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About Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author, most recently, of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. His previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award for best food writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His website is www.michaelpollan.com

Posts by Michael Pollan

Vote with Your Forks! (Guest Blogger: Michael Pollan)

Pollan_michael_250 As this guest blog comes to an end this week, so does my book tour in support of In Defense of Food, so I thought I'd leave you with a few observations from the road. After speaking in places as different as New York and Indianapolis, Toronto and Louisville, Philadelphia and Iowa City, as well as LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, I'm convinced that we're witnessing the rise of a new movement around food in this country--one of the most exciting and hopeful political developments in my lifetime.

Two years ago, when I was on the road for The Omnivore's Dilemma, the ferment around food issues was concentrated mostly in big cities and mostly on the West Coast. That was where people "got it" and seemed most excited about building local food economies, supporting small farmers doing good work, and reforming agricultural policies at the federal and local levels. But much has changed in the last two years. I found the same level of enthusiasm and sophistication in places like Indianapolis--cities in the farm belt where you would not expect criticism of the corn industrial complex, or the virtues of local food, to find much support. While I was on the road, we had the recall of 143 million pounds of beef from the slaughterhouse in Chino as well as the ethanol-induced spike in food prices, two issues I got many questions about. People are coming to recognize that food is a political and ecological issue--indeed, is becoming a national security issue. The mystery, to me, is why so few of our political leaders yet recognize the visceral power of this issue. They soon will.

Today's food movement has many faces, some of them more prominent in certain places than others. There is the movement to reform school lunch. There is the effort to regulate or ban the marketing of food to children. To teach children in schools how to grow food and then prepare it. There is the drive to rebuild local food economies, through farmer's markets, CSAs (community supported agriculture), and the development of municipal food policies encouraging institutions to buy produce locally. There is the meteoric rise of organic food in the marketplace and, not far behind, grass-fed animal protein. Every city now has a handful of chefs who are driving change and raising consciousness by connecting with farmers and shining the light of their glamour on the men and women doing the crucial work of raising our food with conviction. There is the movement to improve the lot of the animals in the food chain, holding producers to high standards of animal welfare. There is the drive to reform the farm bill, which shocked Capitol Hill this past year. There is the growing recognition on the part of the public health community that the farm bill is a public health issue. There is the movement to improve access to healthy whole foods in the inner-city food deserts where fast food is easier to find, and cheaper, than fresh produce. There is the effort to defend small producers from the burden of regulation that holds down local food production and drive up its cost. There is the movement to improve food labeling--calorie counts on fast food, for example--—and to ban transfats. There is the rise of the "Edible" magazines, which are popping up in cities from coast to coast to celebrate local foodways. There is the rise of Slow Food, the Italian-born organization devoted to rebuilding a food culture based on real food eaten communally. I met with Slow Food members in almost every city I visited, and all reported burgeoning memberships and activism.

So there is a lot going on. The movement as yet feels somewhat scattered and inchoate, which might explain why it hasn't been widely recognized by the media as a full-fledged movement. But make no mistake: That is what is rising in America today, a drive to repair our broken, dangerously unsustainable, brutal, and unhealthy food system, and replace it with a shorter, more legible food chain based on the principles of equity, sustainability, and health--but health in the broadest sense of the word, a conception of health that recognizes that our personal health is in fact indivisible from the health of the land, the plants, the animals, and the workers who together comprise the food chain that sustains us.

We're at the beginning of something big. Vote with your forks! --Michael Pollan

Your Comments and Food Haikus (Guest Blogger: Michael Pollan)

Thanks for the many provocative posts this week, especially the thoughtful comments on the challenges of eating well when we’re feeling so stretched, both for time and money. Yes, there are people who can’t possibly invest any more time or money in their food, but before deciding that describes you, it’s well worth considering whether the issue is really resources or priorities. For many of us it turns out to be a matter of priorities.

A few readers offered some good rules of thumb. Thanks to Richard Demers for this one:

“The more packaging, the worse it is.” He explains: “Like the individually wrapped Biscotti, in a plastic tray, in a cardboard box with a plastic window, in a plastic grocery store bag.”

Richard also included the aphorism “Eating is an agricultural act,” which he acknowledges he “stole from somebody.” He guessed it was Carlo Petrini or Alice Waters, but in fact the line belongs to Wendell Berry, the Kentucky writer and farmer, who wrote a wonderful essay on the theme of this blog that I recommend to everyone interested in these issues. It’s called “The Pleasures of Eating,” and it appears in an anthology of his work called “What Are People For.” You can also find it on the web.

I wanted to share something I picked up in Portland last week, while on book tour. Before speaking at an event at the Bagdad Theater, sponsored by Powell’s bookstore, the audience was handed index cards and asked to compose a food haiku in the style of the one printed on the cover of In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.” For some reason, that particular form and rhythm seems to be especially sticky, and it has spawned many imitations. (One of my favorites was submitted to the New York Times website: "Ate the plants. A whole heap. Still hungry.") Anyway, the audience at the Bagdad came up with some particularly sweet ones. Here are a few of my favorites (more are on the website of the magazine Edible Portland:

Grow corn
Just for food
Not cars

Go home
Rip up lawn
Plant kale

Sweet beet
Dye my mouth
Winter red

Earl Butz
Liked his corn
In cups

Feedlots
Make our beef
Torture raised

Picking fruit
Low hanging plum
You're mine

To eat
What I grow
Is heaven

As you can see, they’re not true haiku. (Two words/three words/two words) But try one: there’s something about the form that really works.

Look forward to reading yours.

Table Talk, Take Two (Guest Blogger: Michael Pollan)

Readers:

Thanks for all your posts, which were full of interesting comments and provocations—but not a whole lot of new eating algorithms, I must say. I await more of those.

There were a lot of interesting posts on the challenge of eating well on a budget, as well as some proposed strategies and solutions. The fact is, we have a food systems (ie, a set of agricultural policies) that encourages farmers to grow lots of corn and soy, the building blocks of fast food (in the form of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soy oil and all the other industrial ingredients teased out of those two remarkable plants) and effectively discourages farmers from growing real food people can eat. The result is that the unhealthiest calories in the supermarket are the cheapest, and the healthiest calories the dearest.

But processed food is not necessarily so cheap—it’s only cheap on a per-calorie basis. It costs money to design, produce, market and package those Honeynut Cheerio Cereal bars with the layer of synthetic milk-like material in the middle. If you compare the price of those bars to the price of the oats they’re made from (79 cents a pound for rolled organic in my market), you’ll quickly see that the processed version is no bargain. They’ve figured out a way to get you to spend several dollars a pound for oats by adding sugar, “convenience,” and fortified vitamins --about which all you need to know was supplied by one reader: “An old preacher of my acquaintance used to say that, "enriched" foods was like a guy robbing you of all your money, then tossing you a sawbuck saying, "now you're enriched."

To eat well doesn’t necessarily take a lot more money, but it probably does take more time. What people are buying when they buy processed foods is convenience, by and large. Many people don’t think they have enough time to cook any more, and the food marketers are very good at flattering our sense of busyness. Look at how they portray the American family: either stressed out in the morning trying to get out of the house (does no one have an alarm clock that works?!?!?) or relaxing with snack foods in front of the TV. Hmmm. It’s  worth thinking about what you actually do with the time you save by eating convenience food. Is it really better spend than cooking a meal for people you love and then enjoying it with them?

As Leslie Batchelor wrote in her post, “Always prepare your food with love, gratitude, and joy in your heart not anger, frustration, bitterness, sadness, etc.... Enjoy the process of making the meal! I swear the food tastes better and is better for us.”

Till next week….

Let’s see more of those rules of thumb. My favorite thus far: “Always leave room for an apple.”

Table Talk (Guest Blogger: Michael Pollan)

Pollan_michael_250 I'm delighted to have this opportunity to engage with you about my new book, In Defense of Food. Anyone who's had a chance to read it--or even just glance at the cover--knows that the book is my attempt to help readers navigate what has become a treacherous food landscape, made especially confusing by the rise of something I call "nutritionism." "Nutritionism" is a highly reductive way of looking at food that presumes the nutrient is more important than the food and, because nutrients are invisible, we need experts to tell us how to eat. This supposedly more scientific way of eating is what I set out to debunk in the book, on the grounds that it not only destroys the pleasure of eating, but has actually done very little for our health, except quite possibly to make it worse. Why? Because the science of nutrition is still very sketchy, and because the food industry uses this sketchy science to make health claims for distinctly unhealthy foods. Heart-healthy whole-grain Cocoa Puffs?!?! You get the idea.

Defense_food_cover_240_2 My premise is that science doesn't yet know enough to tell us how to eat. So who, or what, does? Not me or any other journalist, god knows. No, the best guide to how to eat is the guide we relied on for thousands of years before people know what an antioxidant or carbohydrate was, and that is Culture. Culture, when it comes to food, is of course a fancy word for your mom--through mothers, dietary wisdom, based on generations of trial and error and the gradual discover of what keeps people healthy and happy, has been passed down for thousands of years. So the last third of my book is an attempt to recapture some of this cultural wisdom before it completely disappears under the onslaught of food marketing and nutritionism.

I try to distill this cultural wisdom into a series of eating algorithms--mental tools for navigating the food landscape and eating well. Instead of talking about how to get your antioxidants or probiotics, my rules of thumb go more like this:

  1. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
  2. Avoid food products with more than five ingredients; with ingredients you can't pronounce.
  3. Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot.
  4. Shop the perimeter of the supermarket, where the food is least processed.
  5. Avoid food products that make health claims.
  6. Eat meals and eat them only at tables. (And no, a desk is not a table.)
  7. Eat only until you're 4/5 full. (An ancient Japanese injunction.)
  8. Pay more, eat less.
  9. Diversify your diet and eat wild foods when you can.
  10. Eat slowly, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.

There are more, but this should give you some idea of how I approach the question of what and how to eat.

Since publishing the book last month, I've collected several more useful rules of thumb from readers and people I've met on my book tour. For example, someone told me her grandmother used to say, "The whiter the bread, the sooner you'll be dead." Another reader wrote that her grandfather used to say, at every meal, "I always like to leave the table a little bit hungry." This cultural rule against eating until stuffed seems to be widespread. Muslims have told me that the prophet Muhammad addressed the issue of appetite by advising we should supply the stomach one-third with food, one-third with drink, and leave one-third for "easy breathing."

A couple of others I've collected:

"If it arrives through the car window, it isn't food."
"Eat all the junk food you want--as long as you cook it yourself."

I'd like to invite you to share more such rules for eating with me and the others reading this blog. By collecting old rules and developing new ones in the same spirit, we can help wrest the culture of food back from the marketers and the scientists.

I look forward to your rules. I'm also happy to answer any other questions you have about eating, the food chain, and my books about the subject, both In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma. I look forward to hearing from you. --Michael Pollan

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