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The omnivore's ally: Michael Pollan 

On navigating the grocery store, yodels and what to learn from Grandma

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Michael Pollan says Colorado reflects "the best and the worst of the American food system." And he should know. The New York Times bestselling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire is nothing less than a food sleuth, probing the triumphs and failings of small- and large-scale American agriculture and ranching.

He once purchased and tracked a calf "from insemination to steak." He grew genetically modified potatoes. And he hunted and foraged the ingredients for his perfect meal.

Next week, when Pollan speaks on searching for "the perfect meal in a fast-food world" at Colorado College, the Berkeley journalism professor will enter the state where massive factory feedlots exist alongside the "best quality ranching." Having recently dispensed some "unscientific" eating tips in The New York Times Magazine, Pollan shared his thoughts on how to eat wisely and deliberately with the Indy.

Indy: What is the perfect meal? And what should we remember as we search for it?

MP: It is a meal equal parts pleasure and health and sustainability. I define it as one where we know everything that went into it. It is transparent.

Indy: You advocate buying produce from local farmers' markets. What's the next best choice, when farmers' markets are out of season or not accessible?

MP: In general, in the supermarket you are better staying around the periphery and staying out of the processed middle. Around the ends, you find fresh meat and fish and produce, the simpler, wholer foods, than you do in the middle.

Indy: Is organic food simply another passing fad? How do you explain Wal-Mart and even McDonald's selling organic products?

MP: I think it is a little old for it to be a passing fad. It has been growing continuously since the '70s ... It is very significant that Wal-Mart and Safeway are deciding to get involved in organics. It will make it much bigger as a market; they will introduce it to people that don't yet know what it is ...

But there is a risk involved. As something gets big in America, it tends to get diluted. I worry that some of the principles behind the movement will be weakened as you get big players like Wal-Mart getting in.

Will Wal-Mart support American organic farms, or will they buy organic produce from China? Will they work to strengthen [organic standards] or will they use lobbyists to weaken them? ...

Not all these bad things are going to come to pass, but we have to be vigilant ... If we express our feelings at the cash register or to government agencies, very often things change.

Indy: You recommend paying more for good food, and eating less. But many in America eat fast food because they can't afford organic. What should be done to remedy this disparity?

MP: To eat well in this country costs more than it should. It is shameful that some people can only afford to buy unhealthy food. The beginning of the solution lies with things like the [just-unveiled Agriculture Department] farm bill, this piece of legislation that writes the rules of the food game.

Among those rules are incentives for farmers to grow things like corn and soybeans rather than fresh produce. The result of that is all this processed food that is very cheap ...

By changing those rules ... you will have people in inner cities eating from farmers' markets, and not KFC.

Indy: You contend that America's lack of a traditional food culture leaves us susceptible to health gimmicks and "fake" or processed foods. What eating wisdom can we take from other cultures, or from our own ancestors?

MP: One of the things we have to do is not look at the foods, but how they ate them, how they wove them into a lifestyle. It is not enough to go to a Chinese or a French restaurant; you have to look at their portion size. Did they eat alone or in groups? Did they eat between meals? ... It is the whole approach to food. And that is hard to borrow. It is hard to redevelop that after we have left it. That is the work that we face.

Indy: How can we eat well with a busy schedule?

MP: It is a myth that putting a meal on the table takes three hours. If you have access to good ingredients, a farmers' market or a good grocery store, you can put a good meal on the table in 20 minutes. It could take you that long to go to a fast-food restaurant ...

We need to be teaching cooking in the schools again. It is a life skill, and it is the beginning of eating well. You are at the mercy of processed food otherwise. They are going to create food that will lie to you.

Indy: What was your favorite food as a child?

MP: I was a big fan of peanut butter and jelly. Yodels was a favorite junk food ... I could eat 20 of those at a sitting.

Michael Pollan on "The Omnivore's Dilemma: Searching for the Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World"

Shove Memorial Chapel at Colorado College, 1010 N. Nevada Ave.

Thursday, Feb. 8, 7:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public; call 389-6038 for more.

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