Monday, April 7, 2014

Inside the brain (and stomach) of Michael Pollan

For the past 25 years, Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on plates, in farms and gardens, and in the environment.  In 2009 he was named by Newsweek as one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders.” He was also named to the 2010 "Time 100," the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Maira Kalman illustrated the 2011 edition of Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (first published in 2009); it was also updated with 19 additional rules (including "Place a bouquet of flowers on the table and everything will taste twice as good" and "When you eat real food, you don't need rules").
Other Pollan food rules: “Eat When You Are Hungry, Not When You Are Bored”; “Don't Overlook the Oily Little Fishes.” The Atlantic calls Food Rules "Pollan's definitive compendium … a veritable Whole Earth Catalog of what should nourish us. Maira Kalman is the Michael Pollan of visual storytelling—she knows what's good and keeps us fulfilled with her charming and witty observations of quotidian and rarified worlds. It is therefore fitting and proper that Pollan and Kalman have partnered on a deliciously colorful illustrated edition."
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan points out that “organic” isn’t synonymous with “local”  or “sustainable,” citing a Cornell scientist’s estimate that growing, processing, and shipping one calorie’s worth of organic arugula to the East Coast costs 57 calories of fossil fuel.
“Pollan did his own taste test by shopping at Whole Foods for an all-organic meal; wrote The New Yorker, “everything was pretty good, except for the six-dollar bunch of organic asparagus, which had been grown in Argentina, air-freighted six thousand miles to the States, and immured for a week in the distribution chain. Pollan shouldn’t have been surprised that it tasted like 'cardboard.'
I've been meaning for the longest time to make the trip to Polyface Farms (above), which is not too far from where I live. It's an organic farm in Swoope, Virginia (in the Shenandoah Valley), where the "pastured" chickens roam and graze in moveable field shelters. They don't sell to supermarkets or ship long distances, but they sell to restaurants (and you can go there and buy directly from them).
Pollan devotes several chapters in The Omnivore's Dilemma to visiting the farm, working there for a week, and later cooking a meal for friends with chickens and eggs from there. I saw Washington DC restauranteur Cathal Armstrong on a cookbook panel recently, and he reminisced about making the six-hour round trip from D.C. to obtain Polyface's eggs, back in the day when they were the only organic game in town. He said you just can't compare the taste. (He also credits The Omnivore's Dilemma with setting him on the right track.) Here's an excerpt from the book on Pollan's experience at Polyface that appeared in Mother Jones.
Whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.—Polyface Farm owner Joel Salatin as quoted in The Omnivore's Dilemma 
In The Botany of Desire, Pollan linked four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato.  Cutting down on the biodiversity of apples (left) by grafting means we have to use more pesticides. They exemplify his "sweetness" category, whereas marijuana, as one would expect, is the intoxicant. Although cannabis sativa has been in use in one form or another for as long as history has been recorded (below is an illustration I recently came across in a medieval book), the plant has undergone its greatest transformation only in the last few decades.


  1. Great info and definitely visit Polyface! Rick has been getting his eggs and meat there for years.. they "deliver" to certain sites - Annapolis being one so we are very lucky! Love your writings.. keep up the good work Janet! -- TK

    1. That is so funny: I live 50 miles away from Polyface, and you are getting stuff from them where you live! I have to get some of their chicken and cook it myself, because if I eat it in a restaurant here in C'ville I won't know if it tastes good because of the chef or its intrinsic merits. Thanks so much for your encouragement too!

  2. Really terrific post! I agree with Pollard on all these points. What does he think of genetic modification?
    My personal gripe with the way fish is sold is the vagaries of the names. Twenty-one species qualify as "sardine" and recently, I don't know what kind of salmon I'm buying. I wish I could have the Latin names--Linnaeus was careful about naming, and didn't care for marketing games.
    I've missed the old kind of spinach they used to sell. (crinkly, red at the base) The smooth-leaved sort I eat nowadays is a different thing altogether.
    I would love to visit Polyface and get some eggs that haven't sat in a warehouse for 3 weeks!

    1. I can't believe I did that! It's Pollan, of course. To think I just did my taxes! Better go back & recheck! Also increase the text size on my browser.

    2. There was so much more I could have quoted, but the post was getting long; maybe I'll do an addendum at some point (esp. if/when I visit Polyface!!) The varieties of vegetables we never see are astounding. I went to a panel at the VA book festival here, and one of the speakers is collaborating with Monticello gardens on preserving all kinds of seeds for diff. species of now "heirloom" plants.

  3. Pollan and Salatin have made excellent contributions to our knowledge of the food industry and hopefully have enough influence to change the way many companies grow, distribute, preserve, and process food.
    @gioconda: About GMO's, I'm not sure how to feel about them. I've read that GMO corn is awful and causes all sorts of tumors in lab rats, but GMO bananas and such, haven't heard much about. Either way, the food industry is certainly unreliable and Pollan has made it a lot more transparent for us.

  4. I will say that he makes a lot of great points about the real cost of food. Although it is sometimes painful to pay the "high" costs at farmer's markets, I like that Pollan puts the grocery store prices as "irresponsible" in that they don't consider the future environmental & health costs. It's also important to support local farms that are much more likely to be paying living wages to their employees rather than larger companies that rely largely on underpaid migrant workers.

    So, yes, while I can buy a bag of spinach for $3 at the supermarket and it costs $6 at the market two blocks away, I know where it comes from & I know that the company makes an effort to provide a good worker environment.

    My favorite recent experience at the supermarket was purchasing a pineapple (which cannot be grown locally within any reasonable context) and it said "Fresh From the Tropics!" Unless they over-nighted the pineapple from "the tropics" to my local market, I have no doubt that it probably was picked before ripe, and then "freshly" ripened in a "fresh" truck going thousands of miles.

    1. I know, you have to bite the bullet a lot when buying organic!. But like you I would so rather give $$ to local markets for organic than to Whole Foods!