If you know the name Michael Pollan it’s probably because of his bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It wasn’t Pollan’s first book, but it’s the title that made him a household name, and the stories collected were nothing short of revelatory for millions of Americans, myself included.
So when I had the opportunity to see him speak in my hometown of Elmhurst, I snapped up tickets as quick as I could. After all, he is indirectly responsible for the existence of Every Last Morsel. If I hadn’t stumbled across his book at Barnes & Noble years ago then I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.
To see Michael Pollan speak is kind of like being in church. Granted, the lecture I attended was held inside a chapel, but there was more to it than that. The people who gathered there that evening were believers. They listened devoutly as Pollan spoke. Whenever he quipped about the shortcomings of industrial agriculture and big food there was a collective murmur of agreement. I think I even heard a few ‘Amens!’
It’s easy to understand how he elicits such a reaction. The problems with our food system that he’s chosen to address are huge, and he does it in a way that’s not intimidating. He’s engaging, funny, and after following the food chain for 13 years he’s amassed a cornucopia of great stories. Which is why I chose to focus this summary on a few potent quotables and their context. So here it goes…
”There was a mountain of corn and and a lake of manure and the cattle were busy transforming one into the other.”
Michael Pollan jumped right into the thick of things by reflecting on his visits to industrial scale farms over the years. He explained that farms here are different than they are out east. Out there they’re still “cute and pickety.” When he drove out to visit a CAFO in Kansas he saw the golden landscape turn black as he approached. The feedlot contained a whopping 50,000 head of cattle. There was a mountain of corn and a lake of manure and the cattle were busy transforming one into the other.
He told another tale from his visit to an Idaho potato farm that grew GMO crops. According to Pollan, after being harvested the potatoes were stored away in a giant warehouse for 6 months to offgas pesticides. There was a collective gasp from the audience. He went on to explain that those same farmers fed their own families organic potatoes that they grew near to the house.
“Nutrition Science is a generous term for what it is.”
While he was researching his book Food Rules, he met with nutrition scientists so he could understand the chemical composition of a healthy diet. He had difficulty finding concrete, scientific answers for what concerned him, which is why he finally settled on his tagline “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
During his research he also began to explore the process of transformation. After studying the way food is produced on the farm, and then looking at what ends up on the dinner table, he realized cooking has a powerful influence in both directions.
“The most important thing about your diet is not what you’re eating, but who’s cooking it.”
The numbers and ingredients that are printed on our nutrition labels aren’t all that important. He quipped “where else in our lives do we need so much biochemistry to get through the day?!” According to Michael Pollan, the most important factor that will determine your health is whether a person cooks your food, or a corporation does.
While researching Food Rules, which was largely crowdsourced, he received an interesting note from a transplant cardiologist. The cardiologist explained that for each patient, at the end of their care, he grabs his prescription pad. The patient is expecting him to prescribe a drug, but instead he jots down a set of recipes:
Day 1 – Roast chicken…
Day 2 – Leftovers…
Day 3 – Soup from carcass…
“Americans will choose to watch other people cook on TV rather than cook themselves — AND THEY DON’T GET TO EAT!”
Throughout his research he also started watching a lot of cooking shows — Top Chef, Chopped, Gordon Ramsey, etc. After a while he began to wonder if these shows were keeping people out of the kitchen. As it is, the average American spends only 27 minutes a day cooking and 4 minutes cleaning up. But what he finds especially strange is that people will excuse themselves from cooking by saying that they don’t have enough time, but somehow millions of Americans find the time to watch people cook on TV — AND THEY DON’T EVEN GET TO EAT!
“Cooking allowed our brains to expand and our gut to shrink — we’re kinda going backwards now”
Our ancestors spent 6 hours a day chewing — 6 hours! The fact that they eventually learned how to cook may be one of the reasons that our guts shrank while our brains expanded. The process of cooking breaks down the structure of the food, which makes more nutrients and calories available. This meant that we could spend less time chewing and more time doing other productive things. However, In today’s hyper-efficient industrial economy an overabundance of cheap and easy calories has led to the expansion of our gut in a different dimension.
“The cooked fire tamed us.”
The acting of cooking not only gave us more food, it gave us the meal itself – the shared experience of preparing food and eating it together. It was through cooking and dining together that we learned the skills of civilization. In short, the cooked fire tamed us. It gave us the institution of the meal.
“The microwave is the Ayn Rand of appliances.”
In many ways the microwave is antithetical to all of that. Pollan referred to a funny story from his new book regarding his family’s attempt to share a microwavable meal. I won’t ruin it for you here, but suffice it to say that the microwave is a ruggedly individualistic appliance.
“Our labor movement fought for money, not time. Europe fought for time and they’re still cooking.”
Cooking is an important predictor of health — even more important that a family’s income. The poor may have lousier diet than rich, but according to Pollan, homes that have highest rates of cooking have lowest rates of obesity. Researches have long pondered the French paradox. Maybe, at its core, it has something to do with the simple fact that Europeans cook more.
“Corporate food has built-in problems.”
During the Q&A Pollan was asked “Is it possible that [corporations] can learn to cook better?’
Pollan’s answer, “Maybe.”
He went on to explain that, in his opinion, healthy food is antithetical to their model. There are companies such as Chipotle who are doing great things with sourcing, but exclaimed that the number of calories in one of their burritos is outrageous. Pollan thinks that it will always come down to the fact that a corporation’s bottom line dictates that they use the cheapest ingredients possible, which includes an abundance of salt, sugar, and fat. Additives, too, so they can mask the fact that whatever it is you’re eating was made a long time ago and far, far away.
Those are a few of my favorites, and I didn’t record his lecture so they may not be correct word for word, but in each case it was my intention to capture the spirit of his statement. So if Michael himself stumbles across this page I hope he’ll forgive me. And if you buy his books I’m sure he’d be happy to grant me a reprieve. If he wants to get in touch he knows where to find me.