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Real Food: What to Eat and Why
Synopses & Reviews
Yes, Virginia, you can butter your carrots. A farmer's daughter tells the truth about cream, eggs, fish, chicken, chocolate--even lard.
Everyone loves real food, but they're afraid butter and eggs will give them a heart attack--thus the culinary abomination known as the egg-white omelet. Tossing out the yolk, it turns out, isn't smart. Real Food reveals why traditional foods are actually healthy: not only egg yolks, but also cream, butter, grass-fed beef, wild salmon, roast chicken skin, and more.
Nina Planck grew up on a vegetable farm in Virginia and learned to eat right from her no-nonsense parents: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with beef, bacon, fish, dairy, and eggs. Later, she wondered: was the farmhouse diet deadly, as the cardiologists say? Happily for people who love food, the answer is no.
In lively, personal chapters on produce, dairy, meat, fish, chocolate, and other real foods, Nina explains how ancient foods like beef and butter have been falsely accused, while industrial foods like corn syrup and soybean oil have created a triple epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Real Food upends the conventional wisdom on diet and health and explains our taste for good things.
"Nina Planck is a good, stylish writer and a dogged researcher who writes directly, forthrightly and with an edge. She isn't afraid to make the occasional wisecrack ('No doubt, for some people, cracking open an egg is one chore too many') while taking unpopular positions. Her chosen field — she is a champion of 'real' (as opposed to industrialized) food — is one in which unpopular positions are easy to find. As Planck reveals, in her compellingly smart Real Food: What to Eat and Why, much of what we have learned about nutrition in the past generation or so is either misinformed or dead wrong, and almost all of the food invented in the last century, and especially since the Second World War, is worse than almost all of the food that we've been eating since we developed agriculture. This means, she says, that butter is better than margarine (so, for that matter, is lard); that whole eggs (especially those laid by hens who scratch around in the dirt) are better than egg whites, and that eggs in general are an integral part of a sound diet; that full-fat milk is preferable to skim, raw preferable to pasteurized, au naturel preferable to homogenized. She goes so far as to maintain — horror of horrors — that chopped liver mixed with real schmaltz and hard-boiled eggs is, in a very real way, a form of health food. Like those who've paved the way before her, she urges us to eat in a natural, old-fashioned way. But unlike many of them, and unlike her sometimes overbearing compatriots in the Slow Food movement, she is far from dogmatic, making her case casually, gently, persuasively. And personally, Planck's philosophy grows directly out of her life history, which included a pair of well-educated parents who decided, when the author was two, to pull up stakes in Buffalo, N.Y., and take up farming in northern Virginia. Planck, therefore, grew up among that odd combination of rural farming intellectuals who not only wanted to raise food for a living but could explain why it made sense. Planck, who is now an author and a creator and manager of farmers' markets, has a message that can be — and is — summed up in straightforward and simple fashion in her first couple of chapters. She then goes on to build her case elaborately, citing both recent and venerable studies, concluding in the end that the only sensible path for eating, the one that maintains and even improves health, the one that maintains stable weight and avoids obesity, happens to be the one that we all crave: not modern food, but traditional food, and not industrial food, but real food." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Among the many dirty little secrets harbored by yours truly is an addiction to a certain brand of sugar-free lemonade. Why do I love it so? Because of the delicious ingredients, of course! These include not merely water, lemon juice from concentrate, citric acid and 'natural flavor' but the ones that really tickle the tongue: sodium hexametaphosphate, potassium benzoate, potassium citrate, potassium... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) sorbate, sodium chloride, acesulfame potassium, ester gum, ascorbic acid, calcium disodium EDTA, phenylalanine and — ta-da! — aspartame. Yummy. Or so at least I say. But that certainly isn't what would be said by Nina Planck, the latest recruit of the Food Police. Planck, who appears from her author photo to be a fetchingly slender young woman and thus a walking advertisement for gustatory sanity, would turn up her nose at my lemonade and pronounce it 'industrial food,' and she would be right. Good though my lemonade may seem to taste after a strenuous six- or eight-mile walk, nutritionally it's pretty much a disaster, and — OK, true confessions — it doesn't taste 5 percent as good as the lemonade I could make from scratch if only I were a bit less lazy. So what's needed around my place is a heavy helping of 100-proof 'real food,' the stuff that Planck celebrates in this occasionally winning, occasionally infuriating book. Planck will be known to certain residents of the Washington region, as she grew up on her family's farm in Loudoun County, sold vegetables and other wholesome goodies at farmers markets around the area and in 2003 opened the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market. For a while she was director of Greenmarket, a network of farmers markets, and she has brought her gospel to London and New York, where she now lives. In other words, she's a cross between Alice Waters and Martha Stewart — genuinely committed to healthy, organic food but no less genuinely committed to making a buck off it. What she's selling is basically old-fashioned food, what she calls 'real food,' which she defines as 'foods we've been eating for a long time — in the case of meat, fish, and eggs, for millions of years.' About these 'traditional' foods she writes: 'To me, traditional means "the way we used to eat them." That means different things for different ingredients: fruits and vegetables are best when they're local and seasonal; grains should be whole; fats and oils unrefined. From the farm to the factory to the kitchen, real food is produced and prepared the old-fashioned way — but not out of mere nostalgia. In each of these examples of real food, the traditional method of farming, processing, preparing, and cooking enhances nutrition and flavor, while the industrial method diminishes both.' No argument about that. A strawberry shipped from Florida or California in January may look like a strawberry (in some instances, like a parody of one), but it's not in the same league as the strawberry grown in June or July on a nearby farm. The mini-cannonballs that masquerade as tomatoes for most of the year probably would kill you if thrown in anger, but they have a taste and texture that bear absolutely no resemblance to those of a real tomato, even one grown in a pot in your tiny city yard. The zucchini sold in supermarkets in December are equally capable of inflicting serious injury, but though they look like zucchini, they hardly taste like them. Planck scarcely explores new ground when she writes that these products 'have traits convenient to large growers, distributors, and retailers,' but she's certainly right: 'An industrial tomato, for example, is bred to be solid and thick-skinned, the better to tolerate mechanical harvesting, washing, packaging, and long-distance shipping. Uniform shape and size are also important. Flavor and texture take a back seat.' Back seat? They don't take any seat at all. To be sure, these 'tomatoes' won't do you any harm, but they have virtually no flavor, and much of the nutritional value of a real tomato has been drained right out of them. Ditto for beef, poultry and other meat products that 'are produced on large industrial farms with methods that degrade the environment and diminish nutrition.' Though some farmers 'raise animals with humane and ecological methods for local and national markets,' they are a tiny minority by comparison with the producers of the vast amount of meat that rolls through the breeding factories and assembly lines of agribusiness, where they're pumped up with growth hormones and otherwise turned into 'industrial food.' Whether the result is meat that is bad for you is the subject of endless debate, but it's not natural meat, and it won't do you as much good as meat from grass-fed animals allowed to roam free on fields and meadows. As for all that stuff sold in the snack and soft-drink sections of the grocery store, the less you know about it the better. As my carton of lemonade suggests, a lot of it is chemical and virtually all of it is industrial, as characterized by Planck. Much of it is loaded with trans-fats — which Planck correctly notes are far more likely to cause you to gain weight than butter or milk consumed in sensible amounts — and sugar or sugar substitutes and artificial coloring and preservatives and other stuff that in the natural world (a) didn't exist and (b) certainly wasn't meant to be eaten. So far so good, but along the way Planck unintentionally raises red flags. For one thing, her authority to speak out on scientific matters seems questionable. I'm no scientist myself, but I can recognize a nonscientist when I see one. Planck is given to making broad statements and then following them with the likes of 'I don't think so' or 'My guess probably won't surprise you' or 'My own (admittedly unscientific) experience has helped convince me.' Et cetera. There's a lot of this in 'Real Food,' and it undercuts Planck's credibility. She may be right about many of the claims she makes — my own (admittedly unscientific) hunch is that she is — but too many of them seem backed up more by guesstimate than by hard proof. Then there's the social and economic side of Planck's argument, or, more accurately, the side she prefers to shrug off rather than confront directly. She casually asserts that natural, organic food need not be expensive, but market reality makes plain that it usually is. By and large, 'real food,' the virtues of which are self-evident, simply cannot be produced, distributed and marketed with the same efficiency and cost-effectiveness as industrial food. A mass market demands mass production. People fortunate enough to have nice incomes and to live near farmers markets or natural-foods retailers can treat themselves to the healthy banquets Planck so lovingly describes, but they are a very small minority. It is true that these people — by their buying power — have influenced producers and supermarket chains to improve the quality of their merchandise, but for most Americans, unless you're growing your own food on your own farm, you're being fed industrial food." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Everyone loves real food, but they're afraid butter and eggs will give them a heart attack--thus the culinary abomination known as the egg-white omelet. Tossing out the yolk, it turns out, isn't smart.
About the Author
Nina Planck created farmers' markets in London and Washington, D.C., and ran New York City's famous Greenmarket. She wrote The Farmers' Market Cookbook and has starred in a BBC series on local foods.
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