Michael Pollan: The Missing Part of the Food Chain
by Bruce E. Boyers
The reason we know about the many problematic issues with our industrial food system is due in large part to author, journalist, university professor and food activist Michael Pollan. His best-selling 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma broke ground in exposing inhumane animal treatment and the unnatural growing of monocrops within big agriculture—while at the same time highlighting the local, sustainable solutions at our fingertips. Pollan was also a co-star in and consultant for the film Food, Inc., which took on the same issues at a cinematic level and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Since then, Pollan has been featured and quoted in many documentaries, with appearances on several television shows, and has published three other books, two of which focus as well on different aspects of our food system and food culture. In addition, he is a contributing editor for New York Times Magazine and a former executive editor for Harper’s magazine. For the many articles he has written, he has received the Reuters-IUCN1 Global Award for Environmental Journalism, the James Beard Foundation Award for best magazine series, and the Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States.
Pollan’s newest book—the just-released Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation—explores the subject of cooking through Pollan’s own immersion into the world of culinary wonder. It is not a cookbook, but rather an exploration and history of enjoyment of different cooking methods through the four basic elements.
Driving Down a Highway
Pollan’s path to insightful examination of our food system began with an observation made while driving down a California highway. “Around the turn of the millennium, I had occasion to drive by a feedlot on Route 5 in California called Harris Ranch,” Pollan told Organic Connections. “I had never seen a feedlot before and it was pretty mind-blowing. Three miles before I got there I could smell it: It was like, ‘Where is this overpowering awful men’s-room odor coming from?’ I got closer, and then suddenly the golden hills turned black and there were wall-to-wall cattle coming right up to the highway, with a giant mountain of corn and a giant mountain of manure in the background. I had no idea this is where beef came from.
“Then I put that together with another event: I was doing a piece on genetically modified food, and I had gone to a potato farm in Idaho. It was a scale of agriculture I had never seen before, something like 40,000 acres divided into these crop circles. Each circle was about 175 acres, with what looked like a giant sweep second hand; it was the irrigation pivot out of which came water, fertilizer and pesticide. The farmer controlled it all from a little bunker in his garage, and one of the reasons that he did that was because he didn’t want to be in the fields when he was spraying pesticide—or within five days after spraying pesticide—because it was so toxic. He showed me the warehouses where he stored the potatoes after they came out of the ground. They’re not edible for six weeks because they’re so toxic with systemics;2 the potatoes off-gas the systemics and gradually you can eat them.
“And so, there were the hamburgers and the french fries; that’s where they came from. That was the Happy Meal. I realized that nobody knew this. Maybe a few people living in the rural West were aware of it, but most people I knew had no idea where their food was coming from. So that was the germ for The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was those two scenes, which had a powerful effect on me.”
Changes in Consciousness
In the years following publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma much has changed—and Pollan has continued making careful observations. “The consciousness has shifted considerably,” he said. “People know a lot more; they’re a lot more skeptical of the claims made by the food industry. They’re persuaded of the value of an alternative to industrial food, whether that be organic or local or pasture raised. So we’ve seen the market for alternatives burgeoning since then. And I think that’s probably been the biggest change.
“In terms of politics, we have a First Lady who is talking about food and the links to health, and planting a garden at the White House. I think that’s a sign of change in consciousness; I can’t imagine her or any other First Lady doing that ten years ago. In terms of legislation, I don’t think we’ve seen anything dramatic. We’ve seen some tweaks of food safety laws; we’ve seen some tweaks of the school lunch. But the kind of rigorous reform we need in order to conform the food system to what we want is still being stopped by the industry whose power has not been seriously diminished yet.”
Are We Just Passive Consumers?
Pollan has an interesting analysis of how the system became so skewed in the first place. “I think the industrial food system has victimized us, but we were complicit in this outsourcing of food and we were complicit in this speeding up of food and processing of food,” he said. “One of the reasons the food industry is successful is that they’re very clever marketers and they know how to press our buttons. If you relieve somebody of work, very often they’ll take you up on it. If you make something sweeter, saltier or fattier, we’ll often eat more of it.”
Pollan also challenges our assumptions about America’s wholesale adoption of convenience food. “One of the things that surprised me in the research for Cooked was I had accepted the typical view that the reason cooking declined was because women went to work and didn’t have time to cook, so they turned to processed food. The history is actually more complicated than that. In actuality, the industry was trying to push us into buying more processed food long before women were working. Later, the industry seized on the tension that had arisen in American families when women did go back to work and there was a question about who would do all the housework. The food industry essentially exploited feminism to argue that their food was liberating for women—I mention the KFC billboard from the seventies, which had a big bucket of chicken and the words ‘Women’s Liberation’ above it.
“So they were very clever in exploiting what was going on in our society, but the move to processed food was more of a supply-driven than a demand-driven phenomenon. The industry is always happy to tell us that they’re selling us what we’ve asked for. Well, not always; often they sell us things that they’ve dreamt up and decided we should need. I think that is definitely true with processed food. And even though we work and have more time pressure, and there was this tension between men and women over cooking, it could have been resolved in a way that didn’t involve McDonalds.”
How does Pollan feel we can shed this food system and take back control? “Cook!” he responded, laughing. “Take more responsibility for your food choices. Get into the kitchen and try doing something that you’ve never done before. Go to the farmers’ market and buy some vegetables and figure out what to do with them, or join a CSA, where you’re really forced to figure out what to do with things that you don’t know about.
“Just think of yourself a little bit less as a passive consumer and little bit more as an active producer. It’s that change of identity, that switch, that’s really, really important. We’re locked into this idea that except for what we do at our jobs we’re consumers of everything else in our lives. That is a very impoverished way to live. There is enormous satisfaction to be had in producing things and providing for yourself and your family. It feels really good.”
This is exactly where Pollan is going with his latest work, Cooked—a work that continues his overall examination of our food system with a very unique approach. The book examines cooking methodologies through the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. With each of these elements, Pollan takes us on a journey of a particular culinary creation—and in doing so, relays the magnificent smells, tastes and experiences he discovered on the way.
“Cooked kind of grew out of this whole project that I’ve been engaged in for the last decade or so, which is following our food chain from the field to the body,” Pollan explained. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma is very much about the beginning of the food chain, with earth and grasses and animals and crops. Then I wrote two books about eating and nutrition, which are really about what the food does on the body end of the food chain.
“But then there was this area in the middle that I had overlooked, probably because I took it for granted: and that’s the link in the food chain where the stuff coming off the farms gets transformed into meals. That’s what I knew the most about—or thought I did—and it just didn’t seem like it needed any attention. But the more I worked on these issues, the more I realized the cooking piece or food-processing piece (depending on whether you are a human or a corporation) is really the key. The movement to sustainable agriculture and local food systems is going to top out if people are not willing to cook for themselves.
“Then on the other side, looking to the body end of the food chain, one of the things I learned studying nutrition was that if you’re cooking, you don’t really have to worry too much about nutrition, since you’re not going to make french fries every day because they’re such a pain, and you’re not going to have dessert every night because it’s so much work. You’re going to eat in a pretty sensible way. There’s a lot of research that suggests that people who cook eat healthy diets, and people who cook struggle less with obesity. A family who has a family dinner is healthier in both the literal and the metaphorical senses.
“It gradually dawned on me that cooking was the key on both ends, to the health of the body and to the health of the land. So I wanted to write a book that would not argue that case and lecture people, but would seduce them into cooking and remind them of just how interesting it is. There is an amazing amount of science, history and culture that is at your fingertips when you bake a loaf of bread or make a braise. I think we’ve been robbed of this by cookbooks and TV cooking shows that make it look like contact sport, and by all the marketing saying you can’t do it or you don’t have time to do it. So Cooked is really an attempt to reclaim that wonderful activity for ordinary people.”
Through reading his book, Pollan would like people to become as immersed as he did in the adventure that cooking can be. “My hope is that they’ll be seduced into doing more cooking themselves, or trying it if they haven’t done it; that they will trust their instincts a little bit more,” Pollan added. “We’ve been intimidated into believing that cooking is really complex. I hope I’m creating in readers some kind of willingness to trust their instincts, get their hands dirty and take a chance.
“One of the things I’d like people to see as they read this book is that, wow, he’s having a good time! Because I had a very good time writing this book—the most fun I’ve had as a journalist.”
A Continuing Mission
Pollan does see a continuing thread, a mission, through everything he does, including his latest work.
“My aim is to help people see that food is really important, not just to our health but to our happiness, to our communities and to our families,” Pollan concluded. “Being more conscious of all of those things is very rewarding. It tends to lead toward taking food a little more seriously, paying a little more money for it, carving out a little more time in your life to enjoy it, and slowing down. So if there’s a mission, I think that’s what it is: to be a little more conscious of what’s at stake every time you sit down at the table.”
You can obtain Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation from the Organic Connections bookstore.
For more on Michael Pollan and his work, please visit www.michaelpollan.com.
1. IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature.
2. systemics: Pesticides that are absorbed and circulated by a plant or other organism so as to be lethal to pests that feed on them.