Michael Pollan: "I’m Uncomfortable with the Foodie Label"

With his Netflix documentary series Cooked now out, the award-winning journalist discusses bad food in England in the 70s, and a party with cheese-loving nuns
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
The Guardian
February 21, 2016

About five minutes before Michael Pollan arrives I realise he’s sort of already here: just reading the menu with its references to “local”, “artisanal” and “heritage” is to glimpse his influence. The 61-year-old author and professor has made his life’s subject “these messy places where nature and culture have to mix it up”, and in writing about those places he’s helped bring about a revolution in the way we think about food. Now, he has his own Netflix series, Cooked, based on his 2013 book of the same name.

When he arrives from his nearby Harvard office (he’s a fellow at the university’s Radcliffe Institute) I tell him that even the name of this place, Harvest, seems to speak to his work. He parries, modestly: “I guess it’s descended from that line that begins with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, which is where we’d be eating if I were in Berkeley.”

Pollan was an influence on Waters. After reading his first major article, a biography of a cow called The Power Steer, she resolved never to serve non-grass-fed beef again. “I was Pollanized,” she wrote in 2010, when he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of the year, “and I am not alone.”

The truth is, many of us have been Pollanized, as well as this menu. I ponder ordering the roasted beets. Local ones!

“Yeah, that should be good,” he approves, still reading. “You can still dig those out of the ground now.”

However, another menu item has him frowning. “‘Maine salmon’ – there’s no salmon in Maine and there hasn’t been for 50 years.”

Our waiter confirms that it is indeed farmed, not wild. Pollan opts for the squid ink tagliatelle but when mention is made of the Rohan duck’s provenance – a farm in upstate New York – it’s enough to convince him to ditch the pasta and switch.

“I try not to make a pest of myself,” he says apologetically, “but I’m curious when I see something like ‘Maine salmon’ that’s anomalous. I also think these messages get back to the chefs. Asking those questions is one of the ways you drive change.”

I can’t help but think of that Portlandia episode that begins with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein asking their waiter, “Is the chicken local?” and culminates with them visiting the cultish farm from where “Colin”, their “heritage breed, woodland-raised” dinner came.

“Yes!” he says, with a generous, good-natured laugh. “I love that sketch. Look, so many people have gone overboard with these issues. I’m uncomfortable with the foodie label, it gets stuck to me all the time.”

He is also uncomfortable at being thought of as evangelical (one magazine called him “America’s high priest of food”); his mode is investigative, not prescriptive.

Tucking into his butternut squash soup, he explains: “My assumption was that in the mere act of caring about provenance, our food would get better because the opacity of the food system is what protects it from reform. We as journalists have this perhaps touching belief that if people have the right information, they’ll make the right decision.”

Pollan grew up on Long Island, New York and studied at Bennington, a small liberal arts college in Vermont. He took a year out to study at Oxford and the mid-70s was, he says, a depressing time to be in England – “one of the darkest periods since Beowulf”. 

I bet the food was awful.

“The food was so bad,” he cries. His favourite night was Sunday, when the cooking staff went home and left out loaves of supermarket bread and jars of jam. Those blessed Sunday sandwiches aside, it was all “just brown sauces with pieces of protoplasm”.

After Bennington, he embarked on a Masters at Columbia, thinking he’d end up an English professor. But when a job at a magazine came up, he took it. So what has academia lost?

“Very little, I’m sure,” he laughs. He wanted to study Thoreau, Melville and Whitman and “what is it to be an American – that’s really the subtext of all those books”.

Then came his war with a woodchuck. As an avid gardener, he found his nemesis in “a very large, almost blind rodent that can wipe out your garden overnight”. What followed, as he puts it in 1992’s Second Nature, was his “horticultural Vietnam”.

Did he resort to napalm?

“Almost,” he says. “Various toxic substances” were poured down its burrow. More salutary was the realisation that this war ultimately afforded: that the garden might be an even better place than Thoreau’s wilderness to consider nature. The human relationship with the natural world has remained his subject ever since.

“Beautiful!” he exclaims to the waiter as his duck leg arrives, sweetly nestled between cauliflower roasted and cauliflower pureed.

Pollan concedes that there are “a lot of reasons not to care about food, and one is it sounds very elitist. Not everybody can afford good food.”

He believes though, that social progress often begins in elite circles and cites Carl’s Jr, the US burger chain which has just introduced a grass-fed hamburger. “So elites can be ahead of the curve on some things.”

They can also, of course, be insufferably pious.

“I think we have a tendency to go to extremes,” he agrees. “There is a time for processed food: there’s a time when your kid wants a snack and you don’t have anything and you’re going to buy them a bag of Doritos. People always use food to construct their identity, that’s one of the reasons they get so touchy when someone like Jamie Oliver encourages them to eat in a different way.”

Remember the “junk food mums” passing their kids chips through school gates back in 2006? The images were a testament to Britain’s class divide.

“That’s one of the reasons politicians avoid these issues: any suggestion of telling people how they should eat is perceived as criticism and goes to their feelings about identity and class.”

Pollan’s’s own eating manifesto can be found in his most famous and least-heeded lines: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Simple! So why do we remain so het up about it all?

“We would rather talk about anything but quantity of food,” he says. “The number of ways we avoid addressing the fact that we’re all just eating too much is amazing! It’s the ‘not too much’ part that is a turnoff to a lot of people.”

The star of Cooked is Sister Noella, a Benedictine nun with a PhD in microbiology. She’s been making raw milk cheese in a wooden barrel since 1977 and Pollan admits to sympathising with “her possibly heretical notion that cheese deserves a place alongside wine and bread in the Eucharist”.

She and a bevy of nuns came to the launch party for his book in a fancy Manhattan gallery, “and just blew the minds of everybody”. All of them, the nuns and partygoers, shared in a wheel of Saint-Nectaire, “and it was great,” says Pollan.

He gives an authoritative chin jerk at the menu’s Artisanal Cheese Plate: “Those are really good cheeses, all three of them.” We order the Moses Sleeper, the Bayley Hazen and Ascutney Mountain.

“We don’t have to be sombre talking about food,” he says, spreading a knife’s edge of unctuousness on toast. “Yes there’s a public health crisis attached to it but food is also a great pleasure in life and not the most serious thing in the world.”

I know we dismissed the “high priest” epithet, but amen to that.

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