How Michael Pollan Ruined My Life: Thinking about where our food is coming from

It’s hard not to like Michael Pollan.

A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a best-selling author whose new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” was released last month, he is down-to-earth, friendly and easy to talk to. His course evaluations at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism — where he is a professor and I am his student — contain phrases like “best class I’ve ever taken” and “this is the reason I came to grad school.”

Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that I accused him of ruining my life. It started innocently enough. Interested in narrative non-fiction, I signed up for his fall seminar, a class called Advanced Science Writing that was geared toward “making the transition from writing for newspapers to magazines, with particular attention to scientific subjects.” Its course description said nothing about changing the way you eat.

And I didn’t think I needed to. Before Pollan’s class, I was already careful about my diet. I didn’t drink soda or eat fast food — I rarely even bought meat. But that was before, thanks to our class readings and discussions, I learned that the soybeans in my fake chicken nuggets were probably genetically modified. It was before I had read “Power Steer,” one of Pollan’s cover stories in the New York Times Magazine, and found out that conventionally raised cattle are frequently served cow blood and chicken droppings. It was before I began researching omega-3 fatty acids for a class assignment and became convinced that Americans’ over-consumption of vegetable oil and lack of fish was leading directly to coronary heart disease.

By the end of the semester I was avoiding genetically modified organisms, drinking milk only from grass-fed cows and consuming a previously inconceivable amount of line-caught Alaskan Coho salmon.

It was when I signed up for his course in the spring that the ruination truly began. The class is called Following the Food Chain and it, too, at first seemed innocuous. We learned about the carbon cycle of plants. We had snack time. At the end of the semester Pollan promised we’d have class lunch at Chez Panisse. But thinking and talking about food for three hours a week (not including the time spent on assignments and reading) made me painfully conscious of everything I put on my fork — not just for its nutritional content, but for the ecological and political ramifications of my purchases.

Pollan once told me he thinks of food as a “political choice” that he considers “empowering” because it is an area — unlike taxes — where he has control over how his money is spent. I could see where he was coming from, but I wouldn’t say it felt exactly “empowering” to realize that the chicken in my Southwest fiesta salad had never had a chance to spread its wings, or that the pig that made my ham sandwich probably had its tail snipped off. On the contrary, understanding where the food around me came from was making it impossible to eat. I don’t think Pollan was really trying to ruin my life. In fact, once I’d pointed out to him that reading “Fast Food Nation” and Upton Sinclair’s descriptions of slaughterhouses in “The Jungle” wasn’t the most pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, he began apologizing to me for our class assignments.

“Sorry, Catherine,” he said with a amused smile, announcing that we were to read Peter Singer’s ode to animal rights, “Animal Liberation,” and come to class prepared to defend our stance on meat-eating. He looked directly at me while introducing a PETA video called “Meet Your Meat” (my suggested subtitle: “And Then Never Eat It Again”) that featured live baby chickens having their beaks cut off and cows’ necks being slashed while the cattle was still twitching.

By that point, I had already begun to contribute a substantial proportion of my meager income to Niman Ranch (mostly in exchange for bacon from humanely treated pigs) and was trying to buy only organic produce. But after a class discussion made me realize how much fuel went into transporting asparagus to me in the dead of winter, organic was no longer enough — I had to eat locally, too. I signed up for a weekly box of vegetables from a nearby community-supported farm that ran its trucks on recycled vegetable oil and had community events like Strawberry Day. My weekly delivery of seasonal produce — squash, green garlic, kale, the ever-present radish — set me back $21 a week. And that was before I signed up for the cage-free eggs.

Halfway through the semester, I learned a new word: orthorexia. It means having an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily, an irony that was not lost on me as I stood in line at the Berkeley Bowl watching my groceries be rung up. Wild, line-caught salmon, pesticide-free strawberries — by now, those were normal. But organic ice cream? Was I really now concerned about the origins of my junk food, worrying whether a mint-chocolate-chip-producing cow had access to pasture?

I felt myself burning with self-righteous anger at having to be so self-righteous. I wanted to know the answer to one question: after wreaking so much havoc on my own life, what, exactly, did Pollan eat? So I did what any rational person would: I demanded to see the contents of his refrigerator.

Pollan e-mailed back quickly (perhaps worried that if he didn’t, I might break into his home), recounting a story about a time in the Berkeley Bowl where someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I can’t believe I’m watching Michael Pollan buy groceries.”

We arranged to meet at his house in Oakland on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon after he had picked his 13-year-old son Isaac up from school. “I’m not expecting to change everyone’s diet,” Pollan told me, as we settled onto comfy chairs in his living room. He was smiling benevolently as he sipped locally produced seltzer. “I just want people to think about where their food comes from and ask themselves whether they’re all right with that. That’s all. In the book I don’t really tell you what to eat.”

I still wanted to see his fridge, but first, I had some questions. “What are you having for dinner?” I asked.

“I know there’s some chicken in the fridge and some tofu — so probably some kind of stir-fry.”

“But what do you normally eat?”

“We eat grass-fed beef when we can get it. A fair amount of seafood — salmon, halibut. We eat a lot from the farmers’ market.”

This was like interviewing a Buddhist monk.

“What about food vices?” “I like cheese. And chocolate.” He noticed my skeptical look. “But you mean like, junky foods?”

“Yes,” I said. “Junky foods.”

This was a difficult question, one that Pollan redirected to Isaac, who thought hard and then said, “Crackerjacks.” “That’s true,” confirmed Pollan, a bit sheepishly. “But the prizes suck now because they’re worried about kids choking. You just get like, paper.”

“So has your writing made it harder for your family to eat?” I asked, looking encouragingly at Isaac. “Sometimes I really just want to punch him for it,” said Isaac. “But other times, you know, it’s for the better. It’s healthier.” He curled up next to his father on the couch, his loyalties clear.

I decided to cut to the fridge. For someone seemingly hell bent on destroying my ability to eat Boar’s Head cold cuts, Pollan was awfully giggly as he and Isaac led me to the kitchen, where he pulled open the refrigerator door. I peered inside, notebook and digital camera in hand, looking for anything amiss. There were two kinds of orange juice, one organic, one non (Judith Belzer, his wife, was apparently responsible for the transgression). Isaac claimed ownership of a Gatorade.

Other than that, it was true to Pollan’s purported philosophy. There were packages of tofu. Locally made Meyer lemon preserves. Pieces of the boar he’d shot. Newman’s Own organic cookies showed that Pollan and his family aren’t complete food purists (and Isaac’s sweet tooth accounted for the Trader Joe’s creme brulees in the freezer). In trying to eat organic, local foods — while at the same time not becoming too obsessive — Pollan seemed to be putting his money where his mouth was.

Now, as I left Pollan’s house, the adage “ignorance is bliss” kept running through my mind. This was partially because he had just quoted it (“Ignorance is bliss for a lot of people and I understand that,” he’d said, referring to Americans’ lack of knowledge about where their food comes from, “but I’m just curious. I do want to know, and once I know something, I can’t forget it”). Was it a good or bad thing to live in ignorance, eating food without questioning its origins?

As I stood in my kitchen that evening, nibbling on a pesticide-free strawberry, I decided that while it certainly was easier and cheaper not to have to think about what my meat had eaten, a certain degree of awareness was probably a good thing. After all, considering the fact that what we eat goes directly into our bodies, shouldn’t we be concerned about what goes into our food? I was happy to be conscious of all that, I concluded, stir-frying my organic kale and imagining the admiration a fellow grocery shopper would feel toward my newest purchases. Then I looked at my class syllabus and noticed that our next assignment was to read “Food Politics,” a 385-page book about the influence that food companies have had on supposedly objective nutritional guidelines. The semester — not to mention my own dilemma — wasn’t over yet.