Last night, I had a wonderful time visiting with Michael Pollan, American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
There also were about 600 other people in the room for “An Evening With Michael Pollan” in the Music Building at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. Judging by their rapt attention and applause, I’d say they had a splendid time, too! If you care about food (other than stuffing it in your mouth), its history, its social importance, and health effects, then Pollan is an expert worth heeding. The fact that his six books on the subject have all reached bestseller status is testimony that plenty of people are interested in heeding him.
The event was sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance and Square Books of Oxford. Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, has just come out in paperback and Pollan was on a book-signing tour.
His talk, which lasted about 70 minutes, started out with background and stories from the gathering of information about the book. He regaled the audience with humorous stories about his immersion into the making of barbecue — and the audience laughed at his tales, which included pork aficionados’ crack-like desire for “skins” or crackling.
The Southern Foodways Alliance had two short films that illustrated the cooking of pork and places featured in the book that were located in North Carolina.
Pollans’ talk vaguely paralleled the layout of the book: Fire (barbecue); Water (soups); Air (bread); and Earth (fermentation). It’s a superlative book; but I’m not an impartial observer. I’m a big fan, and it really made my day to briefly chat with him afterward and give him a signed copy of my book, Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing: Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press, 2012) while having him sign my copy of Cooked.
Regular readers of this blog will recall that my reading the hardcover copy of Cooked last year led me to start baking my own bread. I figured, if Michael Pollan can do it, I can, too! Baking bread – particularly sourdough bread – is now one of my favorite hobbies. I have three different sourdough starters bubbling in the fridge, even now. (Might have to pull one out and bake a loaf this weekend!)
Readers of my book, Conscious Food, will remember that a central question is: How did we become so distanced from the making and appreciation of our food, including its spiritual aspects?
It’s a puzzling and disturbing quality of modern life, and Pollan also brought it up, saying that only a generation ago no one would have bought his books explaining where food came from because it was so tied to daily life. There would be no mystery, no question. Now, of course, that’s not so.
In fact, as Pollan pointed out, there are laws being enacted and proposed to actually prevent people from seeing how food is made, making it a crime to photograph a slaughterhouse or chicken factory farm. The highly processed food we eat, composed of highly refined sugars, starches and carbohydrates often can only truly be called “food products” rather than food. That processed foods also almost certainly contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is also a cause for alarm among many.
That’s how far we’ve come in making something which should be wholesome and good (making food) into something that is feared, insulated, even secretive.
While Pollan seemed to get the most interest by the audience in his tales of making barbecue, he also explored the other foodstuffs in the book. He discussed the making of bread – not nearly enough in detail for my avid interest, of course. But he did point out in great detail how sourdough bread, and other fermented products such as cheese and krauts are healthful when done in traditional ways.
Illustrating the benefits of probiotics (good bacteria versus bad bacteria) he told of one experiment that showed that raw milk processed into cheese in stainless steel vats and injected with e. coli became toxic while the same milk in reused wooden barrels did not because they contained accumulated beneficial bacteria that held the e. coli in check. So much for our theories of anti-bacterial cleaning!
He even often insights that what we usually eat – for flavor, texture, etc. – is aimed at only 10 percent of us; the part that tastes food. Ninety percent of real food feeds the “gut” – the microorganisms that do the work of digestion, absorption of nutrients and health protection. Mother’s milk, he pointed out, is 100 percent food. A pizza or cheeseburger or “Supersized” cola would be 10 percent.
Soups, he noted, extended the lifespans of humans since, generally, people lose teeth when they age; it allows nutrients to be obtained with a minimum of chewing. Taking a swipe at raw foods, he said that cooking unleashes myriad nutrients and chemically changes food; but he also said that raw food enthusiasts can obtain premium nutrients by processing their food with a mixer. I love my Vitamixer!
I know I’m not doing him justice here. His talk was insightful, interesting and not only repeated some information in the book but provided his thinking behind it and revealed his zeal in pursuing and promoting a healthier society that exalts good food. He was singing my song, for sure!
If he appears anywhere near you, and you care about these subjects, I’d highly recommend you go hear him and, of course, buy the book. The talk was three and a half hours away from me by car — I didn’t get back home until after midnight. But it was well worth it and I would certainly do so again!
I also got to visit for a while beforehand at Square Books in the courthouse square in Oxford — one of my favorite independent bookstores. Naturally, I bought a couple of books while there and since I had a few moments before the talk started, I also had a cup of delicious fresh-brewed coffee and a couple of homemade cookies.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.