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Why we bite the hand that feeds us

The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong Barry Glassner Ecco: 268 pp., $26

December 31, 2006|Deborah Vankin | Deborah Vankin is an L.A.-based writer and editor.

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.

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