Michael Pollan In Baltimore

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 Pollan photomentioned 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.

Omnivore's DilemmaThe 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).
  • In Defense of FoodHe 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.



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  1. I got a gift card for my birthday to Barnes & Nobles and bought ‘In Defense of Food’. I just started, but so far a very good book. How was he in person? He seems like an extremely smart guy.

  2. Sweet. I really liked the first and last sections of the book. In the middle he cites a lot of studies, which are important but the reading there is a little dry, so if you get bored just skim that part.

    He seemed like he really knew what he was talking about in person. Because he didn’t seem to know what questions were coming, and he handled everything like he had researched it. And very down-to-earth too. He said it was very weird for him to be received like a rock star by his readers.

  3. i LOVE Michael Pollan and was soooooo excited to see him in Boston!! http://dontwhitesugarcoatit.blogspot.com/2009/05/eat-food-not-too-much-mostly-plants.html
    I really enjoyed In Defense of Food and have given it as gifts- I think its a great introduction to sustainable food and a very easy read!

  4. Hey Mike! I love your blog, so interesting! This is a book I’m dying to read, I just can’t believe I haven’t done it already! ;o)

  5. I’m very jealous that you were able to hear Michael Pollan speak! Have you ever read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver? It’s an excellent book. The author and her family moved to a farm in Appalachia and ate only homegrown/ locally produced food for a year…It made me give up bananas for 6 months (since they are often shipped from afar). I’m back to eating bananas, but the book has left a lasting impression.

    p.s. love your gnocchi blog post…those little dumplings are close to heaven 🙂

    Megan (The Runner’s Kitchen)’s last blog post..Grocery Habits

    • I haven’t read that book, but I’ve picked it up a few times in Barnes and Noble. I’ll try to get it from the library. How I will miss bananas though.

  6. FluffyGymBunny says:

    “Learning to cook is the key to taking back our food.” I like it.

    So many people give no thought to what goes into the food they’re eating; the conditions the produce was grown in, how it was processed and by whom, and the ethics of the supermarkets who sell the bulk of our food are all overlooked in favour of getting a cheap and quick meal on the table. I can honestly say that I have eaten only a handful of ready meals/TV dinners in my life – to me a bowl of cereal is more appealing than a meal cooked in a box with a list of ingredients longer than my arm. Food should be enjoyed, and for me at least part of the enjoyment comes from creating meals with healthy ingredients that have been subjected to minimal processing.

    That’s not to say my diet is perfect (whatever that may be) but I like to think that the small changes I’ve made will have a positive impact on my health and the environment.

    • I really like that quote too. His talk was filled with all this stuff about farm bills, laws, and a bunch of atrocities that left me feeling that change would be very difficult to bring about. But really, it comes down to this simple idea that people cooking their own food is where it all starts.

      Good for you having hardly ever eaten any of this junk. I wish I could say the same, but until college (and even then, to some extent) I didn’t think twice about what went into the “food” I was eating.

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