A Q&A with Michael Pollan, author, amateur gardener and hero of the organic food movement
Interview by Ashley Ball, with Matthew Cooke
There are people who eat to live, and others who live to eat. Michael Pollan lives to eat well. His 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma explored the idea that our industrial food society—the one interested in fast, cheap, easy-to-consume product—falls short on addressing more human concerns like health and morality. But at the core of that book, as well as the 2008 follow-up In Defense of Food, is a deep love and affection for the sensation
For Pollan, organic, local food (food “your grandmother would recognize”) is not just good for our bodies and our planet; it also speaks to the better parts of our souls, and to the core of our experience as living, thinking beings.
MSN’s Ashley Ball sat down with Pollan to find out what he keeps in his refrigerator, and how we can translate his seemingly esoteric idea of eating well to our busy, budget-driven realities.
Q: The organic movement has been accused of being subtly elitist, because there’s a perception that it doesn’t take into account tight budgets and busy lifestyles. Do you have any advice for how an average American family could put some of the organic ideals into practice?
A: It’s not all or nothing. I think that’s an important thing that people lose track of. Take organic, for a moment. There are places where you get more for your organic dollar than others. For example, there’s a list of items in the produce section that traditionally contain lots of pesticide residue in them—potatoes and strawberries, for example. So if you have a limited amount of money to spend on organic, those would be smart places to spend it. There are other things, like lettuce and spinach, that don’t use a lot of pesticide. So you can pick your spots, and maybe not spend your organic dollars on those lower-return items.
In terms of local food, it’s true that the farmer’s market is more expensive than the supermarket produce section—usually. But there are ways around that. Community Supported Agriculture groups, for instance, are increasingly popular. Essentially, you subscribe to a local farm, and for, say, $15 you can get a weekly, good-sized box of produce. It’s cheaper than shopping at the farmer’s market. You get whatever is in season and at its best that week. That’s one way to eat local, high-quality local produce on a budget.
I think for a lot of people, it’s a matter of priorities. If you can afford a few more dollars a week on fresh produce, it would be a really good investment. The benefits are so great, in terms of not just your health and your family’s health, but the health of your community and the health of the local economy. Americans spend very little on food, compared to most countries less than 10 percent of our income. You do get what you pay for.
Q: As you say, lots of Americans spend very little on food, and have grown to like the taste of processed food.
A: Well, the taste of processed food is salt, fat, and sugar. It’s really simple. They are the primary colors of food, and they have a kind of immediate, seductive appeal to us because we’re hard-wired to respond to them. But they’re very crude flavors. In the same way your taste in movies or books develop as you’re exposed to more interesting and complex experiences, the same is true with food.
Q: How do you educate their palates and inspire people on a taste level to seek out organic and local cuisine?
One of the ways people learn about food is going to good restaurants, where the chefs show you what can be done with an artichoke or an organic chicken breast. It’s one place to expose yourself to new flavors and new experiences. I think that your palate gets conditioned by what you eat. Salt is a great example. Those of us who eat a lot of processed food are conditioned to outrageous amounts of salt. The reason they put so much salt in processed foods, besides the fact that it’s appealing, is it makes up for the lack of flavor. Because when you process food, you’re removing flavor. I defy anyone to go to the farmer’s market, eat a well-grown carrot and think “God, I’d rather eat a French fry from McDonald’s” It’s just a far better experience. Before you assume that you’re not going to enjoy something, you should try it at its best. There are farmers today who have such skill and have learned to grow foods so well—when it’s fresh and it’s picked right, it’s a richer experience than any kind of processed food you can have.
Q: You mentioned McDonald’s French fries, which are such an iconic American item. Other countries have food cultures—think of places like Italy and Spain, for instance. But what about America? Does it even have a food culture, and if so, can you see it evolving?
A: Well, some people say America’s food culture is fast food. But I think America has many food cultures, and what’s different about our country as compared to many others is we’re an immigrant culture. We don’t have a single dominant food culture. This has created a vacuum into which companies like McDonald’s can step, food marketers can step, food scientists can step, everybody can step and tell us how to eat because we don’t have a culture telling us how to eat. And that’s a loss. I think that’s really hurt us as a culture, and I think it’s one of the reasons that we have more diet-related health problems than most people on the planet.
But there are signs that we’re building a cohesive food culture. I think American chefs are in the process right now of figuring out what is American food, what do we do well, what’s unique to us, and borrowing from other cultures, whether it’s European or Asian or Indian. Someday, I believe we will have a truly vibrant food culture. You see the signs of it developing now. Americans now have standards. The expectation of what a cup of coffee should be like, for instance, has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Starbucks deserves a lot of credit for educating the American palate, and showing that you can pay more and get a much better experience with a cup of coffee. That’s a big step. They led with quality rather than quantity. I think we will be shifting toward an interest in quality when it comes to what we ingest. And that’s how you begin. It’s in the process of being born.
Q: Do you have any specific chefs that you think are really playing into that?
A: I think Alice Waters in Berkeley has had a tremendous role in teaching people that really good food doesn’t have to be complex. Her food is very simple, but it’s incredibly delicious, and why? Well, because she’s an absolute zealot and perfectionist on ingredients. She’s not going to serve cauliflower unless it’s amazing cauliflower, and she will only serve things that are at their best, in season, and if she can’t find a good source of grass-finished beef, there will be no beef on the menu, so no compromise. And I think she has done a lot to elevate the quality of American food without making it fancy.
Q: How have commercial food companies responded to your work?
A: (Laughs) Well, you know, it’s hard to generalize. Some have reached out to engage with me. I’ve had a dialogue with Whole Foods (which, if you want, you can link to on my Web site and on John Mackey’s blog at the Whole Foods Web site), where he took objection to some of the things I said about his company, and we got into a whole discussion about Whole Foods’s commitment to local and organic and grass-fed meat, and, so it was a productive exchange. It was constructive criticism and led to some interesting changes or commitments on the part of the company. The Corn Refiners Association is not very fond of me. They’re the people who make the high-fructose corn syrup, and I have met from time to time. … So far it hasn’t been an overly hostile relationship, and, you know, as a journalist I feel obliged to engage with anyone I write about and give them a chance to respond and tell me where I got it wrong. So it hasn’t been litigious.
Q: Have you always been interested in food as a subject?
A: Yes and no. My mother was a very good cook, and she was very interested in food, and she still is a very good cook, and she was very adventurous for an American housewife in 1960. She was always trying new things, and she would cook a little bit of French, a little bit of Asian, a little bit of British; she was just pulling influences from everywhere. So I was kind of lucky growing up, that we always had a family dinner and she would always cook something, and it would be different every night.
I was always into growing my own food—some of it—and, since I was a young child I just found it miraculous that you could plant a seed and a couple weeks later you could get something really tasty to eat. In fact, before I was 10, I had a little … what I called a farm stand in my house, a tiny little garden, and every time I could grow two or three strawberries, I’d put them in a Dixie cup and sell them to my mother. So I’ve been interested in the food business for a long time that way.
But my real interest as a writer has always been in the places where the human world and the natural world intersect, in complex, often very messy ways. Gardens are one of those places. Architecture is another one of those places. And food is one of those places. We don’t think about what’s happening on our plate in this way, but it does represent your most profound engagement with the natural world. Through our eating, we change the composition of species on the planet more dramatically than anything else we do. We change the landscape more dramatically than anything else we do. As someone who’s deeply interested in nature, as I’ve always been, food is a necessary arena to really explore. So I come at it from that direction.
Q: What would we find in your refrigerator?
A: You would find many things that would look really familiar: milk and orange juice. In the fruit drawer, you would find, always, lots of apples, some grapefruits and oranges or other citrus. In the vegetable drawer, you’ll always find carrots, which my son eats a lot of, lettuce and other greens, kale and chard and things like that.. And in the miscellany drawer you’d find some bacon and cheeses. There’s always a container of olives. In the side door you would find seltzer or sparkling water, [and] pomegranate concentrate, which we use to make spritzers—it’s what my son has instead of soda.. [We have] lots of different preserves, jellies, jams. You’ll find butter; you won’t find margarine. You’ll find yogurt, cottage cheese and the one thing you’ll find that you might not expect to find in my refrigerator is spray whipped cream, and that’s because one of my son’s favorite weekend treats is to have waffles with whipped cream.. It’s not Cool Whip. It’s actual cream. It’s not ordinary Reddi-wip … that’s really a corn product.
Q: Do you have a favorite food?
A: I love salmon. We eat a lot of seafood, and I really love bread and pasta. I have a real weakness for pasta. But I am an omnivore. I eat a great many different things.
You know, one of the things I tried to do in this book is offer some very concrete tips for how to eat well without worrying a lot about nutrients—you know, this obsession with nutrients, fiber, cholesterol, antioxidants. One of the things I try to do is offer some very easy algorithms for how to do this, such as: If you shop the periphery of the store, the supermarket, and stay out of the middle, you’ll find that you’re eating real food. You’ll be eating meat, fish, fresh produce, dairy products, as opposed to highly-processed packaged food.
Q: Real food takes more time to prepare than packaged, and lots of people say they don’t have enough time to cook. What’s your response to that?
A: I think it’s very hard to eat well without cooking, and that that is something we need to face up to as a culture. If you’re concerned about your health, probably the single best thing you can do is start cooking … you’ll be salting your food yourself, you’ll be deciding how sweet it is … you’re not going to put high-fructose corn syrup in it—nobody does that at home—and you’ll be starting with real ingredients. A lot of us don’t think we have time to cook, but before you say that to yourself, I think you really have to say, “Well, OK, I do have two hours a day for the Internet. I do have four hours a day for television”—these are typical American numbers—“and I don’t have time for 20 minutes to actually put a meal on the table for my family?” It’s not that hard. It’s really not that hard. I think we’ve mystified cooking. I think we watch these shows, you know, these heroic, athletic cooking shows on television, and it makes it look really daunting. But you can put a really good meal on the table in 20 minutes. It doesn’t take that much work, and there are few things as satisfying. Even if we would just take some of the time we spend looking at cooking shows and use that time to actually cook, we would be a lot better off.
Q: You’re trying to convince people to change their eating habits. What argument is the most effective? Is it environmental concern? Is it humane treatment of animals? Personal health?
A: Personal health reaches people. It always does. It’s the way in, it’s the door, and I think it’s what gets people to change. So many parents in America [today] have a conversation with a pediatrician, where the pediatrician tells them, “You realize your child is on a path, at the end of which is type 2 diabetes.” What that means is 80 percent chance of heart disease, seven years shorter life, $14,000 a year in medical costs, and you’re at a fork in the road. [That is] the moment where people make changes in the way they eat.
Q: How big a change do you have to make in order to make a difference?
A: It doesn’t take anything that dramatic. I think people are very concerned about their health and the health of their children. And there’s this big fact we neglect when we talk about nutrients and diets, which is that this Western diet that we eat—a diet of highly-processed foods, not too many vegetables and fruits and whole grains, lots of refined carbohydrates, lots of added fat and sugar—this diet, we know, leads to chronic diseases. It leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and several types of cancer. Nobody argues about that fact. We also know that when you get off that diet, your risk from all those devastating conditions diminishes dramatically. That’s the elephant in the room.
Q: But how can we realistically leave behind the Western diet?
A: We don’t have to go back to the bush and become hunter-gatherers again—we can’t do that. [Eating better] will take more of your resources: either time or money, or perhaps a little bit of both. But my argument is that it’s well worth it, that putting food closer to the center of your life, devoting more resources to it, is not only incredibly rewarding, contributing to a better experience of family life, by again sitting down and having meals together, but it will reward you in feeling better about yourself and feeling healthy.
This experiment in outsourcing our food preparation to corporations has not worked out that well. Yes, it’s gotten us some convenience, it’s gotten us more time to watch television or whatever we do with our time, but it’s taken an enormous toll—not just on our health, but on our families because we don’t necessarily eat together, and on our communities. That’s what I’m trying to help people reverse.
Q: You mentioned outsourcing our food sources to corporations as a negative just now. Building on your Starbucks example, could the corporations help us reverse the trend, too?
A: They could help. They could play a productive role. One of the problems is that if you’re in the food business, the more you process food, the more money you make. It’s very hard to make money selling oatmeal, but you can make a lot of money selling breakfast cereal, and you can make even more money selling a complicated honey-nut Cheerios cereal bar with fake milk in it. So, the challenge is, how can corporations make money selling something other than lots of processing? And the answer might be quality.
We have some other models. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have learned how to make lots of money selling water. There’s a simple, unprocessed food. And now there are a lot of people making money selling sliced apples. They’re still apples. They’re not processed. They figured out a technology to keep them from turning brown in a plastic bag. And also cut salad mixes, things like that. So that to the extent we need large food companies—and I’m not convinced we do—to the extent that they can make money selling high-quality, minimally-processed food, great. That can be a very positive contribution.
12 Short Food Rules, From Michael Pollan:
1. Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
2. Avoid foods containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.
3. Don’t eat anything that wouldn’t eventually rot.
4. Avoid food products that carry health claims.
5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.
6. Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmer’s market or CSA.
7. Pay more, eat less.
8. Eat a wide diversity of species.
9. Eat food from animals that eat grass.
10. Cook and, if you can, grow some of your own food.
11. Eat meals and eat them only at tables.
12. Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.
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 (2006), was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. He is also the author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001); A Place of My Own (1997); and Second Nature (1991). A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Pollan is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003 and the Reuters-I.U.C.N. 2000 Global Award for Environmental Journalism. Pollan served for many years as executive editor of Harper’s Magazine and is now the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer, and their son, Isaac.