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An Epicurean Inquisition with Michael Pollan

I'm thrilled. It's 10 am on Monday morning, and Michael Pollan has just told me the best news I've heard in a while: he's got a new book coming out.

Pollan might just be the biggest influence on the modern American sustainable food system. He took Power Steer, published in the New York Times Magazine in 2002, and turned it into The Omnivore’s Dilemma, for which he won a James Beard Award and encouraged millions of Americans to reflect on soda and fast food. He’s taken his latest NYT Mag article, “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch” published in 2009, and turned it into an upcoming book about cooking. If it's not the Next Big Thing In Food Journalism, I'll be shocked.

It’s a testament to his influence on our country’s growing interest in food that he was named to Time’s 100 list in 2012.

So the chance to share a cappuccino and talk shop on a rainy morning on the Upper East Side was a welcome one. Pollan’s not preachy. He’s just smart. And articulate. And kind. And it’s a powerful combination, wielded in all the right ways.

Michael, my Kindle’s had no new Pollan for three years. What have you been working on?

I’m about to finish my latest book. It’s been three years coming, and it’s about cooking. I take four elements – fire, water, air, earth – and show how each one corresponds to processing nature into food. It’s really about how cooking transformed us as a species.

Sounds like you’ve been spending some time in the kitchen.

I learned how to cook. It’s the part of the food chain that I haven’t written about yet. I’ve covered agriculture and nutrition, but not cooking. We are the only species who cooks our food.

There are huge benefits to cooking. People who cook eat a healthier diet because they avoid processed food. We’ve been processing food forever, but it used to make the meal better. Humans milled grain to make bread, fermented milk to make cheese, grilled meat to eat it.

But around the 1880s, processing food started to make it worse. At the grocery store today, it’s mostly what you find: highly processed, unhealthy food. It's cooking that will bring back our health.

So individuals can solve their health problems through cooking?

I don’t see corporations cooking in a way that will work for our health. It’s hard to solve problems at an industrial level in a way that addresses public health.

I hope to re-attach food to something real: to a farm, a process, a person. I’ve learned how to pickle vegetables, to brew my own beer, to bake bread.

Bread! Everyone's baking bread at home these days. They all talk about Jim Lahey. Are you another Lahey disciple?

I’ve made his no-knead bread. But I’ve mainly been spending time with Chad Robertson at Tartine. And some of his mentors, like Richard Bourdon at Berkshire Mountain Bakery up in Massachusetts.

Sounds incredible. I have to tell you, when people hear those famous three sentences, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” there’s always the same reaction: Does Michael Pollan practice what he preaches?

I do, actually. I eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t eat meat when I don’t know where it comes from. In a restaurant, if they don’t know where their chicken or beef was raised, I won’t order it. I defend a very small portion of the meat industry.

Short of sending in a detective, I really do stick to those words.

So do you ever sneak in a Coke?

No. [laughs] I don’t crave sweet things. I grew up without soda in the house, but was allowed a Coke – probably actually a Shirley Temple – when we went out.

If I’m going to binge, it’s on cheese.

Do you have a favorite cheese?

Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. Actually, there’s one I’ve been eating a lot, from Barinaga Ranch, in Marshall, CA. Marcia Barinaga has a beautiful herd of sheep and makes this awesome Basque-style cheese. I’ve also been eating a lot of St. Nectaire. I learned how it’s made for the new book. But I pretty much like all cheese.

What would be the biggest surprise to find in your kitchen?

Right now, it’s a ridiculous number of pickled things, including a massive amount of sauerkraut. It certainly wasn’t there a year ago.

Where do you shop for all these foods?

Monterrey Market. Berkeley Bowl. There’s a farmers’ market two blocks away from my house, on Thursdays. I go there a lot.

So is it hard to eat when you travel?

Oh, it’s the biggest challenge. There’s no good food in airports yet. I try to bring something, but when I forget, I get a vegetarian burrito. The problem is, it’s the size of a football!

Chipotle makes healthy food, but too much of it. It’s an interesting problem to have. For fast food, from a calorie perspective, Chipotle is one of the worst.

I travel around the country to give talks; a lot of people want to have this conversation. And there’s always one local restaurant that gets it. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, there’s a restaurant called Greenhouse Grille, where they buy grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, vegetables from local farmers. They keep a seasonal menu. And it’s become the locus of the food movement in that community.

If you’re visiting Fayatteville, you must mean Walmart? Is there any truth in their sustainability efforts?

They call me from time to time. They’re committed to sustainability, but by their definition. Which is really to eliminate waste and to reduce fossil fuel use. To the extent that [fossil fuel reduction] applies to the food system, they’re making an impact. For example, they’re getting farmers to reduce use of synthetic fertilizer. It’s low-hanging fruit, the easy stuff.

Ask them about antibiotic use in livestock? Labor issues? Anything that increases costs, they start to get really uncomfortable.

So when it comes to eating locally, what’s your advice for people who also want their coffee, their orange juice?

I don’t think it’s all or nothing. Don’t get hung up on being faithful. The concepts of vegetarianism, veganism are so exclusive. It’s very American. It’s like, you’ve fallen off the wagon if you eat one piece of bacon. Like you’ve lost your identity.

Go ahead. Drink coffee. Eat bananas. Just pay attention to what kind of coffee, what kind of bananas you choose.

Have you seen the effects of the economy on eating habits since The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in 2007, right before the Great Recession?

One of the surprises of the last four years is that the market for alternative, more expensive foods has thrived. It should have collapsed. Organic should have collapsed. People felt squeezed.

I have a colleague at Berkeley’s journalism school, a crusty old investigative reporter who doesn’t have the patience for what I write about. Back in mid-2008, we were walking down Shattuck Ave, past Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board and all these places, and he brought up the financial crisis. He turned to me and said, “Well that’s it for your food shit.”

It [the organic, local food movement] could have gone away. The fact that it didn’t, is telling. Last year, the organic food category was up 10 percent.

What do you think about the recent marketing efforts by lobbyists to call HFCS “Corn Sugar”?

I don’t think they’ll succeed. The problem is, high-fructose corn syrup isn’t that accurate, either. Both names put lipstick on a pig. If I had to pick a name, it’d be enzymatically-altered corn gluten. Now that’s accurate.

Have you spent any time looking into China’s food system?

The Chinese have a crisis of trust. We read about melamine in the papers, but there are a slew of issues we never hear about. They have a similar problem to the US: a food chain that is very long and full of uncertainty. A nascent food movement is growing, led by the affluent who can afford to reconnect with local producers. There are even CSAs cropping up in Beijing!

Food, politics, news, what’s up with the rumors of “Michael Pollan vs. Mark Bittman” tremors? I would think you guys should get along?

You know, people ask me this question and I think it’s funny. It’s great to have someone on the East Coast paying attention to these issues, and especially at the Times. There’s less solidarity. We talk from time to time, he’ll ask me for farms to visit out in Iowa, I’m so glad the momentum for food and politics is growing!

Glad to hear it. Back to your writing. Botany of Desire is one of my all-time favorite books but it doesn’t get the same kind of press that Omnivore received. Why don’t people want to read about marijuana and the history of Johnny Appleseed?

I think it might be my best book. But it’s less pointed. It doesn’t address how to live, it’s an argument for how nature works. It didn’t plug into social, political, cultural issues. But it got me into all this. I guess we owe it something.

When I published The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I thought I was really late. Eric Schlosser had published Fast Food Nation already, and I didn’t know if there was still an appetite for these issues.

You never know if your book is going to meet what the culture needs. But you might get lucky.

All this talk about food makes me hungry. What was your most unforgettable meal?

There’s a restaurant called Etxebarri in Spain, in the Basque region. Every course is grilled. The chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, and no I can't pronounce his name, has dedicated his career to finding the right wood, the right temperature, for the right ingredient.

I had the best steak I’ve ever eaten there, and it was from a 14-year old dairy cow. The chef grilled a single oyster under a single ember – the perfect ember, wood and temperature and all – and it was the best oyster I’d ever had.

It was so unexpectedly good!

And if you have to choose, what would be your last meal?

People ask me the death row question a lot. My favorite meal is a good roast chicken. With roasted root vegetables, cooked in the same pan with all the drippings.

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