Wednesday, October 15, 2008

REVIEW: "Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved" & "Real Food: What to Eat & Why"

Lately, I have been in the habit of reading books that pair together - either by the same author or books that seem to treat the same topic. The two most recent books -- on the heels of the two Michael Pollan books I finished a few weeks ago, are "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved" by Sandor Katz, the author of "Wild Fermentation" and "Real Food: What to Eat & Why" by Nina Planck. Since the Planck book is the least useful and most controversial, I'll start there - hoping to make this quick and painless.

"Real Food: What to Eat & Why" by Nina Planck has a beguiling cover that seems to offer promises of quality guidelines and content. While Planck writes with great passion in an accessible, chatty style, I found much of her book to be pompous, arrogant and repetitive. Although she does use footnotes in the first part of the book and lists a bibliography, her academic rigor is not nearly on the same level as "Omnivore's Dilemma."

In fact, there were several long sections that seem to be lifted right from Michael Pollan's book -- making "Real Food" seem more to me like a "Cliff Notes" version of "Omnivore's Dilemma" but tainted with a very subjected, personal angle that implies there is only one "right" diet and everyone else is an idiot. While Planck and Pollan are both journalists and food writers, it is clear that Planck's skill is not in writing -- her book seems like a very long blog article or diatribe. She relies heavily on secondary and tertiary sources, fails to properly substantiate many of her arguments except by anecdote -- you can hardly tear down the China Study, for example, by your own personal experience.

She also seems to be taking format cues from Sandor Katz's "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved" -- both in terms of the structure of her book and the individual chapters. Her weak attempts at describing food preparation and providing resources don't hold water next to Katz's superior book which describes the experiences and experiments of him and his friends and is very strongly supportive of readers exploring and finding what works best for them.

Reading the reviews for Planck's book on Amazon and other places on the internet was highly entertaining -- she has a very vocal following who will defend to the death her assertions -- afterall, Planck's book validates their current diets making very few recommendations aside from staying away from packaged, processed food. It's still basically the Standard American Diet - lots of animal products, eat as much as you want. The redeeming factor is that she encourages people to strongly consider the source of their foods -- staying away from big corporate farm produced foods.

Her argument boils down to something pulled right from Pollan's writings: anything your grandmother made is 'real food. However, that was what Pollan offered as a guideline for selecting better prepared foods -- not as a pretext to eat whatever the hell you want. Planck maintains that you should eat as much as you want of anything that's not packaged or processed crap -- somehow, your body will know when to stop because those foods are more satisfying. This leaves out the obvious -- calories are calories and must be burned. People eat for many reasons -- hunger, boredom, happiness, sadness -- and satiety isn't always a cue for ending a meal.

Planck is vehemently (and obnoxiously) anti vegetarian, particularly anti-vegan, and there is not a lot of material provided to encourage independent, critical thought or to make space for other people's experiences or conclusions. She puts little value on moderation or exercise, and doesn't allow for differences in individual body chemistry.

Pollan, on the other hand, goes to Polyface farm and works on the farm, he goes hunting, he goes foraging -- he talks to real people, he dives in and describes his experiences. All Planck does is to read Pollan and a few other books and write an over-long newspaper column that incorporates some of their key ideas with her own strong opinions. Her shameless theft of concepts from Pollan's books -- twisted to her own means -- lead me to make only one recommendation: Read Omnivore's Dilemma. It's a far superior book when compared to Planck's book or any others on the shelf.

"The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved" by Sandor Katz is created to be used by its readers, not merely consumed. He has clearly laid out as comprehensive and inclusive an agenda as any I have seen, covering industrial food production, dumpster diving, fermenting, foraging, vegetarianism and many other topics. His writing style is humble, clear and flows well -- while he incorporates plenty of information about his and his own experiences, the first person narrative is neatly integrated into the overall message. Each chapter is written as a standalone article and ends with recipes and resources for futher research.

Katz's approach is truly one of conservation and relativity -- he constantly notes that each individual's particular body chemistry, culture and food preferences mean that a diet that works for him (now) may not work for you. He encourages exploration, examination and critical thought.

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the negative reviews of his books on Amazon are largely from homophobes. While he mentions he's fighting AIDS with diet and medication, and that he lives in a queer community - he's not hamfisted about his sexual orientation or lifestyle. He's clear and up front about it but in no sense does he ever offer judgement about the relative merits of his orientation to the mainstream (nor is the book in anyway about sex). Katz provides details about his life as they are relevant to his experiences and experiments with food -- but he's clearly not out to recruit people to the "Gay Nation" nor to challenge their assumptions on homosexuality.

It's very clear that his mission is to provide a catalyst for his readers (whom he assumes are intelligent, inquisitive folks) to scrutinize their diets and food sources and to arm them with tools for making the best choices based on their own particular situations.


Rural Vegan said...

I don't have any who will eat strawberries but I do have one cat I tease relentless for being a wannabe-vegan. She will scarf down all the lettuce, broccoli, sprouts, and assorted greenery she can. I think she may be insane! ;)

Thanks for commenting too, I just subscribed to your feed.

Tofu Queen said...

re: homophobic Amazon reviews. Unfortunately, the Amazon review section can be a sewer sometimes. I'm amazed at how many people will use just about any soapbox they can find to spout off their bigotry.
I don't think anything I've read of Planck's in newspapers or magazines would lead me to check out her books, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the Katz book.