Pots and Pans, but Little Pain

Making Lunch With Michael Pollan and Michael Moss

By the time most Americans reach adulthood, the supermarket ceases to hold surprises. But Michael Pollan, one of the most prominent voices on food today, a man who knows the nuances of the grocery store inside and out, was struck by the sight of the cheese aisle.

“Look how big cheese has gotten,” he said, taking in not only the Swiss, Cheddar, Parmesan, American, Monterey Jack and an array of blends heretofore unknown, but also all the pre-cut forms in which it was available, the slices, the blocks, the crumbles, the cubes, the strings and the shreds.

He and Michael Moss, who was perhaps somewhat less surprised, having made a study of processed cheese and other products for his new book, “Salt Sugar Fat,” were hunting for a humble ball of mozzarella at a supermarket near Mr. Moss’s home in Brooklyn.

The Dining section had brought together Mr. Pollan (whose latest book, “Cooked,” was published last week) and Mr. Moss to make a tasty, reasonably healthy lunch. But there was a stipulation: they had to use ingredients that could be found at just about any grocery store. There would be no farmers’ market produce, no grass-fed beef or artisanal anything.

It’s not so tough a task for someone with basic cooking skills and savvy about the products on the shelves. But, as both men suggest in their books, that’s no longer a given among Americans.

Mr. Moss and Mr. Pollan considered the mozzarella choices, skipping the pre-shredded kind in favor of a cheese that advertised itself as a product of Amish country and that cost the same as the more generic ball beside it.

“Real milk, no hormones, no antibiotics,” Mr. Pollan said, reading aloud from the label. “I love the term ‘real milk.’ I wonder if we can get fake milk anywhere here.”

So went the shopping trip: everything that went into the cart was subject to scrutiny.

“This seems like such a tranquil atmosphere,” Mr. Moss said. “It’s quiet, there’s peaceful music, it smells O.K. But behind these shelves is the most fiercely competitive industry there is.”

Mr. Moss, 57, a New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the meat industry (he’s responsible for bringing the phrase “pink slime” to light), paints a fairly grim portrait of American eating in his book, depicting it as a never-ending meal of foods salted and sugared to extremes. Even snacks like pita chips and cereal bars, which wear the woolen ponchos of good health, are revealed to be as bad for you as Doritos or Snickers.

To the problems Mr. Moss’s book describes, Mr. Pollan’s book offers a solution: cooking, the way to avoid frozen meals, fast food and any other product developed in the name of convenience.

Both men cook for their families, and decided that for their meal together, they would make dishes that regularly appear on their tables at home: Mr. Moss’s pizza, and a chickpea soup that Mr. Pollan makes using canned garbanzos and a lemon. A salad of sliced avocados and oranges completed the menu — “very Berkeley,” said Mr. Pollan, who has long lived in the Northern California town that is also home to Chez Panisse.

Back in the kitchen at Mr. Moss’s home, Mr. Pollan swung into action. “Why don’t I start chopping onions?” he asked Mr. Moss. “Since we both need onions?” His offer may surprise readers of “Cooked,” in which Mr. Pollan professes to hate chopping onions. It is a chore, he writes, an emblem of all that is messy, tedious and time-consuming about cooking.

“I’ve passed through into this Zen place,” Mr. Pollan, 58, explained as he stood at the counter and slowly sliced three onions in half lengthwise, gently peeling them, then making the long, careful incisions that would reduce the bulb to diced bits. “If you develop the right attitude about onions, cooking becomes more interesting.” The right attitude, Mr. Pollan has suggested, is to embrace cooking and have patience; his book is devoted to foods that are the slowest of the slow: bread made using sourdough starter, Southern barbecue, kimchi, beer.

He added some of the diced onions to a pot, and their sizzle and scent filled the kitchen. Two cans of chickpeas and a good amount of water went in soon after.

“By the way, what are we engaged in now?” Mr. Pollan deadpanned, as he tended to the pot. “This supposedly impossible drudgery that is just soul-crushing?”

Mr. Moss took a portion of the onions for a sauce using canned tomatoes, garlic and a pinch of sugar. He had prepared the dough the night before, using whole wheat and white flours, letting it rise all morning in the bedroom of one of his sons, a sunny spot in the front of the house. Pizza isn’t necessarily thought of as healthy food (fat-avoiders shun the cheese; carb-phobes, the crust). But, Mr. Moss said, “Pizza has been stolen by the fast food industry.” It gets unhealthy, he said, only when you freight it with “huge amounts of cheese, sauce with added sugar and overly fatty meat toppings.”

Meat, normally at the center of the American plate, was in fact missing from the lunch menu altogether. That was in large part because meat can be tricky to shop for at typical supermarkets, where minimalist labels and vague wording dominate the display case; it’s difficult to know what you’re actually getting on that white foam tray. While Mr. Moss still eats industrial meat from time to time, Mr. Pollan adamantly avoids feedlot meat altogether.

“So when you go out and there’s a food truck with tacos,” Mr. Moss asked, “with beef or pork ….”

“I’ll go vegetarian,” Mr. Pollan said. “Or fish. I’m willing to risk the weird tilapia they put in a taco. But I really make a point of not eating meat that I don’t know where it comes from.”

But, he said, he doesn’t judge.

“I don’t get invited out to eat as much as I used to, or to people’s houses, because they think I’m going to be critical,” Mr. Pollan said. “I’m cast in this role of dietary superego, and I really don’t feel that way at all.”

He has even begun to receive confessions, as if he had ascended to a sort of food priesthood. “You don’t have to tell me if you like your Cheetos,” he said. “That’s between you and your cardiologist.”

The sauce was ready. Mr. Moss rolled out the first of two rounds of dough and slid it into the oven to crisp before adorning it with sauce and cheese. Back into the oven it went, and it was done in minutes. The second pie, this one with mushrooms and olives, was next.

Both pies were sliced into wedges. The earthy chickpea soup received a bright sting of lemon and was ladled into bowls. The avocado salad was laid out on a plate. It was a beautiful, simple lunch.

It had taken more than an hour. A frozen pizza or canned soup would have been faster and easier to prepare. But, Mr. Moss pointed out, with pre-made dough, easy enough to find, you could make a healthy and delicious pizza in less than 45 minutes. He had used a pizza stone, but a regular pan would suffice, and there were no special techniques to master. And though he had taken the time to make a basic tomato sauce, there was plenty left over for another meal.

“The problem with cooking is that we’ve denigrated it,” Mr. Pollan said. “There’s just a cultural problem of persuading people it’s a valuable way to spend their time.”

Mr. Moss agreed. “Just imagine what Madison Avenue could do if they wanted to sell home cooking,” he said.