Michael Pollan's "Food Rules": Keep it Simple, Then Simplify

Namedropping Michael Pollan isn't likely to bring you much insider food cred these days. If you think about good, real, local, organic, sustainable, fresh, tasty, whole food - heck, if you've watched "Oprah" lately - then you've probably already heard the name Michael Pollan more times just this week than you can count. When "The Omnivore's Dilemma" was published in 2006, many of us were just starting to think about the amount of corn we were consuming. When "In Defense of Food" was published in 2008, we marveled at how incredibly accessible it was. Nowadays, people on the inner circle don't claim to read Michael Pollan, they claim to know him.

The reason for this Pollanmania is simple: he's that good. Nobody else has made good food so practical, so compelling, and so, um, digestible for the masses. Nobody else has gone toe-to-toe with Jon Stewart and Oprah (Oprah, for goodness sake!) in the past month and - in the process - made us all look good. Like Martin Scorcese, R.E.M., "Pretty in Pink," and David's Cookies before him, Michael Pollan doesn't belong to a single, passionate group anymore - he belongs to everyone. There's loss there, to be sure, but there's also something important about letting him go.

And here's the really crazy thing about Michael Pollan: he's done it again. In his new book, the diminuitive "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" (139 pages, with content on every other one), Michael Pollan has somehow managed to take the seven-word manifesto he developed for "In Defense of Food" (Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.) and make it simpler, clearer, cleaner, more compelling, and more actionable. How is this possible? Try this:

  • Rule #16: Buy your snacks at the farmers' market.
  • Rule #39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
  • Rule #52: Buy smaller plates and glasses.

That's it. 64 rules in all, sometimes explained in as many as ten sentences, sometimes left hanging out there as just one doozy. Simple, practical, accessible, actionable. 

I can hear a few of you snickering. Maybe you're thinking the same thing my Mom said. What am I, an idiot? I already know all of this. It makes sense. I don't need the super simple version. Here are my answers:

  • No, you're not an idiot.
  • Yes, you already know this.
  • Yes, it makes sense.
  • No, you don't need the super simple version. 

And yet, when I try to engage outsiders in a discussion about industrial corn, grass-fed beef, sustainable seafood, or "Food Inc.," many of them glaze over. But when I leave a copy of "Food Rules" on the table, they crack the cover and start talking. It turns out that the smart, educated, well-meaning, lovely people in our lives want a starting point to talk about food that doesn't make them feel dumb, doesn't talk down to them, and doesn't assume that they've spent the last twelve years researching Cargill.

"Food Rules" is a terrific starting point, and a fine little resource for the rest of us who still occasionally need a reminder. I'm grateful for it.

Simple, Good, and Tasty will be discussing Michael Pollan's "Food Rules" at Mississippi Market as part of our first book club, to be held on February 25 at 7:00. Click here for details and sign-up information.