Michael Pollan '76 talks about food, culture, and voting with our forks
Bestselling author Michael Pollan ’76 has brought the business of food to the classroom, to bookshelves, and to the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times—where one of his columns was even referenced by President Barack Obama. A selection from his latest bestseller, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, was included in the Best Food Writing 2008 anthology— the second time his work has appeared in the widely read annual series. Holly Hughes, the anthology’s editor, called the book “a fascinating sidebar” to his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which helped establish Pollan as a leading scholar on the agribusiness and food industries. We interviewed the author not long after his breakthrough book came out in 2007. His newest book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, came out in January 2010.
“How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?” It's with that simple question that The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, the acclaimed 2006 book by Michael Pollan '76, begins. What follows those words is anything but simple, as Pollan tours readers through the origins of four meals: from McDonald's, from Whole Foods, from a self-sustaining farm, and, finally, a hunter-gatherer’s entrée.
Pollan is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World; A Place of My Own; and Second Nature. The Omnivore’s Dilemma received a spectrum of glowing reviews from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, and many others. As The New York Times Book Review writes: "[Pollan's] super meticulous reporting is the book's strength—you're not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from."
We interviewed Michael Pollan just before the publication of another feature article he had written for The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Age of Nutritionism: How Scientists Have Ruined the Way We Eat.”
Q: Now that The Omnivore’s Dilemma is getting so much attention, journalists are beginning to ask more questions about where our food comes from—which is where you start. Why do you think these issues have struck a chord with readers?
Well, I have a couple of thoughts on that. Over the last few years, the industrial food system has had these serious hiccups—Mad Cow Disease, many instances of food poisoning—and every time one of these things happens, people learn a lot about how their food is produced. We’re feeding cattle to cattle? How does e. coli get into spinach? We’re washing the whole nation’s salad in one sink?
A second factor is that we have a public health crisis around food in this country. Obesity, diabetes—the public health system is groaning under the weight of the chronic diseases tied to diet. How do we come to eat this way, that we’re making ourselves sick? How can too much food be as big a problem as too little food?
And the third, I would say, is that there are so many issues that leave people feeling powerless, and this is an issue where everybody has a lot of power. We really can all vote with our forks. We’ve seen over the last twenty years that those uncoordinated decisions involving millions of people have a tremendous effect on the way food gets produced. The organic food industry, which is now a $14 billion industry, was founded by a bunch of hippie farmers and concerned consumers thirty years ago without any help from the government, and it sprouted up as a result of all those votes.
Q: And yet the way you’ve written the book, it seems like you don’t make any direct judgment about the food industry. You take a much more journalistic approach, which allows your readers to kind of draw their own conclusions. Why did you take that route?
I try very hard not to tell people what to think. What I’m trying to do is give people the tools to make their own decisions about food. I don’t need them to make choices the same way I make them, and it’s very important not to talk down to people. I always write as an amateur, as a normal person exploring a place or a subject on behalf of my readers. They don’t have time to go to a feedlot or a slaughterhouse, but I don’t fashion myself as an expert. I’ve just had more time and a set of journalistic tools to answer questions delegated to me by my readers. So when I write about meat, I do it as a meat eater.
But yeah, I like to dramatize the process of discovery that I’ve undergone and let the reader have a similar kind of process—rather than saying "Hey, I’ve been here, here’s the story. Don’t do this, do this," which I think is a real turnoff.
Q: After you publish an article in The New York Times along these lines—about food and the way it’s made—there are often a lot of letters to the editor. People are somewhat defensive, saying, “I’m a working mother and I have very little time and I have very little money. How does Mr. Pollan expect me to make an environmentally responsible or truly organic choice in eating without breaking the bank?’ How do you respond to that?
There is a real equity question here. We have created a system in which the cheapest calories in the supermarket are the most lethal, and that’s shameful given the food abundance we have. There’s no question that there are people in this country who can’t afford to eat organic or eat well or eat humanely raised meat, and that that’s something we need to deal with. But a large swath of my audience can afford to spend more on food if they decided it was a priority. The whole concept of fast food—the idea that food should be cheap and easy and involve no work—is a very corrosive idea, seductive as it might be. We’re incredibly tolerant of bad food in this country—badly made, bad tasting. One of the reasons Italians spend more on food is that they won’t tolerate, you know, crappy lettuce. The culture of food is such that you just can’t bring that stuff into the market; you’ll be laughed out of the market. So I think that’s the sea change we need, to elevate the importance of food in our lives so that we don’t begrudge the time or money it takes to do it well.
Q: How did your study and time at Bennington shape your work?
I learned a lot about writing at Bennington, there’s no question. I had a couple of professors there who were real editors and didn’t just write comments on papers but actually went through them and fixed sentences and showed you how to do that, and that was incredibly valuable. One in particular, Alan Cheuse, was instrumental in teaching me how to write and also giving me the ambition of publishing. He was publishing regularly, not just in academic journals, but book reviews in places like The Nation. And I remember thinking that was the coolest thing going. I also worked with John Gardner, who was a terrific teacher in the sense of giving me the ambition and the confidence to think that I could actually become a writer. I think Bennington’s very good at that—the apprentice model—encouraging students to take themselves seriously enough to embark on careers as artists and writers and scientists and all those things that they’re doing.