12 January 2008

Michael Pollan: Part Two

On Thursday we hopped a train to Philadelphia to see Michael Pollan speak and give a reading from In Defense of Food at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We got to the library an hour and a half early, but couldn't get inside because the library had closed for the day and was waiting to reopen at seven for the event. We were effectively the third and fourth people in line after two young women who had arrived ahead of us and were hanging out on the steps. By six o'clock there were easily two hundred people waiting. It was interesting to see what an obvious demographic turned out for the reading; at least 75% of the attendees were under 35 years old, and about the same percentage were urban hippies: Keens, Nalgene bottles, and thrift store cardigans were in abundance. We're rural hippies, so we had Keens, Nalgene bottles, and flannel shirts. We were all let in at quarter after six, and by six-thirty all seven hundred available seats were taken and the library staff had to start turning people away. The crowd was pretty amazing.

Before the event started I was a little bit concerned I'd be disappointed, because I thought (and still think) that the catchphrase for the book, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," was a little cute. That line is being repeated ad nauseum on NPR, in reviews, and online, and even though it makes sense and all, it is a little too pat for my liking. His other writing is very much not like that, though. I've read The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma, in addition to some of his articles, and his other stuff seems well thought out and researched. My chief complaints with the two books I've read are that Pollan identifies and discusses a lot of problems inherent in the agricultural and food industries, not to mention the government, but he doesn't do very much in the way of offering alternatives. I know that he's technically a journalist, so it's not his obligation to give answers. But he's probably more intimate with the issues he writes about than most people are, so it almost seems like his duty to give us some sort of guidance. What's the best way to fix the farm bill? How do we get the government to subsidize the farmers who are doing good work? How do we get consumers to wrap their minds around the fact that in the end they pay a lot more than a dollar for that fast food value meal?

I don't know. Anyway, from Pollan's talk, it sounds like In Defense of Food will give a bit more direction, at least to individual consumers. Here are a couple highlights from his talk:

  • Foods are not "the sum of their nutrients," despite what Multi-Grain Omega-3 Heart-Healthy American Cancer Society Approved Cheerios might have you believe. For reasons we don't understand yet, eating a fish from the ocean (presumably one who was able to avoid the toxic, mercury-filled parts of the ocean) is a much better and more effective way to get omega-3s than by taking a supplement or eating fortified food. The beta carotene in a carrot will do a lot more for you than fortified Wheaties.
  • When sociologists look at food, they find that the health of a population has nothing to do with individual foods; rather it's contingent on the amount of whole foods that are eaten. Pollan talked about an African tribe that basically eats beef, cow's blood, milk, and a couple grains. They have virtually no chronic diseases, they live a long time, and they can withstand minor illnesses way better than the average Westerner. The same holds true for any group of people who are eating a very culturally based diet, whether it's Inuits eating seal blubber, South Americans eating beans and potatoes, or French people eating brie.
  • Speaking of Westerners, we have pretty much the crappiest diet in history, and immigrant populations who move to a Westernized area and start eating our junk food develop lots of health problems—high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity–very, very quickly. However, switching someone back to their native diet, or any diet of organic whole foods, completely reverses the problems they developed in, like, six weeks.
  • Crappy food is cheap food, thanks mainly to the completely disproportionate and nonsensical allocation of government subsidies. Next time you hear someone whine about people who accept welfare and government handouts, tell them to boycott Kraft, General Mills, Nestle, and the like. Processed food is cheap because of government incentives to produce monster quantities of nasty, genetically modified corn, ship it around the country, and cram it into every box of cereal, soda bottle, and frozen dinner. One dollar can buy you about 1500 calories of processed food; the same dollar can buy about 250 calories of fresh produce. It is not really more expensive to grow a carrot than to make a box of Hamburger Helper; the problem is that the carrot farmer doesn't get any help from the government. In fact he's got to pay the government if he wants to call his carrot organic.
  • I'm getting worked up.
  • A big factor in the rise of health problems in Westernized nations, especially the US, is that we don't cook anymore. If you go to the grocery store and buy bread, milk, vegetables, and meat, you're going to be a whole lot better off than if you go for a box or a bag in the freezer section. Sure, you can add too much salt or too much butter, but most people don't keep corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil and monosodium glutamate in their spice rack. On the whole, you'll fare much better if you cook your own food, especially if you buy organic ingredients.
  • And finally, a positive thought: the food industry is extremely sensitive to health scares and contamination, because of the awful publicity that such things bring. Basically, they're terrified of consumers. As an example, Pollan cited McDonalds' unadvertised use of genetically modified potatoes in the late 1990s. A few people learned about this and were rightly concerned, and they called and sent letters to the company. Less than 100 complaints was enough for McDonalds to reconsider, and lead to the eventual reverse of their use of GMO potatoes.
On the whole, Pollan was a very good speaker. He was engaging and funny, and he gave a lot of information. It made me eager to dig into the new book this weekend. It seems like it might serve as the missing last chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma and take those ideas a little deeper, and I'm hoping to get a more complete picture of the whole food issue after reading it. After the talk, we ran upstairs to the book signing line with the three books we'd brought along. He happily signed them all and put a nice little book-specific note on each one: "To Meg and Kelly, fellow bumblebees," in Botany of Desire, "Vote with your fork!" in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and "Eat food," in In Defense of Food.

A podcast of the event is here. It is about an hour long, and I highly recommend listening to it whether you're familiar with Pollan's message or not.

Edited to add: Kickass Philly Blogger Albert "Dragonball" Yee has a very thorough write up of the reading here.


Amanda said...

Please let us know what you think of the book- I'm holding out until I hear it's actually something new for those of us already familiar with his recent articles.

Anonymous said...

ahhhh I wish I could have been there but reading your review was second best. Thank you for sharing your notes and thoughts. I appreciate it! I'm still listening to the CD's and wishing I had the book instead.

Patrick said...

Wow, that was a great summary. Thanks for making the post.

I've read Omnivore's Dilemma, and much of the New York Times stuff. I honestly wasn't planning to read his new book, because I couldn't imagine it not being recycled material of some sort or another. I'll be interested to know what you think.

My biggest complaint about Pollan is that he is too focused on the US. In Europe for example, most of our processed food is based soy beans instead of corn. While the farm bill will have repercussions felt all over the world, there is not a lot in the discussion of the bill to engage people who don't live in the US.

I guess in the end, Pollan is only human, and doing what he can do. We sometimes need to remember to be thankful for what he has done and not expect him to do what he can't. When it comes to your complaint that he doesn't offer good alternatives, maybe their aren't really any, and you and I are really working on that in our own way anyway.

Meg said...

Amanda, we'll definitely put up a review of the book. I just glanced through the bibliography, and the only stuff of his own that he cites are the previous two books, a Mother Jones article from 2003, and a NY Times article from 2004. That's not to say that he isn't rehashing the same ideas from the last couple years, though.

Robin, being there was really cool. We're lucky we got in! It was packed.

Patrick, you're right, his stuff is pretty much entirely focused on North America. I'm not sure whether these books are more of the same, but he gave three reading recommendations: What to Eat and Food Politics, both by Marion Nestle, and The Jungle Effect by Daphne Miller.

Patrick said...

Have you ever read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? It was written in 1878, but it says a lot about the world today. Not for people with weak stomachs! You can download the e-book here:


I assume this is the book Daphne Miller is referring to.

I just listened to the podcast.

Did you catch the part where he was talking about eating non-processed foods and said something like for example if you eat vegetables, they are just plants, they haven't changed much since your great- grandmother's time? I would like to politely disagree with this, if I may.

Patrick said...

Sorry, it was written in 1906. 1878 was the year Upton Sinclair was born.

Meg said...

Hey, Patrick, I know exactly which book you're referring to. I haven't read the whole thing, but I've read parts of it for various classes. Blech!

I just looked up that Daphne Miller book on Amazon and it's actually a new one. I think it said it will be published in the US at the end of April. The subtitle is "A doctor discovers the healthiest diets from around the world." It sounds kind of like pop science, but it might be interesting if it takes more of a sociological perspective.

I bet you are pretty much right about the vegetables our great grandparents ate. They didn't used to genetically engineer monster sized apples and oranges, nor did they spray them with pesticides and dump nitrogen fertilizers all over the place. Plus, I doubt my great grandmother ever grew a bok choy, but we have a row of them outside right now. We grow a lot of stuff that isn't indigenous to our area and was probably too pricey to ship around 80 or 100 years ago. I wonder how much even some of our heirloom varieties have evolved in that time?

Anonymous said...

Great Post!!

I agree with the point Patrick may have been making: Pollan is one of the great "Updike's" of our time.

He is also one of my favorite authors specifically for the fact that I inevitably find some small thing to disagree with, as Patrick did, that I can argue with him and that makes his books more alive for me.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write-up and the podcast link. I haven't yet picked up any of his books, and I want to--more so after reading this.

As an aside, my mother did used to have monosodium glutamate in her spice rack--she was brought up in Korea and cooks a lot of Korean foods, and used to put it in this really marvelous shredded-beef-and-green-onion preparation that was meant to go on noodles. She's thrown it out by now, though...I think.

Meg said...

Rob, I agree-Pollan seems to be one of the best writers for social change that we've had in a while. I think the reason for his success is his accessibility, which kind of goes along with what you said about how he's someone who you can really think about and argue with. When someone makes outrageous suggestions or implies that we've all got to sell our worldly possessions and join a commune or something to make real change, it's easy to completely dismiss them because those are irrational arguments. But Pollan, I think, give pretty simple explanations for problems and suggests down-to-earth ways to go about solving things. His ideas for the most part are pretty reasonable, and because of that he's a part of the conversation rather than some authority on high who can't be touched.

Meg said...

Seeded, that's funny. When I wrote that I actually just listed the first random food chemical names that came into my head without giving it much thought. It totally makes sense that someone who cooks a lot of Asian foods might keep some MSG around. huh!

Pollan's web site (michaelpollan.com, I think) has links to a lot of his articles and shorter essays. That might be a good place to start reading until you get a chance to check out one of the books.

Katie said...

So that's what you two look like! I've seen more pictures of your chickens than of you...!

I haven't been to the grocery store lately because it is so awful. Families that can afford to eat "good foods" that just load up their cart with absolute crap. Yes, we have an expensive grocery bill (hoping to fix that this summer) because we try really hard to buy fresh, local ingredients, not fruit from Ecuador or Chile this time of year that is dirt cheap.

Now I'm getting worked up. Awesome post! You're lucky to have gotten to see an author like Pollan in person and hear the anecdotes to his book!

Katie at GardenPunks

Meg said...

I know exactly what you are talking about. I am usually not judgmental except at the grocery store, when I see people loading up their carts with Hot Pockets and tater tots and just wonder what the heck they are thinking. One of the statistics Pollan brought up was the fact that most of the world spends 15% of their income on food, and the US spends 10%. On crap.

It was so cool to see him in person. I've read a couple news articles about it, and apparently it was one of the largest and most enthusiastic audiences the Philly library has ever had for an event.

Mike said...

That was a great summary of the talk, I especially...identified with "I'm getting worked up"! I could've stopped there, but I also listened to the podcast, which was overall absorbing, and left me with a handful of new, I guess you could call 'em, trivia keepers, like the digestive tract having as many neurons as the spinal cord ("what are we CALCULATING down there?"), and his mini-foray into corporate good food with his Whole Foods comments during the Q&A. The fatty Eastern Eurpean cusine/good chicken fat stuff was nice as well. And, framing our whole horrible "Western diet" in terms of a culture of nutritionism, and rooting that in an original, long-running quest to find out what was making us sick in the new industrial food was...really effective!

It gets you worked up. It's taken me a couple of days to actually comment here, 'cause every time I think about this Bigger Picture in any detail, adrenaline flows, a million thoughts start flying around, and I end up having to sort plug trays or walk out to the greenhouse or blast whomever's around with a bunch of (possibly disjointed) facts and ideas, just to burn off energy!

In fact, at this point, I've developed a bit of a reservation about taking in too much...background material. Pollan is a skillful researcher and storyteller, I'm instantly captivated and drawn in, and I'm soon charged up to the point of distraction. Problem is, I haven't found a way to channel that energy directly into my small-farming efforts. And I've tried. So, I now go slow. Like, I've had The Omnivore's Dilemma on my standing book order list for ages, but it's been bumped down each time I've ordered a few from the list... (As has George Monbiot's Manifesto for a New World Order, which came highly recommended, and which I suspect could REALLY send me spiralling!)

I could go on for ages about the related things this post and Pollan's talk bring to mind, about "(greedy) reductionism" as an all-purpose reminder, about On Food and Cooking as a unique food-meets-science book, there's the no-daily-news diet, and all kinds of other stuff rushing about in my head right now, but I'll stop here... :) I hope it adds a teeny bit to the discussion!

Meg said...

Mike, that's exactly why I opted to write up a bulleted list rather than some more cohesive analysis of the talk--if I dwell on this stuff I get so annoyed, so for better or worse I went the route that required less contemplation.

When you finally get your hands on Omnivore's Dilemma, you might be interested in the middle section, which deals with organic production. Pollan profiles Joel Salatin, the Polyface Farm guy, and it's interesting to see the little ecosystem he maintains with his livestock and his fields. My main gripe with the book, though, is that there's no examples of a small scale organic veg farm like yours for comparison with the huge farms.

It is a lot of trivia, though, like you said. But I've read that the new book (we have it, but I haven't read it myself, yet) provides more concrete solutions and answers to some of the issues that were presented in the previous book.

I don't know. It's cool that Pollan has gathered all this information together in his books, but it's almost to the point of overload when you begin to go through it all. I am looking forward to reading the new book, and then taking a good while to process everything!

Christy said...

Darn, I'm less than an hour south of Philly. I wish I had known he was going to be there. Oh well. I love his books and will be getting the new one tomorrow.

Meg said...

Christy, I wouldn't have known about it either if my boss hadn't noticed me reading one of his books a while ago and tipped me off. I've since joined the Philly library's events email list, 'cause they have some really big authors come in.

Layanee said...

Loved your blog comments concerning Michael Pollan. I have his new book and have read his others. I am going to check out his speaking engagement calendar. Maybe he will be speaking close to home! Thanks!