Lunch with the FT: Michael Pollan

“So, did you eat the in-flight meal, then?” I cheekily ask Michael Pollan, mainly because he looks fresher and rosier and happier than any 55-year-old has a right to after 13 hours on a non-stop flight from San Francisco. The writer is in England to talk about his new book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

Nearly all of Pollan’s rules (“eat slowly, eat well-grown food from healthy soils”) are routinely broken by the junk served to paying hostages trapped behind tray tables and wired like battery chickens to the dictates of the flight schedule. Feed NOW. Watch godawful movie NOW. Get drunk on 15 per cent Tempranillo NOW (but only so much that it will help you to snooze so the crew can have a giggle in the galley while chowing down). Pollan owns up to ordering the Vegetarian Special, which, he says, was in a beetrooty way “not too bad”.

We agree that at least this got him out of being stuck with the supremely depressing Seasonal Salad, which is not much of either: usually ancient leavings from the school of suicidal cucumber keeping company with leaves wilted in grief at having been torn from the life support plastic bags in which, as Pollan explains in his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, inert gases have unnaturally prolonged their existence. At least the Salad of Despond obeys Pollan’s cardinal rule that we should eat “not too much and mostly plants” – since you’ll never want to eat much of this stuff, which technically is “mostly plant”.

Pollan and I are sitting in Acorn House Restaurant, on the ground floor of a nondescript corner office block in an unglamorous patch of King’s Cross. The establishment describes itself as London’s first “truly eco-friendly training restaurant” and is owned by the Shoreditch Trust, which does genuinely decent things in urban communities. So it seems just the kind of place that Pollan, who spends most of his life trying to alert the American public to the inexorable food-death brought about by the empire of agribusiness, might like: civic but tasty.

The kitchen, manned by two breezy cooks having a suspiciously good time, is open to view. The wood is blonde, the seat backs are done in the zesty green of primary school romper rooms. Wall-shelves are weirdly stacked with items not usually associated with the organic food movement: bottles of Worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup and boxes of bog-standard dried pasta. Either there’s some irony going on here or the ambience trainees need a bit more work.

Pollan and I had already met fleetingly, though neither of us can remember exactly where, some time shortly after he had published his first book, Second Nature, in 1991. This features at its heart an epic battle with a woodchuck that was treating Pollan’s garden as his personal canteen. The struggle for supremacy between resolute gardener and resourceful rodent builds to a titanic climax with the Man of the Soil emptying cans of gasoline down the varmint’s burrow and setting light to it like some deranged garden Nazi bent on a backyard Götterdämmerung. Pollan’s essay was wonderfully out of keeping with the solemnities of American nature writing, and so deeply Jewish in its mischievous self-regard that it was if Henry David Thoreau had had an encounter with Woody Allen and never been quite the same since.

Pollan’s day job is Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where he’s been since 2003. After Bennington College in Vermont, and a year in Oxford, Pollan did a masters degree in English literature, specialising in American nature writing and Thoreau, at Columbia University. For a while he was a TV critic but then “I realised people who read didn’t watch TV and people who watched TV didn’t read.” So in 1983 he went to work with Lewis Lapham’s relaunched Harper’s Magazine, a publication famous for commentaries of high moral purpose expressed in tough, elegant writing.

But Pollan’s winning way with food polemics is all his own, coloured by an easy-going humane generosity. The reader never feels hectored into gastric virtue. Guilt is not his trip. This is a writer who wants to restore the culture of true eating but who can own up to a shot of pure pleasure at a home-cooked plate of fries.

He’s taller and rangier than I remember, bald in the way that makes bald handsome. He has the open manner that makes you feel, somehow, family, so I ask him about his, in particular about his son Isaac, who coined the term “cornography” as the genre his father has made his own. I wonder whether Isaac had been into food in the same way my own kids were, both of whom, in their twenties, have become impressive cooks. Pollan smiles one of his tenderest smiles and says “not always”. For much of his childhood, while Pollan was going Green, Isaac (who is now 17) ate strictly White: rice, noodles, breakfast cereals submerged in milk. At the same time, he would wear exclusively black clothes (dark blue socks excepted) and favoured in particular a kit of black leggings from which he could not bear to be parted. Pollan, who in Food Rules insists on the importance of the family all eating the same food (rather than junior with a defrosted pizza and sis upstairs nibbling on a choc bar in front of the computer while mom and dad moodily shovel their penne in the eat-in kitchen), shrugs his broad shoulders and concedes that he, “er, customised Isaac’s food during that time”.

Isaac’s black-and-white obsession got so serious that Pollan’s friend Alice Waters, the owner-cook of Chez Panisse (the Berkeley restaurant that was revolutionary in its commitment to seasonal organic produce) offered to lend a hand introducing the boy to what non-white food could actually be. Dutifully, the great cook grilled up some choice steak (undoubtedly grass-fed), and served it, carefully cubed. Isaac toyed with it more in a spirit of filial duty than pleasure. Waters was unconcerned and reassured Pollan that in a few years he would be “an eater”. At 14 Isaac did a stint as an intern in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, prepping veggies and trimming quail wings. His father knew that Alice Waters’s prediction had come true when Isaac came home one evening announcing, “I much prefer squab.”

For all the charm of his writing, Pollan is in deadly earnest about what he sees as the imprisonment of American foodways in the corporate imperatives of agribusiness, above all in the industrial mega-production of corn that has all but obliterated the possibility of a truly omnivorous diet. If we are what we eat; then most Americans are corny even when they think they are eating meat. What they are actually eating – in their beef, their poultry, even their fish (in addition to scrapings of other animals) – are livestock as processing tubes for a corn surplus. The result has been a victory of profit over nature. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes how, in the 1970s, the livestock industry was altered to use up huge corn surpluses that were depressing the price of grain. Cattle were no longer to be raised on pasture but shackled immobile to feedlot railings, standing in lagoons of their own faeces, pumped with grain, not grass, and brought to kill, fatter and faster than ever before.

The price paid for this industrial supply of cheap meat has been a population of the obese and the chronically diabetic, waddling along, stuffed with the chicken nuggets and burgers that are the ultimate product of this relentless corn-chain. There was a time when the cornfield was the emblem of American wholesomeness. Now, as Pollan describes, it seems more like the mortuary of American nature.

It is just because Pollan is so deeply and lovingly invested in the culture of his country that he mourns the loss, not just of its alimentary health but the sense of domestic community destroyed by the supremacy of fast food, of cooking that has been surrendered to the dictates of convenience industries. Nineteen per cent of all American meals are now eaten in a car, which is why the nugget that can be consumed with one hand was the dream product for the corporate food marketeers. Of the 38 separate ingredients that constitute the McNugget, 13, Pollan found, are corn-based.

There is of course, the corn-fed chicken, grown to reach its prime slaughter-age as fast as possible, when, as giant breasts on exiguous legs pumped full of antibiotics, they are “processed” to their date with supermarket trays. But then in the chicken nugget world there is also the corn starch used to hold the things together; not to mention the Brobdingnagian servings of sweet fizzy drinks that are nothing other than carbonated high fructose corn syrup.

One part of Michael Pollan is in awe at what agribusiness has achieved: the delivery of low-cost food on an unprecedented scale. But the better part of him is appalled. “What’s happened is Walmartism: the reverse of Fordism,” he says. “Ford raised the pay of his assembly line workers so they would buy his cars. Walmart pays low wages, knowing workers can always get bad, cheap food.” The result is a burger and jumbo-sized cola addicted population. No one is better than Pollan at giving the devil its due, conjuring the unmistakable, almost narcotically addictive “fry-fragrance” to which junk food junkies helplessly gravitate. It is, he thinks a kind of ersatz “home”: some imagined smell of childish security in that oily-crunchy, burgery squishy provision – as if fast food momma was one gigantic American tit on which the infantilised masses of America placidly suck.

Anyone who has read Pollan’s coda to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, called “A Perfect Meal”, knows he is not just a historian and prophet of food but a hell of a cook too. So I ask him about the paradox of our time in which the obsessions of food – celebrity chefs, food columns in every paper and magazine, the marketing of gourmet kitchens – has somehow coincided with people cooking less not more. Television cooking we both think has became a kind of manic gameshow, in which star turns of charismatic rage and an emphasis on feverish speed has made it harder, not easier, for family cooks to transfer what they see to their own kitchens.

The one exception to the bleak outlook is the rise and rise of local farmers’ markets, and what Pollan calls “Big Organic” stores such as Whole Foods Market where accurate source labelling is crucial to shopping decisions. From his perch in Berkeley he is under no illusion that somehow this salutary revolution is going to reach the mass of American people in recessionary times, but Pollan is tired of hearing from the better off that the reason the hired help defrosts yet another pizza, or lugs the kids off to a Happy Meal – while the gourmet trophy Viking stove goes begging – is shortage of time. The average amount of time spent on cooking, eating and cleaning up a meal, he says, is 31 minutes; the average daily non-professional time at a computer two hours, and in front of a television three hours.

Pollan sighs. “You know, we have been drilled to believe that only in the workplace do Americans produce something. But when we cook we are producers too. It’s sad that we are supposed to be just consumers.”

While sharing the dirge, splashed by London sunlight, Pollan and I have been sampling the Acorn House “Antipasti (sic) Platter”. There’s a tangy salami but a “Speck d’Aosta” that’s no better than ho-hum. The rest are seasonal offerings that promise more than they deliver: new potatoes with spring onions in an anodyne mayonnaise; spinach and wild garlic yoghurt with not much evidence of the wild. The one item that sings out loud is – this must be Pollan’s luck – beetroot, some dark and bloody, some pink and fetching. We have also ordered Dorset mackerel “pan-fried” (where else are they going to fry it?) but the manager makes a sudden appearance. An ingredient has failed to show up. They thought maybe mint would do and then thought, no it wouldn’t. Would we mind if the fish was char-grilled with some green tomatoes and cannellini beans? The happy boys in the open kitchen do their thing and amid the half-empty restaurant a little miracle of simplicity happens: the fish is mouth-wateringly meaty, the skin crispy, the white beans as they should be, a touch soupy.

Pleasure arrives. But then so does the minder from Pollan’s publisher, and she’s looking uninterested in pleasure. He is ushered away …

But Pollanation has happened. Over a moody rhubarb sorbet I brood on our conversation. “There’s a big tragic social theory lurking in your work, isn’t there?” I’d said to him. “We’re stuck with a culture that militates against your dream of restoring a sense of community through cooking and eating together at home. TV dinners and movie popcorn are the opposite of real eating; our restaurant fetish lets someone else do the cooking; and the gym hours spent to make us feel good give excuses not to make dinner. So what the hell can we do?”

“Oh,” he said, summoning one of his most expansive smiles, “We can tell stories.”

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

‘Food, Inc’, a documentary featuring Michael Pollan, has just been released on DVD