The Silence of the Yams (or How to eat and stay alive)

I took a short cut through Barnes & Noble ‘s last week, the one across the lobby from the best theater in Los Angeles, to get to the parking garage. Actually, it was really my regular detour. I love to browse the new releases. But it was a small book on the paperback table that chose me: “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” by Michael Pollan. I bought it to read on my flight to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving.

Pollan, a journalist turned food detective and defender, was one of the experts who contributed to the excellent and worrisome 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.” He also wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “In Defense of Food” and others that explore the food industrial complex and the consequences of genetic manipulation of food and eating what passes for food in America.

As a result of seeing “Food, Inc.” I swore off theater and microwave popcorn with about a 98$ success rate over more than two years. I also began to be wary of high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) at the same time but didn’t do anything about it until almost three months ago. I just decided to stop. I have just begun week ten of a sugar fast. Now, this has been more challenging than popcorn because my community is selling See’s Candies, the best chocolate ever, as a fundraiser. It’s right there. And except for my birthday last week, I would say I have been about 95% successful in avoiding candy, pastries, direct sugar, and all processed foods with any form of corn syrup.

Sugar is sugar no matter what you call it.. But the best source for sweetness is where it occurs naturally: fruit.

I have also decreased meat, especially red meat, and upped the broccoli.
I tried the Jenny Craig diet. And it worked for as long as I stayed on it. But I travel and the weekly visits to my counselor (I truly like all the Jenny Craig staff at our local Culver City location) created a conflict between food and time. The meals are good, but expensive. Over the first nine months I lost 34 lbs. It’s been a year since I last checked in, and I have gone up and down, but right now am at 25 lbs off my original starting weight.

“Food Rules” seemed like an ideal book to read to prepare for Thanksgiving. I read the whole thing during the 75-minute flight to Sacramento yesterday and laughed out loud often enough to make the lady next to me wonder just what I was reading. Pollan dishes on fake food but he does so with élan and allows for flexibility. For example, eat as much junk food as you want (including pastries and ice cream) that you make yourself (Rule 39). Chances are, you will lose your enthusiasm after you try it a couple of times. Then the “S” rule: consume sugar and salt on those days of the week beginning with an “S”

Basically, Pollan says that the Western diet of the United States and those countries colonized by our industrial food complex, will make you fat, sick, and unhappy. Pollan distinguishes between real food and foodish products, “edible foodlike substances”.

“Food Rules” says Pollan, is about food wisdom “for eating healthily and happily”.
Pollan offers 64 rules for eating, divided into three parts:

1. “What should I eat?” Eat food.”
2. “What kind of food should I eat?” “Mostly plants.”
3. “How should I eat?” “Not too much.”

Some of these are:
Rule 7: Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third grader cannot pronounce.
Rule 10: Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not. (Note from me: I remember reading somewhere that margarine is one molecule away from being plastic.)
Rule 13: Eat only foods that will eventually rot (except honey, Pollan says, that can last for centuries.)
Rule 20: It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.
Rule 21: It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.
Rule 36: Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.
Rule 51: Spend as much time enjoying the meal as you took to prepare it.
Rule 55: Eat meals
Pollan is a contemplative at heart, I think. He knows there is joy in cooking and eating with others.

I liked what Pollan says about the lowly vegetables: buy local and organically at the Farmers Market if possible – or grow something yourself, even in a flower box, a way to be connected to the earth.

But to eat healthy is more expensive and so many people in our country do not have access to fresh vegetables, as we know from the efforts of many, including Michelle Obama, at combating obiesity. The food care system is as much in crisis as health and education. Poverty kills people.

The further we move from the farm, the more difficult it is “to imagine” what the original food even looked like and what it means to make healthy choices and live healthy lives. Ever try to imagine what the ingredients of an Oreo cookie looks like? With fewer options and poverty, the health risks increase with consequences along the whole spectrum of human life.

Food is a spiritual and moral issue that concerns us all.

I hope to keep Pollan’s rules in mind – and restart daily exercise, too. I let that slip over the summer with the excuse of MS issues and surgery. My doctor says I need to exercise enough to sweat. I told him I hate to exercise and I hate to sweat. He persists. But I am feeling better now and as I write this in my sister’s living room, her husband’s treadmill lurks in the corner of my eye like a guilty conscience. But wait! It’s an opportunity to feel better, live longer, and serve happily and authentically. Personal stewardship so that in some way, others may live.

At the supermarket, if you must Pollan says, shop around the edges and avoid the center isles. And don’t pass by vegetables like the yam, that isn’t pretty and doesn’t have the voice of television commercials or flashy plastic packaging of so much of what huge corporations pass off as food at the store.

The silence of the yam is a silent scream beckoning us to health and to respect nature.

“Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” is a little book for all seasons.

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