As soon as I finished reading Barry Glassner’s “The Gospel of Food,” I promptly baked a big chocolate cake. A few days later, I produced a batch of scones. Over the next couple weeks I really got rolling: roasted duck, meatloaf, potatoes gratin, refried bean enchiladas, biscuits with chicken and gravy, pancakes, eggs benedict, apple crisp, and brownie torte, oh yeah.
In case my vegetarian doctor is reading this, I’ll point out that my family ate plenty of salad and apples and broccoli too, OK?
If my Slow Food colleagues are in the vicinity, I’ll hasten to mention that I made most of it from scratch, most of it was organic and much of it was local, including several bottles of Cabernet. The free-range chicken, my husband and I killed ourselves. Satisfied?
Author Barry Glassner would probably be pleased to know his book inspired this onslaught of cooking. But if I sound a little defensive it’s because he is one of the few who would probably approve of all of the above, even considering the quantities of cream, sugar and butter we consumed. And I bet that he, and only he, wouldn’t flinch as I confess that we also lunched at Quiznos, ordered a Domino’s pizza and went out for gyros.
But approval from others, Glassner teaches in “The Gospel of Food,” is not what I should be looking for, not for the comfort food or salads I create, not for the fast food I turn to at the end of long, hard days.
“Only by recognizing the myths, half-truths and guilt trips about what and where we eat can we begin to liberate ourselves for greater joy and realism at the table,” Glassner says in the introduction.
In other words, quit obsessing about food. Glassner is shooting for nothing less than gut-level happiness.
Glassner isn’t a diet guru. He’s a myth-busting sociologist who has spent the past five years studying the various neurotic ways Americans eat. But unlike most writers with something to say about food and eating, he’s not looking to make lists of what’s good and what’s bad or offer tips on how those of us who’ve put on 20 pounds since we were teenagers can regain our youthful figures.
It’s certainly a refreshing approach.
“Joy” isn’t often associated with food shopping and mealtimes in America. Where is the joy in counting calories? Where is the joy in hoping other granola moms won’t see us taking our kids through the McDonald’s drive-through, or in feeling smug about getting our family around the table for food we cooked ourselves? If we’re not at the farmers’ market making like old-world Europeans, we’re busy checking labels for trans-fats, carbs, omega 3s or 6s, antioxidants, and whatever nutrient is trendy this week. To get to plain old elemental joy, Glassner explains, will require some radical changes in the way we think about food and eating.
For example, science is always coming up with new studies, which tout certain foods and condemn others, only to reverse itself later. We’ve been told to avoid dairy fat for decades, with joyless results. Now, it turns out there might be cancer protective properties in the conjugated linoleic acids found in dairy fat. It’s true that too much dairy fat is bad, but that doesn’t mean, Glassner explains, that avoiding it completely is a healthy thing to do.
Another intriguing idea Glassner examines is the possibility that obesity is caused by dieting. Even more interesting is his close look at obesity studies, which leads him to conclude that the fixation on fatness in our society is misguided and that many dire headlines announcing obesity as a major public health problem are simply not true.
My favorite chapter in the book focused on restaurants. Glassner’s book came out too early for it to include the recent revelation that celebrity chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry uses – gasp – frozen French fries at his restaurant. But Glassner does provide some equally enlightening insights into the world of food critics and starred restaurants which will warm the hearts of us less-privileged eaters like a helping of our mom’s best casserole.
In Glassner’s book, you won’t really find out that “everything” you know is wrong. Food scholarship is a mighty big field, and a single book can’t come close to being comprehensive. I can’t, for instance, find any discussion about high-fructose corn syrup in this book, and whether it is connected to increasing numbers of diabetics in our society, or whether crop subsidies for wheat, corn and soy have contributed to an alarming dip in our food supply’s diversity, security and quality.
And in his defense of fast food and industrial food, Glassner also skips over the wider reasons why people might object to them; there’s no room in this friendly book to talk about petroleum, sprawl and the social perils of our bottom-line based economy.
But Glassner’s compelling look at food’s false prophets, food taboos, the commercial food industry, restaurant culture, culinary groupies, and America’s “fat” problem forces us to re-examine more than a few unfounded food prejudices, and that is always a healthy exercise.
Try it, and see if some chocolate cake doesn’t sound like a great idea afterwards.