Last week I went to see Michael Pollan speak about his new book, Cooked.
I was happy to spend the evening in the choir, getting preached to by everyone’s favorite liberal foodie Berkeley professor in hipster shoes. Redundant, I know.
While The Omnivore’s Dilemma focused on the four ways human societies have acquired food (current industrial, big organic, self-sufficient farm, and hunter-gatherer), Cooked focuses on the four ways we manipulate that food once it reaches our kitchens (grill, bake, boil and ferment).
I haven’t gotten to the book yet (I am embarrassed to say I am still making my way though Salt, Sugar, Fat and, um, 9 months worth of New Yorker magazines), but from the articles and interviews I have seen so far, I am really looking forward to some advice, sass and optimism. Especially optimism. This policy area can be a real bummer sometimes. Between the quarter’s most egregious food labeling violations and the newest ad campaign by one of the 10 corporate behemoths hell-bent on filling the airwaves with misleading messaging, selling junk and lobbying Washington to protect their right to do so, sometimes I just want to cherry-pick my information and listen to a charismatic speaker tell me everything is going to be OK.
During the question and answer part of the reading, I was able to put the question to Professor Pollan directly. Here is what I asked him, more or less:
So by way of asking my question, let me explain the demographic that I come from. Its relevant, because it’s a demographic that is currently bucking trends in terms of the foods we are buying and the ways we are engaging with the food chain. I am a millennial, I work in food and nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, my friends and I brew beer and bake bread, we work at farmers markets and on farms on the weekends, I think my housemate is brewing a barrel of whiskey in my kitchen right now* and when we have kids we will probably feed them kimchi. But here is my concern: is this just a sourdough-starter-owning-weekend-butcher-whiskey-brewing-hipster-bubble that is going to burst because it isn’t relevant to the meat and potato Americans who represent a huge buying power in this country, or is this the beginning of a trend this is going to keep growing?
In response, generous in his optimism, Pollan said that while there would always be fanatics with any movement (he knows, he has met them), he believes that this movement will resonate with the bulk of Americans who will find genuine joy in buying real food, preparing it together and sharing it around the kitchen table. While the movement has difficult and justified ties to elitism at the moment, between SNAP programs that offer double the dollar at farmers markets, a new-found support of artisanal and local mom and pop shops, and the sheer sense of empowerment that comes from reclaiming your family’s meals from an industrialized food system that doesn’t care about your well-being, there is room in this bubble for everyone. He also noted that our current agricultural policies subsidize the frozen meal, making crappy food artificially cheaper, and disincentivize farm diversification. If we were to level the playing field, real food wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive for so many Americans.
Being the supremely talented author that he is, I will leave it to him to explain this optimism in more detail. The passage below is excerpted from a solid interview from The Atlantic, titled “The Wendell Berry Sentence That Inspired Michael Pollan’s Food Obsession.”
“When a blogger in Texas last year wrote about “pink slime,” there was an overwhelming public response and the company that produced the stuff nearly collapsed. This was terrifying to the food industry—who realized that, as strong as they are, they become vulnerable when people look up from their burgers and say “What the hell is in this?” And then: “You know what? I don’t want that stuff.” When that happens, an industry can be brought low overnight. There is great power in this. There is power, too, in growing and cooking your own food. …That’s the great thing about food as a way into the world—what we learn gives us so much influence. When people are more conscious about their food choices, they can change the food chain. They can change what happens on the farm. I think it’s one reason that so many people are finding their way to food as an interest and as a focus of their political energies. Food issues have a tremendous bearing on everything from the environment to public health to monopolization of the economy, and food activism is producing results that you can see. At a discouraging time, it’s a very empowering issue. We don’t have to wait for the government to figure it out—not that we don’t need to press on that front also—but long before Congress comes up with a good farm bill, people are creating new agricultural policies locally all over the country. You can do it in your own backyard.
We stand to gain so much by connecting these dots. We stand to regain our health. We stand to change the landscape of our agriculture: all the feedlots, the factory farms, closed. We stand to see a revival of farming, real farming, as they empty the feedlots and put animals back on real farms. Because people who see that world don’t want to support it—in the same way that people who saw “pink slime” don’t want to support it. It would be a complicated transition; it would not be easy. We’d need tens of millions more people working on farms to grow food the way I think most people would like to see it grown. We’d also see ourselves spending more money on food, and that’s very challenging for a lot of people. So it will take a revolution—not just in how we eat but how we live. But it offers us so much. A lot beyond a good conscience: a more beautiful landscape. Farms where you’d feel comfortable taking your kids. And healthier bodies, too.
When [Wendell] Berry says “eating is an agricultural act,” that’s a very empowering statement. He’s saying you have political power in your every day actions. When you decide what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to buy, you have real influence. That’s why this idea this idea has the potential to resonate with so many people. It’s certainly one of the reasons it’s resonated with me: I know can act today. Three times.”
*At this point, Michael Pollan laughed and shushed me, pointing to Jill Biden, who was also in the audience. To any Feds reading this, the barrel is pretty small and the whiskey isn’t very good anyway, so I wouldn’t worry about it.