[Foodplanning] Book review: Glassner, Telling the Gospel of Food
vasishth at csun.edu
Mon Jan 1 05:35:22 PST 2007
'The Gospel of Food' by Barry Glassner
Why everything you think you know about food is wrong
By Deborah Vankin
December 31, 2006
The Gospel of Food:: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong
Ecco: 268 pp., $26
Barry GLASSNER would like you to eat. Everything. Or, more
accurately, anything and everything you want.
Glassner, a USC sociology professor and author of the bestseller "The
Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things," spent
much of the last five years traipsing along what he calls America's
"foodways" and acting as a professional debunker. He toured flavor
houses, visited the corporate headquarters of fast-food chains, dined
with and interviewed top chefs, questioned food critics and chemists,
pored over government documents and medical studies, and attended
food safety summits, natural food expos and all sorts of culinary
conventions. He ate everywhere - from the haute cuisine of Thomas
Keller's French Laundry and Alice Waters' Chez Panisse to McDonald's.
The upshot? That pretty much everything we know about food is wrong.
Glassner's exhaustive survey of contemporary food culture, "The
Gospel of Food," dissects and deflates the myths, misconceptions and
flat-out misinformation clogging our collective consciousness. It's
part journalism and social commentary along the lines of Eric
Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" (although it takes a very different
perspective), part culinary history and part sociological analysis,
with a little food gossip for good measure.
Backing up a bit: Ours is, undoubtedly, a food-obsessed nation. Our
appetite for food-as-entertainment - cooking shows, magazines, blogs,
culinary tours and classes, specialty markets, exotic ingredients,
new restaurants - seems insatiable. Never before have we enjoyed so
much food-related choice - from mock meat patties to imported Kobe
beef, organic products and genetically modified "Frankenfoods,"
artisan staples and mass-produced ethnic condiments now crowding
supermarket shelves. Nor have we ever leaned so heavily on this
myriad of culinary options as a means of managing disease, weight and
societal stress. In other words, we take this stuff seriously.
Yet never have we had so many competing voices weighing in on this
culinary explosion, demonizing certain foods and glorifying others.
All those who tell us what not to eat - scientists, nutritionists,
health columnists, government agencies, industry conglomerates,
activists - Glassner calls killjoys who subscribe to "the doctrine of
naught." It's "culinary correctness gone awry," he says, a veritable
cacophony of conflicting information. With dietary research often
flawed in its methods and scientific findings often changing or
"malleable," as Glassner notes, in the hands of self-interested
parties with ties to the food industry, who's to say what's safe to
eat? Chili peppers either cause stomach cancer or prevent it because
they are loaded with antioxidants; potatoes are either a "pathway to
heart disease and diabetes" or a fat/sodium/cholesterol-free
super-food rich in potassium and vitamin C. Eggs, once the devil, are
now undergoing a resurrection. "We would all do well to maintain a
healthy skepticism," he says, "about the presumed sanctity and safety
of one food or diet over another."
In "The Gospel of Food," Glassner illuminates hypocrisies, turns
assumptions on their heads and detonates dubious food facts, fads and
deep-rooted beliefs. Among them: Irradiation may not be such a bad
idea; certain fortified foods inhibit the absorption of antibiotics;
vitamin waters have become the new soda pop. He also questions the
health benefits of soy and suggests that McDonald's is the great
populist dining hall of our society, where people of all ages,
ethnicities and classes commingle, cheerfully, at brightly lighted,
antiseptic tables. As for the fattening of America, he cites some who
theorize that possible contributing factors are regular church
attendance and, as sci-fi as it sounds, an "obesity virus."
Consequently, if "we are what we eat" - and the parameters for what's
healthy and chic are forever morphing so that we don't know what to
feed on anymore - then we are a nation in the throes of an identity
crisis, with an ever-shifting, opaque and impermanent sense of self.
And if, as Glassner purports, food is a religion complete with
talismanic cookbooks, celebrity chefs and their devout followers and
sinful/saintly practices laden with divine consequences - and our
bodies are the temples within which we practice this faith - then
"The Gospel of Food" could be considered a New Testament of sorts to
help navigate the dizzying funhouse of distorted definitions and
misinformation. Until, of course, everything changes again.
Good thing then that "The Gospel of Food" is pure fun to read. In
pitting pundits against each other - the New York Times' Jane Brody
versus former Los Angeles Times writer Emily Green, the New York
Times Magazine's Gary Taubes versus the Washington Post's Sally
Squires - and citing numerous food writers, including M.F.K. Fisher,
Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten, the book is a
deliciously gossipy, delightfully acerbic, voyeuristic foray into the
inner circle of the culinary cognoscenti. In the particularly
entertaining chapter "Restaurant Heaven," Glassner sheds new light on
such things as the interdependent relationship between chefs and
often not-so-anonymous food critics and tells the story behind the
"reality" TV show "The Restaurant." (Incidentally, that chapter reads
like a who's who of the Southern California food scene, with
appearances by chefs Wolfgang Puck and Suzanne Goin, critics Jonathan
Gold and Patrick Kuh and L.A. Times food writers Leslie Brenner and
S. Irene Virbila, among them.) Another stand-out chapter, "The Food
Adventurers," juxtaposes restaurant elitists at both ends of the
spectrum, from highbrow purists like the New York Times' William
Grimes, who believes "subtlety, finesse and refinement deserve a
higher score," to the mostly younger and more reactive digital
community at chowhound.com.
It's worth pointing out that Glassner's topic is an easy one, a
hybrid of two wildly popular publishing niches, food and naysaying.
But you can't fault a fellow for a good idea, even if it is the
obvious one. And unlike ABC-TV commentator John Stossel's somewhat
surface-y, TV-friendly survey, "Myths, Lies, and Downright
Stupidity," Glassner's book more than rises to its title, taking no
If "The Gospel of Food" suffers from anything, it's too much
research. In covering so much terrain - or terroir, in this case -
the book can be a bit listy, even dry. Some sections are so ambitious
in scope and so carefully annotated that they lack narrative
coherence. But thoroughness is also what sets "The Gospel of Food"
apart from less rigorous sociological works. Glassner is methodical
and relentless in his exploration, fierce in his finger-pointing; and
ultimately, his accessibility and humor offset the density of
information (he opens with a quote from George Carlin).
For such a negative book, "The Gospel of Food" is actually quite
uplifting. Glassner may be an iconoclast, even a bit of a contrarian,
but for all his obsession with fear and failure and false food facts,
he's an optimist. He's a lover of the Slow Food movement and all its
peripheral idealisms. He believes in the primal power of food to
sustain, bond, transform and transport. And he's genuinely concerned
about our growing disassociation with, and emotional baggage around,
food. As such, his nitpicking and naysaying come not from bitterness
but melancholy. Glassner would like you to eat. And he would like
you, as he does, to enjoy it.
Deborah Vankin is an L.A.-based writer and editor.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this
material is distributed, without profit, for research and educational
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