15 Minutes with Michael Pollan

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
The Harvard Crimson
October 21, 2015
By Bettina Edelstein

Michael Pollan, the acclaimed food journalist, is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute exploring psychedelic drug therapy. Pollan talked with FM about healthy eating hacks in college and his self-proclaimed “spiritual retardation.”

Fifteen Minutes: What did you eat for lunch today?

Michael Pollan: I was at Henrietta’s Table, taken there by people from the creative writing program because I had spoken there today, and I had their monkfish sandwich and a salad.

FM: What tips do you have for those of us bound by a HUDS diet?

MP: Obviously, cooking is difficult. There is a salad bar, I bet, where you eat. And I’m sure there is some real food being served here. I agree it’s challenging because you don’t have control over your diet. On the other hand, you have more control than you did at home. It’s an interesting moment.

FM: Any specific tips for avoiding the infamous Freshman 15?

MP: All the talk about the Freshman 15 has to do with the fact that college food is usually pretty poor in quality and, even more so, the fact that the controls on the diet are limited. Spend more time at the salad bar than the ice cream bar. That’s pretty obvious. It’s also a time to experiment as kids. Pay attention to how you feel when you eat that giant hoagie or McDonald’s meal. How do you feel an hour later? Not while you’re eating it, but a little later. Get in touch with the fact that food influences mood lots of ways. The way food is sold, it’s very much about the moment of consumption, not about the after-effects of consumption. You’ll change your eating habits without feeling like you’re under any kind of restriction.

FM: Where else have you been exploring in the Square?

MP: Honestly, I had two lunches today. I was speaking at the creative writing department, and they had sandwiches from Clover, which uses all local ingredients. I had to try them because I love falafel even though I was going to lunch.

FM: You’ve talked a lot about the concept of “social engineering”: Grocery stores, for example, place organic cereal towards the floor and sugary cereals at eye level. Have you noticed any social engineering in the dining halls here?

MP: I haven’t been in the dining halls, but there’s a lot of potential to do positive social engineering. There’s been a lot of research done on how people eat depending on the order with which they fill their plate. If you’re on a lunch/ dinner line and the vegetables come first before the meat, people will eat more vegetables than meat, because we tend to put a lot of the first thing on our plate. There are efforts to recast the lunch lines at public schools, and there’s no reason this can’t be done at colleges, too, to basically tweak the environment in a way [that] encourages people to eat better.

FM: When did the food industry start to interest you?

MP: I got interested first in agriculture. I was always interested in writing about nature, and when I was in college, I loved writing about Thoreau and Emerson. I got very interested in the idea of engaging the natural world rather than just watching it, which is what Thoreau did. My first book, “Second Nature,” was about gardening. In the course of writing this book, I started thinking about agriculture, and that’s how I got into food. I wrote “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which is [about] where your food comes from, and then I started thinking about nutrition. It really starts for me on the farm, and I’ve always loved growing food.

FM: You’ve written a lot about corporate interactions with the food system. Were you surprised by how much capitalism and cooking intersect?

MP: No. That really grew out of the work and specifically “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which on one level is looking at the logic of capitalism, and the[n the] logic of nature. A lot of capitalism looks at the farm and sees a factory. You put in input, which might be fertilizer or feed for animals, and the output is calories that you can feed to people. That’s a very different logic than the way nature works. In factories you have waste, but you don’t have any waste in nature. What’s rational in that factory logic might be crazy in the logic of ecology. So, you can’t write about food for very long without starting to think about capitalism.

FM: Your research here is centered around psychedelic drugs. How did you get interested in that?

MP: My interest has already been about the human engagement with the natural world. One of the things we use plants for is to change consciousness. People have done this forever, and animals do this too. I’ve always been intrigued by the drive—like, why are you doing this? You get killed if you walk into the street. It seems to be this deep human desire, and understanding it has been an ongoing issue in my work. I started learning about this revival of psychedelic research in therapy and was very intrigued by it, so I wrote a piece for the New Yorker in February, which has grown into this book. It’s not just about drugs, it’s really about altered states of consciousness.

FM: The New Yorker piece focuses largely on using drugs for healing purposes. Will you be looking into recreational drug use?

MP: There is a theme in that article about whether drugs should be limited to medical uses or also for, in the beautiful phrase of one of my sources, “for the betterment of well people,” which is a nicer way to say recreational. There are people who have very meaningful experiences using psychedelics outside of medical contexts. But it is important to know that these are very powerful medicines and some people have enormous problems with them. They are not to be handled lightly and the context in which they are used is very very important.

FM: So, are you down to try psychedelics?

MP: It’s certainly made me curious. I haven’t yet figured out how I’ll manage the first person of this book...

FM: This book’s focus is heavily spiritual. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

MP: I’ve always thought of myself as spiritually retarded. I come at things from a very materialist, areligious point of view. One of the things that intrigues me is how many people with that perspective emerge from these experiences feeling very differently. People come in stone cold atheists and they come out believing in some sort of beyond. I think I’d be very resistant to that. It would be interesting to find out if it changed my perspective. How amazing that a chemical produced by a mushroom out in nature could do that. What’s that about? And why is the mushroom producing that chemical in the first place? And who first figured it out?

FM:. What have you been doing besides deciding whether or not to try psychedelics?

MP: I’ve spent a lot of time on the river running, biking, and walking. I picked apples last week and [am] going down to the Cape tomorrow. Taking advantage of being on the East Coast. I want to reconnect to what I love about the East Coast—including snow, which is crazy, because people seem to have post-traumatic stress from last winter. 

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