Michael Pollan is coming!
Update: This lecture is TONIGHT, Wednesday, May 20 — event info here.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This is the credo of food activist and author Michael Pollan. I discovered the work of Michael Pollan about a two years ago in my various meanderings on the internet in search of other like-minded souls, those who had become aware of obvious major flaws with American food system and heritage of eating, or lack thereof. I’d had three social encounters around that time that had nothing to do with one another with the exception that Pollan’s (then) latest work The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals came up in discussion, and in each instance, it was heartily recommended to me. I added it to my amazon.com wishlist and didn’t think about it again until the beginning of this past semester, when, to my pleasant surprise, I found it to be a required text for one of my classes.
Before I go any further, I should say that I’ve found much solace in the relatively recent movement for local, healthy, whole, slow, or whatever-the-latest-ten-cent-word-is food because A) There are actual results that come from joining up with this cause, rather than theoretical, idealistic causes which exercise one’s angst rather than actually creating social change, and B) There are a good number of well-educated and well-spoken people involved to boot, and Michael Pollan is one of them.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan takes a hard look at four different food chains available to the present day omnivorous human. Industrial, organic, local and personal food chains are examined in detail, with the culmination of each section manifested in the form of a meal, assembled in the spirit of the food chain examined.
In terms of the industrial food system, Lawrence, Kansas is a great example, because we’re surrounded by it. There is so much land covered in corn and beans every year where we live, that to most, it simply becomes part of the landscape. Where does it all go? It goes lots of places, and few of them are in the interest of the long-term health of the American citizen. Our industrial food system makes unhealthy food that appears to be inexpensive because it’s all subsidized by tax dollars. This section of the book concludes with Pollan taking his wife and son to McDonalds; each of them orders something separate, (rather than communal eating which is generally expected in many cultures) and each of them eats their separate meal in a car, rather than sitting at a table together, another major departure from many established food cultures. Pollan estimates that when every step in the production of their food is considered, the amount of corn necessary to produce the food they ate for that one meal would be enough to overflow the trunk of his car.
The organic food chain is examined next, and while the whole “organic” thing is a feel-good subject, in many larger-scale instances, it’s not all that different from conventional food production when looked at through the lens of sustainability. How big can an operation be and still be organic in the truest, most complete sense? Now that there are federal standards for organic food production, that question appears to be easy to answer, but I believe sustainability is a major part of the organic production mentality, and I believe Pollan has a similar perspective. This section concludes with the author sitting down to a meal assembled from items available at Whole Foods. While they’re organic, most of what was selected for the meal was not local and had many “food miles,” which means that a lot of fossil fuels and other resources were used to deliver his certified organic meal to his plate.
The dichotomy of high-mileage, certified organic food brings Pollan to the next section of the book, which takes a look at local food production. Much of this part of the book is spent with a farmer named Joel Salatin as Pollan interns on Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Salatin fancies himself as a stage manager who raises seven different types of animals on his farm. He claims that the animals do most of the work, and it’s upto him to make sure that everyone’s in the right place at the right time. All of his livestock are maintained in a cycle such that one benefits from the next. When one herd of cattle are moved from a paddock, after a very specific amount of time, he moves his chickens to the same paddock where the cattle had been. The chickens benefit from what the cows have left, and in turn, they prepare the area for whatever follows the chickens in the progression. Joel Salatin is another great subject in and of himself, but it should be said that with his farming system, he creates a huge amount of food on a relatively small amount of land. All of his product is sold locally, and it appears that every step of the process is left better than it was before. Predictably, Pollan’s meal at the end of this section is assembled exclusively with locally produced food. He discovered that while he made the same meal he’d made several times before, he found that the meal was altogether characteristically different when made with ingredients that did not come from the conventional industrial food chain.
Finally, Pollan assembled a meal which was comprised exclusively of ingredients which he had gathered from nature. Fruit from local fruit trees, morel mushrooms, and a wild pig which Pollan had shot himself, to name a few. Oh, and he also gathered yeast from the air (?!) for his sourdough bread. I had no idea a person could do that. Anyway, this section of the book was to explore what would happen if a person were to completely step out of any definable food chain and make a meal of things that they, themselves were to harvest from the earth. Obviously it was an arduous task, but an important inclusion for the book; one that showed just how far removed modern culture is, for better or for worse, from the days of complete self-reliance in food production and consumption.
I enjoyed this book because while Pollan leads the proverbial horse to water, I don’t think it’s an exceptionally slanted account of the way our food supply infrastructure works. I believe it’s meant to be informative.
I guess what I take away from The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that people should learn to eat food again. I know the initial response to my statement is “Everyone eats food all the time.” I don’t mean it in the Food Network sense, but rather in the “What am I actually feeding myself” kind of way. What I’m trying to say is that there’s food that has been around a long time, and then there are variations on a given theme, which eliminate components of a given food that are incongruent with a current food fad, while retaining the title or identity of the long-standing food itself. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Try going to almost any run-of-the-mill grocery and see how many isles you can walk down which have products that look like something you recognize, except it’s “better” or “better for you” or with the word “less” or “0%” or “heart-healthy” or whatever. Think fad diets, think “butter” or “juice” or “cheese.” Look at what’s proposed for you to feed your children. While these foods may resemble a recognizable consumable, often times it is fundamentally different from what we assume we are feeding ourselves.
What sucks is that no one cares anymore about what we feed ourselves. Many of us were brought up in the 50’s mentality that commercials and advertisements reflect a company’s intentions, regardless of the fact that all of that mentality went out the window about thirty years ago. It’s up to you to decide what you eat, and sometimes that can be a tricky endeavor. It’s something interesting to think about.
The good news is that he’s coming.
Michael Pollan will be speaking at Unity Temple on Wednesday, May 20th, at 7 p.m. $15 gets you an autographed copy of his latest book, "In Defense of Food," and either one or two tickets, depending on your needs.
I’m going, and I think you should, too.