Michael Pollan is a writer's writer. Even those of us who've been at it for decades, who've written books and published hundreds of thousands of words, come away from his work feeling awe and humility.
"Now that," we admit, if only to ourselves, "that I can't do."
In five books and a smattering of articles in upper-tier pubs like Harper's and The New York Times Magazine, Pollan is living every journalist's dream: to be popular yet respected, entertaining yet profound.
"Michael Pollan has emerged as one of our nation's wittiest and most intelligent commentators on food, agriculture and our complex relationships with the natural world," says the UW-Madison's Bill Cronon, no slouch of a writer himself. "He takes serious ideas and helps make them accessible with clarity, storytelling and fun."
Consider this casually brilliant morsel from Pollan's Aug. 2 Times article on the rise of cooking shows amid a decline in actual cooking:
"You'll be flipping aimlessly through the cable channels when a slow-motion cascade of glistening red cherries or a tongue of flame lapping at a slab of meat on the grill will catch your eye, and your reptilian brain will paralyze your thumb on the remote, forcing you to stop to see what's cooking. Food shows are the campfires in the deep cable forest, drawing us like hungry wanderers to their flames."
Pollan's writing over the years has been evolutionary as well as revolutionary. His first book, Second Nature (1991), was about gardening, broadly defined and elevated into a high calling. The garden, he wrote, "is a middle ground between nature and culture, a place that is at once of nature and unapologetically set up against it."
His second book, A Place of My Own (1997), explored the nature/culture connection inherent in building a small but sturdy writer's shed on his Connecticut homestead. One reviewer called it "an inspired meditation on the complex relationship between space, the human body and the human spirit." A book about building a shed!
Pollan's storytelling prowess kicked into overdrive in his third book, The Botany of Desire (2001), which relates the natural history of four plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. For the apple, Pollan recasts John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) as an American Dionysus, helping a nascent nation take the edge off with buckets of hard cider. For marijuana, he conjures up a 10-bong-hit insight into the otherwise inexplicable war on pot:
"Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant like cannabis. Both faiths lead us to set our sights on the future; both reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favor of a fulfillment yet to come. [But] cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering something like fulfillment here and now, short-circuits the metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so much else in our civilization) depend."
But it is Pollan's two latest books that have secured his status as a kind of high holy priest in what's been called "the alternative food movement." The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) explored where our food comes from - the good, the bad and especially the ugly. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (2008) warned that the modern American diet is hazardous to our health, and suggested some better ways to eat.
The books, as well as Pollan's prominent role in the new documentary Food Inc., have catapulted him to fame - or at least as close to it as a serious journalist can come. In our contemporary culinary quandary, he's the big enchilada.
UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin selected In Defense of Food from among nearly 400 nominated titles as the inaugural offering of Go Big Read, an all-campus reading program. And a broad coalition of groups have joined with the UW Center for the Humanities to bring Pollan to town next week for a series of events (see sidebar), including an appearance at the Kohl Center and an address at the annual Food for Thought Festival.
In a recent interview with Isthmus, Pollan was surprisingly down-to-earth. Make no mistake: He enjoys his celebrity, as one might a great meal, but he knows when to leave the table.
Spilling the beans
Pollan, 54, now lives in Berkeley and teaches journalism at the University of California campus there. A native of Long Island (his father was an author and financial consultant, his mother a columnist), Pollan attended schools in England and Vermont before snaring a master's in English from Columbia University. He went on to become a contributing editor at Harper's.
It was there, in 1997, that Pollan wrote one of the most subversive articles in the history of American journalism. "Opium Made Easy," like The Progressive magazine's H-bomb article of 1979, revealed a secret the U.S. government desperately wanted to keep. It told readers everything they needed to know to produce opium from poppies - the kind that grow in people's gardens.
"If opium is so easy to grow," he wrote, "and opium tea so easy to make, the best - perhaps the only - way for the government to stop people from growing and making their own is to convince them that it can't be done." (A federal prison in Florida withheld the issue from an inmate subscriber, saying it "may facilitate criminal activity.")
Pollan's writing on food is similarly subversive, in that it spills the beans on how Americans' food is produced and the brutal impact this has on human health, animal welfare and the environment. He pointedly indicts federal farm policy in the nation's current cornucopia of unhealthy food choices. And he shows how regulators have failed to protect the eating public.
My favorite moment from In Defense of Food is when Pollan lampoons a convoluted health claim that managed to win Food and Drug Administration approval: that a daily tablespoon of corn oil may be good for you if it "replace[s] a similar amount of saturated fat and [does] not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day." His eviscerating rejoinder:
"No doubt we can look forward to a qualified health claim for high-fructose corn syrup, a tablespoon of which probably does contribute to your health - as long as it replaces a comparable amount of, say, poison in your diet and doesn't increase the total number of calories you eat in a day."
In Defense of Food is a 244-page amplification of a seven-word maxim: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It argues that much of what Americans eat has been processed to where it doesn't even deserve to be called food, and indeed, may be killing us, through epidemic rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease - all much less prevalent in cultures that eat differently.
Pollan takes special aim at nutritionism, which is essentially the effort to make processed food seem healthy by pumping it full of vitamins and other additives. One of his most jarring bits of advice: "If you're concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims."
The book offers many other rules. Don't buy your food at the same place you buy gasoline. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Plant a garden. Buy locally when possible. Make meals from ingredients, not packages. Eat at the table. Eat slowly.
In a phone interview from Berkeley, Pollan says he mostly follows the rules in his book: "I find eating this way enormously pleasurable. It takes more money and it takes more time, but I feel strongly it's time and money well spent." And while acknowledging his fortune in having abundant food choices ("there are three different lines of grass-fed beef at the supermarket where I shop"), he thinks these soon will be available to all.
That said, Pollan sometimes still finds himself "in a fast-food outlet with my son, partly because I don't impose all my beliefs on him." He stresses that eating better is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
"In voting with your fork, you're not going to get it right three times a day," he says. You might be limited by what a restaurant offers or be a guest at somebody's house, or just have a Big Mac attack.
"The important thing," Pollan says, "is to get it right when you can, because a lot of people give up if they find they can't be absolutely consistently faithful to their ideals. They then throw out their ideals, and that's a bigger mistake."
Reasons for optimism
In Defense of Food is deeply suspicious of people like Susan Nitzke, who are aligned with what Pollan suggests is the voodoo science of nutritionism. Nitzke is a professor at the UW-Madison and chair of its Nutritional Sciences Department.
Yet, she says, "Michael Pollan and I probably would not get into a fistfight." (That will no doubt come as a relief to Pollan, who already has enough, pardon the pun, on his plate.)
Nitzke says Pollan's admonition against foods that make health claims is similar to what she tells students: Don't dwell on what it says on the front of a package; look on the back, at the ingredient list.
But she believes Pollan's rules tend to oversimplify. Like this one: "Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup."
Nitzke says many common vitamins and minerals have long, multi-syllabic names, like thiamin mononitrate, and yet are, in her opinion, "not particularly scary." And she notes that the most recent national dietary guidelines put high-fructose corn syrup, which many people now regard as a form of poison, on a par with other forms of added sugar, including brown sugar, honey and regular sugar.
Rather than single out high-fructose corn syrup, Nitzke would advise people to "minimize your intake of all forms of added sugar."
Still, Nitzke says the popularity of Pollan's books affects how she teaches; she uses discussion of his ideas to help students "develop their critical-thinking skills."
Pollan, it's clear, would welcome this, just as he's encouraged by signs that agribusiness is now taking him seriously enough to launch a "counteroffensive."
Recently, Washington State University sought to rescind its decision to have a campus-wide reading of An Omnivore's Dilemma. The campus claimed money was too tight, but others, noting that the requisite books were already bought, suspect pressure from agribusiness played a role. In the end, an alum stepped forward to cover the costs.
The Country Today, a weekly farm newspaper distributed throughout Wisconsin, recently noted the discomfort of some state agriculture groups at Chancellor Martin's book selection and Pollan's upcoming Madison visit. A Wisconsin Farm Bureau spokesperson said that while the group "would certainly have picked a different book," it was working with the UW "to ensure that Wisconsin's farmers and agriculturists will have an opportunity to publicly address the topics this book touches on."
Elsewhere, as in a critical essay by farmer Blake Hurst, there's been an effort to suggest that Pollan is blaming farmers for health woes and global warming. It's an accusation he resents: "That's just rhetoric. I'm blaming the system. I'm blaming a set of incentives. A system in which many farmers really feel trapped."
But mostly, Pollan is heartened that agribusiness reps are feeling the need to respond. For years, "they've kind of ignored those who criticize the system, and been very dismissive. And now they're joining the debate. And that's exactly what we need. We need a debate about the future of food and farming in America."
Pollan sees other reasons to be optimistic. Al Gore's standard talk against global warming, immortalized in An Inconvenient Truth, never even mentioned the food system, which accounts for between a quarter and a third of U.S. greenhouse gases. But Pollan says the former veep is now working on a new book that addresses this omission.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "has turned out to be friendlier to local food and sustainable agriculture than anyone had expected." Michelle Obama planted a garden on the White House lawn. And President Obama, who as a candidate cited Pollan's writing on the food system, has called for healthier school lunches, using more local food.
"This is mostly still talk," concedes Pollan. "But that's not the way we've ever heard a president talking about food and health. He's really making the link between the American diet and the health-care crisis.
"He's making it rhetorically; we'll see if he can make it in terms of policy."
The need to rethink
Last month Time magazine ran a cover story on "America's food crisis" that mentions Pollan in passing while pilfering his ideas in detail. The article flatly pegs current food-production methods as unsustainable, especially as more nations covet "the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy." It says this may be more than the planet can deliver.
"With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil - which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket energy bills - our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later," the article states. "Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs - and bland taste."
With Time magazine urging radical change, Pollan's message on food is no longer radical, meaning his star is certain to rise even higher. He has a new book coming out in January, a slim compendium of cultural wisdom on food. Says Pollan, "It's really simplifying the message as much as I can, for people who don't want to read a whole book, don't want to know the background, don't want to know the science, but just want some guidance on how to eat, and that's not framed in the language of science, but culture."
He's also working on a book about cooking, expanding on the themes in his recent New York Times piece.
"I realize, the more that I look at this whole question, I've looked at it kind of on the supply side - that is, we produce too much corn and soy so we end up with too much processed food. But of course there's a demand side too, with the collapse of cooking. And I don't think we're going to make real progress on the food system unless we start cooking again."
As Pollan gains influence, his writing appears to be evolving more toward advocacy - telling people what they can do. He admits this transition leaves him feeling conflicted.
"I'm primarily a writer, a journalist, and even though I'm doing advocacy work it must be rooted in the primacy of the individual voice, and not in movement politics," he says. "My contribution to the movement, such as it is, will come through my writing, not through any kind of political work."
Pollan was not comfortable with the brief push in late 2008 to draft him as the nation's secretary of agriculture, which he deems "not a smart idea on anybody's part." And when Vilsack was selected, Pollan proved his unsuitability for politics by cracking that it was "a good day for corn" and "agribusiness as usual"; this drew flak from food activists hoping to curry favor with Vilsack.
"I realized that when something like that happens, there's a tactical response and there's kind of the individual writer's response, and I'm only comfortable with the latter," says Pollan. "The point at which the need to be part of a movement forces you to accept things you don't believe in the spirit of compromise - all that sort of stuff, the heart and soul of politics, is not the heart and soul of journalism."
He values his independence for a reason: "I hope that when the food movement starts making big mistakes, I'll be able to write about it, and not just kind of bite my tongue because I generally agree with what they're doing."
Pollan would someday like to write more about the global food situation, and what sustainable agriculture might mean for Africa or Asia. But beyond that, he hasn't thought about where his investigations into the relationship between humans and the world they inhabit may lead.
"Who knows where it's going to end?" he asks. "I don't want to know."
Michael Pollan appearances
Go Big Read public lecture, "In Defense of Food: The Omnivore's Solution," Thursday, Sept. 24, 7 pm, Kohl Center. Main sponsor: UW Center for the Humanities.
Informal question-and-answer session, Friday, Sept. 25. 3:30-5 pm, Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave., Room L160. Moderated by Steve Paulson from Wisconsin Public Radio.
Food for Thought Festival, keynote speaker, Saturday, Sept. 26, 10 am, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (off the Capitol Square). The event runs 8 am-1:30 pm; seating for Pollan's speech is limited to availability. Main sponsor: REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group). See reapfoodgroup.org for more information.
All events are free and open to the public.