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An Interview with Michael Pollan


by Krista Harris

Photography by Fran Collin


When Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, he set things in motion for an entire shift in the way we think about food and where it comes from. His numerous books and articles explore the nature of what we grow, what we eat and the culture surrounding it. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual; In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. He is also the author of A Place of My Own and Second Nature. As a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, his writing has received numerous awards. In addition to teaching—he is the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism—he lectures widely on food, agriculture, health and the environment, and he will be speaking in Santa Barbara on February 10, 2011. In anticipation of his visit, we had the opportunity to talk with him and take a few photos in the natural setting of his Bay Area home garden.

You’ve written eloquently about nature and gardening. Tell us a little bit about your garden right now. What are you growing?

Well, we’re kind of in that transition time, and any day now I’m going to yank out a bunch of stuff and replant. But what I still have going is cherry tomatoes. I’ve got a lot of Sungolds and another one called Candy Isis, and they’re still churning out tomatoes. We haven’t had any cold weather. I’ve got chard. I’ve got kale. I’ve got maybe one basil plant left. I had a lot of basil this year. I’ve got some lettuce and the usual perennial herbs. But it’s a little thin now compared to what it was a month ago. It still looks nice because it’s a very structured garden, but it’s not as abundant as it was a month ago. I’m about to rip out the tomatoes and get some more greens.

So, you put in a cool season garden?

Yes, I actually put in more kale and spinach and fava beans. I plant a lot of fava beans, mostly for the soil conditioning, but we eat them as well. Last year I did garlic; I don’t know if I’ll bother with that again.

Are you an experimenter in the garden?

Oh yeah, I’ll try new things. I always have a list of the standbys that I know will be good, and then I try new things. Certain things I’ve never gotten to taste really good out of this garden. I’ve never gotten good broccoli. Even though I get nice-looking broccoli, it doesn’t really taste like much. It’s not as good as the broccoli at the farmers market. Same with beans, though I finally found a variety of green bean that was really terrific. There’s a kind of interesting relationship between your soil and varieties. Some things will taste really good, but let’s be honest, sometimes home garden produce is not as good as the farmers market produce. I couldn’t tell you why, but it probably has something to do with soil chemistry or sunlight.

In Santa Barbara we have access to wonderful farmers markets all year long, but there are some philosophical advantages to growing things yourself, aren’t there?

Yes, there are. It’s very satisfying. I mean, I do it for the pleasure of the work as much as the produce that I get. I enjoy working in the garden. It’s a really nice respite from writing. I love the idea of actually working for your own support by growing some of your own food. There’s also the convenience—the spontaneity of being able to go outside and find something for dinner or get that handful of herbs when you’re making scrambled eggs in the morning. So there are many, many reasons to garden. The wonder is that more people don’t.

You’ve talked about getting people back in the kitchen, cooking… can gardening be a gateway to getting people to cook more from scratch?

Oh, without question, because you’re going to have to do something with all this produce. You’ve got all these beans or you’ve got all this kale and you have to get creative with how to use it. I think gardening and cooking are very closely related. As someone who cooks, the luxury of having a garden is really great because you can step outside and get whatever that herb is that you need. And you can get things you can’t buy. For example, we grew a lot of cilantro this year and picked the green seeds of the cilantro before they really ripen. You can buy cilantro leaves and you can buy cilantro seeds, or coriander. But you cannot buy, as far as I know, the green coriander seeds, which have this intense flavor—really delicious and very aromatic—and are a great thing to cook with. There was a month when I could go outside and get those whenever I wanted them. So I think the two things are very closely related. I can’t imagine cooking seriously without a garden, and I can’t imagine having a garden and not cooking at least fairly seriously.

So, are people cooking more at home?

Well, the trends in cooking are not very encouraging. Basically it’s been going down as long as people have been keeping track. There is some evidence that it’s ticked up a bit with the recession. Some retailers that I’ve talked to report that they’re selling more ingredients and more food from the bulk food bins. It is a way that people can economize, if they’re clever about using ingredients and don’t feel that they have to buy a fancy piece of animal protein to make a good meal. So, I think there is some increase in cooking tied to the recession. And people are going out less. There is evidence that meals eaten out have gone down in the last two years. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t having processed food at home. You really have to break it down and see whether people are buying TV dinners and their modern equivalent or actual ingredients to cook with.

Basically I think that 54% of meals are cooked, though that definition is pretty loose. Pouring dressing over prewashed salad mix would qualify. Anything more than putting a frozen pizza in the microwave qualifies as cooking, the way the studies are done. Scratch cooking—nobody really looks at it as a phenomenon. The definition has gotten pretty weak. I tried to find statistics for scratch cooking and apparently it’s so rare that they don’t keep track.

But on the encouraging side, men are putting in about twice as many minutes in the day as they were 20 years ago. So that’s good news. To extol cooking is taken by some to mean that you are anti-feminist and that you think it means women having to go back in the kitchen and not work and not perform in a public way in our society, and it doesn’t mean that at all. I think it’s very important to understand that we’re talking about getting both genders back in the kitchen.

And maybe kids, too?

Well, yeah, the whole idea of the kitchen of a kind of place where one person worked alone is a historically fairly new development. It really has to do with the nuclear family in the last 75 or 100 years. Before then kitchens were much more social spaces. Lots of women got together to cook. Men, before the industrial revolution, were much more involved in food production.

Historically it’s true that women have been more involved in cooking, with the exception of grilling over fires, than men have been. But they weren’t always doing it alone. I think one of the real objections to cooking and other forms of housework was how isolating it was. You weren’t in the world when you did it. In fact, you were quite removed from the world. So, I think one of the things we have to work on is reducing the isolation of cooking and getting children in the kitchen and getting neighbors in the kitchen and getting husbands in the kitchen. Those are steps in that direction.

Is that why cooking classes are popular right now?

Yes, everything changes when you cook with other people. I know this because I’ve been taking cooking lessons—something my whole family gets involved with—and it’s a whole different experience, and it’s a lot fun. It’s a great way to socialize. I’ve been fantasizing about a new concept of the dinner party where the guests get there long before the food is ready.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from home cooking, what do you think about the measure that passed recently in San Francisco banning Happy Meals?

Well, we have a history here in the Bay Area of social engineering. I remember when I first got to California there was a ballot initiative for the city of Berkeley that would have banned any coffee that wasn’t organic or fair-trade. It got close to 40% of the vote, which is kind of amazing.

I think that the way that food is marketed toward children is very manipulative and should be regulated. I think giving away toys with food to very young kids is a very manipulative way to sell stuff to them and to undermine parents’ authority. So I think it’s a social experiment that should be tried somewhere to see if it works. I feel the same way about soda taxes. We should do these not just merely to express our disapproval of things but to see if they actually generate changes in behavior. I guess I’m willing to see it played out. If it works, I think it’s something that we should consider.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s a great slogan, not just for locavores but for anyone who eats. How has your audience widened or changed over the years?

I’ve tried deliberately to reach a more mainstream audience, and the reason I published Food Rules was to reach all sorts of people who wouldn’t read a 500-page book about the food system or a 200-page polemic about nutrition science. That book was inspired by doctors who said they would really love to have a pamphlet that they could give to their patients, who didn’t need the whole backstory, didn’t need the history and didn’t need to know about the industrialization of agriculture or the uncertainties of nutrition science, but just wanted some guidance, a field guide to this very challenging landscape of the modern supermarket. So that’s my goal. I don’t want to be preaching to the choir. I want to bring a whole lot of new people into the church. I’m trying to widen the circle and extend this conversation to lots of people who haven’t been part of it.

Since we are looking forward to your visit in February to Santa Barbara, how does public speaking dovetail with your writing?

I have found speaking about this issue a very interesting experience. It really helps me figure out where the audience is, the questions people have and the things they’re struggling with. So, I think it actually helps my writing in various ways.

Writing is a conversation. It sounds kind of one-sided but what you decide to write about, the questions you choose to answer, come from somewhere. They might come from an editor, they might come from your own curiosity, but very often they come from audiences. And it was clear to me a couple years ago that people were very confused on the subject of what they should eat, given that they care about health and they care about the environment. They wanted the bottom line. They didn’t want to hear a lot of theory. And so I started trying to address that question in my writing. The speaking feeds the writing in all sorts of ways that are very useful. Sometimes somebody will pose a question that will really surprise me and get me to think, and I’ll realize that’s the kernel of an article.

What are you interested in writing about next?

I’m working on a book that is about cooking. I’m trying to figure out a way to explore it that is a little different. So, I’m learning a lot about it. And I’m going to tell the story of my education in the kitchen. The more I work on these issues having to do with our whole food system, the more I realize that our problem is a cooking problem. The changes in the diet that we’ve seen over the last couple decades and the various problems in terms of both health and family life are closely tied to the fact that people are cooking less and eating meals together less—those two things are also linked. And if we’re not going to go back to the kitchen, it isn’t really clear that we can have this renaissance of local agriculture go very far or that we can tackle this problem of obesity and Type 2 diabetes and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

The most important distinction in food, I think, is not fat versus protein or carbohydrates, it’s highly processed or minimally processed food. And how they process food is the result of people not cooking food themselves and letting corporations cook. So unless we take back control over that process—that really important process—I think that there’s a real top on where this food movement can go. I want to address that. I want to write a book that doesn’t preach to people about cooking but simply gets them excited about it by watching this education unfold. That’s my hope.

Michael Pollan’s next book is still a few years from being published. But there will be articles in the meantime and speaking engagements, such as the one in Santa Barbara on February 10, 2011, at the Granada, which you can find out more about at artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.

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