Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Food (Preservation) Rules

In his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, food author Michael Pollan famously coined a call to action for how and what we eat: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." After studying nutrition and the ways food is produced in this country, he came to the conclusion that what and how we should eat is not really all that complicated. Rather than focusing on the complexities of carbohydrates, ratios of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, and the benefits of dietary fiber, he figured out that we can improve our physical health, benefit our environment and, at least in my view, cultivate our souls, by following his simple call to action.

Of course, such a simple saying leads to many more questions. "Eat Food"? Of course we eat food, what else would we eat? What Pollan means by "Eat Food" is to avoid things that are edible, but designed and developed by food scientists, made with ingredients chemically derived from corn and soy, and things no one keeps in their home pantry. In other words, Pollan is talking about real food, food that our ancestors ate for tens of thousands of years, before the industrial food revolution that really took off in the mid-part of the last century. Of course, this is just a very brief explanation of one part of Pollan's Rule, and much more could be said about it.

Therefore, in order to make it easier to follow his call to action, and to better understand what it means, Pollan has published a slim book with 64 rules that expand and frame his trademark saying. Each of the rules is short and simple, but Pollan also adds a paragraph or two of commentary to each rule, explaining a bit more about their origin and what they mean. The book, Food Rules, is a quick read, but full of wisdom and something that everyone who cares about food should have. It's only $5 on Amazon right now (Amazon: Food Rules). So what do you have to lose?

In any case, I would like to highlight a few of the rules and provide my own commentary on how they apply to food preservation - something I think is an important part of "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."

Rule 2: Don't Eat Anything Your Great-Grandmother Wouldn't Recognize as Food

Not only would your grandmother recognize most home preserved foods, she probably knew how to make them herself. Indeed, it is a tragedy of our age that food preservation skills have gone into decline, skipping a generation or two or three. It is time to make the preserved foods your great-grandmother knew how to make.

Rule 5: Avoid Foods That Have Some Form of Sugar (or Sweetener) Listed Among the Top Three Ingredients.

Ah. Hm. So much for most jams and jellies. Except that there is an exception for special occasion foods (Rule 60). Actually, what this rule is really all about is the fact that sugar and all the variations thereof (High Fructose Corn Syrup, I'm talking about you) have snuck into many processed foods where we might not expect sugar ... and even where we might expect some sugar, processed foods contain obscene amounts. We know that jams and jellies have a lot of sugar, unless they're specially made to have lower sugar, so I think they're fine under this rule, used in moderation.

Rule 12: Shop the Peripheries of the Supermarket and Stay Out of the Middle

The periphery of the market is where the bakery, produce, dairy and butcher sections of the supermarket reside. The center section is where most of the heavily processed foods are. Shop on the periphery, and you are usually getting real food. Which is not to say that there isn't real food in the center section ... I mean, where else will you get your dried pasta? Nevertheless, by doing your own food preservation, you will be able to reduce the amount of items you need from the middle section of the supermarket.

Rule 13: Eat Only Foods that will Eventually Rot

Ah. Hm. Well, so much for food preservation. Of course, Pollan is referring to things like Twinkies, which have a shelf-life of twenty-five days (25!). Unnaturally long for baked goods. Other than fruit cakes, I can't think of any regular baking recipes that are moist and tender for nearly a month. Pollan does mention honey as having an indefinite shelf life, but I think that goes for all sorts of home food preservation.

Rule 16: Buy Your Snacks at the Farmers' Market

Ah, come on, Pollan. Yes, you can buy delicious dried fruit at the farmers' market, but you can also make your own dried fruit at home, often even better, thank you very much. I haven't seen my famous basil-infused sun-dried cherry tomatoes at any farmers' market. This is a good rule, if only it included making your own.

Rule 28: If You Have the Space, Buy a Freezer

Food preservation 101. A stand alone freezer is great for storage (and economy).

Rule 33: Eat Some Foods that have been Predigested by Bacteria or Fungi

Fermentation! Need I sing its praises anymore?

Rule 59: Try Not to Eat Alone
Rule 63: Cook

Both these rules are great. Eating should be a social affair, and cooking your own food is fantastic. I'd sort of like to combine them for food preservation, however. I do a lot of preservation on my own, but it is much more satisfying to preserve with friends and family.

Rule 62: Plant a Vegetable Garden, if You Have the Space, a Window Box if you Don't

Once you start gardening, sooner or later you will have more food than you can cook and give away. You can let it rot. Or ... you can preserve it one way or another.

These are just a few of Pollan's food rules. I could have spent more time discussing how they intersect with food preservation, but I think it would be better if you went and read the book and figured it out on your own. Enjoy!

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