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« Sound-Effects "Art" | Main | Real Food -- Or Not? »

September 08, 2006

"Real Food"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Of the many books about food, eating, and food production that I've read in recent months, my favorite has been Nina Planck's "Real Food." It's a book with a simple message: If a food is traditional, then the odds are it's tasty, satisfying, and nourishing. If a food has been invented or developed in the last hundred years -- if it's what she calls "an industrial food" -- then you'd probably do well to be wary of it.

(Hey, that's a good two-line summary of conservatism -- the political philosophy of conservatism, anyway, if not the sorry present-day Republican reality of it. When there's a question, odds are you should trust to experience and not to theory.)

No accusations of Luddism, please. A nice passage from a q&a with Planck:

Look, I love my ice cream maker. I love electricity. What I don't like is technology that reduces a food's flavor or nutrition. Chicken stock is great. The bouillon cube is an abomination.

As I read it, Planck's book exists on two levels. One is the facts-and-arguments level. Here, I found the book extremely helpful and informative. Be warned, though: It isn't for the un-crunchy, let alone for those averse to a little eccentricity. (Those who dislike the book may accuse Planck of being vulnerable to cranks.) Planck doesn't play by the health-tip world's rules or current advice, to say the least. Lard? Most excellent -- "hardly anyone knows that lard is good for you." Tropical fats? Yum-o. Red meat? Dig in, but search out the grass-fed kind. Salt isn't a poison to be avoided; it's a godsend that brings out the flavors of many foods. Unrefined sea salt is best. Search out fermented foods: kefir, sauerkraut. Your gut will thank you for it. Eggs? "A nutritional bonanza." "I don't buy the low-fat version of anything," Planck writes.

Planck is especially keen on milk, which she thinks we have become neurotic about. Full-fat milk doesn't just taste loads better than skim, it's also better for you. But make it organic if not raw. Feeling inspired by Planck, I drank my first raw milk last week. It was, as she wrote that it would be, a far more creamy, complex, and rich experience than supermarket milk. Maybe pasteurization and homogenization aren't all they're cracked up to be.

To those who respond with shock or surprise to her very unorthodox views and advice, Planck has a -- to me, anyway -- plausible and convincing response. Since the health establishment changes its tune every five minutes -- are eggs good for you this week? -- we'd probably do well, much of the time, to ignore the people in the white lab coats and trust to experience and taste instead.

At times the book feels like a concerted attempt to restore the reputation of fat. Planck argues that the more we know about fats, the more complicated the are-fats-good-or-bad-for-you? question becomes. There are many kinds of fats, and many of them do many good things for us -- not least of which is delivering flavor and a feeling of emotional/physical satisfaction. In any case, the fats-are-bad-for-you line that was peddled for several recent decades has turned out to be disastrous for the health and well-being of millions of people.

Part of what I find winning about her book is that, unlike the M.D.'s, Planck admits forthrightly to being un-omniscient. She isn't shy about saying "I don't know" -- she's anything but a know-it-all. One section of the book, for instance, is entitled "I Am Skeptical That Red Meat Causes Cancer." Hey, she might be wrong! Openness, modesty, a direct and sensible way of addressing the basic fact that life is imperfect and that knowledge is incomplete, a wariness about letting efficiency and convenience dictate all our decisions ... Now that's a program I have no misgivings about getting on board with.

I have no trouble getting on board with her view of industrial food production either. Though she doesn't write out of rage, she's clearly aesthetically and morally horrified by much of it. Sample passage:

Factory chicken feed often includes protein from less savory sources: poultry parts and feathers, rendered cats and dogs, beef fat, and cattle bone meal. In crowded battery egg operations, pathogens thrive ...

Chickens raised for meat -- broilers -- are crammed in dark barns. A typical factory chicken barn is eighteen thousand square feet with twenty to forty thousand birds. At the lower density of twenty thousand birds, that's less than one square foot per bird. Crowded like this, chickens become aggressive and peck each other, so farmers cut their beaks off when they're chicks.

In any case, why do we keep thinking that the people who got it wrong yesterday are any more likely to get it right today? Why let ourselves be strung along and buffeted about by techno-experts? Since perfection isn't possible and no one lives forever, isn't what we're looking for a more-rewarding (rather than a less-rewarding) life? And doesn't the endless anxiety about the latest discoveries and advice result in tension and dissatisfaction?

If these sorts of points appeal to you, the book is a major treat as well as a useful handbook. Planck is generous with tips. She recommends food producers; she tells you what to look for on labels, etc. You'll learn the diff between "pastured" and "grass-fed," among many other things. And she includes numerous and excellent sources, reading lists, and leads.

The book's other level is as a reading experience. This isn't a minor thing, as far as I'm concerned. My, er, beef with many books about food, nutrition, and food production is that they don't really need to be books. Even when I enjoy and learn from them, the anecdotes, character sketches, and you-are-there scenes often feel like so much padding -- like unnecessessary barriers between me and the information I want to get at.

I go through these books muttering "Lordy, I really hate being forced to sift through 400 pages for the sake of what's basically a long magazine article." While these books often denounce manufactured foods and industrial-style food production, they themselves often feel a little manufactured -- a little worked-up. They're like glossy TV shows denouncing the evils of glossy TV. They may be interesting, they may even be right. But my form-and-content brain cavils.

"Real Food" I enjoyed thoroughly as a book. I enjoyed sinking into it; I was held by it; I enjoyed hanging around for the full length of it. It has personality and depth, as well as a movingly handmade quality. What it sells as a book-experience is analogous to the rewards of the approach to food and eating that Planck advocates. That's a pretty appetizing and rewarding experience.

As a writer, Planck is anything but a fussy aesthete -- M.F.K. Fisher she ain't. (Nothing wrong with an aesthete's rhapsodies, of course, even if that kind of thing isn't often to my liking ...) Instead, she's down-to-earth, approachable, and substantial. The daughter of hippie-gone-back-to-the-land farmers, Planck was raised around animals, plants, and the food biz. As an adult, she has set up and run a number of farmers' markets. She isn't about to be prissy or pompous about any of these topics; she's too robust, direct, and clear-eyed to disguise what she's seen and what she knows.

She writes stirring evocations of life around growing things, good food, the pleasures of eating (and of being healthy and feeling good). The open, friendly stories, reminiscences, and confidences are plentiful and moving, and they segue smoothly into more-general information. A sweet passage describing milking the family cow morphs pleasingly into a short history of cows and milk as food. She goes from this ...

Before long, her bag was loose and empty, and there were a couple of gallons of milk. If she'd been scratched by brambles, I rubbed her udder with a miraculous salve called Bag Balm, made in Lyndonville, Vermont, since 1899.

to this ...

In Britain and elsewhere, the gradual loss of access to the commons in the late eighteenth century was catastrophic for peasants, who were no longer able to keep cattle for milk and meat. ... They made do with bread crusts, beer, and cabbage boiled without meat.

Personal and funky, and always grounded in a broader vision -- I like it. Actually, I like it a whole lot.

Nina Planck's fun-to-explore website is here. I yakked about some diet books here. Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons blog is here. "Crunchy Cons" the book is buyable here. I blogged about Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" here and here, and about Greg Critser's "Fat Land" here. Planck has a fondness for the research and advice of Weston A. Price, who I also like but who some see as a crank. The Weston A. Price Foundation is here.



posted by Michael at September 8, 2006


Most Bag Balm is sold for human use. It makes for a highly effective, if somewhat messy, treatment for dry hands.

Posted by: Peter on September 8, 2006 12:53 PM

about food conservatism

we conservatives know that all we stand for was innovation once

Posted by: ortega on September 8, 2006 2:15 PM

At our house, we don't buy as much processed food as most people seem to. But neither my wife nor I are fanatics about organic sources, etc. We just like to cook, and we make a lot of stuff from scratch, mostly because it's more pleasant to eat than the stuff from the freezer case.

These days, just buying raw ingredients rather than something that's already been chopped/mixed/marinated/cooked can make a person feel like a food crank.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 8, 2006 3:13 PM

Sounds a lot like Jack Lalanne's advice on food--"If man makes it, don't eat it!"

I try to follow this advice as much as I can. I started this summer and lost about 15 pounds. I've got about 5 more I'dlike to lose, but look pretty good as it is. The stuff just melts off if you avoid sugar, white flour, and processed foods.

I wish I could worry more about the purity of natural foods, but organic is too costly for what I consider to be a rather slight benefit. Most times when I have gone to the organic food place, a lot of the fruits (and some of the vegetables) were unripe anyway. Yuck! I'll take some flavor with my pesticides, please.

A little self-control goes a long way where diet is concerned. In dealing with the scientific and engineering types all my life, I'm a bit less reverential of their knowledge than most. The human body is amazingly complex. It doesn't surprise me in the least that a lot of artificial food "inventions" and preservation are bad for your health.

Posted by: s on September 8, 2006 3:28 PM

I'm with Planck. People who are raised by back-to-the-land hippies know what they're doing.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 8, 2006 6:10 PM

Dear Blowhard,

I appreciate the review and the comments. Props to the comment on Bag Balm. Now lacking a cow, I still use it on my own cuts and scratches. Miracle stuff.

I grew up poor on real food. My mother's advice? Shop around the edges of the supermarket, where the real food is: meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, fresh produce. Avoid the middle, where the highly processed, low-nutrition, high-profit foods are.

Every vegan and every American who eats junk food and industrial food (I mean margarine, corn oil, corn syrup, and various fake 'soy' foods) would be healthier eating around the edges of the supermarket - EVEN IF the beef and milk are from factory farms. If you can find and afford the very best, by all means eat grass-fed and raw. But eat real food first, and worry about the best versions of real food later.

Best wishes Nina
(lots of free info, including book excerpts, on

Posted by: NINA PLANCK on September 9, 2006 6:37 PM

Props to the comment on Bag Balm. Having no cow, I still use it on my own cuts and scratches. Miracle stuff.

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.

Lots of free information at, including book chapter excerpts.

Best wishes, Nina

Posted by: NINA PLANCK on September 9, 2006 6:42 PM


I'm surprised Omnivore's Dilemma isn't on your list.

2. You shop at Union Square? Afterwards, the foods at Whole Foods don't taste as good.

3. Have you been to Blue Hill Stone Barns yet? Delicious!

One of the interesting things was how different the chicken tastes than the chicken from Whole Foods -- gamy.

Posted by: john massengale on September 9, 2006 10:00 PM

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