A Thoughtful, Simple Menu
By Colin McEnroe
The Hartford Courant, January 3, 2008
“You’re really at ground zero of the American food movement,” says Michael Pollan.
We’re sitting outside the original location of Peet’s Coffee, Tea and Spices, on the corner of Vine and Walnut streets in Berkeley, Calif. Peet’s has scores of locations all over the Bay Area, but this one was opened in the late Sixties by a Dutch immigrant who believed “there must be something better” than the Folger’s coffee Americans were drinking. The guys who started Starbuck’s were, by their own admission, imitating Peet’s.
Down the hill is Chez Panisse, the storied restaurant opened by Alice Waters in 1971. More than any other joint in America, Panisse celebrates and symbolizes the idea of linking farms, especially small organic farms, to the experience of fine dining, in what Waters described as The Delicious Revolution. Nearby is the Cheese Board Collective, a famous worker-owned bakery, cheese shop and pizzeria founded in 1967.
But maybe more significant is what’s across the street, a Mission-style Mormon Church and a brown-shingled Quaker Meeting House, because Pollan says he’s really calling for, hoping for the dietary equivalent of the Protestant Reformation. That’s the argument he makes in his new book “In Defense of Food An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin, $21.95).
“In the same sense that the Reformation reflected a belief that the way to heaven was through Christ, not through the institution of a single Church, the idea is to let people seek their own dietary salvation,” he says. “There are many denominations of food and dining.”
If you extend the analogy, Pollan is its Martin Luther, nailing his theses to the corporate doors of the American food industry. He has boiled down the thrust of his argument to seven words. “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” (Actually, Luther suffered from terrible constipation for most of his life. Pollan’s book might have spared him considerable agony.)
I tell Pollan that, ever since reading his book, I’ve been playing a little mealtime game called “WWMPE.”
He looked puzzled.
“What Would Michael Pollan Eat,” I explain.
He breaks into a wide, somewhat abashed smile.
“That makes me feel odd. I feel like I’m imposing myself on people,” he says.
But then, he is.
This is Pollan’s first prescriptive book, the first time he has dropped the pretext of being just a reporter of other people’s ideas or a transcriber of experiences, the first time he has mainly argued a series of points. The book is short and compact; and, although there’s still good bit of reporting, especially about the history of nutrition science, the book seems designed to be what it says it is: a manifesto a declaration of principles that you carry around and use to remind yourself of certain ideas or to start arguments.
“I’ve never written a book before that you could read in one sitting,” he says.
And yet, Pollan seems a little too self-effacing to step into the tank treads of Mao and Marx and Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement. In person, he surprises you with his warmth and his openness, which is just a little bit at variance with the intellectual rigor and serious sense of purpose that pervades his work.
“The change is going to happen with or without me,” he says. “Our current way of producing food can’t go on forever, because it’s destroying the system on which it depends.”
The way almonds are grown, says Pollan, may be responsible for the phenomenon of “colony collapse” — the sudden mass disappearances of bees. New studies point to a connection between the heavy use of antibiotics in livestock — especially pork — and the emergence of drug-resistant staph strains, commonly known as MRSA. As that kind of catastrophic evidence piles up, we will shift back to a more sensible, traditional, diverse method of producing food, he says.
For a decade, he lived in Cornwall, Conn., and wrote extensively about his home and garden there. In the summer of 2003, Pollan and his family moved to the Bay Area where he holds a prestigious journalism professorship at UC-Berkeley.
His 2006 book, “The Ominvore’s Dilemma,” named one of the top 10 books of the year by the New York Times, analyzed four different American meals and questioned the means by which the foods for each were produced. The book vaulted Pollan into the front ranks of the movement criticizing American food production, and it put him into an extended dialogue with readers who were troubled by, among other things, his contention that some of the “industrially” produced organic foods produced on mega-farms and sold at places like Whole Foods weren’t all that much better than their non-organic counterparts.
“In my conversations with readers, I was getting a lot of feedback that said, basically, ‘I’m afraid there won’t be anything I can eat.’ I was somewhat alarmed that my readers would starve to death, which is not a good thing for an author,” Pollan said. “They were taking the information in that book and worrying themselves with it.”
“In Defense of Food” encourages people to ignore — or at least distrust — nutrition science and food fads that caution us to rid our diets of, for example, fat. You’re better off making a leap of faith in the direction of pleasure and tradition, Pollan argues. Eat slower. Pay a little more for the ingredients. Don’t buy packaged foods that make health claims about themselves. Grow them yourself or buy them at farmers’ market. Cook them yourself. Eat them at a table. Eat things that your grandmother would recognize as food. It’s the relationship with food, not the chemistry, that will save you, he writes.
Pollan says a friend compared the book to Benjamin Spock’s 1946 “Baby and Child Care,” although Pollan hastens to add he doesn’t rank himself with Dr. Spock.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, there was this culture of scientific expertise about children’s health, and Dr. Spock basically said ‘Trust your instincts,'” Pollan explains.
His message is similar. Nutrition science has gotten wrong a lot of things that common sense and the traditional wisdom of families used to get right, he says. “Nutritional science is kind of where surgery was in 1650 — really interesting, but do you want to participate directly?” he asks.
“Eat food” might seem like a piece of unnecessary advice, but Pollan actually spends 14 pages defining the word “food.” That such a task is necessary, he writes, shows how far we have drifted from our natural relationship to what we eat. We buy a lot of food that is processed, refined and engineered. Its ingredient lists are full of undecipherable chemical terms and spurious health claims.
“Not Too Much” includes the encouragement to eat actual meals, at a table. Pollan argues that dining has been stripped of its ceremony and has been replaced by a lot snacking and thoughtless noshing. One of his interesting side points is that the multi-billion-dollar food industry sold Americans on the idea that foods could be engineered so that we can continue to eat insane amounts of them, rather than just cutting back a little and concentrating on comestibles that don’t have to be tweaked in laboratories.
“Mostly plants.” That one is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting that Pollan is not a vegetarian. He hunted a boar for food while writing “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“I’m not the kind of guy you want out in the woods with a gun,” he says, grinning. “But I’m all in favor of hunters. I think hunters know things about food and nature that most of us have forgotten.”
In conversation, he can grow downright rhapsodic about grass-fed beef or pastured eggs.
What kind of eggs?
“The chickens are rotationally grazed,” he explained. “They’re on grass, and the farmer moves them, periodically, to a new pasture.”
They’re usually grazed alongside cattle — which means they get to eat maggots from the manure and lots of other interesting things.
“OK, maybe that doesn’t sound like a great selling point,” he says, laughing.
Anyway, they cost around $6 or $7 a dozen, but they’re better and, used sparingly and appreciatively, wind up being worth it, he says. But that very idea bothers a lot of people.
“An egg is supposed to be inexpensive,” he says. “We seem to resent food when it’s expensive.”
People who wouldn’t hesitate to spend a little more for a sweater or a car will object to spending more on healthier, more sensibly grown, better-tasting food that they’re going to be putting inside their bodies, he says.
He concedes that some people can’t afford to spend an extra $100 a week on organic ingredients grown on small farms and sold through farmers’ markets, but he believes most people can make some changes that will work in their favor.
“Maybe 25 percent of the people in this country can’t move toward a diet that’s more local and organic,” he says. “The other people are making a judgment about priorities.”
Pollan does not, however, offer meal plans or recipes.
“I’m willing to take an oath,” he says, laughing again, that there will never be a Michael Pollan Cookbook or a Michael Pollan Diet. The whole idea, he says, was to produce a series of rules that people could combine with their own inclinations, to produce an infinite number of eating styles and meal plans.
“I just wanted to give people to tools to think through their own food choices,” he says.
Just then he gets a phone call. Someone has hit his car while it sat in the driveway. And it’s totaled. He has to run off and deal with that.
So maybe the next book will be about how to live without an automobile.