American Culture Kook Cooks

An Omnivore’s Manifesto

We’re trying veganism, My Beloved and I, now in our 11th week of cutting the ovo-lacto from our comfortable vegetarianism of over two decades.

The Power Plate diet diagram of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
An alternative to the ol’ food pyramid, designed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — the Power Plate.

Look Out For That Bus!

It’d been a year since my last fasting cholesterol blood test. The results so floored my doctor a week ago — total dropped from 244 to 159 with triglycerides and LDL roughly halved, 161 to 78, 147 to 85, respectively — that he ended my 12-year prescription to cholesterol-lowering drugs.

The online program begins the first of every month, and we started April 1. I went ovo-lacto veg about Election Day 1990, so included dairy and eggs. MB dropped meat after we began dating in summer 1991, but she got me to have salmon monthly.

We chose 21-Day Kickstart because it’s run by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and its founder Dr. Neal Barnard, because they’re not faddish and cite only solid, independent science.

Ask anyone who’s dieted. You can do most anything for a very few weeks.

While gloating over my numbers and self-discipline — or what passes for gloating, listing these counts on Facebook — I kept thinking how useful good health is … until it’s cut short by an unsuspected defect in some vital organ. Or that with my half-working ears, and head in the clouds, I step into the path of an electric car. I’m pretty sure I’d sense a bus and hop back.

‘Cooking Is a Political Act’

I’ve lost a lot of weight, too. More on that, anon.

Eating better has been for me as much an intellectual challenge as an emotional one. I’d say physical also, but picking out food comes from the brain and the heart. Thirst and hunger are real, but delineating them further employs mental and emotional judgment. Our sources for such judgments have gotten us into the health mess we’re in.

“Cooking is a political act,” says Michael Pollan. This is the thesis of the UC-Berkeley journalism professor’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. He explains it in an interview:

All we do is we take the one thing that we do for a living, we sell that into the market, we take that money and use that to outsource everything in our lives. That leads to a dependence that is almost infantilizing.”

Why didn’t he use “economic” instead of “political” in the five-word throw-down? Cooking is political more than economic for him because it’s more about power than mere money, extending beyond the marketplace.

This is not my favorite Pollan book. It’s fun, but the depth comes from the introduction and a few paragraphs among hundreds of pages on how this middle-aged urban guy finally learned — after becoming an expert on the food industry — to cook. He chose to pick up traditional, universal methods: roasting meat, baking bread, stews and pickling.

(My pick is Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. This manifesto’s title is an homage to his The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.)

That’s right, Michael Pollan is not a vegetarian. Nor is my other favorite food journalist, Mark Bittman. Neither follows hype. They follow facts. Both eat meat and dairy carefully.

We’re all omnivores, right? Biologically for 10,000 years, give or take a couple million. Peoples worldwide have thrived on whatever their surroundings provided them to eat. For example, we Americans think of Buddhists being on the plant end of diets — rice and tofu. Yet Tibetans, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, are on the carnivore end of foods — after all, few plants grow in the Himalayas. Yak steaks, goat burgers.

The fact I can thrive on a healthy diet from any traditional culture is a clue. Solid science blames modern Western society’s industrialized food choices for many ailments. If that’s so, why are we as a society living longer? Answer: We have incredible health care.

When ‘They’ Cook, It’s Become a Con

Statistically, though, I am much more likely than my bacon-on-Wonder-bread-loving friends to make it to age 90. Vegan means, besides now quelling a family history of blood pressure, heart trouble and diabetes II (my fasting glucose was 86), less chance of cancers and even dementia.

Yet statistics measure populations not individuals. The odds are fully 100 percent whether I will float atop that bell curve of longevity. Hello, bus.

What’s to account for longer lives? The vegetarianism of George Bernard Shaw? More likely, Ignaz Semmelweis getting the world to wash its hands, only in 1847.

Our American culture, both the good and the bad, propels us toward overindulging in foods that historically have been enjoyed in moderation.

Besides Pollan’s books, documentaries like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me highlight the big-business machinations to con us to ordering more food of questionable nutrition in restaurants. Other books like Michael Moss’ Sugar Salt Fat detail how Big Food gets us to buy not food but food products from markets.

I haven’t quit such processed foods, but I’ve become far better at evaluating them. One irony is they infect the vegan world — ads for ready-to-eat plant-based products underwrite the glossy veg magazines I drool through at the local natural food store.

It was so damned hard to cut cheese from my palette that I’m staying vegan for the near future partly out of spite. The other reason is control.

‘Their’ Food Doesn’t Taste Good

Before 1990 I ate like everyone else. After college graduation a decade earlier I learned in that first summer of independence that burger and chicken joints, even Arby’s roast beef, soon came to taste alike, of musty oil and salt. At home, both Hamburger Helper and the twinned cans of La Choy got old by fall. So I began teaching myself to cook.

Mom had given me the Joy of Cooking, but it never resonated. PBS cooking shows did; I did chores on weekend afternoons with them — never Julia Child, though — stopping to take notes. In 1985, Jane Brody‘s Good Food Book struck a nerve. It was my first journalism-based nutrition bible. As she’s still with The New York Times, she’s a godmother to Bittman, Pollan and Moss.

Moving toward Mollie Katzen in the ’90s, then last September to India’s traditional Ayurveda regimen and in April to PCRM’s plant-based low-fat diet, now seems to have been inevitable.

If only I could follow Max Perkins’ “Always leave the table a little bit hungry.” My impulse control is lousy.

In June 2012, the doctor’s scale had me at 155 pounds, this past June 7,  I weighed 135. The Ayurveda months cut the first 15 of 20 pounds.

What helps is that PCRM’s veganism uses no portion control. These past weeks I have often stuffed myself, just gorged if I wanted, on plant-based, whole-grain, low-fat items. I allow refined flour when we’re out — there’s little choice.

MB and I recently went to the local Mellow Mushroom, because I heard the pizza chain offers vegan cheese (a substitute, or analog, of mushed-up flours, oils and flavorings). I liked the Daiya cheese OK, but MB didn’t at all.

The server said because we’re vegan she’d tell the kitchen to skip spreading butter on the edges of the pie after it’s baked. Olive oil, sure, but not butter. The menu said the dough had sugar, boasting it was unrefined, but still, why? Makes me angry.

When I scraped away the veggies and fake cheese to taste just the tomato sauce, I found lots of cumin. Why, Italian food doesn’t use cumin. How did the chain restaurant’s master lab come up with that?

Do I have to cook all my own meals? My own pizza now longer seems vain.

A local Tex-Mex place boasts of being vegan-friendly and of using only fresh vegetables. We tried it. MB’s spinach was canned, and my sauteed zucchini and cauliflower had that once-frozen texture and tasted of vinegar. Vinegar? We grew angry.

Twice since then, I’ve spread fat-free refried beans (my latest pantry staple) on corn or whole-wheat tortillas, heaped on freshly cooked, seasoned vegetables and spooned on either of two jarred salsas. Folded to make quesadillas or rolled for enchiladas, then browned in a nonstick skillet. Craving a sauce? Keep packets of Wholly Guacamole (or the house-brand equivalent) in the freezer. Tasty, healthy and filling, with only one skillet to clean.

Anger drives me into the kitchen. Fortunately, I love to cook, and I’m making time for it more often.

Eating also is a political act

In the West, in the 20th and now 21st centuries, we can choose to eat anything. The economy has been set up to make foods cheap and easy to find, compared to previous centuries and other lands.

What we eat is a choice.

My veganism puts me in league with my bacon-loving brothers. I have lots of professional colleagues who boast of junk food diets and laugh admiringly about the latest bacon concoction of chain eateries.

These friends don’t want to be lectured to by the likes of me. I am the enemy here.

Understood. Eating these days is both acting and reacting, both exercising control and admitting such control is limited. Eating certainly has become a political act.

Over a dozen years I’d carelessly gained around 20 pounds. Outside my control, last August I was laid off from a long-held position. Now I run around with three part-time gigs so low-paying I still qualify for unemployment. But work’s great for morale, gives me some power over circumstances.

Why not go further? Only organic (whose definition?), only locally grown (hypocrisy outside of California), only old-fashioned family farms (how far back for authenticity) and so on?

First, foodies, who by definition rave about those, reek of elitism, and I want no part of that. You must have a very good income to even approach ideal food choices. Second, if you’re going the fresh-always-is-better route, you can’t allow for exceptions: Are you really going to interrogate your friends over every item on their party platters?

I am a Wal-Mart vegan. Both it and area supermarket chains make it easy, despite their infinitely more yards of shelf space for junk food.

My body got clogged with common, cheap choices, even the more nutritious ones. My anger directs me to good decisions. Self-control now has become satisfying.

Last, my goal is not to live to 90, be some wizened, shuffling, forgetful crank. Since the layoff I’ve decided to plan only in five-year increments. Four-plus years is all I can stomach thinking about.

Will I have cheese pizza and creamy brownies for the next five-or-zero birthday? I have no interest in planning or promising past this summer.

Zorba the Greek‘s wisdom, to live fully, is no contradiction when applied to the mundane act of eating.

I am in control so that I can be free.

“Teach me to dance.”

Copyright 2013 Ben S.Pollock (not the clip, of course)

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