give the bacteria time enough to develop so they could hurt us. Leftovers from breakfast—hot biscuits, eggs, ham, bacon or sausage, oatmeal, coffee or milk—went right out to the chickens. Lunch leftovers—biscuits, cornbread, vegetables, or fried chicken—were saved for a cold supper 4 or 5 hours later. Any food left went to the pigs. The bacteria had only a maximum of 3 or 4 hours to grow, and that usually is not enough. I survived and went on to study food microbiology, which included what was known then about food poisoning.


Here">">Here is a fun bit about how technological innovations is furthering the perfection of the lowly tea bag:

Lastly, the">">the Wikipedia article on the tomato indicates that this “traditional” food has a surprisingly non-traditional history.

Posted by: Alec on September 15, 2006 9:41 AM

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