Food & Drink

Michael Pollan’s plate is full – of food insights

Michael Pollan, shown visiting a $9.2 million, 12-acre “harvest garden” outside Kansas City in May, says that “on the whole” he is encouraged by the direction of world food production.
Michael Pollan, shown visiting a $9.2 million, 12-acre “harvest garden” outside Kansas City in May, says that “on the whole” he is encouraged by the direction of world food production. Kansas City Star

If there is one food activist among the many who has done the most to educate the public about how its sustenance is sourced and processed, it’s author, journalist and essayist Michael Pollan. He’s the guy who scared us silly in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.” (2008), as he calmly explained how factory farming dominates the American food chain, and why we have become culinarily and spiritually diminished because of it.

Time magazine included the UC Berkeley professor in its 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, and Newsweek named him one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders” in 2009. His provocative, award-winning bibliography includes “Cooked” (2013), “Food Rules” (2010), “In Defense of Food” (2008) and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006). He regularly writes for the New York Times Magazine and a host of national magazines, including The New Yorker, National Geographic and Travel + Leisure.

Pollan has been in Cambridge, Mass., working on a book that’s “a bit of a departure,” he said. “It’s about the revival of science and therapy around psychedelics. I’ve written about altered states of consciousness before.” He and his family live in Berkeley. He will appear Sept. 29 for the Sacramento Speakers Series.

The Bee caught up with Pollan by phone in Cornwall, Conn., where he was vacationing. He has roots in neighboring Long Island, “but I’m a Californian first,” he said. He had just finished a breakfast of cereal with blueberries and peaches, and a cup of green tea with his wife, artist Judith Belzer. Visit him at www.michaelpollan.com.

Q: You’re coming to the self-proclaimed Farm-To-Fork Capital of America.

A: The local-food movement – which I date to the 1970s – has deep roots in California, but not exclusively so. There were leaders like Wendell Berry in Kentucky, for instance. California has always been ahead of the curve, with the organic movement getting big here first. Now Wal-Mart is the biggest distributor of organic foods. And we have the influence of restaurants like Chez Panisse, which promoted a certain type of farming.

Q: Are you all about locavorism?

A: It’s easier to practice it in California, but if it’s stressful that means you’re imposing a kind of absolutism on yourself. As one who writes for a national audience, I always have to remind myself that we have opportunities here that no one else has. Our farmers markets are open 50 weeks a year, closing only to give the farmers a break.

Q: “Food, Inc.” caused shock waves that gave impetus to the local-food movement. Where do the Big Food manufacturers stand these days?

A: They feel under pressure from the food movement because consumers are abandoning them and moving to smaller, more artisanal brands. (Big Food) wants to capture that lightning, so its response is to change production practices to appear more like (smaller brands), or buy those artisan brands outright. I’m encouraged on the whole, though, because we’re building an alternative food economy which soon will have some political influence.

Q: Are gluten and genetically modified organisms still hot topics?

A: I have not talked to an audience in the last several years that hasn’t asked me about both. As a nutritional question, gluten is still the leading one. The GMO question continues to come up (largely) because of the labeling issue. I would be happy to move on, but the audience isn’t ready to.

Q: What about the marketing of so-called gluten-free items that never contained gluten in the first place?

A: It’s really getting out of hand. I’ve seen bottled water that was labeled “gluten-free.” And the same with GMO-free. There are lots of crops that have never been modified. Wheat is an example. The whole thing is sort of a shakedown by the GMO-free people, getting companies to pay for unnecessary labeling.

Q: In practical terms, could the nation be fed without factory farming?

A: I don’t think the problem is about the sheer amount. The bigger problem is labor – we don’t have enough farmers, so we would need a renaissance in farming (to do without factory farming). We couldn’t feed people the huge amount of meat we eat in America without factory farms – 9 ounces per person per day – but growing it on feed lots is a major contributor to climate change.

There’s no question we could feed the world’s population with a gentler form of agriculture, because right now we’re growing enough calories per person to feed the billions. We’re just not using those calories in a very rational way. We’re using a lot of our agricultural might to feed our cars, to feed animals and to feed garbage dumps. There’s so much waste.

Q: Aren’t restaurant and cooking-school chefs at the vanguard of fostering change?

A: The chefs have raised the standard and changed American tastes, but most importantly they’ve highlighted the significance of farmers and farming, a legacy of the food movement. We’ve celebrated our farmers in the abstract for a long time, but didn’t treat them very well. Now every product on the market wants to be associated with a farm, even if that product came out of a factory.

Q: Is there a “cook at home” movement that has spun off the food movement?

A: The big trend over the last 40 years has been a decline in cooking. There has been a slight uptick (recently), but there’s more talk of a revival than there is a revival itself. Many of us spend more time watching cooking on TV than we spend actually cooking, which is bizarre. But it tells you there’s something deep and emotional about the concept (of cooking at home). In “Cooked,” I wanted to learn how to make really good whole-grain bread, but our white-flour system conspired against me.

Q: Isn’t the decline in home cooking partly caused by a perceived lack of time?

A: We’re all in a “I don’t have the time” panic, and the industry stokes that. Look at the ads for food. They show people too busy to possibly ever boil an egg. Even though it takes time to go to restaurants, you have to wait for your food to be cooked and it costs more. Somehow, that time and money investment isn’t regarded as an offense.

Q: What’s your take on veganism?

A: It takes a lot of work. I have enormous respect for vegans and vegetarians, although I’m not one. I think of myself as a flexitarain – a person who occasionally eats meat. A plant-based diet flavored with animal protein is a sane one. You can get that in a Mediterranean or an Asian incarnation.

Q: What are some of your favorite foods?

A: We cook at home most nights. I love seafood and fruits, but I’m on the wrong side of history on the gluten issue because I love pasta and breads. We have a couple of vegetarian meals every week. We have meat only once a week, if that, because we’re very picky about the meat we eat. If we can find grass-fed ground beef, we’ll have burgers.

Q: What seasonings do you favor?

A: A lot of fresh basil, cilantro and dill in the summer. In the winter, coriander, cumin and oregano. We use a lot of Asian spices.

Q: What will you never put in your body?

A: In the interest of research, I’ll put just about anything in my body. And I did when I was writing “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” There’s a McDonald’s meal at the heart of that book. I used to love McDonald’s food, but I’ve been on feed lots and in slaughterhouses and I know too much about it to really enjoy it.

Q: What is your ultimate message?

A: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Q: That’s been your mantra for years.

A: That’s because I haven’t had to update it.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Sacramento Speakers Series

Michael Pollan will appear for the Sacramento Speakers Series at 8 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento. Tickets to the six-speakers series are sold as a package, priced from $210 to $450 at sacramentospeakers.com and (916) 388-1100. Tickets will not be sold at the event. Doors will open at 7 p.m. Pre-autographed copies of Pollan’s books will be for sale, and Pollan will autograph books after his presentation.

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