The Simplest Food

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food, and I’m feeling encouraged by one of his fundamental conclusions, after years of research: that humans have adapted well to an enormous range of diets over the millennia, and seem able to thrive on all of them except what he calls the “Western Diet.”

By this, Pollan means a diet composed of processed foods, simple carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables grown in radically simplified soils, and the meat and milk and eggs of animals raised on grossly altered diets; everywhere that people switch to this diet, apparently, we see huge increases in heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. His basic prescription, therefore, is simply to pick a traditional cuisine (Italian, Chinese, whatever), and stick with it, on the premise that these cuisines are in essence time-tested nutritional programs passed down through the vehicle of culture, plus they mostly taste good. This is great news for me, because I’m so enthralled right now with the French cuisine I’m learning from the late, great Richard Olney—and, more specifically, with the way in which his dishes carry a deep sense of culture.

Here’s an example: I made a poule-au-pot recipe from Olney’s classic Simple French Food the other night, and with it I poured a bottle of an Italian wine from Tenimenti Angelini, called Tuttobene Toscana Rosso, 2004. First, the dish: Olney’s recipes are often so simple they sound risky. (Like his potato leek soup: Chop up one pound leeks and one pound potatoes, add them to two quarts boiling salted water, simmer for half an hour, and serve with a nob of butter in each bowl.) His chicken-in-a-pot went, in essence, like this: Truss up a small chicken, rub it with lemon juice so it won’t discolor while simmering, put in a pot and cover it with stock, add a few vegetables, and simmer for a couple of hours.

But then there were the presentation instructions: Take out the chicken and bring it to table on a cutting board; take out the vegetables and bring them to table on a small platter; strain the stock and bring it to table in a small tureen. Give each person a bowl with a crust of dry bread in the bottom and begin by ladling over some broth. Savor this first, and then cut off pieces of chicken and add them to the bowl with vegetables and season with a little Dijon mustard, if you like. And here’s the result: not just a beautifully soothing meal, but a stealthy introduction to a way of life, a quiet and family-centered understanding that food can nourish, and restore, and bond those who share it.

As for the Tuttobene, it was a little too fruit-forward to make a perfect pairing with my mild chicken, but that was my fault, not the fault of the wine: This is a positively sensational value, available all over for $12 or less. It has a strong kind of bubblegum-vanilla fruit quality in the nose and surprising concentration in the mouth. I was genuinely impressed and would’ve loved the wine with lasagne.

2004 Tuttobene Toscana Rosso

Grapes: 50 percent Sangiovese, 40 percent Merlot, 10 percent Canaiolo
Region: Italy, Tuscany
Wood: Six months in concrete (i.e., no wood)
Alcohol: 13 percent
Price: $9.99 from Wine.com

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