An Evening with Michael Pollan
Last Saturday, May 16th, my bookstore sold books at a Michael Pollan event in the Central Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland. Over 1,100 people showed up for this question and answer session with the author of (most recently) In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ve only read an earlier book of his, A Place of My Own, but since I’ve been studying his precursor, Wendell Berry, it’s only a matter of time before I get to his other work. I’m always behind on the latest trends.
Tony Geraci, the new Baltimore City Head of School Lunches, interviewed Michael Pollan. I didn’t take these questions and answers down verbatim, so these are not direct quotes by Michael Pollan, but they are the content of what he said.
Geraci: What is your favorite cuss word?
Pollan: My favorite cuss word? I’m not sure. My son would say I use the word “shit” a lot.
Geraci: What’s the deal with free-range chickens? What does this mean?
Pollan: Well, you’d like to think it means that these chickens roam around the farm, but that’s not the case. When I was researching for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I went to a “free-range” farm in California where forty-thousand chickens were in a warehouse. I asked the farmer how these chickens can be free-range, and he pointed to two small doors and said that the chickens could leave and go outside if they wanted to. The farmer opens these doors after the chickens are five weeks old–when the chickens have already gotten used to an indoor lifestyle, so none usually choose to go outside. Then the chickens die at six or seven weeks, technically “free-range.” At least they’re not in cages. But the better quality chickens are “pastured.”
Geraci: You write, “eat food, not to much, mostly plants.” Where did this mantra come from?
Pollan: As a journalist, when you study an issue, usually that issue becomes more complex and mind-boggling the more information you learn. But when I spent a year studying food and the food industry and what you need for a healthy diet, the answer was clear. At first I just thought “eat food” was enough but then I added “not too much” because there is the issue of quantity, and then I added “mainly plants” because there is the issue of selectivity. My publisher wasn’t happy because he expected more words than this haiku at the end of my year’s research. And that last phrase made both meat-eaters and vegetarians mad at me. Vegetarians wanted me to go all the way and say only eat vegetables, and meat-eaters were upset that I said “mainly plants” not “mainly meats.” Now, I love meat, but I realize that we eat too much in this country–the average American eats nine ounces each day, and the growing of animals’ feed and the transportation of these animals makes a huge carbon footprint. On the other hand, if animals are raised properly, their eating of grass has beneficial effects on the air and soil. An article I wrote about cattle-raising practices actually turned some people into vegetarians and turned some vegetarians back into meat-eaters.
Geraci: What’s the deal with grass-fed cattle?
Pollan: You have to be careful with label. The superior label is “grass-finished,” which means the cattle has been fed grass until they’re killed. “Grass-fed” can mean that an animal has been fed grass for only a period of its life. USDA regulations have become stricter on that label, so the grass-fed period must be a significant portion of its life though not necessary the whole time. (Or since it was five weeks, anyway, since cattle can’t digest the grass until five weeks.) A guy at Cornell has done a study that shows the practice of feeding cattle grass for just five days before they’re slaughtered washes out eighty-percent of the diseases we now fear from these animals. But policy-makers and agribusinesses ignore such studies, because feeding cattle corn is cheaper.
We have to remember that eating kinds of meat is seasonal, just like eating kinds fruits and vegetables. There isn’t suitable grass to feed cattle all year round, so they’re fed corn, since Americans demand to eat fresh meat for twelve full months.
Geraci: What is the strangest thing about getting all this attention?
Pollan: I have been on quite the ride the last couple years. It’s good to spend my evenings talking in person to a thousand people, although I do need to get back to spending evenings with the word processor at some point. I guess the strangest thing is that now people listen to what I say and write. Before, I knew my wife and a few close friends would read my stuff, but now that I’ve achieved an author’s dream of having listeners, it’s unreal and overwhelming.
Geraci: What are your hopes for this current administration?
Pollan: Let me start by saying that Michelle Obama is posed to be very active in the food movement. Her garden at the White House has spawned thousands of gardens by people who never before have thought of growing one. She also made clear that her garden was an organic garden. She didn’t have to make the garden organic, and many pesticide companies were angry with her use of the word and wrote letters saying that they hoped she chose their products. It also led to some people saying–with straight faces–that if we didn’t use pesticides, there would be too much disease in our crops, and Americans would starve to death. She’s done a great thing with that garden.
Obama sees the links between health care reform and food and the energy crisis and food, and that’s good. However, just because he sees the links doesn’t mean he’s going to change anything. The agribusinesses have a lot of power and money and influence in Congress, and Obama knows that. I had a friend who talked with him after he was elected and before he became president. My friend was pestering him to do something about the food policies in this country, and he told my friend, “Show me the movement,” because Obama knows he can’t act on his own. So, we need to keep pestering him. If your representatives in Congress receive enough letters and pressure, then they’ll act. Otherwise, they know they can continue to get elected without doing anything about food policies, and they won’t do anything. Or we could have a campaign finance reform, but I don’t see that happening.
He was also asked a handful of other questions, but I’m glad I remember this much, since people kept interrupting my listening to make me sell them books. Pollan then took questions from the audience. Someone asked him what he thought of raw milk–I remember this question, since I’ve been bootlegging raw milk from Pennsylvania. Pollan said people should have the freedom to drink raw milk–“I mean, think of all the other stuff the government lets us do”–but he does know some people who have gotten healthier through drinking raw and others who have gotten sick. He said he enjoyed drinking raw milk when he lived in Connecticut, where you can buy raw milk in grocery stores, because the taste actually changed with the seasons–sometimes the milk was sweet, other times almost bitter–and it was a nice way to be attune to the seasons.
When Geraci said time was up and asked for any final remarks, Pollan said, “Final remarks? Well, I don’t know. Let’s take another audience question instead.” I liked that response.
Afterward, Pollan signed books. As he signed a stack from the bookstore, I asked him a question on my mind. “Most in the food movement are wealthier people. Less wealthy people are usually going to get the most food they can with their dollar, whether or not it’s organic or even nutritious. I don’t see this fact changing. What would it take for it to change?” Pollan said that many movements start with the wealthier people who have more time and education to think and act on their ideas. Then it often trickles downward. But he also said that ultimately it’s going to take policy changes at a federal level.
Pollan wore a casual suit jacket over a t-shirt that said “Vote With Your Fork.” He’s a humble, intelligent, humorous guy, and I’m glad I heard him. I can only hope the snowball his writing has started will continue to grow, attaching different races and classes and congressmen and federal policy makers, not just the young eco-friendly white people like myself.
image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ragesoss/