Thursday, February 07, 2008

[The pictures from the "A Christmas Story" house are just after this post; scroll on down! pax, jeff]

Faith Works 2-9-08
Jeff Gill

Food As an Act of Faith

There’s a little seven word phrase that’s been stuck in my head the last few weeks, and look out – I’m trying to stick it in yours.

It comes from the writer Michael Pollan, who wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” a few years back, tracing food from the land to your table, and all the long, strange trips edible items take to get there.

He didn’t end up a vegetarian by the conclusion of his journey, but it was a near thing.

Pollan’s latest is called “In Defense of Food,” and in the magazine article that was the basis for the book, he came up with the tagline “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

For some of us, that sounds like a Lenten discipline right there. But Pollan is no ascetic, calling for an entirely meatless regimen or a life of deprivation. He is asking of those of us who eat – that’s a pretty inclusive category, sweeping up people of faith in many quarters – to just be more mindful of what it is we’re putting in our bodies.

Paul the Apostle had some hard words for the Christians in Corinth about “the body is a temple” of the Holy Spirit, and his general statement moves towards the folk wisdom “we are what we eat.”

Chemistry and biology remind us “we really, really are what we eat.” Religious traditions of all sorts have asked hard questions about what food is proper, or right, or “clean.” Some of those answers are cultural norms dressed up for church (“don’t eat those guys food”), and some have practical underpinnings, such as the relative unhealthiness of swine in desert environments (“don’t eat pork”), and others have ethical groundings.

Observant Jews keep a separate set of dishes for dairy and meat products, and even non-traditional Jews in Israel have those foods kept at a distance from each other. Why this concern? Well, as the nation Israel grew in the land of Canaan, many of their neighbors considered a particular dish as a real delicacy – a youngling, lamb or calf, boiled in the milk of its mother. The Old Testament dietary code said this was a vile practice that led to cruelty and insensitivity to suffering, and you should bend over backwards to avoid it.

Today, avoiding yogurt sauces over chicken might seem to be missing the point, but when you know the source of the practice, you can appreciate the concern.

In the season of Lent that began last Wednesday, many Christians are looking to their diet for a source of conscious discipline, and may be giving up cookies or candy or some treat for Monday through Saturday (with a modest exceptions on Sundays to Easter). Catholics traditionally give up red meat on Fridays, which is why Friday Fish Frys are so common right now, and everyone from Wendy’s to MickeyD’s is promoting fish sandwiches.

I come back to Pollan’s thoughts, asking us all in a way that should be of particular interest to religious folk “What are we eating? What are the implications of how that food got to our tables? What should we then eat?”

Or – “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Pollan is suggesting that we consider food as items where we can know where it comes from and how it got here (mostly); preferring butter to margarine and fruit to fruit snacks and vegetables to oddly colored specks embedded in our pre-made entrees.

What is your diet saying about your beliefs, especially through this Lenten season?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; toss him an answer at

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"A Christmas Story" in Cleveland

On Feb. 3, 2008, this fellow got a delightful opportunity to wander about and be photographed in the house used for all the exterior and some of the interior photography of "A Christmas Story." The 25th anniversary of that movie is coming this November, and the staff at the house and museum and gift shop has done a great job creating a unique visitor experience.

A few of the shots taken by me and by Monica, one of the curators of "A Christmas Story" house, follow:

The stairs up, which Ralphie famously descends in the deranged bunny pajamas --

-- and this is Ralphie and Randy's bedroom looking towards the street, while this next is the view east over the Cuyahoga River valley which you see a number of times in the movie, usually wreathed with snow and ice --

-- they even let me pick at the turkey in the stove, before the Bumpuss' dogs got to it --

Can you see the Red Ryder air rifle behind the desk?

And i brought the Little Guy back a Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, which i tested out next to the sink, with the laundry hamper as a desk, with the bar of Lifebuoy bearing a distinct set of toothmarks (not mine!)

Monday, February 04, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 2-10-08
Jeff Gill

Eating Your Words, and Tasting Good

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

With those seven words, Michael Pollan has provoked quite a storm of discussion, maybe even a teacup’s worth of controversy.

Pollan wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and more recently “In Defense of Food.” These books follow what we eat back to the literal roots, the sources in the earth of everything we consume as food.

He makes a number of points about chemicals and contaminants that vegetarians and organic food fans have been making for many years, but with an easy tone and a comprehensive attitude that makes it all go down smoothly.

The coverage of his latest book, which began as a newspaper article, has focused on Pollan’s admitted free gift of the contents of the whole book in seven words on the cover.

What makes the whole text worth your time is how Pollan unpacks a concept he calls “nutritionism,” which is what he calls the tendency of scientists and nutritionists to break food down into the sum of the nutrients involved.

Vitamins and minerals and fiber are all well and good, Pollan argues, but “nutritionism” takes us further from a focus on food to the mass consumption of what he calls “edible food-like substances.”

Fruit, for example, is food; chewy wrapped vitamin-C enriched fruit snacks are “edible food-like substances.” Butter is milk with some churning and maybe a bit of salt, while margarine is . . . anybody? Bueller?

Tea or coffee can even be food, while a bottle of “energy drink” that is clear but claims to have 47 elements off the periodic table somehow suspended in the fluid is . . . can we just say is an EF-LS? A good tamale is food, with ground spiced beef wrapped in a corn flour dough baked in a corn husk, while the deep fried tubule injected with materials labeled “Southwestern” is probably an EF-LS, too.

The more you can recognize the what and the where of the material you eat, the more it’s likely to be “food” as Pollan is defining it. What got me really nodding my head with Michael was where I read his observing in an interview that the nutrition community is fascinated by the “French paradox,” where residents of France eat all kinds of fatty foods but don’t get fat.

Pollan points to what he calls the equally intriguing “American paradox,” where a people so obsessed with nutritional information but whose dietary health is so poor. In the USA, we lead the world in obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and all the diet-related cancer problems known to date by science, and maybe some still under review. How do we have so much information and awareness in some areas, but have such awful outcomes?

I’m tempted to put out there again the concept of “datasmog,” the information overload that pervades so much of everyday life in this country and much of the modern world. David Shenk pointed out in 1997 that we may have so much information we’re shutting down and falling back on the easiest myths to live by.

While Pollan has some observations along that line, his main points have to do with eating well by living well, making meals with others, eating with others, and eating real food. Which is where his poetic (if you like haiku) seven word phrase comes into play.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.” Pollan isn’t proposing a diet, for a small planet or a large family, just some simple guidelines. Eat stuff that you can recognize as food, and that you could, if need be, figure out where it came from. Don’t eat too much, which is always the kicker, but is the container for eating good stuff – butter, olive oil, cheese, eggs, even some meat is all food and fine to eat . . . if you don’t get carried away.

And mainly plants means just what it says. If you’re getting most of your calories from meat and dairy, you’re going to have problems health-wise no matter how free-range and hormone free it all is.

My colleague Trish Mumme in the Wednesday Advocate food section always has a few new ideas each week for how to get some real food, not too much, mainly plant based into my eating. She’s likely to agree with Michael Pollan – we shouldn’t be afraid to eat, and eat well, if we just use some simple common sense and basic guidelines.

And pig out once in a while. Maybe even on chips, but not too much.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio who loves cooking and teaching his son how to prepare a good eggplant parm; send him your seven word life plan at