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Real Food

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Nina Planck really, really wants you to eat well. Her 2006 book, Real Food, is swathed in soothing greens and pure-looking products that, one hopes, met Planck's strict standards of approval. Olive oil: cold-pressed, extra-virgin. Milk: whole, not low-fat and definitely not skim, non-homogenized, preferably raw, and from grass-fed cows. Cheese and butter: presumably from those same blissful cows. An egg: produced by a chicken allowed to eat grubs and grass at will. Cured meat: chemical-free. Fruit and veg: grown locally, sustainably, sans artificial ingredients, and maybe even organic. 

And oh, yeah, if you happened to buy all these things at a farmers' market, Planck — who started London's first modern-day farmers' markets and ran New York City's Greenmarket — will thank you.

What does Planck want us to eat? More to the point, how does she want us to shop? Because the foods she suggests — what she calls both "old" (we've been eating them for hundreds, preferably thousands, of years) and "traditional" (produced in traditional ways, not processed or refined or eaten out of season) — are, quite frankly, difficult to find in most American supermarkets. 

Plenty of egg cartons, for example, proclaim that the eggs within come from "free-range" chickens, or chickens that eat only vegetarian feed (i.e., grain). Not good enough, writes Planck; what you want are chickens that are "pastured," or allowed real free-range access to grass, weeds, insects, worms, and the like. Only then will your eggs have the vitamins and heart-healthy fats all eggs should have.

"The lesson of the egg trauma is simple," Planck writes. And then she demonstrates exactly how unsimple it is: "Don't eat factory eggs, powdered eggs, liquid eggs, pasteurized eggs, egg substitutes, or any other kind of industrial egg product somebody invented in the laboratory. Do eat the real thing: fresh, whole eggs from happy hens eating bugs and grubs outside on fresh green grass."

It's a lovely vision, and yes, it's a vision of how things should be. But good luck finding such eggs, even in gourmet groceries. You want perfect eggs? Start raising chickens.

Real Food is both inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring, because Planck, a pleasantly chatty writer, lays out compelling arguments both personal and scientific in favor of eating her way. Frustrating, because she often assumes that her opinion alone is good enough, and her scientific sources are sometimes fuzzy. 

According to Planck, we shouldn't eat sugar because it's "villainous" (opinion) and "depletes B vitamins" (science, minus the footnotes). Well, maybe we shouldn't eat sugar because it simply isn't good for us. But we shouldn't decide based on Planck's say-so alone. 

Planck, a former reporter for Time magazine, marshals her food army well, but sometimes forgets to deploy it. Real Food comes equipped with a smattering of footnotes, a glossary, a bibliography, an incomplete index, and a lengthy list of resources. It's a fabulous start, which makes the scattershot style all the more disappointing.

Maybe Planck will write a sequel — More Real Food? — that fills in the gaps. In the meantime, Real Food is a worthy if occasionally wobbly resource. And remember: If your ancestors ate it, it's probably OK for you to eat it too. Even lard.

p(bio). [ "Caroline Cummins"] is the managing editor of Culinate.

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