This is part one 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 two of Pollan's musings will run tomorrow. 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.
In the last decade of penetrating -- and probing -- what he calls the "Western diet," Michael Pollan has delved into everything from modern-day agribusiness and widespread obesity to sharing communal family meals at home and eliminating, once and for all, high-fructose corn syrup from our daily diet. His books, which number seven with last week's release of Cooked, are all New York Times bestsellers, and his doctrines, rules and personal policies have garnered immense public attention, leading to endless watercooler discussions about the pathetic American diet -- and how our country's tainted food landscape has become "needlessly complicated" amid "pseudoscientific food baggage" and the so-called "experts advice telling us how to eat."
See also: - Fuel's Bob Blair on cooking for Michael Pollan - Michael Pollan: The food industry creates patients for the health care industry - Where did Michael Pollan eat post-Denver speech? Fuel Cafe
Just a few years ago, Pollan writes in Food Rules: an Eater's Manual, he was as befuddled as the rest of us, which prodded him to ask a couple of questions: "What should I eat? And "What do we really know about the links between our diet our health?" What he learned was this: "Populations that eat a so-called Western diet - generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meats, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables and whole grains - invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer."
On the other hand, Pollan continues, "Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets don't suffer from chronic diseases." While he admits that's there's "no single ideal human diet," he argues that the Western diet has, in essence, developed into one that "reliably makes its people sick."
There is good news, however. According to Pollan, should we eschew the Western diet, especially highly processed foods, improvements to our overall health come relatively quickly. And Pollan's books, which eloquently traverse his own personal path of enlightenment, a journey that wades through feedlots, billions of dollars in food advertising and industrialized farms that freely use pesticides and shrug at the consequences, all echo one solid slice of advice: Dispense with "edible foodlike substances" and instead eat real food, mostly plants. To that end, encourages Pollan, shop at farmers' markets; when you must shop at a mega-market, avoid the middle, which is where the bulk of processed foods litter the shelves; don't eat anything that your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food; stay away from food products that contain more than five ingredients; when you can't pronounce the ingredients on the confusing label, run like hell to the produce department; and only consume foods that will eventually rot.
There's more -- much more -- to consider in Pollan's thought-provoking pennings about the numerous pitfalls of the Western diet, and next week the prolific book author, New York Times contributor and Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, will take center stage at the University of Denver, one of the many stops he'll be making as part of his Cooked tour, to address how we eat, what we eat and how cooking in his own kitchen resulted in further musings about the positive impacts on our health. I've been honored with the task of introducing Pollan at DU, and in advance I picked his brain, prodding about the "elitism" of organics, asking what would transpire if meat eaters ceased to roam the earth, and soliciting his advice about those of us who eat more often at restaurants than we do at home.
Can you address the "elitism" of organics? In other words, given that organics are typically more expensive than conventional foods, how do we make sure that underserved populations -- those on a budget -- aren't alienated from the foods that you and I can afford to eat? We need changes in policy to make organic more accessible. The government could support the conversion of farms to organic, for example, which would increase the supply of organic food and bring the price down. But it will never be as cheap as subsidized conventional food, so in the end we need to address people's wages: We need to pay people enough so they can afford good food.
What would happen if we were all vegetarians, if meat-eaters ceased to exist? It might not be the utopia people assume -- or at least vegetarians assume. Many farm animals would disappear, or end up, in small numbers, in zoos. Sustainable agriculture would suffer a setback, since it's hard to be genuinely sustainable without polycultures of plants and animals -- plants that feed the animals and animals that feed the plants. These are the most sustainable farms I know of, and they depend on meat-eaters.
Which chain restaurant has most impressed you in terms of embracing organic ingredients? They haven't embraced organic, but Chipotle has taken big steps to source their meat -- or at least their pork -- sustainably and, in many places, locally. They're trying to walk the talk.
Denver has a growing season of about a minute and a half, which makes it very difficult to stay local. What do you say to cities like us that don't have the same access to locality as cites like San Francisco, for example? And how important/necessary is it to stay local? You do what you can. It's important to be reasonable and not fanatical. But it's worth remembering that most places ate local a hundred years ago, and there are great techniques for preserving food. Fermentation of vegetables has gotten a great many people through the long winters, with plenty of vitamins and nutrients from plants. Then there's meat, and cheese. History is our guide here, though many of us may want a more diversified diet than our forebears had during the winter months.
What's the single best dish you've ever had? There are many candidates, but the one that comes to mind is a steak I had at Etxeberri, in the Basque region of Spain. It came from a fourteen-year-old dairy cow that had spent her whole life on grass and it was cooked over grapevines. Nothing about this made sense, but it was the best steak I've ever eaten.
What's the single worst dish you've ever had? A student brought some canned haggis to class for a snack one day. It was all I could do to keep it down.
In your opinion, what's the single worst food we stuff down our gullets? Soda.
What's the best food that we should be eating on a daily basis? Live-culture foods -- a forkful of kimchi or spoonful of (plain) yogurt.
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I imagine you don't snack very often, but when you do, what's the first thing you grab? A handful of roasted almonds.