“Why don’t you order for me?” I ask Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food (The Penguin Press). We’re at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Alice Waters’s ode to exquisite cuisine and one of the forerunners of the whole food movement in America.
It’s not that I can’t interpret the menu, with its range of little-known and unusual organic offerings; but I’m with the guy whose books are greatly responsible for awakening the consciousness of a processed-food nation to the idea of changing its eating habits. Since seizing control of American cuisine in the 1960s, the food industry has, as Pollan explains in his new book, influenced us to eat a diet of nutrients rather than food, which he claims is actually making us sick.
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” Pollan warns, referring to most of the things that line the shelves in an average grocery store these days—from low-fat yogurt to the processed meats so commonly used to make sandwiches on imitation bread made with refined wheat flour.
Pollan delights in telling me that he believes America is returning to the eating habits of its ancestors. “The organic marketplace is growing at a rate of 20% a year, and the whole foods industry rakes in about $1.5 billion annually now,” he says. This still represents only 2% of the food market, but it’s a step in the right direction. “The rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease can be traced directly back to our Western diet. Eating organically will help restore us to health.”
Pollan grew up in a gardening environment. His Russian grandfather was a prolific gardener, and passed on his love of growing produce to his grandson. From the family garden on Long Island to his current residence in Berkeley, Pollan has always cultivated his own vegetables and fruits. He does so organically, too, an example that in the last few years has encouraged his teenage son to switch from eating “only white food” to a more nutritious natural diet.
“A garden is an interesting place to look at our relationship to nature, and thus to food,” Pollan says. Moving to Berkeley a few years ago to take a teaching position on the U.C. campus there was a real eye-opener for him, firmly cementing Pollan in the organic foods movement. “The people here speak more often about food than the war in Iraq! It’s the most vital issue in the community.” His close friendship with Alice Waters has further led him to take on the cause.
“But I’m not a food writer,” Pollan insists. “The thread of everything I do is about nature, and the many ways we engage with it—through architecture, gardening, the environment.” Pollan first began writing about nature when he was at Harper’s, from 1984 to 1994. He’s currently a contributing editor to the NewYork Times Magazine, where his editor there, Gerry Marzorati, first encouraged him to tackle the subject of food. Pollan wrote about it regularly for a couple of years, expanding his thinking on the topic to a more sophisticated, philosophical level.
He emphasizes the good fortune he’s had in his publishing journey, which includes a single editor—Ann Godoff—for the five books he’s written. “And I’ve been at three different houses, but Anne has made room for me wherever she’s landed.” He credits her loyalty and faith in him for helping him succeed as a writer. “I’ve had an old- fashioned career in publishing. It’s given me the kind of constancy that few writers are lucky enough to experience these days.”
Pollan has good taste in food, indeed. The starter he orders for me, a salad of Little Gem lettuces with crème fraîche and herbs, bursts with flavors and freshness in my mouth. This is followed by Marin Sun Farm beef shoulder in broth with savory autumn vegetables. Now I’m swooning.
Pollan asks for a taste of the meat, swallows and nods approvingly. “I like this particular farm,” he tells me. “Their cattle is grass-fed and grass-finished. This is some of the best beef you’ll ever have.”
At these prices, he’s probably right. But if In Defense of Food becomes a bestseller, we all might benefit from Pollan’s growing influence on the food industry in America.
|Wendy Werris is a freelance writer and publishing consultant in Los Angeles. She is also the author of An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books (Carroll & Graf).|