January 14th, 2009 5:33 pm | by KELLY CLARKE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Politics, CLEAN UP, Politics

Live Review: Michael Pollan's Army

Michael Pollan , one of the loudest, funniest voices calling for a change in the way Americans eat—or rather, gorge, charmed a sold out crowd of lit lovers and foodies at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last night at his Portland Arts & Lecture Series appearance.

The author, best known for his food road trip The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (if you haven't read it yet, just go buy it now , it's time) and 2008's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto , tread familiar ground at this reading—the evils of America's endless monoculture crops of corn and soy and his frustration with the US government's obsession with what he calls "nutritionism ," a belief system that values food science over food culture—leaving us fat, sick and at the mercy of endless aisle of mass market-engineered food in the process since the early 1970s. He'd rather us heed the lessons passed down through culture, which he reminds us, when it comes to food is "a fancy word for your mom or "grandmother." He boiled down his golden eating rule in In Defense of Food : "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

If you've read Pollan's books or one of his myriad pieces in the New York Times magazine—most recently, his excellent open letter to the next "Farmer in Chief" linking the way we grow and eat food with our current heath and economic woes—this is not big news. (Check out our own Q&A with the author last year.) But Pollan's delivery—his measured, rational voice pinging between wry, humored annoyance and complete befuddlement over our country's food and farming choices—has a way of sucking in the uninitiated.

He makes huge concepts seem easily digestible—and good for you too. He's not above bringing a Twinkie onstage as a prop to explain his commandment to "never eat anything that doesn't rot." And when he compares our national obsession with "satanic nutrients" (trans-fats) and "blessed nutrients" (omega 3 fatty acids) to a religion that forces everyday people to use scientist-priests as intermediaries between themselves and their own bodies (psst: god)—that's your stomach churning in recognition of some unhappy truth. He paints of picture of marketing winning out over nature: whole foods like vegetables and fruits sitting on grocery shelves like silent stroke victims while packaged cereals shout their new additives (more whole grains!) a few aisles over. He makes you feel like what you eat matters—both for your body and the body politic.

Now, again, that's not new here in Portland, a place Pollan admits "got it," earlier than most cities. (Yes, I'm talking to you over there with your reusable grocery bag, sidewalk strip vegetable garden and righteous anger over the not-so-great state of US kids' school lunches.) But just imagining his words smacking listeners in less food-obsessed towns and cities across the nation is damn tasty.


One of the most interesting moments of the evening—aside from the moment when a black-clad tech strode on stage and cut Pollan off mid-sentence to remove a towering flower arrangement from in front of his podium because one of the tony audience members in the prime seats had an "allergy issue," ("those flowers contained gluten," Pollan quipped)—came during the lengthy audience question period. Turns out everybody wanted to know whether Pollan thinks President-elect Obama will change the United State's food policy for the better.

"I'm hopeful. But not too hopeful," Pollan said, explaining that he thinks that often politicians need a push to move from ideas to policy. He mentioned to the crowd that an (unnamed) friend of his had actually cooked for the president-elect not long after Election Day. The chef harangued the politician, asking him if he'd make changing our agricultural policies and food issues a priority. "Show me the movement," Obama reportedly replied.

"We need to create a food movement. It's already gaining power.... We've got to vote with our forks," he told the crowd. "So...let's show him the movement."

Okay, Portland. We're apparently the ones who get it .

What's next?

Image of Michael Pollan by Alia Malley.
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