In this era of food-and-nutrition expose documentaries (think "Food Inc.," "Food Nation," "Super Size Me," "Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead," "Food Matters"), a book released earlier this year seems to strike a different chord.
It was the title that grabbed me: "Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat" (University of Chicago Press, $25).
According to author Harvey Levenstein, Americans have a singularly odd relationship with their food. As he puts it, surveys have shown that the French eat overwhelmingly for pleasure, while Americans most frequently associate good-tasting food with guilt. We also obsess more than any other nation, he says, over what to eat in order to extend our lives (and, conversely, what not to eat if we'd rather not die early).
Now, I think Mr. Levenstein would be the first to admit that it's not as if what we eat has no effect on our health and longevity. For instance, he discusses antibiotic-resistant E. coli and points out that it can, in fact, kill. And he mentions the effects of our sedentary lifestyles and obesity on our health.
Where he differs, however, is in thinking that certain foods -- or certain categories of foods -- can alone be considered either culprits or miracle cures.
We can laugh at the food scares of the late 1800s and early 1900s because they're distant enough in memory. For instance, in the early 1900s, houseflies were Public Enemy No. 1. Granted, they are awfully germy little creatures. But a century ago, flies were thought to carry tuberculosis, gastroenteritis, spinal meningitis and polio, and people panicked if a fly landed on their food. Businesses started holding contests and awarding prizes to children who delivered the largest piles of dead houseflies -- a practice that waned after one contest winner admitted to hatching his own flies only to kill them off.
Both milk and beef have swung so far on the perception pendulum that they have in some eras been considered the absolute healthiest of foods and in other eras the deadliest. Yogurt, for its presumed ability to kill off all the dangerous bacteria in the intestines, was touted as almost a fountain of youth in the early 1900s -- that is, until Elie Metchnikoff, the scientist who popularized this view and promised he would live past 100, died at 71.
Mr. Levenstein also treads on the modern sacred cows: vitamins, "natural" foods, fats. He concludes that in many cases, science hasn't confirmed our popular views of nutrition. In the same breath, he admits that even he falls prey to some of those popular views, swallowing his daily vitamin pills even though vitamin supplements haven't necessarily been proved beneficial for the average person who eats a healthful diet.
I admit that I bristled at times as I read this book. It seems shocking that we would accept as scientific fact what might actually be mere theory. But in the end, I thought Mr. Levenstein's personal epilogue made a good point. He paraphrased Michael Pollan's conclusion: "Eat a wide variety of foods, don't eat too much, and eat relatively more fruits and vegetables" -- and, by implication, don't go blaming certain food groups for all your problems or touting certain foods for all your good health.
Either extreme is likely to be a recipe for disaster.
Farmers market tasting: It's a fresh and nutritious take on happy hour. Farm to Table Pittsburgh hosts a Farmers Market Happy Hour Tasting from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, July 30 at 11 Stanwix Street, Downtown. Sample items from Pretzel Crazy, Plum Run Winery, Full Pint Brewery, Sito's and other vendors participating in Farm to Table's Farmers Market on Wheels program. For more information about the program, go to farmtotablepa.com and click on "Healthy Eating Program."
Local foods potluck: Bring a dish made with locally grown foods or with ingredients from your home garden, plus bring copies of your recipe. 6:30 p.m. Aug. 3 at Peters Township Public Library. Register before Wednesday, Aug. 1, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wigle Whiskey Cocktail Class: Learn to make and sample cocktails and take home the recipes. 5:30 p.m. tomorrow at Pittsburgh Public Market, Strip. $12 in advance, $15 at the door (age 21 and over only). Register ahead at pittsburghpublicmarket.org/support.
Back to School Lunches: Make 'em fancy with the chefs at Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh, Downtown. 1 p.m. Aug. 4. $65 per person includes materials, an apron and lunch after class. Reservations: 412-773-8848.
Ukrainian Festival: Lamb roast, funnel cakes, live entertainment, Ukrainian collectibles. 4 to 10 p.m. today through Saturday at St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church, McKees Rocks. ukrainianfestivalmckeesrocks.net.foodcolumn
Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com.