Food is on my mind. That’s because I teach College English. In searching for ways to get the class of 2014 interested in essays and stories, I’m trying a single theme for this semester, that of “Food.” We’ll be reading three books, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and Food Rules, by Michael Pollan. We’ll talk about food in relation to stories, health, and our lives.
Journalist Michael Pollan’s book is fun because in this age of antioxidants and vitamin ingesting, he researched what food we should eat. He discovered that of all the traditional diets in the world, only the American diet, also called the Western diet, is bad for people. He writes that eating “lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains” is not good for you.
Even the Inuit in Greenland, who mostly eat seal blubber, and the Central American Indians who eat almost all carbohydrates through maize and beans, don’t suffer from the high rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer that Americans do.
Last semester, one of my students was from Norway, and her Study Abroad office told her that the average Norwegian visiting America for an extended time will gain twelve pounds. Once she arrived, she was surprised at the size and amount of food that Americans eat during a meal.
Pollan’s book contains 64 rules, such as “Eat less,” “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car” and “Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.”
The rules in total remind me of Thanksgiving minus the gorging. At Thanksgiving, all the food is cooked at home and with love. Do this all the time. Yes, you may eat a lot on the fourth Thursday in November, but the food, which includes fruits and vegetables, tends to be simple and tasty. If every day you ate home-cooked meals--in moderation-- with meat, vegetables, and fruits, you’d be getting off the average Western diet.
This summer I happened to build a patio where I had to carry tons of sand, concrete mix, and bricks. I finally lost the five pounds I couldn’t get off before, and that happened at the same time I was reading Food Rules. Thus, I started avoiding fast food and microwave meals full of preservatives. The weight has stayed off.
The two other books have also affected me. Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood takes place in the near future after a viral apocalypse. A group of people who call themselves the Gardeners have been growing their own food in preparation for what they foresaw. They’re ready when most of the world dies off. In a strange way, the book reminded me that home gardens can be important as well as a delight. This summer, I’ve grown tomatoes and artichokes, as well as parsley, chives, mint, and cilantro. (I’m eclectic.) Our home-cooked meals have become even more special with what I’ve grown.
Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate happens to have a protagonist who sees home cooking as the center of life, and what she makes with utter passion translates into emotional goodness for her family, too. I’m there.
Thus, I’m about to see if literature will lead my students to better eating as well as better reading and writing. Do you have favorite novels that use food?
(You might also read this week’s Time magazine article, “What’s So Great About Organic Food?” by clicking here.)
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