In Conversation: Michael Pollan and Adam Platt
New York Magazine, April 16, 2013
Since publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, Michael Pollan has become an ethical-eating guru, pointing the way toward conscientious consumption for a generation devoted more and more to the cult of food. A few weeks ahead of a new book, Cooked, he talks to Adam Platt about his love for TV dinners, the magic of homemade kimchee, and the lining-up-for-hours locavore madness of today’s restaurant culture.
Were you always a food geek?
Often I would have toaster waffles for breakfast growing up. Or Pop-Tarts. All that crap. My mother was, and is, a very good cook, but she was not a monastic eater and we had our share of junky products. I would come home from school and polish off a box of Yodels. Remember Yodels? Foiled-wrapped cylinders of chocolate cake and cream. They were excellent. I don’t know if they’re around anymore.
I’m sure they’re around.
As long as it wasn’t candy, we could have it. The marketers understood this racket, so they would smuggle candylike things into the cookie aisle. Kit Kat bars, for example—you could find something very much like them in the cookie aisle. We didn’t have soda at home, but we had a fair amount of junky food, though we ate a home-cooked meal every night. Except for Saturday night, when my parents went out and we had TV dinners, which I loved.
Stouffer’s was my first experience with fried chicken, which is a sad thing to say.
I liked the fried chicken—it’s hard to make it crispy that way. I liked the turkey—I liked everything but the Salisbury steak, although my sisters liked that. I loved school food, and we would come home and try to get my mom, who could cook anything, to cook like the lunch lady. My mom was pretty serious about food. But she was willing to try.
I also had an aunt who lived up the street, two doors away, who was a really good cook but was afflicted with a family who didn’t like to eat. The entire family would subsist on coleslaw for years at a time. When she was having a dinner party, she would call me and have me over to test the dishes. She’d lay out a plate—it’d be in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday—and I would get to try whatever she was making, because she couldn’t get anyone in her family to taste it.
The dreaded word foodie had not yet been invented.
When I was growing up, food was sort of like high culture. It was like opera—very few people paid attention to it. But my mother read Craig Claiborne, she watched Julia Child. I remember she would do things like decide to learn how to make chicken Kiev—a very important dish in the sixties. To a kid, it was just absolutely magical—it was fried chicken, first of all, but when you sliced it open, you had this burst of butter and this gust of herbs. It was amazing. So food had some kind of place in the corner in my life, but my real interest, as a kid, was gardening.
I started gardening when I was very young. I had a grandfather who had a huge garden. It was enough to feed a town. I don’t know why he grew that much stuff, except to show that he could, and he loved giving it away. I loved spending time in his garden, and then I made my own garden in our house on Long Island, which I called the farm. I only grew stuff that you could eat. I didn’t see the point of anything else. I grew peppers, and melons, and strawberries. And when I got a couple of strawberries together, I would put them in a Dixie cup and sell them to my mother.
Did you ever dream that you’d find yourself as a sort of high priest of food?
I’m a little troubled by that role. I don’t want to be the food superego for people. I don’t have the answers, and I really want people to work this stuff out on their own.
I’m not a scientist. Like a lot of journalists, I go out and talk to a lot of people who know much more than I do. And I’m always surprised when they think I’ve got something new to tell them after I’ve published. You’ll talk to a bunch of scientists, you’ll write a story about what they’re doing, and then they’ll invite you to their next meeting as if you have original information. You don’t. What you have is the ability to synthesize and tell a story.
What’s that story?
That food is ecological as well as sociological—that the way we eat is connected to the environment and to the health of the land.
My early work really did grow out of gardens. My idea was that you could understand a relationship to the natural world by looking in these places Americans hadn’t looked very much—the garden, the dinner plate, the farm. In general, when Americans want to think about nature, they go to wild places. And I’ve always thought of myself as a nature writer who doesn’t like to go camping or go too far from home. But nature is right here. It’s right under our noses.
So you would prefer garden geek to food geek.
Nature geek. That’s really how I see myself—a nature writer who writes about this particular part of nature that we don’t think of as nature. And I’m a journalist, too, although I sometimes do things that aren’t on their face journalistic. I feel fortunate that I got a lot of leeway on that issue.
What kind of leeway?
For many years, the food issue was a little like the environmental issue. You were allowed to have a point of view, whereas if I was writing about Congress or politics or foreign affairs, as a journalist I wouldn’t have been allowed to. And I think this was a function of the fact that editors in New York didn’t realize there was another side to the story because they were so far removed from industrial agriculture. That was a kind of fortuitous grant of freedom.
And when did you become a certified food god?
It began when I wrote a magazine piece called “Power Steer.”
The one in the Times Magazine. It became a part of Omnivore’s Dilemma.
They had given me a one-word assignment: meat. Eric Schlosser’s book had come out the year before and had been a surprise best seller—a really big best seller. Nobody was ready for that book.
And so I went out and learned everything I could about meat. But I was completely at a loss on how to organize this story, because there were so many issues—pollution, antibiotics, health. I went to lunch with my editor, Gerry Marzorati, and did that data dump you do with your editor sometimes, and I saw him start to glaze over. Then he finally said, “Why don’t you just write the biography of a cow?” And suddenly it all fell into place.
When that piece came out, there was a sudden series of ripples in a way I had never seen before with anything I’d written. I started hearing from people in the farmers’ market that everybody wanted grass-fed beef—even butchers would say, “Everyone is coming in and asking for grass-fed beef.”
It ended up having an enormous impact.
Alice Waters came to hear me give a lecture about it at Cal. I had just finished but not published this piece, and I told the whole story of the cow. She was in the front row, and she’s taking notes, and she’s passionate, and she went back to the restaurant that night—I heard this subsequently from her chefs—and said, “That’s it, we’re no longer serving anything but grass-fed beef.”
It was an interesting lesson to me as a journalist. The piece was actually not about grass-fed beef—that was three paragraphs at the end of an 8,000-word article.
If I remember correctly, it was really about corn.
I only added the paragraphs about grass-fed beef because it was such a dismal story, and it was so depressing, and I didn’t want to have people feeling, “Oh, I can’t eat meat. I’ll have to be a vegetarian.” I didn’t want to become a vegetarian, and so I found this little alternative niche called grass-fed beef, and I thought, I’m going to put this in. So if people want to know what to do, there’s something they can do.
Were you a confirmed burger eater before that story?
I loved hamburgers, loved steaks. But after I did that story, I was not going to eat feedlot meat anymore. I had just been there, I smelled it. I still have that stink in my nostrils.
The book was published seven years ago.
I thought I was late. If you ask my wife, I was like, “I should have gotten this book out last year. Things are starting to happen. I’m going to be late.” But I wasn’t late. I was early.
It’s been an incredible bunch of years—the food movement has taken on an almost fanatical urgency. Why is that happening? Why is the philosophy of food suddenly so central to people’s lives?
First, we have learned to see that food is not a ghetto, it is a door. You can use food to talk about the environment. You can use food to talk about culture. You can use food to talk about politics. And people took a good hard look at how their food was being produced, and they didn’t like what they saw. They didn’t like the way chemicals were being used on apples, and they didn’t like the fact that we were feeding cows to cows. But what’s driving it now is not just fear but pleasure—people have found that food gives them a lot, it gives them things that they aren’t getting elsewhere in their lives.
Like what, for instance?
I think it’s interesting that this strikingly powerful interest in all things having to do with food coincides with a progressively more mediated, digitized life. We spend our time in front of screens. We don’t exercise our other senses very much. And food is this complete sensory experience. It engages all five senses. It’s a sensual pleasure. And it is also—and I think this is a very important part of the food movement—really a communitarian movement. What’s driving people to food in many, many places is the kind of experience you can have at a farmers’ market. It’s really a new public square.
Now, are we talking here about righteous, locavore-crazed liberal Democrats, or Republicans, or everybody?
I think that the right is definitely trying to stick it as a liberal concern, but I actually think they’re wrong about that. There’s a very strong Evangelical component to the food movement.
Certainly the noise is blue state.
It usually is. Those are the media centers.
We hear from them all the time now about the fattening of America and obesity and diabetes. Have things gotten better, or do you think they’ve gotten possibly worse?
I’m hopeful but very measured. I think there are some signs that obesity has leveled off and maybe shrunk a little, just in the last year or two. But I don’t think we can put too much stock in that. It may be a function of bad economic times—less food around. Or it may be the result of this drumbeat about the links between food and health, which is everywhere.
But we don’t see the food industry revolutionized by any means. I take some comfort in the fact that they seem to be really scared of the food movement—unreasonably scared of the food movement, overreacting in certain ways. I take some comfort in their efforts to co-opt words like local, organic, to promote healthier food.
So you haven’t been to McDonald’s to try—
The new wraps? No, I just saw a sign for them. I don’t think I’ll do that soon.
The last time I went to McDonald’s to try something was a lobster roll in New Bedford. I was so shocked that they had that.
How was it?
It was pretty good, actually.
Well, they’re not stupid.
They’re not stupid, but I don’t think they had this worked out. I don’t think they can afford to sell lobster rolls for $5, as they were doing, with actual lobster in it.
I take it you’re not a big fan of McDonald’s. Do you have a favorite fast-food restaurant?
Chipotle, I would say.
Do you have a second-favorite fast-food restaurant?
Why do I have to have two?
Chipotle’s easy. That was the easy one.
Well, Chipotle is, you know, actually fresh food. Their meat is well sourced, most of it. I think the falloff after Chipotle is pretty steep. Although the portions are huge.
Do you believe those calorie counts that you see now at fast-food restaurants?
I think there’s a lot of error in calorie counts—I think it’s very easy to be misled by them. But I was shocked when the calorie counts came to Starbucks. I always thought, “Well, a bagel, that seems like that should be fairly low-calorie.” It’s not sweetened, it doesn’t have fat in it, but it’s enormous, and you’re better off with a piece of cake. Pound cake is better.
What are the chances of a soda tax?
Oh, it will happen. I mean, they’ve defeated it every time, but as soon as they lose one—and they will sooner or later—municipalities will discover that it’s like gambling. It generates tons of revenue, and they’ll get dependent on it.
So you’re cautiously optimistic.
They’re spending so much money to fight soda taxes, and it’s the same with labeling genetically modified food. But these things are coming. It takes a lot of battles before you win one. But once you win one, you win them all.
But you’ve also tried to fight at the level of the individual, with these rules we should use when we eat.
I think the hardest set of rules is how you deal with our appetite. We’re hungry. We live in an environment where we’re being tempted all the time by opportunities to eat. I wrote in the book about secondary eating, which is now exceeding primary eating, a.k.a. meals. Seventy-eight minutes a day we spend in secondary eating while driving, watching TV, at the computer.
All the snack foods.
I’m a voracious secondary eater, sadly.
I have temptations in that direction, and I’m a writer, so I’m upstairs writing, and every 45 minutes I try to get up from the computer just so my back doesn’t hurt and head downstairs, and what do you do when get downstairs? You go to the kitchen, and what do you do when you go to the kitchen? You look for something to eat.
I have that same problem. I’ll just go over to the icebox, I’ll open the door, and I’ll just stand there looking, with my mouth agape, like some giant zombie.
You just look in it? That’s enough?
No. Usually I’ll root around in some giant, disgusting, congealed doggy bag.
It’s always a temptation.
It’s a huge temptation. But one rule that somebody gave me is, if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry. There’s a lot of wisdom in that. We eat, regardless of hunger. We eat just for recreation. We eat because there’s nothing else to do. We eat out of boredom. We eat out of loneliness. All these other reasons we have to eat. We eat to avoid going back to work. So if you asked yourself that question, you’ll often realize, “You know, I’m actually not hungry,” and you will not eat. Or, “Yeah, I am hungry enough to eat an apple,” in which case, you might eat an apple, which is fine. That’s what you should eat when you’re snacking.
So it’s a mind game?
It’s a mind game.
And you’re a Zen master.
Well, you need that slap on the shoulders from a Zen master.
You’re a thin human. But you are also a potential fatso.
I’m a potential fat guy.
Did you have a period of being an actual fat person?
I don’t know, was I fat? Yeah, I was probably fat.
How many pounds?
Well, now I weigh about 185, 190, and I was up to 225.
That’s edging up into my range, give or take 50 pounds. It’s an occupational hazard.
But it’s not a struggle for me anymore. I think I’ve passed over to that place where—I shouldn’t say that. This is bad. This is bad juju. But I try not to snack too much. And if I don’t want to eat an apple, I’ll eat a handful of almonds or something like that. Nuts are a fattening food that help you lose weight. Now there is a Zen koan.
How does that work?
Almonds and walnuts and other nuts have a lot of fat in them, but they’re very filling, so you don’t eat that many of them and they hold you for a very long time. Also, their fat is such that a lot of the fat is never digested in the upper-GI tract. You can’t break it down, so a lot of it simply passes through you.
But the real issue is what’s called the unit bias. We really believe that the amount of food or drink put in front of us is the amount we should eat, and that isn’t true. That’s the amount that the restaurateur wants you to eat or that a marketer thinks will make you think you are getting a good value.
That’s trouble for me, too.
It’s real trouble for all of us. If somebody puts down a sixteen-ounce steak, I think, “Oh, that’s a normal steak.” But it’s not a normal steak. It’s obscene. So you need to kind of assert your own portion control in the face of their portion control.
Just by stopping and asking yourself, “Am I still hungry or am I just eating it because it’s still there?” And nine out of ten times, you’re eating it because it’s still there.
Another good rule is: The first bite is the banquet. That’s a Chinese rule. Every subsequent bite will be less good. It’s never going to get better than that first bite, and once you realize that this is going downhill, you don’t need to have the sixth or seventh bite. I enjoy one bite of dessert a lot.
What about bread?
I can’t do no bread. I love bread.
The whole thing on the hidden dangers of white flour I found quite depressing.
You might as well be eating cake.
I do try to eat whole-grain bread. At least partially whole-grain. I know that it’s not always great.
But restaurant-wise, we live in a golden age of bread.
Yeah, we do.
The bread basket!
Oh, the quality of bread has gotten so much better.
I went to a restaurant the other day, and the bread was so good I ate it very quickly. I said, “Can I have some more bread?” It didn’t come for twenty minutes, so I go, “Where’s the bread?” And they go, “Well, we’re baking it for you.”
I know. It was damn good.
I can’t leave the bread basket alone. In those restaurants where there’s a little note saying if you want bread, ask for it, I always ask for it.
One of your famous rules is to eat only what your grandma would recognize as food. But isn’t it true that a lot of our grandmothers—even the ones who had a lot of money—didn’t eat as well as we do? A lot of them ate like crap.
Yes and no. There’s a great deal of apparent diversity when you go into the supermarket today. But if you scratch the surface, you find out that there’s really just a small handful of ingredients being reconfigured into this astounding abundance of seemingly different things—lots of them have corn and soy and the same sweet food additives. So it’s somewhat less diverse than it appears.
I’ve just been looking at these studies comparing the gut microbiota of kids in Burkina Faso with kids in Florence, Italy. And one of the paradoxes is that their gut bacteria are a great deal more diverse on a seemingly simple diet of whole foods than the gut bacteria of Florentine kids eating a western diet. So that you’re getting more diversity at the biochemical level even if you’re eating millet all day.
Oh, is that what they’re eating in Burkina Faso?
They eat a lot of millet, they eat a lot of corn. They eat a lot of whole grains and plants. But my point in that was not that we should eat the diets of our grandparents. I was just offering a really easy metric to help you distinguish in the supermarket between a real food and what I call edible foodlike substances. I’m not advocating for our grandmother’s entire diets. But they knew what real food was just because a lot of this processed crap hadn’t been invented yet. So it’s just a metric. There are others. Don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients. Don’t buy anything your third-grader can’t pronounce the ingredients of. When you’re picking up that energy drink or that tube of Go-Gurt, you kind of replay your grandmother’s reaction, and she doesn’t know what the hell that thing is.
What’s the matter with Go-Gurt? My daughters are Go-Gurt addicts.
Just read the ingredients. It’s got so many things that aren’t yogurt. It’s got emulsifiers and texturizers and tons of sugar. Yogurt has become the feel-good delivery system for sugar in our food economy. Unless you’re buying plain, there is more sugar per ounce in the typical flavored yogurt than there is in a soda. And we all feel good about giving this stuff to our kids. It’s very clever marketing.
Okay—no more Go-Gurt for the Platt girls.
Well, how about plain yogurt and let them put in some maple syrup? I promise, they will never put in as much sugar as they’re getting from the Go-Gurt.
Should they be eating the millet of Burkina Faso instead? Is that the model?
You know, I don’t think there is one ideal. But one of the most striking things I’ve learned is that all traditional food cultures keep populations healthy no matter what they are. We are indeed omnivores, and we’ve done well on whatever nature has to offer on six of the seven continents. The great irony is that now our civilization has managed to construct a new food culture that reliably makes people sick. It’s the first time in history.
Do you have a favorite packaged food?
I do. Cracker Jacks.
I don’t know. I’ve had them since I was a kid. You actually got a prize you could choke on.
You still can, right?
No, it’s paper now. They’ve ruined the toys.
Favorite raw food?
Is that endangered?
It’s farmed, for the most part, in the South Pacific and Japan, and I’m sure it has a horrible carbon footprint. Sorry.
That raises a big question, which I’m sure you get asked a lot: Is food-geek culture scalable in a way that makes sense?
That’s a good question. But a related question is: Is the industrial food system sustainable, literally? Is it going to survive in its present form? There are a lot of built-in contradictions that may lead it to collapse—everything from its reliance on fossil-fuel energy to antibiotics. There’s a challenge to its survival just as there is a challenge to scaling up alternatives to it.
Those alternatives are often really expensive.
One of the questions about how big this alternative food economy can grow has to do with affordability, no doubt—the food is often more expensive. But not always and not as across the board as people assume. Though certain things are dramatically more expensive—meat, for example. The biggest suppliers can break down and package one steer into steaks or primals for 50 bucks. The guy I might be buying grass-fed beef from in Connecticut or California has to pay 500 bucks to have the same work done. And that is why the food movement cannot limit itself to voting with its fork—because people don’t have the money to vote with their fork.
But with some changes of policy we could make industrial food be priced a little more honestly, with less hidden subsidy, and we could at the same time make alternatives to it more affordable. In the end, though, I think that if we all begin paying the real, fair price of food, it’s still going to be a problem for a lot of people, because it’s going to be more than they’re paying now. And that means that we’re going to have to address the larger question of peoples’ wages, which have been falling in this country since the seventies. Now, one of the reasons that people put up with it was because food prices were also falling—and the price of some other things too. In other words, cheap food has, in effect, subsidized falling wages in this country. Now we’re dependent on cheap food. People simply can’t survive without the kind of food they can get at Walmart. That’s why, once again, food is not just about food.
But lots of people are fed moderately well by McDonald’s and Doritos and even the Go-Gurts of the world, aren’t they? And you could also argue that when you look at the perfect crunchiness of the Dorito or the symmetrical design and sneakily layered flavors of the Big Mac—there’s a certain sort of ingenious quality to them.
I think you’ll find that there’s a really seductive first bite, then diminishing quality over the course of the whole burger. My son wanted some Chicken McNuggets not long ago, and I decided, okay, let him figure out what he really thinks about it. He thought they were fantastic. He still thinks they’re fantastic. I remember it differently. I remember him losing interest and pawning them off on me by the end. And all I could taste was salt and what was probably hydrolyzed vegetable protein, that ingredient-label euphemism for MSG, and that bullion-y-chicken-mush taste. There’s a taste that all fast food has that cuts across the board. And there is something seductive about it, but it’s not a very long-lived pleasure in my experience.
I remember the first time I actually went to McDonald’s. I was 10 or 12, and I’d been living overseas. We’d never been exposed to it. The cheeseburger at Howard Johnson’s was the best thing I’d ever tasted. And then McDonald’s opened. I was like, “Oh my God.” We spentdays.
When you learn how this stuff is engineered, it changes how it tastes. That’s part of the work.
Is there maybe too much disdain on the part of food geeks about fast food?
There is this tendency to go overboard with all these things, and it’s assumed that if you promote local food, which I’ve done, you’re absolutely a jihadiabout it—just fanatical.
Don’t you think that the food movement has reached a fanatical stage?
Hopefully we’ll relax a little. But it’s very hard to stay ahead of the food industry. When I first published Food Rules, I said, “Don’t buy any processed foods with more than five ingredients.” Within a year, there was a Häagen-Dazs ice cream called Five. There was a Tostitos commercial on TV where this woman is buying chips for a party. She picks up a bag and says, “There are more ingredients here than I have guests coming to my party.” And then she reaches for Tostitos, which only has three ingredients. None of them particularly healthy, but only three ingredients. So I added a new rule: Don’t buy any foods you’ve seen marketed on television.
Do you think these guys are evil?
No. They’re just trying to return shareholder value.
They’re just making a buck.
Sometimes they’re lying about what they’re doing, but I don’t consider that evil.
Do you think their products are getting better?
I have very little faith in the project to tweak processed food. In general, when we make slightly-better-for-you processed food, we’re merely giving people an excuse to eat more of it. We’ve been here before— what I call the Snackwell’s Phenomenon. In the eighties, you could buy any kind of cracker, chip, cookie, and it had no fat. People assumed since it didn’t have this evil nutrient called fat, they could eat all of it they wanted, and so they’d eat whole boxes of these things. Of course, they were still fattening—they had upped the carbohydrates and salt to make up for the absence of fat. I think we have to turn our back on that approach, to the extent that we can. And I think that this is where Michelle Obama has—I understand why she’s gone down this path, persuading the food companies to make promises about sugar content, salt content. But it in the end it is legitimizing a processed-food diet.
So you’ve been disappointed in the Obamas?
I’m disappointed. I think she’s done some very positive things. She’s elevated the conversation. The planting of the garden at the White House was a powerful step, and it led to a revival of home gardening, which remains the cheapest, most nutritious food you can eat. I think that the rest of the administration has been very disappointing—in the East Wing they get it, not in the West Wing so much. They’ve backed off whenever challenged. Even voluntary marketing guidelines have been shot down. Voluntary guidelines! There has been more support for farm to school, there have been some improvements in lunch programs. But it’s not what we needed or what we hoped for.
So you give them a D-minus?
You know, I give all my students A’s. Grade inflation is a sin of mine.
What’s your view on restaurant culture these days? Do you eat out a lot?
Probably once or twice a week. I think restaurant culture has gotten really decadent and way too precious. If I have to have another fourteen-course meal where I have to listen to a waiter give me the recipe before every course and interrupt my conversation with the friend I’m with, or with my wife—I’m just so tired of that.
Join the crowd.
I really like simpler food, and I really like restaurants that leave you alone. What satisfies me is simple food really well prepared—and prepared with conviction. I’m a little tired of restaurant culture, and I really like to cook. And, this sounds weird, but I sort of feel we’re being deprived of the pleasure of cooking. There are a lot of people, in corporate cooking and restaurant culture, telling us, “No, let us cook for you.”
Have you been to Mission Chinese? People stand in line for three hours to get in.
Well, end of story for me. I don’t go anywhere where I have to stand in line. I just cannot see the point of standing in line. I did it once at a place in Barcelona, and I didn’t regret it, but, in general, I run the other way from restaurants people are standing in line in front of.
You know the new generation, they think that’s part of the fun.
Well, we all have smartphones now, which has changed the meaning of standing in line.
But in general, there’s a need on the part of New York chefs to dazzle more—and that’s a function of economics as much as culture. Real-estate prices are higher, you have to charge more for food. You can eat really well in the Bay Area for a fraction of what it costs in Manhattan. Even in San Francisco it’s cheaper. In New York, just putting out a beautiful piece of fish without a sauce, it’s just not enough when you’re charging 50 bucks or whatever they charge.
I bring New Yorkers to Chez sometimes, and they’re really underwhelmed. It’s like, “I’ve been hearing about this restaurant for all these years, and that’s it? It’s a nice salad.”
The cooking there is astonishingly straightforward.
Well, it’s actually a great salad. I mean, I think. It’s just kind of perfect, but not dazzling. Of course, we have Alice Waters to credit for this obsession with mentioning names of farms on a menu.
I seriously think that’s out of hand.
It’s totally out of hand.
Like if you go to Craft—
You’ve never been to Craft?
I don’t get to New York that much.
Those are your people! You go into Craft, and they’d treat you like a visiting pontiff. They’d get down on their knees.
I hate that. But this obsession with local ingredients, what did it do? We have a culture that operates on glamour, and this obsession glamorized farming. Suddenly, the farmers became heroes for a lot of chefs—they realized that with really good produce you could make great food. This is a profession that we have denigrated for a hundred years in this culture—farmers have been the butt of jokes, and there was a deliberate effort to shrink the population of farmers by taking the smart kids off of farms. The guidance counselors would send them to college and into the cities to get urban jobs and leave the D student on the farm. And now we have the opposite—the opposite of a brain drain. We have a brain flow going to farms and food work. Some of the smartest people I know are farmers, and chefs, and brewers, and cheesemakers. There’s an incredible amount of brain power going into these food areas.
These people populate your new book—fermenters and bakers and cheese-making nuns. You portrayed barbecue pitmaster Ed Mitchell as a kind of priest.
I mean, he is a priest! But barbecue is kind of high church for me. The things that most engage me have to do with fermentation. First, baking, which I find incredibly satisfying—there is something about that moment when you lift the lid on that pot and see that this flop of white stuff is now this gorgeous risen loaf. I had approached baking thinking that it was the rocket science of cooking, that it was really hard, and you had to be precise, and you had to know about grams, and you had to have a scale, and all of this kind of stuff, which totally intimidated me. But it turns out actually it’s all about touch—you throw away all of that, and you kind of do it by feeling. It’s pretty hard to fuck up.
And then fermenting—culture, man! Making pickles, kimchee—the idea that you can slice a cabbage, salt it, mush it around in your hands, put it in a crock, and bacteria will cook the food for you. You don’t even have to introduce the bacteria—they are just living on those leaves, and living in your hands, and living in your kitchen counter. That bacteria will make that cabbage more nutritious, more flavorful, easier to digest. I mean, this is magic.
Your house sounds like it must be a menagerie of fine fermentation.
It’s a little stinky sometimes. My son comes in, and he’s like, “What happened here?”
When you go to a Korean house, they’ll have two refrigerators.
Or they keep it outside.
And the kimchee refrigerator is locked. Only the granny dares go in there to meet the microbes.
I like doing all those things. I would love to make cheese. It’s a little harder to do at home. I tried to age a green cheese, which is the cheese right before it starts aging, with the weirdest stuff growing out of it. I was afraid to eat it, in my basement.
I’m not sure there’s a lot of that going on in New York.
The food scene in Berkeley is outwardly more informal, simpler. The food there is much more ingredient based, even than it is in New York, and that is a function of the fact that we have very good ingredients twelve months of the year. I mean, our farmer’s markets are open 50 weeks, and they’re full of stuff, even in January.
Sounds like you guys are Berkeley people through and through.
We can also grill twelve months of the year. That makes life real easy.
You’re not really a big restaurant guy.
I guess I’m not.
Do you think there are too many of them around? Sometimes it feels like half the city is restaurants.
Well I don’t know that I’d say restaurants are a problem. I think that the number of restaurants is a symptom of peoples’ unwillingness to cook. There’s so many temptations. It’s so easy for us not to cook because food is being marketed to us in so many different ways—high, low, medium. In New York especially. Everybody’s got that drawer of takeout menus. You barely have to lift a finger, and you can have restaurant food show up on a bicycle. That isn’t true in Berkeley. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s too hilly.
But the collapse of home cooking is limiting for the food movement. As I watched this local agriculture movement get started, I realized that the farmers’-market movement was only going to get so far if people refused to cook.
Should we be cooking more, then, even in New York? They have pretty great farmers’ markets here, too.
Oh, there’s great ingredients. But I think people struggle with their tiny little kitchens. I know when I lived in Manhattan, I didn’t have any counter space to speak of. It was very difficult to cook.
So you did carryout.
I did lots of takeout. And it’s hard to have a garden in New York, at least in Manhattan. So there’ve been times in my life where the restaurant culture was very, very important to me and times when it was less so. And there are periods in peoples’ lives where they’re not going to do a lot of cooking. And thank God restaurants are around for that, and the guys on the bicycles.
Where did you live, downtown?
No, we lived on the Upper West Side. There wasn’t too much in our neighborhood. There was all that good greasy Chinese.
I remember that.
Do you miss any of that stuff?
I haven’t seen cold noodles with sesame sauce on the West Coast. I used to be inordinately fond of those.
*This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.