Author Michael Pollan goes ‘In Defense of Food’

Michael Pollan came to his calling by accident.

Tall and lanky, a student of the essayists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he thought he would end up an English professor. But a garden intervened. And a rather unfortunate incident involving a woodchuck, cabbage seedlings and a gallon of gasoline. More on that later.

So he became a writer who first focused on how humans exist in nature. From there it was a quick leap over the hedge to the study of what, why and how we eat. That turned out to be a meaty vein.

Four books later, Pollan, 52, has emerged as an important critic of the industrial food complex that grows, processes and sells what we eat. He has “an enormous influence” on how Americans think about food, says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University.

His 2006 best-selling exploration of the food chain, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times and The Washington Post. It won the James Beard Award for best food writing. During that book tour, the most frequent question was: “What should we eat?”

His answer is his fifth book, out this month, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Here’s the gist, inscribed on the front cover: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Pollan says we should eat only foods that our great-grandmothers would have recognized. He started out saying just grandmother but realized she wouldn’t necessarily predate fat-free sour cream, breakfast bars and butter-flavor crystals.

While you’re at it, avoid products that have five or more ingredients, especially if you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce them.

Pollan sees himself in the role of Dr. Spock — Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor. During the 1950s and ’60s, when everyone was busy “professionalizing” child care, Spock told mothers to relax and trust their instincts.

“Spock said, ‘Your mother was right, you know a lot of this stuff.’ And that was a very comforting, liberating tactic to people. Not to mention, it was right.”

Industry has an agenda

Remember that the food industry does not have your best interests at heart, Pollan says.

“Their interests are getting you to eat too much food processed more than it should be. And your interests are to leave well enough alone with the food. But they can’t make enough money on that.”

Modern agriculture has made food cheaper than it ever has been. But cheap food doesn’t make money for the food industry, so it’s always busy trying to find ways to “add value” to food, by making it more processed and more complicated, he says.

At the same time, science has been busy attempting to deconstruct food, to understand the component parts of it — vitamins, minerals — that make it healthy.

Food companies twist the single-nutrient research papers (Vitamin C cures the common cold! Resveratrol in grapes protects the heart!) to make their processed products seem more nutritious than the real thing, Pollan says.

This has led to companies spending a fortune to get us to eat more highly processed foods touted as healthier because the nutrients present in whole foods have been added back in at the factory, he contends. None of which is necessary or good for us, Pollan says.

Not surprisingly, the food industry doesn’t agree.

The Corn Refiners Association, for example, doesn’t like Pollan’s take on high-fructose corn syrup. Because of agricultural subsidies, it is very cheap, and it shows up everywhere. It’s why our food is a lot sweeter than it was 100 years ago and why sweet foods are so much cheaper — and one reason we’re eating more of them than ever before, he maintains.

The refiners disagree.

“Sugar, honey and high-fructose corn syrup have the same number of calories and all come from natural sources,” association president Audrae Erickson says.

“Looking for villains on the store shelves is the wrong approach. The key to a healthy life is moderation in what we eat and getting plenty of exercise.”

As to where our food should come from, Pollan counsels that at the very least we shop the periphery of the supermarket. Avoid the dreaded center aisles, where processed foods predominate. Stick to the edges, where the meat, dairy, produce and fish are pretty much as they started out.

Buy local, and go hog wild

When possible, buy locally from the people who actually produce your food, Pollan suggests. And eat wild foods when you can, Pollan suggests. Weeds such as dandelions are free for the taking.

Food critic and writer Mimi Sheraton wonders whether the mania for local foods, and foods as close to a state of nature as they can get, hasn’t gone a little too far.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan went boar hunting so he could serve a meal he had grown, hunted or gathered entirely himself.

“I think it’s a kind of gonzo food journalism to some extent,” Sheraton says. “Michael Pollan is much more than that, of course.”

But people have been sending food all over the world for centuries, she says, in a quest to get the best. “I don’t want the broccoli if it has worms in it — even if it is from three miles away.”

Pollan grew up in Woodbury, N.Y., with his parents and three sisters, one of whom is actress Tracy Pollan. It was his grandfather who got him into gardening. An emigrant from Russia in 1917, he started out selling baked potatoes on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and built a produce distributorship on Long Island, which evolved into buying farmland and developing it.

Pollan went to Bennington College in Vermont, where he studied English literature with a focus on the tradition of nature writing in America. He got his master’s degree in American literature at Columbia University in New York.

Pollan eventually was recruited by Harper’s magazine and ended up being its executive editor for nine years. After 10 years in Manhattan, he and his wife-to-be bought a summer home, a broken-down farm in Cornwall, Conn. It was there he fatefully planted the garden that caused him to rethink everything he had studied in college.

“If you read Thoreau, you would feel that it was not within your rights to fence your garden off from woodchucks. You would not feel that you had any more right to your beans than the birds,” Pollan says.

It was a tremendous disconnect when Pollan, steeped in those 19th-century writings, one day found himself fire-bombing the den of a woodchuck that had mowed down his broccoli and cabbage seedlings.

“Here I was, pouring gasoline down its burrow and lighting a match to it, and I realized I was replaying a certain American approach to nature, which is ‘How dare these small-brained creatures thwart our desires?’ “

He eventually wrote a piece about his war with the woodchuck and others about his gardening, which began his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, published in 1991.

In 1994, he and his wife, painter Judith Belzer, decided they could afford to quit their jobs and live off writing and painting if they moved full time to Connecticut.

There he wrote his second book, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. It ostensibly was about building a one-room writing studio, but in fact, once again, was a meditation on nature.

Pollan’s third book really began to focus on food as a part of nature. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World looked at the natural history of four human-bred plants: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes.

“It was the first time I was on an industrial farm, and I was, frankly, shocked by what I saw,” he says. The use of chemicals “so toxic that the farmers would not go in their fields for five days “