Why we bite the hand that feeds us

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.

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 shortcuts.

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.

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