Author Rowan Jacobsen takes on Michael Pollan's "Food Rules."
I am a granola-eating, free-range-chicken-chasing, broccoli-hugging foodie. I recoil from junk food like vampires shun
sunlight. You’d think me the ideal audience for Food Rules, Michael Pollan’s latest megaseller, which consists of 64
“straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely.” But Food Rules awakened strange feelings in me. As I paged
through the book, being advised “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (#2), I felt a big
finger wagging at me. This was not having the intended effect. Instead, I’m sorry to say, it was awakening my inner Bart
Simpson. Somewhere between “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead” (#37) and “Eat when you are hungry, not when you
are bored” (#47), I became consumed by the notion of breaking all 64 food rules in one day of gloriously irresponsible
It wouldn’t be easy. It would take significant planning and discipline, as well as digestive fortitude, but I might just be
able to do it. I would eat whatever I saw advertised on television (#11). I would eat it alone and bored (#59, #47). I would
eat breakfast cereal that changed the color of my milk (#36), I would eat way beyond full (#46) and I would scramble to go
back for seconds (#53) of a food that was incapable of rotting (#13).
Photo Credit: Mary Elder Jacobsen
I did my research, made my list and went on my shopping run. Then, one bright and hopeful May morning, I told my wife and son
to enjoy their tea and yogurt, poured myself a bowl of Froot Loops and popped open a can of Red Bull. I’d chosen Froot Loops
because of fond childhood memories of watching them turn my milk a wan pink color, but in fact they violated 19 food rules in
one Technicolor bowl, everything from “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients” (#6)—Froot Loops contain
34—to “Avoid food products that make health claims” (#8). In case you haven’t been eating them recently, you might not know
that Froot Loops are now a “Good Source of Fiber,” according to the box, which also makes the rather ambiguous statement
“Family life is better when your kids are healthy!” No argument there.
Somehow the sugar-and-caffeine whammy of my breakfast got me so hopped-up that I was hungry a half-hour later—a perfect time
to get my fuel from the same place my car does (#57). I zipped off to the convenience store for some Pringles and a Slim Jim.
I was feeling good about paying less and eating more (#44), and I certainly wasn’t eating at a table (#58). While I waited
for my car to top up, I flipped through the book to see how I was doing.
My eyes fell on #20: “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.” An unfortunate incident involving a
pheasant came to mind, but I knew that wasn’t what Pollan meant, so I headed for a McDonald’s drive-thru and got myself a Big
Mac, which I hadn’t had in years. Honestly, it tasted bizarre, but the fries were awesome. Needless to say, I did not eat
them slowly (#49). The afternoon was a haze of sweets, sodas and fat-free Pringles.
If I’d consulted my gut (#48), I might not have wound up with my best find, some deli cupcakes boasting a staggering 57
ingredients, including many, many that a third-grader could never pronounce (#7) and things that I couldn’t picture growing
in nature (#14).
Instead of eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper (#54), my plan was to eat breakfast
like a king, lunch like an emperor and dinner like Galactus, the planet-inhaling monster from The Fantastic Four. I bought
the biggest steak I have ever seen. As I pulled into my driveway, I checked my list. Treat meat as a special occasion (#23)?
Hah. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well (#27)? Not at this price. I realized that I was going to make my goal with
hours to spare. In America, it is incredibly easy to break all of Michael Pollan’s rules. I also realized that I wasn’t
feeling particularly good. This wasn’t fun anymore.
And then I saw them. If I’d parked somewhere else, somewhere with more pavement, I’d have been all right, but I was staring
at my lawn, and that was my downfall. There they were, poking up above the grass, looking unbelievably verdant in the fading
light. Fresh, young dandelion greens. Bursting with vitamins and vitality. Wild foods (#31). Leaves, even (#22)! Growing in
healthy soil (#30). Containing not a trace of high-fructose corn syrup (#4). Don’t do it, I told myself. They were absolutely
off my diet. But I slipped out of my car and padded across the lawn until I’d found the tenderest greens. Then I plopped down
in the grass and began shoveling them into my mouth. What flavor! So sweetly bitter. So alive! I’m sorry, Kellogg’s. I’m
sorry, McDonald’s. I tried to convert, but until you figure out that leaf’s secret, you don’t stand a chance.
Rowan Jacobsen’s newest book is American Terroir (Bloomsbury, Aug. 2010). His EatingWell story “…Or Not to Bee” won a
2010 James Beard Award.