Down to a Science

“How did we ever get to the point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?”

This question comes early in UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan’s forthcoming book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” due out April 11 from the Penguin Press.

It’s essentially the same question that Marion Nestle, Pollan’s colleague at Cal for the spring semester, asks in her new book “What to Eat.”

“That says that people are asking that question–that there’s a great deal of confusion about something that for a long time people basically knew: what to eat,” says Pollan, who lives in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood with his wife, Judith, an artist, and their son, Isaac.

Pollan and Nestle take different tacks with the subject. He’s the investigative journalist; she’s the investigative nutritionist.

But it’s no coincidence that two of the best writers on the subject are at Cal now, he in a tenured chair in the journalism school, she as a guest professor. They co-lead a Wednesday public lecture series on food.

Pollan, who moved to the East Bay from Connecticut in 2003 after publication of his best-selling book, “The Botany of Desire,” says “it’s no accident that Berkeley came to me and no other university did.”

“I think there’s an interest on campus and in the community that food is an important issue–not just a health issue but a political, environmental and ethical issue,” he says. “Elsewhere, the idea that you gather scholars and journalists devoted to the topic of food would be risible.”

Pollan was hired to teach science and environmental journalism as well. But he’s best known right now for delving into food to explore broader questions. His students have already published serious food articles in the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” takes readers through three food systems–industrialized, organic (big and small), and hunter-gatherer.

When people ask him what they should eat, he asks them what they value. Is it their health? How the landscape looks? How animals are treated?

His food writing is intended to give them enough information to figure out their own answers. Grass-fed beef or organic? He shows both. (His own answer is grass-fed.)

“I’m trying to be a designated looker for the people who can’t go to the organic farm or the slaughterhouse,” he says. “My idea is not to condemn it but to show you, so you can decide if you’re OK with that.”

Like Nestle, he believes that “when people know what’s going on, they tend to make good decisions.”

He adds, “Good food–it’s like pornography, people know it when they see it being made.”