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February 6th, 2008 BEN WATERHOUSE | Q & A
 

Michael Pollan

Post-Omnivore’s Dilemma, the doomsday prophet of the U.S. diet lets us know what we can eat.

     
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EDIBLE COMPLEX: Author Michael Pollan.
IMAGE: Alia Malley

Michael Pollan has been a household name in Portland ever since the city took The Omnivore’s Dilemma , his 2006 expose of America’s agricultural-industrial complex, to our collective heart. Now the journalist and dietary provocateur has released a follow-up book to answer the most frequently asked question from his last lecture tour: Now that you’ve ruined the supermarket for us, what do we eat?

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is half dietary handbook and half a screed against what Pollan perceives as a religion of “nutritionism” (a concept he borrows from anthropologist Gyorgy Scrinis), the main doctrine of which is “the widely shared but unexamined assumption that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient” rather than whole foods. He sums up his dietary philosophy with the dictum: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

That’s all well and good—it doesn’t take a genius to notice that the FDA’s nutritional advice is about as solid as quicksand—but Pollan’s arguments in favor of common sense over scientific planning occasionally go a little overboard when he condemns the whole of nutritional science for the excessive exuberance of its practitioners. He redeems himself, though, with an eminently sensible final chapter of advice for those of us who are unlikely to ever try out the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. WW spoke to him about fatty acids and smug Portlanders before his appearance at the Bagdad Theater next Tuesday, Feb. 12.

i]WW[/i] : So why does food need defending?
Michael Pollan: Because I think it’s being undermined, on the one hand by manufacturers and retailers who make money by processing food as much as possible. It’s very hard to make money by selling ordinary heads of lettuce, broccoli, bakery bread all that kind of stuff. It’s very hard to make money doing that. So you complicate foods and you remove it from its identity as food. On the other hand, it’s being undermined by nutrition science, which is encouraging us to not pay attention to foods, but to pay attention to nutrients: to cholesterol and antioxidants and probiotics and prebiotics and all these things that are proliferating on the packages. For a good reason—nutrition science needs to isolate variables that it can study, but we don’t need to. And yet their way of looking at food is becoming our way of looking at food, in large part because the industry loves looking at food that way. It’s not that the nutrition scientists are telling us to look at food this way.

Isn’t it a little extreme to dismiss all of nutrition science as a con game?
Well, I don’t dismiss it as a con game. I think it’s a very interesting science. I think that it, like a lot of scientific disciplines, suffers from a lot of hubris, and doesn’t understand food or human metabolism and digestion as well as it pretends to sometimes.... It’s where surgery was in 1650. It’s promising, it’s interesting, but it’s not quite there yet.

While you’re dismissive of what you deem a religion of “nutritionism,” you seem awfully enamored with omega-3 fatty acids.
Yeah, I do. I know. It’s my weakness.

Why?
It’s true that they are a nutrient, and focusing too much on any one nutrient is probably a mistake, and omega-3 is the same. In parts of the book I make fun of how they’re showing up in everything as supplements. On the other hand, if you’re trying to look at what’s changed over the last hundred years in our diet, and as you’re trying to come up with an explanation as to why this diet should be not serving us well and making people so sick, one of the big changes is in the nature of the kind of fats we’re eating, and that one particular fat—omega-6—is proliferating, while another kind of fat, one that we know is very important for brain development, heart development, and all those things, has had its percentage in our diet go down. In the end, if you want to look at this question in a nonreligious way, you have to use science to analyze. The difference is, do you then let science dictate how you formulate food? The jury’s really out on whether putting DHA in baby formula or yogurt is going to have the effects of eating a diet high in omega-3s from either plants or fish.

Are you worried that people will read your advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” take it as license to eat whatever whole foods they want, and reach for the lard, ignoring your call for moderation?
I think part of our problem is that we take whatever dietary advice is out there and we take it as a license to eat more food. And so low-fat became a license to eat as many Snackwell’s as you wanted.... It’s very important not to lose track of the moderation part. But I try to back into that, because simply telling people to eat less is a very hard message for them to process.... It’s about paying attention to cooking—if you’re going to make fattening food, cook it yourself. How often will you make those French fries if you have to cut them and fry them and dispose of the oil and clean up the mess yourself? Cooking has a bearing on how much you eat as well as the quality of what you eat. So it’s an attempt to kind of weave a whole culture around the idea of moderation. The direct attempt to eat less isn’t effective in a society like ours.

You seem really angry about the loss of Americans’ enjoyment of eating.
I don’t see myself as that angry. I get angry at industry sometimes, or at politics, but it’s very hard to get angry about a cultural change. You know, you have regret, and the book has some kind of edge of anger, but I try to operate through humor and pleasure and not through diatribe. But maybe it reads that way.

What’s in your fridge at this time of year?
A lot of journalists have been coming over and looking in my fridge, with and without permission. Right now, in my fridge you will find—we’re cooking dinner for some friends tonight—some various chicory greens for a salad, some fresh crab, which we’re going to be serving with a pasta, some smoked salmon, some cheeses, orange juice, milk, butter, various jams and jellies. Now I’m looking at the side door in my mind. I have some beer. An unreasonable amount of pomegranate concentrate, because my son makes spritzers with that, in lieu of soda. Apples and grapefruit and satsuma mandarins. In the vegetable drawer there’s a bunch of carrots, some lettuce, a bunch of asparagus, two bottles of white wine in there. That’s about it.

Have you had Wall Street Journal reporters breaking into your house and rooting through your fridge?
No, it hasn’t come to that. I was meeting a photographer here for a photo shoot for—well, I won’t say what newspaper, because that would implicate the photographer—and I got there late and he got there 20 minutes early, and my wife let him in. He said, “I’ll just wait in the kitchen,” and when I walked into the house, there he was, going through the fridge, deciding whether he wanted to photograph it. And he may well have taken pictures of it. And then I had a student who did an article about the contents of my fridge that ran about a year ago in the San Francisco Chronicle , titled “Michael Pollan is ruining my life.” I think she asked my permission before she went through my fridge, but people don’t always. They’re very curious. And the pantry as well. It can make a guy very self-conscious.

They want to find where you’re hiding the Oreos.
Yeah. You can definitely find some things that are not consistent with the book, but it’s because I’m not the only person who lives in this house. I have a son, and he brings in a certain amount of contraband, and I don’t dictate to my family if they want to eat other stuff. And, you know, I’m not a zealot...we all lapse, and there will always be junk foods we have a weakness for. It seems to me that, if that’s all it is, that’s fine. It’s really just eating that stuff every day that you get into trouble.

Do you really forage for wild salad greens on a regular basis?
No, it doesn’t happen that often. Occasionally I’ll see that the miner’s lettuce is looking really great right now, and I’ll bring a bag out when I take a hike and get a bunch. And I do forage for mushrooms from time to time, but it’s not something I do routinely.

I have a pet theory that the reason your work is so remarkably popular in Portland is that it makes us, with our dozens of farmers markets, feel very smug. Could you poke some holes in our façade?
Well, you also have great foraging, of course. You have the best mushrooms in the country, and I’m very jealous of that. I’ve been going around the country quite a bit, and even though you go to a place like Louisville or Cincinnati or Milwaukee—and they really struggle compared to those of us on the West Coast—they are doing it. And it takes a lot more effort, and I think all of us on the West Coast are a little bit smug, because we have it really easy. I was invited to the opening of the farmers market in New Haven, which is in May. But we fed ourselves regionally, 45 years ago, everywhere.

Which is worse: Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?
I know they compare themselves, and I know [Whole Foods CEO] John Mackey thinks Trader Joe’s is his competitor, and it really drives him crazy that they get such a free ride in the press compared to Whole Foods. But I don’t find them comparable. Trader Joe’s is pretty opaque about the origin of their food, and at least until recently they had a lot of produce from China, and I don’t think they give nearly as much thought about those things as Whole Foods is now doing. On the other hand, their processed foods are processed in a very simple way. If you look at the ingredients, you’ll find a much shorter list than at your average supermarket. That’s a real Sophie’s choice there.

What do you think of the word “locavore”?
I’m sick of it. It was a very clever idea, and I think it’s another example of how, in America, we really go overboard with whatever we’re doing around food. It’s one thing to favor local food, but it’s quite another to say, “It’s all I’m going to eat, dammit.” It shouldn’t be a religion. Nothing should be a religion. Except religion.


ATTEND: Michael Pollan appears at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234. 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 12. $21.95, includes a copy of In Defense of Food .
 
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