Michael Pollan’s recent book “In Defense of Food” offers a new outlook on food today. Unlike many other writers of our time, he discusses the flaws of the nutrionist system we have adopted and encourages his readers to once again follow their familiar family recipes. According to Pollan, we should no longer feel guilty about eating a traditional meal because of its supposed unhealthiness. Instead, we should embrace our roots and cultural cuisine because that is the diet that kept our ancestors alive and healthy, unlike the “scientifically proven” Western diet of today that is causing mass obesity epidemics and other health problems. As Pollan states in his book, nutrionist ideals today have had “little scientific backing from the very beginning” (Pollan 46), while conventional cultural foods have been passed down from generation to generation due to their success in maintaining health. After reading Pollan’s book, I found myself looking at my own diet and how much it has changed from that of even my mother. After questioning my mother about food in our own kitchen, I found many of our current customs are quite unlike those practiced in my grandparents’ kitchens. For better or for worse, only time can tell.
To start, my mother grew up in Hyderabad, India. Looking at how industrialized Hyderabad is now, a visitor would never have been able to imagine its humble beginnings. Yet, this was the time period my mother grew up in- one, in which, preparing for just one meal would be a workout, in itself. Cars were rare in the city at this time so my mom would have to bike from one part of the city to another because the recipe called for, “3 to 5 kilograms of dates from Nawab’s Bazar.” Not compromising on even the location of where the dates would be brought from, my grandmother would tell my mother to get dates and other dried fruits from there as her mother had told her. Moreover, meals would be cooked from groceries gathered on a daily basis. Unlike the weekly trips my family makes to the supermarket, my mother would get vegetables from “farmers who would pick the vegetables from their farms and then they would sell them” (Nayyar Khan. Personal Interview. April 24, 2014). She would get meat daily, as well, so all of the meals her mother would make would be literally be from the farm to the dinner table. In India at that time, there was not much emphasis on nutrition- what your mother made was best for you. This changed for my mother, however, when she came to the States. Moving to New York City from Hyderabad, my mother got exposed to a whole new world. Outside of her small, growing city, she hadn’t gotten much exposure to other cultures before she came.
Now, she was in the center of the convergence of cultures where she met people from all over the world. She had roomed with them and encountered their styles of cooking. She took a liking to Chinese food, especially, finding it to be exotic, but not too radical from the food she grew up with. Despite the cultural renaissance my mother experienced, she also got exposed to American cuisine consisting of fried chicken, Buffalo wings, Doritos, and other processed foods. Soon afterwards, my mother like many other immigrants at the time faced health problems such as “high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other weight-related issues not uncommon for immigrants to America to develop” (Tavernise). Eager to lose weight and return to her healthy lifestyle, my mother fell victim to the nutrionist ideals of the time such as believing that carbohydrates had negative effects. Now shunning the rice she once ate in India, my mother found herself gaining more weight. Only after she returned to India for a three-week visit did she lose all of the weight she gained in the States. This just proved that something was wrong with the apparently not-so-full-proof American diet, not the Indian one that had sustained her for so long. Similarly, my mother realized this and decided to avoid processed American foods as much as she could and continued to eat as she did in India.
She describes herself as foolish for avoiding her traditional Indian food when she really should have been avoiding the cereals that claimed they would help her lose weight. As expected, my mother was able to maintain her weight and found many of her health problems began to subside. Unfortunately, my mother had to eventually go back to a less Indian-like lifestyle when she moved to New Jersey where she had to work at a desk job, becoming less active. Also, she had to take care of her three kids, including me, which left her with even less time to cook proper meals and work out. After reading Pollan’s book, many of his ideas about us compromising our health and nutrition, in exchange for saving time and effort, started to stand out and I started to notice how wrong this situation was becoming: we were starting to spend less time with each other and were starting to eat less healthy as well to save time for other activities. For instance, both of my brothers would have soccer practice one day so it wouldn’t make sense for my mom to put in so much work to make one meal as her mother did when she was younger if no one was going to have time to eat it so we would just take out. Because we would take out, we got exposed to a lot more cultures than my mom was exposed to.
However, we were losing the connections with family over the dinner table that was so crucial to my mother’s upbringing. Furthermore, our produce was not as fresh as hers was in her childhood because it was genetically modified and would be bought once a week from the super market, a practice a lot less time-consuming than buying fresh groceries every day. Our desserts were turning into store-bought cakes while her childhood desserts would be the fruits she would pick off the trees, herself. Now I wish I had a chance to be as active as my mother once was and eat as healthy as she had. This is not possible in India anymore either with its increasing industrialization. Just looking at pictures of Hyderabad from when my mother was a child to when I visited two years ago, I can barely believe that it is the same city. Factories and malls have replaced the farms where my mother used to once go for ingredients. Instead, those places are selling ready-made Indian desserts that would have once taken days to make and the incomprehensible list of ingredients proved how different they were from the original dessert. In conclusion, food has evolved greatly from what it originally was. This evolution can be seen in my own household. Definitely, we are tired of compromising our health and have returned to our original Indian diets. Though, its unavoidable, we have severely limited taking out and opt for waiting for my mom to cook traditional Indian meals.
In fact, we help her make stuff in the kitchen and are finding ourselves get closer as a family. My mother now orders me around the kitchen as her mother once ordered her. With this in mind, I recognize my duties as a torchbearer for the culture and traditions for my family. When I think of having to bring my kids up in a world probably more polluted with food more processed than what I am growing up with, I think the only way for me to keep them healthy is to cook food like how my mother cooks for me. Our food has become more diverse as we interact with other cultures, but we must remember to not change our diets with the health fads of the time and continue with the food we have been brought up with.
Khan, Nayyar. “Food When You Were Growing Up.” Interview by Adeena Samoni. n.d.: n. pag. Print. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print. Tavernise, Sabrina. “The Health Toll of Immigration.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 May 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.