Author Michael Pollan on portion control, the future of food and fast food
This is part two of my interview with Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation; Food Rules: An Eater's Manual; The Omnivore's Dilemma; In Defense of Food; Second Nature; The Botany of Desire and A Place of My Own. Part one of Pollan's musings ran yesterday. Pollan will appear in Sturm Hall at the University of Denver at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, in conjunction with the Tattered Cover. Tickets to his lecture are $35, and while the event is sold out, you can add your name to the wait list by calling 303-871-2291.
Food has always been important, but within the last few years, we've been geeking out on it like never before. What's changed to make us so fervent? People are discovering, or rediscovering, all that food offers us: a rich, all-five sense experience; a medium of communion with people, a respite from screens and digital life, and a way to re-engage with the natural world. I look forward to a day when we don't have to "geek out" on it and these wonders will become normal.
Is the industrial food system sustainable, or do you see it eventually collapsing under the insurmountable challenges? When people say the food system is unsustainable, they mean something specific: It's in danger of breakdown. And I think it is, though I don't know which of its vulnerabilities are most critical: its dependence on fossil fuel? Its dependence on antibiotics? The fact that it's making the population sick and fat? The fact that it's mining the soil, and when the soil is shot, civilizations historically collapse? I don't know where or when the breakdown will come, but there are a lot of possibilities.
What's your advice for people who eat at restaurants more often than they eat at home? How do they avoid getting fat, or, more to the point, fatter? Don't let the restaurant control your food portions -- you do that. Don't eat meat in restaurants unless they specify how it's been produced and the values rhyme with your own. Avoid places that serve asparagus in the fall or tomatoes in winter, and take home a doggy bag.
Are we still a fast-food nation? Without a doubt. Alternatives to fast food still represent a sliver of the food economy.
How can we change the school lunch program so that we better focus on nutritional elements for our kids? As a society, we need to commit to paying what it costs to put real food on our kids' tables at school. It's a terrific investment, in both their health and their education, but we need to step up and make it.
Who's the one person advocating the use of "local, organic and sustainable" that we should be listening to the most -- the one who walks the walk and talks the talk? I guess I would say Joel Salatin, a farmer I profiled in Virginia. He refuses to ship his food, and has grown by means of an interesting franchise system that spawns new farmers and supports the local economy without diluting the power of his farming system.
Who's the biggest hypocrite, the biggest fraud, so to speak? I can't think of one. There's a lot of greenwashing around food, but no one really takes the cake.
If you invited me to your house for dinner, what would you cook for me? Well, first I'd ask if you're a vegetarian or vegan. Then I'd go to the farmers' market -- and ours is open fifty weeks a year; sorry, Denver - and see what looked good.
If you had an unlimited budget, what kind of restaurant would you open? One that serves the best food based on the freshest local ingredients, and allowed patrons to pay whatever they could afford or felt it was worth.
Looking forward, where do you see our food culture going? I'm optimistic. American food has gotten so much better in the last thirty years, and there are signs -- alongside the fast-food signs! -- that we're slowly building a culture of food.
* My favorite book from Michael Pollan, Food Rules, an Eater's Manual, highlights 83 slivers of food wisdom, many of which are incredibly simple to implement into your daily food habits. Here are the ten that I personally find the most helpful:
1. Leave something on your plate. "Practice not cleaning your plate; it will help you eat less in the short term and develop self-control in the long," writes Pollan.
2. Do all your eating at a table. (Your desk doesn't count!)
3. It's not food it it arrived through the window of a car. Westword trivia: Editor Patty Calhoun has never -- not once -- graced a drive-thru.
4. Avoid food products with the word "lite" or the terms "low-fat" or "nonfat" in their names. Truth: Eliminating the fat from food products doesn't necessarily make them non-fattening, warns Pollan, adding that more often than not, yogurt, for example, contain more sugar per ounce than soda.
5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay away from the middle. Why? Because that's where the majority of processed foods reside. Pollan notes, though, that even things like flavored yogurts are sullied with high-fructose corn syrup, so read the labels.
6. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well. In other words, steer clear of feedlots and industrialized factory farms that produce inferior animal proteins.
7. Make water your beverage of choice. So easy, so true. And tap water is just fine and much kinder to the environment that bottled water. Plus, it's free.
8. Love your spices. And your herbs, too.
9. Have a glass of wine with dinner. Yes, yes, yes!
10. Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don't. Grow your own food whenever you can, and revel in the fact that you nurtured it -- not someone else.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.