Michael Pollan
Photo by Ken Light

Michael Pollan: “We vote with our forks”

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Short Profile

Name: Michael Pollan
DOB: 6 February 1955
Place of birth: Long Island, New York, USA
Occupation: Author

Mr. Pollan, you’re the author of multiple books about nutrition and the food industry, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked and In Defense of Food. Do you remember when you first fell in love with food?

Probably on my mother’s breast! (Laughs) Gosh, I’ve always loved food but I didn’t begin thinking about it until I started gardening, which I did in my twenties. I loved growing food, I loved the idea that I could grow something and eat it! I treasured those bites of food in a way I hadn’t anything before. And a lot of my writing grows out of that experience in the garden because from gardening I got interested in health and cooking…

Has home cooking always been a part of your life?

Yes, my mother would always cook for our family. Those were some of the most sweet memories of my childhood. Just the memories of her taking that lid off the casserole and the aromas coming out… The steam of a boeuf bourguignon or a chicken stew… It was so great. In my Netflix series Cooked, which is based on the book I wrote in 2013, we used this blue casserole dish that is actually the very same one my mother cooked in.

Cooked explores the four basic elements of cooking transformations — air, earth, water, and fire — and you actually apprenticed yourself to a master in each of the transformations. Are you always so hands-on?

I try to be! I really like to immerse myself. Most journalism is written from the sidelines, from people who have seen it all and are pretty cynical, and there is a freshness and awe that you can only get from having done something for the first time and doing it yourself. So I’ve done almost everything I’ve written about in some way. When I wrote Ominvore’s Dilemma, I bought a cow and followed it through the whole meat system. That allowed me to be more sympathetic with the ranchers who might put a hormone supplement in that animal because it was the only way to clear a profit on it than had I just been a journalist saying, “Oh, they shouldn’t do that.” It’s a great tool that I don’t think journalists take advantage of enough. I can’t imagine writing about cooking without first learning to do it at the highest possible level.

Which of those four transformations did you find spoke to you the most?

I’d have to say air; the baking of bread. I got really engaged by that. I still have this enormous sense of satisfaction when you open the oven and see this thing that was just a lump of white dough transformed into this gorgeous, aromatic loaf. Fermentations too, the idea that you can turn milk into cheese and it’s these microbes that are alive. It’s a kind of alchemy… I love transformations. It’s really at the heart of all my work. It still kind of amazes me how we transform nature, these plants and animals, into these meals, these human institutions.

Did you grow up in a home where “the meal” was considered kind of sacred?

Definitely. Food and love are very closely identifiable when we’re young. It is this gift from your parents and that really sticks with you. My mother took home cooking seriously. It was a creative outlet for her. She spent a lot of time reading cookbooks and watching Julia Child on television. She really liked cooking, and we were beneficiaries of that. When you eat something, there are these memories: the first time you had it, who cooked it for you, or who you were with last time you ate it… The food is great, but it’s what we bring to it. There’s great power in food.

There is also great power in food writing. Your book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and its mantra, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” started a food movement in the United States when it came out in 2008.

We still have a lot of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes out there… So we haven’t changed the world entirely, but I think that that idea has taken hold. I’ve been very gratified when people tell me that that book in particular lead to a big change in their life. Even though it wasn’t meant as a diet book, the fact is that if you do eat that way, which is to say if you eat real food, eat less meat and more plants, and try not to eat too much, you know… If you struggle with weight, you will lose it. It is that simple.

“There is a politics to the whole conversation around food. We do get to vote three times a day with our meals, we vote with our forks.”

How do you feel about being part of the bigger conversation around healthier eating?

I’m happy to take part in it. We have a national eating disorder in America, and it’s spread to the rest of the world. And more and more people are eating the way we do. I feel it’s one of the pressing issues of our time: taking back control of our diet from an industry that is cooking very badly for us now, and wants to cook all our meals. We need to resist. Cooking is a political act!

Marina Abramović said that she considers herself a soldier fighting for her art. Is that sometimes how you feel when it comes to food?

Sometimes! I’m an advocate too, as well as a writer. And I do feel that there is a politics to the whole conversation around food. Not just about how we eat but how we grow it. And that we do get to vote three times a day with our meals, we vote with our forks. I don’t necessarily know the right way to vote, but I do know that we need to be more conscious about it. In other words, you may care a lot about animal welfare and someone else may care a lot about pesticides in the environment and someone else may care about health. And those might argue for slightly different votes, but they’ll be better than the thoughtless voting that is the rule right now.

What keeps you motivated to keep fighting this fight?

The fact that I see change happening, that we’re making progress, that there is greater consciousness about food than there has been any time in my life, that the industry is rocked by what’s going on and has become terrified of the consumer…

“The industry is very sensitive and they will change when they have to. It’s not a hopeless cause. There is potential to bring about real change.”

What do you mean by terrified?

I’ll give you an example. We had a big gamble around something called pink slime in America… It’s basically slaughterhouse waste that they’re turning into hamburgers. This is how the media food chain works: there was an article by a man named Michael Moss in the New York Times about this pink slime, and that got picked up by a television network, and they went out and shot this video. That video went viral, and the consumers were appalled, obviously. See, the consumer moving, and moving very quickly. They don’t want to be left behind.

So the industry people change their policies…

Right, you see them actually buying up these small food companies and making all these promises: they’re going to get antibiotics out of their meat, they’re going to be more sustainable in this way or that, or cage-free eggs. They’re not doing that because they really care about the chickens! They’re doing that because their research tells them that the consumer is alarmed about the food, and they need to appear responsive. So good things come out of that, and I’m fueled by the progress that I see.

So you remain hopeful for the future of food culture?

We have a long way to go, without question, but the industry is very sensitive. They will change when they have to. It’s not a hopeless cause. There is potential to bring about real change. I think, as much change as we’ve seen in the last 10 years, in the next 10 we’re going to see a lot more.