Monthly Archives: February 2008

>Save your soul.

>I went to see well known food writer Michael Pollan speak last night at Butler University. He had a lot to say, some of which I already knew from reading his other books, particularly The Omnivore’s Dilemna and apparently much of what I didn’t know is in his new book In Defense of Food. When I go to see radical speaker who want to change the world I often feel that the people who most need to hear them speak and read their books are the people who aren’t there in the audience. They’re my friends- they want to eat at Dairy Queen instead of local ice cream, they think that when they buy organic food at Wal-Mart they’ve accomplished something, they drink soda, they don’t read labels. And mostly they all think I’m crazy. I love them and I’m sure I do come off as some kind of weird hippie conspiracy-theorist.

Yes, I truly do think corn syrup is evil and I’m not going to shut up about it.

Anyway, I can’t possibly summarize what Mr. Pollan had to say- there’s a lot of it, it’s complicated, it’s important, and I think it makes me a better person when I understand what he means. But let me share a few highlights with you:

This is his manifesto: “Eat food, mostly plants. Not too much.
– okay so if you eat a mainly plant based diet, meat is okay (unless you’re me) in limited quantities, don’t overdo it. You’ll be ok.

Most food sold in America is made out of only a few ingredients: corn (which is in EVERYTHING), soy, wheat (there was a 4th that is slipping my mind at the moment). Diversify your diet.

Fat isn’t bad- so long as it’s a naturally occuring fat.

The more health claims a product makes, the worse it is for you to eat.

Shop around the perimeter of your supermarket and avoid processed foods (this is an oldy but a goody huh?). Personally I feel that if I don’t have to chop it, or at least open a can and do something to whatever’s in it- it’s probably not a good thing for me to eat.

The foods that have the lowest nutritional value are the ones that are most highly subsidized by our government.- It’s those same big hitters- corn, soy, wheat.

If it doesn’t rot- don’t eat it.

Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.

Which leads me to my own list of wacko health/nutrition/exercise tips:

1) Get some form of exercise every day of the week but one– take one day off. Alternate cardio/strength training while erring on the side of cardio. (I do 3 of each and take Fridays off).

2) Read the ingredients of everything you buy… unless it doesn’t have a label (in which case it is probably AWESOME for you). Try to understand what the ingredients are, cause it’s not really the number of ingredients in anything- it’s what they are. Some indian sauces will have a hundred ingredients- but if they’re all spices and not chemicals it’s not actually a problem. If whatever it is has a lot of chemicals, put it back and check out other brands.

3) Buy as many raw ingredients as you can and make it yourself. With the exception of bag lettuce, if whatever it is has been pre-processed something has almost certainly been added to it. Bag lettuce is bad for the environment, it’s not really bad for you. I make as much as I can- even chocolate sauce. I make a lot and it keeps just as long as something I could buy. It’s really not that much work.

4) Don’t eat/drink corn syrup. Corn syrup is one of those things that is so highly subsidized by the government that food companies put it in everything in order to fill you up with cheap calories. I’m not kidding, read those labels! My favorite example is tomato sauce- why does it need corn syrup in it? Corn syrup is awful for you and has weird chemical properties. Avoid it.

5) Don’t drink your calories.– I mean this with a grain of salt, here’s how I think about it: if I am drinking a beverage for true pleasure- meaning an alcoholic beverage, morning coffee, or maybe a special ethnic beverage (this happens so rarely for me- maybe once a month)- that’s okay within reason- I have a purpose for drinking it. When I am drinking for the sake of imbibing some liquid it had better be something without calories- water or tea

Here’s what I think about soda: When I visited the Coke museum in Atlanta their exhibits showed that people used to go out for a fancy date to the local soda fountain- usually a couple would share a (at that time corn-syrup free) Coke as a special treat. It was dessert and it cost a lot of money. That seems like an appropriate way to enjoy soda- I think having soda in a mixed drink is a modern comparison to that practice.

Another point that Michael Pollan touched on was this contemporary idea that cooking and gardening are skills that require mastery. As he put it, cooking is a spectator sport, but no one has time to cook… because they’re too busy being spectators. I experience this so often, I have a lot of friends who are gourmands (our young, poor, landlocked version), but I also have a lot of friends who claim that they just don’t know how to cook and they clearly don’t want to learn- or they would learn. My mom always said that anyone who can read can cook. Personally I think my version of cooking is mostly a hobby and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t actually into food. But very basic cooking- I think it’s a basic subsistence tool- if you live you have to learn to cook something– boring and nutritious as it may be, it should be something.

And all of this psychotic-hippie ranting brings me to one of Pollan’s final points:
Is it too expensive to eat this way? Is it elitist?

I think there are many ways to eat healthily and low on the processed-food chain, I don’t find that to be elitist.

What I do think is elitist is the access to information by someone like Michael Pollan. See, he is one of my very most favorite writers, but if I didn’t have a college education (and if my parents didn’t have a college education) I don’t think that there’s any way in hell I would have stumbled across a copy of The Botany of Desire at their house and decided to borrow it- ending up reading everything he ever wrote and going to see him speak 5 states away 5yrs later. I would never know any of this, and I would think (just as some of the people I know) that pizza is a super healthy food choice (again- take this with a grain of salt- homemade pizza can be VERY healthy, especially if homemade- but all of it is high in calories).


On to the final part of this rant:

I think that there are a lot of ways to eat cheaply and with whole fruits and vegetables. None of them involve shopping at Walmart. There is of course the farmer’s market: Bloomington is blessed to have big and small ones all summer and a more specialized indoor market during the winter. The more exotic items ARE expensive at the farmer’s market: like elk or wild-harvested mushrooms. Jeez. But the items that are in season are never unreasonable- salad greens in the spring; tomatoes, green beans, zucchini in the summer, apples in the fall. Whatever it is- if there’s a lot of it and it was picked that morning it’s bound to be cheap.

The other option for eating cheaply (and my personal favorite) is a local ethnic market. Ethnic markets can be confusing, and not just all those weird foods you don’t recognize- because you could learn what they are if you really wanted to. No, they’re confusing because they have both a lot of sustainable items, and a lot of imported items.

I can tell you that my favorite Bloomington market- the 10th St Market has been a boon for me:

1) I can ride my bike there easily since it’s so close to my house- I don’t have to waste any gas (environment-wallet) and it’s good for me to exercise.
2) The owner drives a truck up to Chicago once a week to get groceries. That’s it.
3) Almost all of the produce is grown regionally and tends to be very seasonal. In fact, it tends to reflect the same items that are at the farmer’s market.
4) A lot of the other basic ethnic items are also produced locally: all the corn tortillas come from Chicago (the nearest tortilla plant is there- I checked), flatbreads are made locally, a lot of the cheese is local. If they haven’t gotten a shipment you can tell- veggies will be sparse and looking a little tired. In that case, you come back the next day.
5) Many items are available in bulk.
6) There are a ton of whole ingredients or classic healthy ethnic ingredients- rice, noodles, canned asian vegetables, spices.
7) It’s CHEAP and you will never be bored. If I can do all my shopping there I can feed my 2-person household on $30 a week- and that’s mainly low-processed hippie food.

And then the negative: many of the pre-made sauces and other products ARE imported (it is an international market after all)- but as time goes by and gas prices rise a surprising number of items are being made stateside.

Thank you Mr. Pollan for making me think so damned hard.


>Indian Spinach Stew:

>1 package premade Indian daal (a thick lental stew). They come in sealed pouches found in the international section of your supermarket. Right now my store is having a 2 for 1 special, so I stocked up.

1 package frozen spinach- thawed with ALL the liquid squeezed out, then chopped.

1 can of beans (your choice) drained and rinsed

1 can of diced tomatoes with juice

1/2 cup of dairy (milk, cream, soy milk, puck cream (middle eastern)- it doesn’t matter

1 corn tortilla- ripped to shreds

veggie broth (or water or chicken stock) as needed

1/2 head of garlic minced

spices to taste (curry powder, cumin (definitely cumin), cayenne pepper, hot sauce, black pepper, tumeric- whatever you’ve got, mix and match)

2 chopped scallions (if desired- for flavor)

2 Tbsp finely minced cilantro (if desired- for flavor)


1) In a large pot over medium-high heat add: garlic, daal, beans, tomato, spinach, dairy. Cook for 5min.

2) If your mixture seems dry add veggie broth until it becomes more soup-like.

3) Add the shredded corn tortilla and stir. The corn tortilla will eventually disintegrate and thicken the soup. You could substitute this with a roux (cooked flour and fat), but I think this is easier.

4) Season to taste with your spices.

5) If you have anything else interesting in your fridge throw it in (corn, cooked potatoes, zucchini, whatever. If it’s going bad or you’re tired of it this is a great way to use it up).

6) Stir in scallions and cook for 10min over medium heat.

7) Stir in cilantro and serve. Top with grated cheese if desired.

Here’s the thing about this kind of soup:
– It makes a TON- this will feed 5-6 people.
– The ingredients are CHEAP (spinach is $1 at my store, beans are $.50, canned tomatoes are about $.50 the daal is about $1.50, a package of 60 corn tortillas (which I use for a whole variety of things) is about $1.50.
– I don’t mind spending an extra buck or two every week for the extra ingredients that make my food taste special. Cilantro and scallions are both about $.50 a bunch and I buy them every week. Garlic, ginger, and onions are cheap too.
– Leftovers from this soup make a fabulous pizza sauce/topping. Spread it on the dough, top with cheese and bake. That’s it.
– Dishes like this are a great way to use up all that stuff in your fridge that’s getting older. Just throw it in.