First published on 4 Jul 2012. Updated on 9 Jul 2012.
Michael Pollan’s food writing goes well beyond the table. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his 2006 attack on American agribusiness became the dinner party conversation of the year – and said dinner parties started plating up less meat and a lot more locally sourced produce. His latest book, 2010’s Food Rules, boiled the business of eating down to a concise and witty manual. And now he’s heading to Melbourne to give us a piece of his plant-loving mind this month.
Michael, have you come across the "How do you know if someone is a vegetarian?" memes in the last few weeks?
No, I haven’t. What was the answer?
“They’ll tell you.”
[laughs] They certainly will – three or four times.
Do you think that’s a bit mean?
I think it’s inevitable. There are a lot of food obsessiveness around and it’s bound to irritate some people. People shouldn’t take these things as a life-and-death matter. Most of us have plenty to eat, so there is a place for social satire in the food arena.
The premise of your latest book, Food Rules – “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – is very simple. Why did you break it down like that?
We have many forces that conspire to overcomplicate food. One is that we lost our connection to food as it retreated behind a screen of industry and technology. A hundred years ago, everybody knew where their food came from, they didn’t have to buy a book written by an investigative reporter to figure it out. The other force is food marketing. You don’t make money in food by selling minimally processed wholesome ingredients. You take really cheap, common ingredients, like corn and soy, and trick them into novel forms and make outrageous health claims about them. We have a generation of people who think they know what an antioxidant is, or what omega-3 fatty acids are, and they don’t. But that’s one of the things writers do. Sometimes they complicate stories and sometimes they simplify them.
If the science jargon of food marketing is impinging our health system, why don’t more doctors talk to their patients about diet?
Doctors don’t know much about food. There’s a lot of money to be made treating the effects of a bad diet and less money to be made preventing them. I don’t mean to ascribe any sort of evil motivation, but capitalism creates problems and then creates new businesses to solve those problems. One of the reasons I wrote Food Rules was because doctors asked me for it, and there are doctors who keep a box of copies under their desk and hand them to patients who are struggling with diet. There are also doctors that are prescribing food for their patients. They take out their prescription pad and jot down a recipe for how to roast a chicken. You don’t need another pill. You need to learn how to cook.
Information about the benefits of eating organically is circulating a helluva lot more quickly than farmers can roll out organic farming practices. What happens economically if a lot of people switch from factory-made food to organic produce in a short amount of time?
The prices for alternative foods are high and that should lure more farmers into the market. Then comes more capital and more land and that should bring down the price. The market will adjust the supply and demand, but the biggest challenge with feeding the world more sustainably is that we don’t have enough farmers to do it. Industrial agriculture allows us to grow a lot of food with very few people because fossil fuels enter the equation through the farm equipment and the fertilisers. Squeezing fossil fuel out of the system without bringing in lots more people is the challenge.
We're over-fishing the seas and eating too much meat, but is vegetarianism going to end up being just as bad for the land?
There’s a place for raising meat and eating meat in a sustainable food economy. In some places grass is the best way to take energy out of nature. We cannot digest grass, but ruminants [livestock that chew cud] can, so using ruminants to harvest that energy is the best way to feed ourselves. We use half the grain we grow to make animal protein and that is not sustainable. There will be plenty of food for everyone on this planet if we use more of that grain to feed people directly. We also need to use the animals that we harvest more thoroughly, figure out what to do with the organ meats, and treat meat as a special thing we savour and stretch.
What do you think of in vitro or cultured meat? Creating steaks out of cells in a lab is clever, but it does have a creepy Soylent Green feel to it.
It’s an interesting thought experiment. You can clone a muscle cell but if you think about what a steak really is, there are several different kinds of muscle cells, not to mention fat cells, so how are you going to do them all? And how are you going to combine them in a way that tastes like meat? And it doesn’t come out of the air, so there is going to have to be some energy source and what is that going to be? Is it going to be petroleum-based? Is it going to be grain-based? I’m all for experimenting in the laboratory to see if we can come up with more sustainable meat-like experiences, but I’m not sure cloning actual muscle meat is the answer.
What do you think the challenges are going to be for chefs over the next ten years?
Meat. If you want to do sustainable meat, it really screws with your business model. Chefs are going to have to teach people that satisfaction when you’re eating is about quality and not quantity. Are you looking for tonnes of protoplasm to stuff in your face, or are you looking for an experience? Most people aren’t looking for the experience and the chefs have to figure out the economics of that predicament.
So they need to be more instructive as well as creative in what they plate?
Yes, and chefs do set cultural norms; they are great teachers. Their menus are great teachers. Their plates are great teachers. I don’t doubt that they can figure it out.
How do you feel about restaurants employing the kind of cookery techniques that were developed in packaged food factories – all that molecular gastronomy stuff.
I find the whole thing kind of limited. I’ve eaten a couple of those molecular gastronomy meals and it’s interesting as an aesthetic experience, but I don’t know if it has the staying power of a great dish. Art about shock and novelty isn’t always the art that lasts.
Food critics seem to love it. How do you feel about those guys?
Food critics are at the mercy of the restaurant industry and their bodies are too. I enjoy reading good restaurant criticism, and there’s some really good writing going on there, but it’s not my idea of a dream job. I prefer to write about farms than restaurants, and I’d rather spend time with farmers than chefs.
It seems teaching kids about this stuff is more important than teaching chefs or food critics. How do you pass down your lessons to your own kids?
Teaching kids is very difficult because you’re competing with a culture that is sending them very powerful messages about food. A lot of my writing grew out of dealing with my son’s peculiar eating habits. He only ate white foods, and found food really overwhelming.
How did you overcome that?
Kids have very different tastebuds to us and his were particularly sensitive. We started giving him jobs to do while we were cooking and he began to experiment. Kids will eat things in the garden that they would never eat in the house. Part of what they don’t like about food is the mystery of what’s under the sauce. If they can see where it comes from and how it’s made, they’ll eat a lot more.