It’s not every day you get to hear the leader of a revolution speak, so when my friend Jan told me that Michael Pollan would be speaking at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore on Saturday night, I knew that I had to go (thanks Jan, for coming with me). I’ve mentioned Michael Pollan plenty of times on this blog; he’s best known as the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, both bestselling books about sustainable, healthy eating. He’s heralded by many (myself included) as the voice of the real, whole, and local food movements. His works have shaped the way that I think about what I eat, through easy-to-follow rules like “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” and “Don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients.” I’ve heard that his most recent piece of advice is “Don’t buy any food you’ve ever seen an ad for.” Think about it for a minute: if you’ve seen it on TV, it’s probably a stretch to call it food.
The talk took the form of a question-and-answer session, the questions being asked by an ironically overweight guy in charge of the school lunch program in Baltimore City. To be fair, it sounds like he has done a lot of good things for the school system, including instituting a “Meatless Monday” policy in the cafeterias; I just wonder how he managed to land the job looking the way he does.
Due to this format, there wasn’t really a lot of continuity to the talk or much of a coherent theme, other than the obvious one that underlies all of Pollan’s recent work. So rather than try to organize the information myself and risk interjecting some extraneous meaning, I’ll just list the points of Pollan’s answers that I found most interesting.
- Michael Pollan arrived at his famous rule “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” after a year of research for a book. He was surprised to find that the more he learned, the simpler the rubric became. He has taken heat from both meat eaters and vegetarians over the “mostly plants” part.
- Pollan is a meat eater himself, but understands that it comes with some health and environmental detriment. He eats chicken marked “pastured,” because “free-range” only requires that the birds be allowed outside during the final two weeks of their seven-week lives (and they often don’t even choose to go out).
- He eats grass-fed beef; ceasing his purchasing of feed-lot meat after following a steer’s life for a year and seeing how sick it got in such harsh conditions. Pollan loves the natural way of humans indirectly getting nutrients from the earth by way of the cow, which is capable of digesting grass (humans aren’t). He also said that grazing by cows causes grass to cut its root mass to survive, thereby nurturing the ecosystem of the soil for growing more grass and other crops.
- By eliminating meat entirely from our diets, Pollan says we can reduce our carbon footprint by 25 percent.
- He is excited by the fact that Michelle Obama’s 1500-square-foot organic garden has inspired thousands of acres of other gardens, and finds it humorous that the pesticide industry has argued that mass starvation will occur as a result of such promotion of organic farming.
- Pollan blames the dropping of the Imitation Rule in 1973 for much of the fake food on the market today. This rule stipulated that if, for example, a “cream cheese” brand didn’t contain cream or cheese, then it couldn’t be called by that name. It was dropped in order to allow nutrient-enhanced and fat-removed versions of foods to go by their original names.
- Although Pollan is encouraged that President Obama understands the plight of the American eater, he knows that no major change will take place without a movement. And unfortunately, the current food system works well for the majority of Americans, who can purchase thousands of calories at any fast food restaurant for less than an hour’s wage.
Michael Pollan ended his talk with a line that I found really inspiring, and if I can achieve one thing with this blog, I hope it’s that people will heed the message: “Learning to cook is the key to taking back our food.” And when better than tonight to start? Get yourself away from this computer and into the kitchen.