The Fallacy of Eating The Way Your Great-Grandmother Ate

This week I’ve experienced a confluence of annoyance re: Michael Pollan (he kept coming up in conversations, podcasts, etc) and here, a fantastic piece by Virginia Sole-Smith of Burnt Toast, that I reckoned I’d share with you all.


My great grandfather, Benjamin, was born in 1867 into a working class family, where the men worked in one of the iron foundries in the Ancoats district of Manchester. Their diet and general living conditions will have been very poor _ Friedrich Engels (the future friend of Karl Marx) wrote about conditions in Ancoats in the 1840s. Not much will have changed in the intervening 20 years. Benjamin was the first known member of my family to not earn his living from manual labour - working first as a clerk for one of the railway companies and, in later life, as a storekeeper at an engineering factory. Almost certainly, his diet improved from his childhood times but there would no t be a dramatic chnage.

He died on 26/9/14, so he will have seen the first weeks of the Great War. A time when the diet of the working class was still poor that many men put on weight when they were fed army rations, writing home that they were getting to eat every day.

No, I wouldnt want to be eating the way my great grandparents ate


Strident lady.
Not quite sure what she’s so PO’ed about.
Life presents challenges.
Didn’t know anyone cares about Michael Pollan’s view on anything.
I gotta get out more.

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That should have read “getting to eat meat every day”

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I didn’t watch the video, but I read Michael Pollan when I started to think about the larger issues around food, and he was pretty formative for me. So I wouldn’t discard him out of hand. I don’t know how well his ideas have aged, or whether his theories left a lot unsaid/uncovered, but he made a lot of people start thinking about the food they put in their mouths.


I didn’t see any video but I read the linked piece.

“More thoughts on Michael Pollan, and the other thin, white men who invented diet culture, in this piece I wrote for Bitch a few years ago.”
This soured me.
I’m not willing to shoulder all the sins of males, white or otherwise.

I thought the article was a video - my bad. And my comment was only to your specific comment about who cares what Michael Pollan thinks. I do. And to the extent that in the past 15 years, I’ve eaten less meat, more veggies, and am watchful about my sources so that I don’t personally support the prolonging of CAFOs and Perdue type chicken houses, I am grateful to him.

I’ll have to read the article before I can opine on it, and so bookmarked it. I can 100% agree with you about how offputting that statement is.

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I’ve read “In Defense of Food” multiple times…and the author of this article completely missed the point (I’ll leave the debate over whether she missed it willfully or not to another day).

Pollan never said eat what your grandparents ate…never said grow your own…never said follow nutritional guidelines that we now know to be unhealthy.

He was eschewing our penchant for cutting out entire groups of foods because it’s the latest rage…the book is not presented as a weight loss guide at all…and infect points out the folly of what he calls “nutritionism”…eating only certain types of foods, or avoiding certain types of foods…and how they dont work, and we just end up heavier and sicker than we were before.

He said keep to things that your grandmother would recognize as food…i.e., cut the processed foods with their hydrogenated fats, artificial colors and flavors, and artificial sweeteners.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Why are we making this so difficult?


Food Defined, Page 148

(Diluting actual references and words drive musicians crazy. Just say’in.)


I didn’t mean to sound so dismissive of Mr. Pollan, as I enjoy his writing, but don’t agree with the idea that he’s the final and definitive authority on this subject.

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I think the writer should actually read more Pollan before basing her article on the underlying topic she brings forward.

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Did not read the article
I’m worse than any grandma. Just yesterday I’m throwing leftover Brussels sprouts into leftover soup. For the next day. This circle never ends for me .

I don’t think anybody or he himself ever claimed that. He is an important voice on this topics but he (and many others) also often points to other important authors in this field.


Did you invent diet culture? If so we may need to stop talking. (You stopped short of her annoyance: she is remarking on how the people advocating certain ways of eating are coming from a position of privilege that writes out race, class, and gender. She’s not asking that anyone shoulder any blame but look at the issue with particular lenses on.)

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I genuinely don’t think you’re worse off than grandmas in famine or war time conditions. But then, I don’t know you.

She is responding to the element of Pollan that travels the most— and actually lives on in so many foodie boards, which is why I suspect this is getting such an unpleasant reception. Argued with her points but the attacks on her person (strident, doesn’t know as much as she should about Polan) aren’t really taking anything forward. They are more about digging one’s heels in.

The point I think is overall a good one: the advice for eating well tends to rest on a set of assumptions that whitewash history, often refusing to see how race, class, and gender shape expectations around food and labour. And it persists across a number of discussions beyond Polan, but many of which come out of that wave of work.


Pollan also never mentions what grandmother looked like, where she lived, or how she worshipped.

The point was to quit eating a diet primarily consisting of highly processed industrial products that have little to no nutritional value (or flavor).

But the writer of that piece immediately jumped into issues that are never even discussed in the book. She pretty obviously has some sort of grudge and is seeking to justify her distaste.

I’m not about to get into the underlying reasons…but tearing someone down personally because you don’t like what you think they wrote is the type of “journalism” I choose to avoid by a very wide margin.


So, Velveeta, Maraschino cherries, margarine and lime jello. But Pollan actually said “great-grandmother.”

This is SO badly written. There’s no coherent thesis. It was exhausting to read, never mind parse through the garbled and intentionally misunderstood / misquoted / wrong arguments.

She’s picked Pollan to attack (again, by her own admission at the end), come up with a whole muddled tale that has nothing to do with what Pollan writes about or advocates for, and gone off on a tangent that has little to do with her “thesis” - not that she actually has one.

A few nonsense comments, just picking from an article full of them:

“a reminder that plagiarism on a cute mug is still plagiarism!”

No, it’s not actually plagiarism - it’s a quote being reproduced on merchandise, but ok - what’s your point re plagiarism exactly?

“Parents today may not realize they are invoking the words of a thin, white man with a ton of privilege (and only one adult child) when we worry that our kids shouldn’t eat Oreos,”

No, parents are not invoking Pollan (also his one child wasn’t born an adult, was he? horrible writing). Parents worrying about kids eating processed foods and sugar in every form is not something Pollan made happen - there’s plenty of obesity and T2 diabetes research - to the point where “adult onset” had to be renamed “Type 2” diabetes because so many children were getting it. Sigh.

“ I’ll start by noting that the great-grandmother Pollan, a Boomer, referenced was an entirely different generation than a Millennial or Gen Z’s great-grandmother.”

More astute writing - really? Generations differ? Well we needed her article to tell us that Pollan’s great grandmother and mine and hers might all have lived at different times. Let’s obfuscate the main point regarding processed foods with some more astute analysis like this. Because reading the book and actually distilling the salient points was too much work.

“The other line that appears repeatedly in Pollan’s writing and is also very much a rallying cry for a certain kind of hipster/locavore/farm-to-table foodie parent is: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

Just because some group made it a rallying cry doesn’t make the original statement wrong / loaded. The whole point of invoking great grandmothers was to identify the prevalence of highly processed foods as problematic - which it is. People make choices all the time. Complaining that facts that contradict those choices are biased facts is kind of like… let’s see… the domain of the “fake news” set. Because you choose to eat / feed your family processed food doesn’t make the underlying truths regarding food and health suddenly biased or incorrect - we all make choices based on out situations and circumstances, fully aware of their pros and cons. Deluding yourself that it’s hipster not to eat natural is… delusional.

“But we have to stop labeling these issues as “food supply problems” because that implies we can fix them by changing how we eat, instead of by demanding the kind of wholesale government and industry reform that would make a real difference.”

No, the whole point is that food supply problems are SUPPLY problems, and cannot be fixed by how we eat, because not having easy access to healthy, unprocessed foods is a large part of the issue, and what food advocacy and focus on food deserts centers on. So I’m not sure what “instead of demanding…” even means, because that’s not anything being disagreed on - she’s fabricated her own problem.

There’s so much more. I mean probably most of it.

I don’t know what all her own family history has to do with Pollan’s points - we all have our own, my grandmothers and great grandmothers also came from varied circumstances and backgrounds, and yet, that has nothing to do with anything.

I’m all for a good feminist / anti-racist / anti-classist diatribe, but this was a pile of garbage writing, invoking Pollan’s work (again) hoping she’d get amplified hanging on to his tail while she tried to set it on fire.



Brilliantly stated. Wish I could give you more than just one fork

(But alas, I’ve no more forks to give🤣)