Michael Pollan connects everyday experiences such as eating and gardening to the natural world with which they are interlinked. Most recently known for assailing the conventional American food supply system, urging us to plant vegetable gardens to reduce our carbon footprints, and calling into question the collective nutritional advice of the entire 20th century, Pollan has revolutionized the way we think about food, urging us to eat locally and sustainably.
The first 100 pages of The Omnivore’s Dilemma were, for many readers, as effective a weight loss regimen as WeightWatchers or Jenny Craig. Unsure of what foods to trust after reading the fruits of Pollan’s research, we could breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank you,” to Pollan after publication of his most recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, in which he says simply: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
We could say “thanks,” too, for feuding with the CEO of Whole Foods over its support for “big organic” monoculture farming versus “small organic” polyculture farming, for the profound impact that Pollan has had on the education and awareness of American eating habits from school lunches to corporate cafes, and for laying out an alert for an agricultural apocalypse. “Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience,” he wrote for the New York Times. “The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.”
Raised in suburban Long Island, Pollan learned much about cooking during the 1960s from watching his mother, Corky Pollan, now the style editor at Gourmet Magazine, when much of America was turning away from local farms and towards processed foods. His undergraduate education at Bennington College in rural Vermont (two hours north of one of the first community-supported agricultural farms in the United States, the CSA Garden at Great Barrington) and the influences of his maternal grandfather, who was a professional gardener and green grocer, also helped shape his body of work.
Pollan is also the author of Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991), Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997), and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001). He served for many years as an executive editor at Harper’s Magazine and he is currently a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a professor of journalism and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Pollan lives in the Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer, and their son.
Excerpt from In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008)
Among other things, tending a garden reminds us of our ancient evolutionary bargain with these ingenious domestic species—how cleverly they insinuate themselves into our lives, repaying the care and space we give them with the gift of good food. Each has its own way of announcing—through a change of color, shape, smell, texture, or taste—that the moment when it has the very most to offer us, when it is at its sweetest and most nourishing, has arrived: Pick me!
When the basket of produce lands on the kitchen counter, when we start in on the cleaning and cutting and chopping, we’re thinking about a dozen different things—what to make, how to make it—but nutrition, or even health, is probably not high on the list. Look at this food. There are no ingredients labels, no health claims, nothing to read except maybe a recipe. It’s hard when contemplating such produce to think in terms of nutrients or chemical compounds; no, this is food, so fresh it’s still alive, communicating with us by scent and color and taste. The good cook takes in all this sensory information and only then decides what to do with the basket of possibilities on the counter: what to combine it with; how, and how much; to “process’ it. Now the culture of the kitchen takes over. That culture is embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, any one of which contains more wisdom about diet and health than you will find in any nutrition journal or journalism. The cook does not need to know, as the scientists have recently informed us, that cooking the tomatoes with olive oil makes the lycopene in them more available to our bodies. No, the cook already knew that olive oil with tomatoes is a really good idea.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006)
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001)
A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997; reprinted 2009 with a new introduction)
Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991)
“Why Bother? Looking for a Few Good Reasons to Go Green,” New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2008
“You Are What You Grow,” New York Times Magazine, April 22, 2007
“Unhappy Meals,” New York Times Magazine, January 28, 2007
“The Vegetable-Industrial Complex,” New York Times Magazine, October 15, 2006“What’s Eating America?” Smithsonian, June 15, 2006
Michael Pollan’s homepage
“A New Way to Think About Eating” from the New York Review of Books
“Green Giant” from the Guardian
“What’s Eating at Michael Pollan” by David Laskin, the Seattle Times