Friday, May 10, 2013

Michael Pollan in SLC

On Tuesday night we had the opportunity to see Michael Pollan speak in SLC in support of his latest book,  “Cooked”:

I would be hard pressed to think of anyone “famous” who has ever had much of a lasting influence on me, but Michael Pollan is definitely one.   His seminal book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” firmly established himself as the Godfather of the Foodie movement (with Alice Waters  - of Berkley’s famous Chez Panise restaurant - probably being the Godmother) that  generally encompasses Farmer’s Markets, the concept of Eating Local (Localvores), the Slow Food movement, and Farm-to-Table restaurants that all have had explosive growth over the last few years.  We had seen him speak once before (at a $90/person luncheon at Sundance, only months before he came to SLC for only $10!  Took me a while to get over that one, though the lunch was scrumptious and I came away quite full…) and he is as entertaining in person as he is with his books. 

His “Botany of Desire” is a an incredible study of a few fascinating plants: the apple tree (and a great history of the real Johnny Appleseed – he did indeed exist!), the tulip (which got ridiculously popular and expensive in Holland in the 19th century), the potato (and its value/history, from the Irish potato famine to the McDonalds/Simplot unholy alliance), and marijuana/hemp.  The fact that I could remember those categories without looking up the book is a testament to its affect on me!  And although Ash reminded me that “Fast Food Nation” was really our introduction to the considerable ills of the factory farm (raised again just last week when a woman was nearly thrown in jail for filming pretty awful animal abuse right here in bucolic Draper! , Michael Pollan really drove the point home in Omnivore’s Dilemma.  I have said in the past that only one type of person should read that book:  those who eat food.  It’s an incredible (and very entertaining) look at all aspects of the food industry, and culminates in his quest to grow, forage, and kill all the food for a fairly major feast for his friends. 

His popular follow up was “In Defense of Food”, for which – by his own admission on the very first page – there should never have a reason to write/publish, because it was summed up in eight memorable, and seemingly self-evident, words:  “Eat Real Food.  Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.”  But of course he was able to create an entire book around the concept of eating food that your grandparents would recognize, shop on the perimeters of stores, and avoid processed foods.  Again, a great read. 

Despite being the most famous food writer in America, on Tuesday he started his talk by saying that – despite his memorable final feast in Omnivore’s Dilemma that took days to prepare – he had been neglecting what may be the most critical component in the eating process:  cooking.  He himself didn’t really cook much nor apparently really appreciate it, and was apparently a bit sheepish about “missing” this critical component (and, likely, his publisher was pushing him to create a food-related follow up!) so he started digging in and apparently found plenty of fodder.  At the presentation he read an excerpt from his book where he chronicled he and his son’s experiment with microwave dinners that was both amazing and a little pathetic. 

It turned out that the microwaved dinners – that practically define modern, efficient life - took almost an hour to “prepare” and eat, because they can only be heated one at a time and need to be re-heated.  And tragically, because of the “process” that involved jumping up and down to address the oven and then eating at different times to keep their individual meals from being cold he and his family didn’t actually sit down and eat together; it was a very disjointed dinner.  But at least the food – that had very succulent-sounding names – was more akin to what is served on an airplane than to Real Food. 

According to Pollan, the corporate food titans are pretty determined to get between you and “normal” eating:  farmer’s markets, backyard gardens, Community Support Agriculture, (CSA’s), and eating local aren’t very conducive to the improving the corporate bottom line (though the fact that Americans eat – on average – 500 more calories today than in the early 80’s certainly helps offset that!).  They have recognized that the most effective way to create food industry growth is to promote “secondary eating” (eating while doing something else:  driving, talking on the phone, surfing the interweb, etc) versus “primary eating” (sitting down to eat a meal with your family).  He  argues that the latter is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning how to interact in society, and in a very humble way I think his mission is to inspire people to rise up and resist this strategy, simply by eating well.  And – though I haven’t read his new book yet, but will soon – apparently the ancient art of cooking is elemental to that process.  I don’t harbor any illusions that I’m going to be inspired to become an avid cook:  burritos, stir fries, tuna melts on Crumb Brothers’ bread, and grilling will still be my staples (but who am I kidding: Ash is a great cook and loves it, so I barely have to cook at all), but I’m keen to once again see Michael Pollan’s ability to weave great tales and personalities into something as elemental as eating (Real!) food. 

Here’s a link to the hour-long Radio West interview with him last week:

and here’s an interview with him in the Salt Lake Tribune:

(as an aside, the whole “book tour” thing seems to have the potential to be pretty exhausting, bouncing from one radio interview to the next nighttime presentation in cities around the country, but at least you get plenty of practice delivering your message….)

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