Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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This is no time, you might argue, for old grouches to whinge about the subservience of mainstream British culture to US products and attitudes. The Coen brothers' spellbinding version of Cormac McCarthy (in No Country for Old Men) shows American creativity at its strongest and strangest. My beef lies elsewhere: not with unique American art, but with the us-too, 51st-state mentality which assumes that every tiny squeak from the US heartlands can and should echo loudly across the Atlantic. Hence the absurd, overkill treatment of the US Presidential primaries, a long-haul race that deserves close scrutiny but hardly a hysterical report from every snowbound hall in the Mid-west.

Publishing, both blessed and cursed by a common language, shares this skewed vision. Its limits stand out most blatantly not in fiction, because every good novel – from Boston or Birmingham – should create a country of its own, but in topical books on social affairs. Here, the local approach often comes down to: for Britain, read America. Anything that matters there must apply here too.

Take Michael Pollan's new treatise about the way Americans eat, In Defence of Food (Allen Lane, £16.99), a work deemed so relevant to UK readers that a national newspaper serialised it at lavish length. This is not, by any means, a mediocre book. It scourges the misdeeds of US agribusiness, supermarkets and nutrition "experts" with eloquence and erudition. It makes a watertight case for wholesome real food rather than gimmicky diets as the road to health. But it is an American book that reflects the American scene, a local bias only thrown into sharp relief by a condescending little foreword boasting that "we're... the nation where the revolt against fast food is taking shape".

True, what the French call la malbouffe (junk eating) started there and spread worldwide. However, Pollan offers not a historically-informed narrative like the excellent Eric Schlosser, but a well-argued diatribe against "the American diet" with evidence, allusions and finally advice that depend almost totally on the national context. Just because we suffer McDonald's too doesn't mean that a book purporting to address British readers should invite us to eat well from fresh produce delivered in a "CSA box" (community-supported agriculture, apparently). Needless to say, you won't hear a word from Pollan about Tesco and its friends in high places, the influence of EU subsidies and regulations, the European rejection of GM, recent wrangles over UK labelling codes...

Pollan's exit from junk-food purgatory rightly involves growing your own as much as possible. Yet, understandably, he knows and says nothing about British oddities such as the allotment movement. For healthy, dirty-fingered bliss, any reader would be better off with Sam and Sam Clark's glorious Moro East – inspired by food grown by their fellow allotment-holders in east London. And, because UK publishers thankfully remain broad churches, we can also consult first-rate territory-specific guides to dietary problems and solutions from authors such as Joanna Blythman (Bad Food Britain) and Felicity Lawrence (Not on the Label).

Pollan thinks clearly and writes well, and I hope I'm not swinging a sledgehammer to smash an innocent yard-grown tomato or park-picked mushroom. All the same, his book's presentation seems symptomatic of the lazy conflation of US and UK interests that passes without notice in the British book world. The fault, as Shakespeare almost said, is not in the stars-and-stripes, dear Britons, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. Good luck to Pollan in his righteous fight against the Twinkie; we have our own Turkey Twizzlers to fry.

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