A Coffee Date with Michael Pollan [Interview]

Best Selling Author takes the time to talk to CP about a variety of issues
Best Selling Author takes the time to talk to CP about a variety of issues

Last week 

New York Times

best selling author and one of

Time Magazine's

2010 Top 100 Most Influential People, Michael Pollan paid a visit to the Twin Cities to promote his new book,

Cooked; A Natural History of Transformation

. The book walks readers through a history of cooking while drawing attention to the greater implications of the industrialized food movement which has lead to an overall decline in home cooking.

Pollan is also the author of several other well known books including The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food; An Eaters Manifesto and Food Rules; An Eaters Manual. We had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Pollan over coffee at Downtown Minneapolis restaurant Mona, to not only discuss his new book, but also a variety of other topics which include the challenges of being a home cook in Minnesota in the wintertime.

You've been writing about food for quite a while at this point, but what was the motivating factor in making that the primary body of your life's work?

I didn't feel like it was a switch, it kind of grew out of things that I'd been doing. I'd been writing about the relationship between humans and the natural world for a long time, with particular attention to the places where one has to engage with the other. It began for me writing about the garden. My first book was about gardening and I always loved growing food. Since I was eight I was growing food in the garden, and that kind of drew me into agriculture. As soon as you start struggling with pests, diseases and critters you get drawn into this very complex, charged relationship where you have to figure out how to behave ethically and how to get what you want. It was pretty natural for me to go from writing about the garden to writing about agriculture. 

So Cooked is going to be your sixth book?

Seventh. Well, 6 ½. You know, Food Rules was kind of slender and it was crowd sourced too [laughs]. Seventh book technically.

Your new book Cooked is about the transformation of nature's bounty using basic elements (water, air, fire, and earth). How did you come to this revelation?

The reason I decided to write about cooking, which was never in my plan, but the more I learned about agriculture and the more I learned about health, the two far ends of the food chain right - the earth and the body, the human body - the more I saw that cooking or food processing, which is what we call corporate cooking basically, has a profound influence in both directions. It may be the most influential link of the food chain. The best predictor of a healthy diet is whether it's cooked by a human or not. So, that's when I kind of realized that I had to deal with that middle link in the food chain, cooking. I mean, there are politics to it and health implications to it. 

The first thing I did was to divide cooking into these four transformations and it's not a perfect typology, you could probably come up with some examples that are not one of those four, like sushi, I don't know where I'd put that exactly and that's cooking and there might be others. Basically, for the most part, they're consecutive also. 

Fire is the most primitive kind of cooking. It's what we've been doing for 2 million years. When we first got control of fire it changed our evolution giving us our big brains and our smaller guts, or our relatively smaller guts. Then much later you have the invention of ceramic pottery that can withstand the fire so that you can boil water. As soon as you could do that you can make amazing new things that you couldn't make over the fire. You can't really do vegetables very well over a fire, I mean you can grill them, but you can't do grain. So, the birth of agriculture and cooking in pots go together.

Air is baking which is another incredible technology which we don't think of as a technology, and it happens about 6,000 years ago. Suddenly these mushy porridges of grain and water become invested with air and baked. The most interesting quote on that subject that I got was from a scientist that said you cannot survive on flour alone. If that's all you had to eat, flour and water, you would die eventually, but you can survive on the bread baked from it. What that tells us is that the baking process so enhances the nutritional value of that flour. The way it does it is that the sour dough culture that ferments it has all these enzymes that the bacteria use to break down food to feed themselves and they break down the minerals and they break down the proteins into usable building blocks. 

The last of the four is earth, which is the shorthand I use for fermentation since, like the soil, it's a microbial process and indeed a lot of the microbes we use to ferment food come from the earth. This is kind of the most miraculous of all because here you're cooking without the use of any heat whatsoever; bacteria are doing all the work. So it was kind of an ingenious technology, but over time people came to love the flavors and it turns out there's a lot of benefits to eating all of those bacteria.
So that's the book in a nutshell and now you don't have to read it!

I've actually had the opportunity to skim through it, and in it there's this line, "This book is the story of my education in the kitchen?" As someone who has been a pinnacle voice for food system reform, can you talk about your transition from an observer of the modern food chain to home cook?

I did use to cook, it's not like I never cooked before. We cooked more nights than not probably, although we went out a lot and we did take out and things like that. This was just my getting a lot more serious about it, being systematic and learning from really good people. I was a mediocre cook and now, well, I'm not a great cook, but I'm a lot better than I was and I can do things I could never do before. I was really intimidated by mirepoix, you know, that word. I remember the first time that I read a recipe that called for a mirepoix and I was like, wow, this is fancy and of course it's very simple. So, a lot of it was acquiring confidence and also there are certain benefits to learning side by side with someone that are very hard to get any other way. If you're baking bread and you're with someone who's folding dough, it's like learning how to diaper a baby from a book or a handout, it's really hard to do, but if you're with someone, you can really get it quickly. You also know what it should be like. You can taste it say oh, that's what we're trying to do, or okay, that's when the dough is ready, it has to be that billowy, it's got to feel like that and then you get a muscle memory for it. That was very fortunate that I could study with such good people, but it was kind of a deep dive for me. 

So you mentioned mirepoix, but do you think the challenge in trying to get people cooking again, is that the overall industry has made some of these things seem like they're impossible to do at home? Things like making bread and making sausage...

Yes. I think we're really intimidated and part of what's intimidating us is the foodie culture, television cooking shows that show cooking to be a competitive sport and something that's best left to professionals and the excessiveness like restaurants with open kitchens. People assume that if they can't cook restaurant quality food that they shouldn't try. A lot of people are encouraging us in taking that point of view. I quote an editorial by Tim and Nina Zagat and in the introduction they say that, 'Instead of cooking at home, you should just work later at your job, do what you do well and then go to restaurants and let them do what they do well' and that's just a recipe for dependence and helplessness. You know, home cooking is much simpler than restaurant cooking and you don't put a whole stick of butter in it at the end, you know, that's the sort of thing that you just don't do. I love restaurant cooking and I love going out, but home cooking is something else and I think we're being intimidated away from doing it.

Not the book, but the concept of the omnivore's dilemma really boils down to choice. Cooked seems to really be an extension on that theme; cooking instead of eating out and eating ready-made foods. Do you see the options for choice improving?

That's a really good way to look at it and that is a common denominator for both books. I'm really interested in showing people that they have more power than they think they do about a lot of things and that our agency as consumers and as citizens is greater than we often think. If you think about food, yeah, we do have more choices. If you go back 20 years, you ate industrial food or you didn't eat. You ate pesticide residues or you didn't eat. Now we have organic food. Now we have local food, CSA's and pastured animal protein; we have pastured eggs and beef. How did we get those things? It's because people were exercising a choice. They were sending a signal to the market by their willingness to pay extra for them often. Farmers and ranchers responded. They saw a new market and they leapt into and the people who did are doing pretty well. I mean certainly the ranchers who decided 'I'm going to get out of this commodity beef racket where I'm really getting screwed and I'm going to try finishing my cattle on my land and sell it into these alternative chains' and there are a lot of people who are really making a nice living that way now. We have that same kind of choice about whether to cook or not I think. 

Again, when we're choosing those foods, maybe we're going to have to dig down and sacrifice and maybe spend a little more money and when we cook we're going to have to dig down and give a little more time to it, less money by the way, but more time and for a lot of people that's really hard to do. People are really pressed. We work really hard and there's nobody at home to cook. We have to do it in different ways. We have to be clever and strategic about it if we want to do it, but I'm convinced that we do make time for things that we think are important. We're adding new things to our lives all the time and it's still a 24 hour day. I mean, 2 hours a day to the internet outside of work in the last 10 years. If we think it's important we'll do it. Getting to the gym, we think it's important for our health so we do it. The difference is that you can't outsource going to the gym, I mean, you're an idiot if you do that, but we can outsource our cooking and it's just as important to our health.

Talking about alternative options, as the modern food movement "picks up steam" and farmers markets, co-ops and Whole Foods locations become more prevalent, do you see the possibility for agri-business-people to re-evaluate the crops they choose to grow?

I do see farmers discovering that diversification might be a good business strategy, not right now because corn prices are sky high, but they're going to fall again. They always have and they always will. I mean, ethanol's drying up so the good times will not roll that much longer. I also think that we need to change some of the rules to make it easier for them to diversify. I mean, right now if you're a corn and soy farmer and you're receiving subsidies for that it's illegal for you to plant anything else, which is amazing that we prevent you from growing produce if you want to. I think that's not going to survive in the next farm bill, there's a lot of pressure to remove that and as they move from subsidy to crop insurance there will be a little bit more freedom to change what you're planting. I know farmers who want to take 50 acres out of their 1,000 acres and try growing for another market. One thing that farmers don't like about their situation is that they're stuck selling to basically one company or one person. The elevator if you're doing grain or one of the four meat packers if you're doing beef and that doesn't feel good because it forces you to take whatever price they're giving you and they're dictated prices. So opening up alternative markets to farmers will lure a certain number of them to take a certain number of their acres and do something different. That'll be very good for the environment, it'll be very good for the farmers and it'll be very good for us because it'll increase the supply of produce which is, you know, one of the reasons its expensive because the demand for really good quality produce exceeds the supply and ditto for organic. Organic food is expensive because there's not enough of it.

Minnesota can be a little paradoxical at times. In the summer it's not difficult to have access to inexpensive, fresh food, but come winter time it gets more difficult and expensive. What can we do to incorporate the type of foods that you advocate into our diets?


Aside from living on an exclusive diet of pickled, preserved and dried foods?

You can pickle any vegetable you know and they're really good, but that's how people did it in the past. Putting up food, canning, fermenting and the farmers market movement can kind of move into meat, cheese and that kind of thing during the winter months. You know, different parts of the country are going to have more trouble doing local all year round, but even if you can only do it part of the year it has a value. The kind of cooking for health that I'm talking about really doesn't depend on fresh produce. I mean, you can cook really well with frozen produce and I think we kind of underrate it. It's really an amazing innovation that you can get spinach that was frozen in the field the day it was picked and that is a really good product and it's really inexpensive. I get concerned sometimes that people feel like it's too far to go from where they are now to eating the optimally healthy diet because that means getting organic or from the farmers market and that's really expensive. You can do it based on stuff that's in your supermarket right now that isn't expensive. Then there's a whole other level that you can go to which is not so much about health, but the best reason to eat organic is not because it's healthier for you, it's the environmental argument that I think is the stronger one. I mean, there's some evidence here that there are more nutrients in organic food, but not enough to make a big difference. 

You spent a lot of time studying industrial corn, but do you think that the increasing number of uses for industrial wheat and industrial wheat byproducts are contributing to health issues like gluten intolerance and allergies?

Gluten intolerance is still a bit of a mystery. I can think of four different theories to explain it and they may not be exclusive and you may be able to combine them. One is that a lot of people think they have it, but they don't have it. You know, the power of suggestion is quite powerful and if your friend tells you that I got off gluten and I'm feeling great and I'm sleeping a lot better, you're going to be feeling that way too at least for a while when you get off it. It may be that when you get off gluten too that you're going to be getting off carbs, or you're eating less carbs and that would make you feel good, but there are other possible explanations too.  That's just one explanation. I'm not saying it's a mass delusion, but it's hard to believe that the incidence of a medical condition has increased that much in such a short amount of time because the market has boomed so quickly. Other reasons may be the way we bake bread. We're not doing these slow fermentations that we used to. We leaven bread really quickly with instant yeast and there's some really interesting research, that I talk about in the book, from Italy that suggests that if you do a long sour dough fermentation you break down the gluten in a way that it makes it much easier for people to tolerate and I do know people who are intolerant of gluten in general, but if they're getting that sour dough bread that's had a long fermentation, they're fine so that may be part of it. The other part of it is that our immune systems are just screwed up, so lots of things that we could tolerate before we're having troubles tolerating. We also have very high levels of allergy which is an immune reaction to proteins, which is what gluten intolerance may be. We're having lots of autoimmune disease; asthma, eczema and all these kinds of things. I think our immune systems are not as vigorous as they once were and that would make us sensitive to things like gluten. 

Literally 15 minutes before I left to come here I read a headline that claimed that parents are reporting instances of allergy at an all-time high and that doctors have no idea why...

When I was a kid you never met anyone with peanut allergies. You could bring peanut butter and jelly to school, everybody did all the time and now there are schools where you're not allowed to do that. This is a new thing. It may also have to do with disorders of the internal microbial equisystem, micro-biotic. And when that is not healthy, and it's definitely not in people eating a western diet who have taken a lot of antibiotics, basically the gut wall becomes permeable and proteins like gluten and others get out into the bloodstream and cause an immune reaction, so it could be that too. It's probably part of a larger story that has to do with our health in general. It may be to the extent that if you improve the health of your gut you're tolerance to gluten would improve to, but I'm not a doctor!

I recently re-read your first big article "Power Steer" and in it you talk about not being allowed to see the kill floor of the beef processing plant. What are your thoughts on the current introduction of these so called "ag-gag" laws?

Oh, I think that, well, I'm sure they're unconstitutional and if they pass I hope they get tested really quickly for that. Look, I think we have a right to know how our food is produced, and I don't want to buy food from someone who is not comfortable enough letting people see how it's produced. Transparency is a really important goal that we need to fight for and that goes for GM labeling too. We should know how our food is produced if we care and the idea that this is 'top-secret' doesn't pass the smell test. What are you hiding? Why do you think if people could see how the food is produced you don't think they'd want it? I think there's something wrong in that picture. I hope they don't pass, I think it's a mistake. We need much more transparency in our food system. Actually, you have in Minnesota one of the few glass abattoirs, do you know this place in Canon Falls? It is called Lorentz Meats and Thousand Hills Cattle get processed there. I haven't been, but I've been invited to go. They have a giant glass wall where you can watch the whole process if you want and that's a very important, powerful statement that we have nothing to hide. I don't know if people hang out watching, but even if they don't the fact that they can is kind of reassuring. They produce really good meat, it's all grass-fed and the animals graze right up until the day they're slaughtered. It's kind of interesting model for another way to do it.

I've heard you ask in a lot of interviews lately, "Who would you rather be cooking your food; you or corporations?" Are you ever afraid that people view that as an "us versus them" statement and become un-receptive to your messages?

You know, not everyone is going to make this choice and that's fine too. Not everyone is going to buy organic. We're not going to go to a completely local, sustainable food economy. That's not my expectation. I would love to see it get up to 20, 30, or 40 percent - that would be fantastic, but it's not going to be for everyone. The same goes for cooking. Cooking is not for everybody. There are some people that are really bad at it and they're always going to be really bad at it. Hopefully they know another human, or have another human in the house who is better at it. I don't want to sound like this is my normative message that this is what everyone needs to do. This isn't a 'should' argument, this is my saying, 'Look at the rewards that could come from doing this," and it's up to people to decide whether yeah, this is important from me and I'm going to do it, or, eh, this is working for me and it is working for some people and that's fine. You know, I'm not talking about legislating cooking. I'm don't know how that would work? I did notice that people get defensive about this issue. Either people feel inadequate because they don't have the skills or that they don't have the time and they feel like they should. It's almost like I'm scratching at kind of a sore. I didn't expect that, but I'm bumping into it a lot. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm... I mean, I really don't want to be the food super-ego, that's not my role. I try to give people information and tell stories that allow them to work it out for themselves. 

If you could stand up on a stage and address the entire state of Minnesota, what is the one thing you'd want to leave people with about buying, cooking and eating food?

Well, one is that you have terrific soils here, and you can grow all kinds of incredible things even though you have this ridiculous weather. You know, you have a lot of great ingredients for a local food system. You have a more diversified agriculture than some other places. I think the ingredients for a really vibrant local, with produce, animal protein and cheese, are here. There also seems to be a really interesting food culture rising in the Twin Cities with some really interesting restaurants. The other thing that I'd leave you with, is that as I understand it, your senator, your liberal senator, is supporting the continued use of antibiotics in livestock, Al Franken. I think that's one of the most pressing issues in terms of making our food supply safer and saving antibiotics which are really in trouble. To take that position is really a retrograde position on a really pressing issue that has to do with both public health and agriculture.  

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