Cross-Pollan-ating Food Thoughts

Michael Pollan may not have the same rock-star celebrity appeal, but unlike Anthony Bourdain, he did have notes. Lots of them. Most known for his recent books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan put together a patchwork of thoughts about food, farming, and well-being, throwing out some of his greatest-hits lines from “corn has domesticated us” to “your health is tied to the health of the land” while speaking in front of a full house at Benaroya on Monday.

He made us feel good about being in Seattle, calling the area a laboratory of the new food economy. Further, he chuckled at the irony that the Pacific Northwest is a leader, given that we have so little sunlight, thereby producing “food without photosynthesis.” This played well to the partisan crowd, but we’d like to see how his overall message would play in Pleasantville, Iowa.

We liked Pollan’s critique of nutritionism, especially his insight that the food industry loves it as justification to sell more by constantly re-engineering manufactured products (or “edible food-like substances”) that are often illness-specific. Food, and its components, can be cast as good or evil; manufacturers then capitalize on crazes like oat bran and omega-3. And while the U.S. obsesses more about diet than any other country, we have more diet-related problems, including obesity.

We appreciated Pollan’s warning that there is no ideal human diet, and that we instead need to “go backward” to the lifestyle of our ancestors. Food should be seen as pleasure, he said, adding that his current book boils down to seven words: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Things to avoid include anything your great-grandmother won’t recognize, products with more than five ingredients (especially ones can’t pronounce or recognize), items containing high fructose corn syrup (a marker of high processing), and foods that don’t rot (with exception, like honey). In other words, it’s best to stay on the perimeter of the supermarket – if you need the market at all.

Asked about the challenge that eating healthy food in America is expensive, Pollan acknowledged that it was a sad fact, and appealed for policy changes. But in daily practice, he advocated learning how to cook, shopping at farmers markets, and eating off smaller plates – with no seconds or snacks. And while raising concern that we’ve projected our hopes for change on Obama, Pollan stressed that tackling health care and climate change will depend upon also changing our food systems and customs. He urged that everyone exert pressure both locally and nationally, noting that Obama is a community organizer who wants proof that there’s a real movement in the country.

This, like everything else, the audience ate up.

Cross-posted at Seattlest, where “we” = me.

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