What would Michael Pollan eat?
That dilemma has perplexed many of his speaking-engagement hosts who feel compelled to feed him, Pollan said. The New York Times best-selling author and world-famous omnivore swears he’s not a picky eater. He’s just careful about his food choices and very thoughtful about where that meal may have come from.
“People stress out, but they shouldn’t,” Pollan said with a chuckle. “I’d rather eat than eat nothing.”
With an appetite for locally sourced ingredients as well as knowledge, Pollan brings his unique food perspective to Grass Valley for a special appearance at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Hosted by the Center for the Arts, “An Evening With Michael Pollan” will be moderated by Capital Public Radio’s Beth Ruyak.
“I don’t know what I’ll be talking about – it’s an onstage interview,” quipped Pollan in a recent phone conversation. “It’s all up to the questions (from Ruyak and the audience). ... I’ll get questions about gluten; that’s on everybody’s mind. And genetically modified crops; those are both hot topics right now.
“But definitely, I’ll talk about cooking and (his new book) ‘Cooked,’ the place of cooking in improving our food system and taking back control of our health and diet,” he continued. “We’ll talk about my whole journey as a journalist following the food chain for 12 years, following food from farm to body. Along the way, the middle link – whether that food is processed or cooked – has an outsized impact on our lives. Who’s doing the cooking is important.”
Although this will be his first visit to Grass Valley, Pollan has made similar presentations many times nationwide. With such thought-provoking books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” Pollan prompts people to examine not only their own diet but how it affects the world we live in.
“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin, $27.95, 480 pages) follows Pollan’s own explorations inside his kitchen as he considered how the elements – water, fire, air and earth – transform flora (and fauna) into something delicious and socially important.
When at home in Berkeley, he regularly cooks dinner with his wife, painter Judith Belzer. (He handles the main course; she does the rest.) “I’m a ‘flextarian,’” he said. “We usually have meat twice a week, seafood two times a week and vegetarian (entrees) the other meals.”
At UC Berkeley, Pollan co-teaches “Edible Education,” a lecture series exploring the politics of food with a provocative lineup of guest speakers.
As perhaps the nation’s most recognizable expert on our complex relationship with food, Pollan obviously is a guy who thinks a lot about what he puts in his mouth. So, where do you take him for a late-night, post-talk bite to eat?
“My hosts sometimes are intimidated to feed me,” he said of speaking engagements. “Sometimes they’ll just drop me off at the hotel, let me fend for myself. Once, they dropped me off in front of a Chipotle; they thought that was the best they could do. But that was Lubbock, Texas. ... I’m sure they’ll do fine in Grass Valley.”
As an appetizer to his upcoming appearance, Pollan offered some more food for thought:
Mayor Kevin Johnson declared Sacramento the farm-to-fork capital. What do you think about the current farm-to-fork movement?
I think it’s really important. It connects the countryside with the city, connects farms with consumers who are willing to give them a higher price for their food.
I’ve met your mayor. He’s doing really interesting work, getting some fantastic programs going (such as cooking in schools). I’ve been really impressed by what he’s trying to do.
You delved into the kitchen to research for your latest book, “Cooked.” What surprised you most while writing “Cooked”?
My biggest surprise was how intellectually stimulating that the work of cooking could be. The whole world of microbes; I found it incredible interesting and satisfying in ways I didn’t expect to. Studying microbes and how they work; suddenly making kimchi or sauerkraut became very interesting, enthralling work.
Cooking is a lot like gardening; it’s engagement with the natural world. I got really interested in fermentation; food you can make without heat. ... I learned how important microbes are to our health, happiness and flavor.
I also was surprised by this phenomenon: Our culture is obsessed with cooking, but we don’t do it any more. I call it the cooking paradox. I’m trying to get people to wrap their heads around that one. If you care about where your food comes from, you cook.
In my own work, I’m really trying to connect all the dots between the meal and the farm and all the points in between. I try to illustrate that one of our main problems is that we’ve disconnected food from where it comes from.
A friend took a group of students from Oakland to a farm and the first thing they asked is, “Where’s the potato tree?” They thought potatoes grew on trees. That’s really scary. That’s why we have to take people to farms.
The food chain has gotten very long and hard to follow. The kind of work I do didn’t have to be done 75 years ago. I never could have written these books back then – everybody knew about farms and where food came from. It was only after World War II when so many people moved to cities and suburbs that we forgot.
As part of that farm-to-fork movement, more people are trying to “eat local.” But it’s not easy being a “locavore.” What’s your advice?
It’s not an “always” thing. People who try to be very exclusive are making a big mistake. There are some very good foods that might not be “local.” As in any revolution, there are people who go overboard to extremes in their pursuit.
I eat local when I can. It has many virtues – the quality of the food is better but also you’re keeping money in your community. But people who want to completely eat a locavore diet (may find) it’s stressful and unnecessary.
If you were stranded on a desert island – or at the airport – what three foods would you bring?
I’d bring nuts. Nuts are important to me; I really like nuts. If I had refrigeration, salmon; I love wild salmon. I’d also bring a fishing pole; it is an island. And I’d bring some chocolate. Nuts, fish, chocolate; not really a balanced diet, but it’s what I like.
Usually people ask me, “What would my last meal be?” It changes. It’s pretty chilly right now in Berkeley, so I want roast chicken with root vegetables. In summer, it’s salmon or albacore. My choice changes all the time, but it has to be something that takes a long time to cook and a very, very long time to eat.
What did you have for dinner last night?
Petrale sole with sautéed almond slivers in a little olive oil with kale from our garden and quinoa. ... It was late; we were hungry. Our decision came down to: What can I get on the table in an hour? We need fast food in our lives but it should be coming out of the pantry, not the drive-through.
I make fast food all the time (such as) pasta with tuna or salmon and chickpeas. I always have stuff in the pantry that I can use to get dinner done in 20 minutes. It takes longer to order takeout and go pick it up.
Is America’s relationship with food improving?
In some pockets, it definitely is. But across the board, it’s hard to measure. We see the number of farmers markets going up and more produce sold directly to consumers; that improvement is really important.
But we’re still not getting five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; it’s less than two. The obesity rate is leveling off; that’s good. People are eating out less at restaurants. Home cooking numbers have ticked up a little. Something is changing, but that may all be an effect of the recession. It may be too soon to say, but I’m guardedly optimistic.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington