Alimentary, Dear Watson

Navigating the Edible Complex

 

A Review of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

 

Ken Bell

 

“What other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?” asks Michael Pollan incredulously.

 

It is, he believes, “a symptom of our present confusion about food that people would feel the need to consult a journalist, or for that matter a nutritionist or doctor or government food pyramid, on so basic a question about the conduct of our everyday lives as humans.”

 

What’s worse is the degree to which the advice of those “experts” all too frequently has proven to be contradictory, misleading, myopic, abruptly shifting from one extreme to the other – and even fatal. The dismal truth is the fact that “the principle contribution of thirty years of official nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one.”

 

I remember ruefully how the last dozen years of my Grandad’s life were vexed by such expert nutritional advice. Shortly after retirement, he had survived a heart attack. Expert opinion demanded that my Grandmom completely alter her cooking, substituting margarine for butter, using all kinds of new-fangled “miracle” trans-fats in her kitchen, eliminating all the traditional Southern fare and spices that had made a Sunday dinner in their home a matter more of magic than cuisine – above all making everything they ate as bland, tasteless and “healthy” as it possibly could be.

 

From the perspective of thirty years, we now can say with confidence that nearly every conscientious change she made, each in accord with the very best expert advice, just made things worse. As Pollan writes, “don’t forget that trans-fat-rich margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.”

 

In sharp contrast, he recommends a radically different course, pithily summed in the first three imperative sentences of his book: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

 

There are so many intriguing little gems of commentary and uncommon common sense sprinkled throughout the first few pages of this delightful book that the indolent reviewer is inclined to quote the author and permit the imaginative reader to take it all from there. For instance:

 

“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

 

Or this:

 

“For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right of the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.”

 

Or, in response to that initial question posed above:

 

“True, as omnivores – creatures that can eat just about anything nature has to offer and that in fact need to eat a wide variety of different things in order to be healthy – the ‘What to eat’ question is somewhat more complicated for us than it is for, say, cows. Yet for most of human history, humans have navigated the question without expert advice. To guide us we had, instead, Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother.”

 

And about more recent faddish claims:

 

“Because all plants contain antioxidants, all these studies are guaranteed to find something on which to base a health marketing campaign”

 

The fundamental problem which Pollan addresses is simply that “today in America the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented – and dizzying.” What’s a dedicated eater to do?

 

In answering this question, Pollan occasionally engages in a measure of hyperbole – not unexpected in a book subtitled “An Eater’s Manifesto.” He indicts a rampant “Nutritional Industrial Complex” which propagates an “ideology of nutrition,” and urges “escape from the western diet” grounded in “the industrialization of food.”

 

But the sad truth is that much of the hyperbole is justified. Consider, for example, the low fat milk you drink because whole milk is “so bad for you”:

 

“To make dairy products low fat, it’s not enough to remove the fat. You then have to go to great lengths to preserve the body or creamy texture by working in all kinds of food additives. In the case of low-fat or skim milk, that usually means adding powdered milk. But powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol, which scientists believe is much worse for your arteries than ordinary cholesterol, so food makers sometimes compensate by adding antioxidants, further complicating what had been a simple one-ingredient whole food. Also, removing the fat makes it that much harder for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that are one of the reasons to drink milk in the first place.”

 

What, then, do I recommend?

 

If you eat, read this book.

 

 Ken Bell is the Assistant Director of the Haysville Community Library. He is also, if you deem it relevant, a vegetarian — for ethical, not dietary reasons.

Published in: on June 30, 2008 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Even More Summer Reading Fun . . . and more

Published in: on June 30, 2008 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Hitching Post 001


At least a few locals and residents with a bit of history behind them may recall Sam Shustorman’s shoe shop on the north side of Douglas in Wichita, near the train station, in what is now called ‘old town’ – and the fact that it appeared in an edition of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not several decades ago.

So today, in honor of Sam Shustorman, we’re introducing our “Hitching Post” series with a featured website that encapsulates the same essential mix of bland and weirdness that Ripley’s saluted.

What’s “Hitching Post”? It’s a periodic – maybe even frequent – feature thumbing through the Hitchhiker’s Guide to some byway on the web that’s worthy of mention for any one of a variety of reasons – because it’s extraordinarily useful, humorously peculiar, uniquely topical – or perhaps simply as a capricious whim.

Today, as you may have guessed from the first two paragraphs of this post, is a day of whimsy. A little later on we’ll be releasing another page in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a directory of online Web Museums. If you’ve never explored the phenomenon before, that directory is a good departure point.

Online museums are no less diverse than the human panoply. Certainly, they encompass such repositories of culture and knowledge as the Eisner Museum of Advertising & Design or the Museum of Modern Art. But they also range beyond the predictable to the Burnt Food Museum, the Squished Penny Museum and the Museum of Hoaxes, complete with a museum store featuring “Save the Jackalope” mugs and t-shirts. There’s even a Museum of Online Museums for the terminally addicted.

So, in honor of Sam Shustorman and the vast array of web museums, today we feature Roadside Art Online, which asks, rhetorically, “is it any surprise that so much of America’s great art can be seen from the window of a passing car, in the melange of shop signs, billboards and cheesy buildings, in the personal monuments people make in their gardens and empty lots, on the makeshift, lean-to margins where artistic preconceptions and ambitions don’t exist?” Check it out, and see if you don’t agree. It’s worth a smile.

Oh, and for those of you with a little longer recollection of the area, here’s another roadside memory jogger:

 

Published in: on June 25, 2008 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

More Summer Reading Fun

Published in: on June 25, 2008 at 9:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Summer Reading Program

Summer Reading at the Haysville Community Library

Published in: on June 24, 2008 at 4:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Archimedes’ Fulcrum

 

You probably remember the name of Archimedes, the Greek scientist of Syracuse, from your childhood days. He’s one of the greatest geniuses of all times.

 

Nearly everyone recalls the story of Archimedes and his bathtub. Hiero, king of Syracuse, had commissioned a local artisan to make a crown for him from a quantity of gold that the king provided. When the craftsman finished his work, the king’s new crown was a wonderfully beautiful work of art.

 

Unfortunately, for reasons we aren’t told, King Hiero suspected that the artisan had cast the crown from a mixture of gold and another base metal, diverting the remaining gold to his own enrichment. Not wishing to destroy the beautiful crown by melting it down, yet still wanting to know whether his artisan was a thief, the king called upon Archimedes. Could the great scientist prove that the crown was made of purest gold, or from an alloy, without damaging the diadem in any way?

 

Archimedes pondered this question at length without discerning a solution. Then one day, after filling his bathtub nearly to the brim, Archimedes immersed himself in the tepid water. As he did so, the excess water sloshed over the bathtub rim and onto the floor – and Archimedes attained his epiphany. He ran through the streets of the city buck naked (the Syracusans were notably tolerant of the quirks of their local genius) shouting “Eureka!”  — “I have found it!” What he meant was that he had resolved the king’s dilemma by discovering what scientists call “specific gravity.”

 

By immersing the crown and then an equal weight of gold one after the other in a container filled with water, Archimedes could measure the amount of liquid that slopped over the edge – the displacement. If the amount was exactly equal in each case, he would know that the crown was pure gold. But if the amount displaced was different in each case, he would know that the artisan was a thief. Why? Because every metal has a different density – a different ratio of mass to volume — and therefore a different specific gravity. If copper or tin or silver had been mixed with the gold used to make the crown, it would be less dense, more “buoyant,” and displace less water than an equal weight of pure gold.

 

The same principle is what makes a submarine work. Filling its ballast tanks with seawater gives the submarine “negative buoyancy,” and it submerges. Blowing the tanks clear with compressed air changes its buoyancy to positive, and the submarine surfaces.

 

But thinking while bathing wasn’t Archimedes’ only act of genius. He created dozens of remarkable engines of war that allowed Syracuse to survive a long siege by the powerful forces of Rome. With enormous mirrors he focused the sun’s rays to incinerate Roman galleys in the harbor. He created cranes with pulleys and gigantic levers that could reach out beyond the city’s walls to grapple a ship, raise it high into the air and dash it against the rocks along the shore.

 

“Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the earth,” Archimedes declared.

 

The ancient Greek’s bold assertion of two thousand two hundred twenty years ago still has relevance for us today. The least among us, with a lever long enough and a place to stand, can, indeed, move the earth.

 

In fact, that’s the very business your community library is in. We’re earthmovers. Or, more precisely, our job is giving you a lever long enough, a fulcrum, and a place to stand, so that you too can move the earth.

 

A vibrant, actively involved, well-funded, community-oriented library isn’t a mere hodgepodge of dusty old volumes of antiquated lore rotting away in an intellectual backwater. It is the vital hub and local gateway to global communication and worldwide information in the information age.

 

Staffed by dedicated information professionals who are committed to helping you navigate your way, it is a ship across a fathomless ocean to new worlds of imagination and understanding.

 

It is a storehouse of knowledge that strengthens our community and empowers our citizens through free and public access to practically limitless information; a treasury, open to all, which preserves our yesterdays, enriches today and illuminates tomorrow.

 

It informs. It entertains. It enlightens.

 

So, if you feel like moving the earth today – or even just giving it a little friendly nudge – come see us at the Haysville Community Library today. We’ll help. And it’s free, so you won’t be ‘taking a bath.’ But who knows what you might do if you, like Archimedes, experience your very own Eureka!

 

Published in: on June 24, 2008 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Hitchhiker’s Guide

Our Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Web is now up and running again. Please give it a try and let us know what you think. If you don’t find a topic that intrigues you today, look again tomorrow. We’ll be adding and updating at a scorching pace.

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 6:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Farm Woman Update

For those attending tonight’s book discussion, I’ve posted a brief personal perspective on Chronicles of the Farm Woman over at BellerophonChimera. I’m looking forward to what others have to say.

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ratatouille

Our Saturday evening showing of Disney’s Ratatouille (for several alternative brief plot summaries see the Internet Movie Database) attracted a crowd of nearly twenty, including some among Haysville’s newest and youngest citizens, for an evening of popcorn, pop and fun.

An excursion to the library’s Free Family Movies is an excellent and inexpensive outing in an informal setting, with special appeal for young and growing families.

Join us next Saturday night, June 28th, at 7 pm, for Charlotte’s Web.

(To be included on the email list for updates, email haysvillefriends@live.com. For details about schedules or other information, call the Haysville Community Library at 524-5242, or better yet, drop by.)

A special thanks to our friends at Family Video, just up the street from the library at 521 West Grand.

Published in: on June 22, 2008 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Coupon Exchange

 

During these times of increasing unemployment and food prices rising faster than they have in 17 years, nearly every family budget feels the pinch.

 

That’s why we want to remind our patrons that one among many services offered free, and available to anyone who chooses to participate, by the Haysville Community Library is our Community Coupon Exchange.

 

Savvy shoppers know that coupons don’t always save you money if the ones you have clipped lead you to buy items you really don’t need, or more expensive brands that you ordinarily don’t use. But those smart shoppers also know that using coupons for the goods you need and buy frequently is simply good common sense.

 

But you don’t always have the right coupon for the right product at the right time.

 

You may not need diapers for your high school teens, but you do need coupons for the high energy snack food they crave – and eat in enormous quantities. Meanwhile, a few blocks away a neighbor may desperately need diapers for her newborn, but perish the thought of stocking up on snack foods while she’s nursing that little one, or overly conscious of a little recently added weight.

 

That’s where the Haysville Community Library Coupon Exchange can help. Bring coupons you clip but can’t use to the library, and exchange them for coupons you need, want and will use. The more Haysville citizens that participate, the better the prospect of each one finding something he or she might use – and the more money each of us can save in challenging times.

 

Even if you don’t personally ever use coupons, consider bringing the ones you happen across in the Sunday paper or in the magazines you read down to the library, and donating them to the exchange. You’ll be helping your fellow citizens and improving your community in one more small but important way.

 

Published in: on June 21, 2008 at 11:40 pm  Comments (1)  

Candy Bomber Update

 

For those who are interested in a follow-up with further details, I’ve posted a Candy Bomber Update over at BellerophonChimera.

For the original review see The Power of Chocolate

Published in: on June 21, 2008 at 9:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

OOPS

 

We’re experiencing a few technical difficulties with the links in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. We’ll let you know as soon as we have resolved them.  

Published in: on June 19, 2008 at 6:31 pm  Leave a Comment