Earlier this evening, my wife, some of my friends and I attended a fascinating interview of Michael Pollan. The event was the annual kick-off of Silicon Valley Reads. Silicon Valley Reads is designed to promote reading and literacy, broaden the exposure to and appreciation of good literature, and build community. So reads the blurb about them from their website at siliconvalleyreads.org.
Columnist Mike Cassidy from the San Jose Mercury News newspaper did a television worthy job of interviewing Michael.
Michael Pollan is the best selling author of a trilogy of books about food and eating. Earlier today I finished reading his 2006 volume The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This 400+ page work changed my eating habits dramatically. I used to seek out the best price for food, and would eagerly buy 100 cans at once of Progresso brand soup when Safeway had it on sale at $1.25 each, and then spend the next year happily consuming them, knowing I paid less than half price. I would load up the shopping cart with 15 gallons of Safeway apple juice if the price was $3.00 or less a gallon. Just a couple of years ago it would routinely sell for $2.00 a gallon on sale. But this juice was imported as concentrate from over 5,000 miles away, according to the origin information printed on the bottles.
Now, after reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, my wife and I shop mostly at three special stores in San Francisco, Rainbow Grocery, Bi Rite Market and Guerra Meats. Rainbow Grocery doesn’t sell any meat or fish. This is a large supermarket, similar in size to a small Safeway. I have never seen a supermarket that sells no meat or fish. This means no meat or fish in cans either, so no chicken noodle soup. But even without the meat, Rainbow is the most magical food market I have ever visited. Bi Rite is much smaller, almost as small as a corner convenience store, but it’s packed with beautiful food. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine a store smaller, more delightful, compassionate and thoughtful than a Whole Foods, but with the same type of vibe. Guerra Meats is a family owned butcher shop near our house that sells free-range organic poultry and grass fed beef from local farms. We bought our Thanksgiving turkey there last year.
These stores cost a fortune compared to Safeway. But I am happily and even eagerly shopping at my new favorite three stores because of Michael’s book. I plan to start right in on his latest book, which he was plugging tonight, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. What did he write that caused me to make such a big change in my eating and buying? What convinced me most was his belief that eating what he calls ‘industrial food’ causes people to get sick and causes extensive damage to the environment. I am able to afford the better food by cutting the quantity that I eat in about half. I’ve also cut out about 75% of the meat I used to eat, since my wife is a vegetarian.
I used to snack all day and night. For about a month now, I’ve eaten three moderate meals a day, with no snacks in between. I’ve lost weight and feel better. Yes, I’m sometimes hungry between meals, but I’m getting used to it, and it’s not unpleasant. I find that when I do eat, I enjoy it more because this higher quality food tastes substantially better.
Michael Pollan is a journalist by profession, and according to the liner notes for Omnivore’s Dilemma, he got his start writing books about food when his editor at The New York Times Magazine asked him to write about food for the magazine. Michael is an engaging writer, and he researches his subject like one would expect a journalist to do. The references section of Omnivore’s Dilemma is pages in length. If he read all those books cover to cover, he was a busy man for an extended period. He also rolled up his sleeves and for a week worked on PolyFace Farms in Swoope, Virginia, perhaps the most sustainable farm in operation from the sound of it.
When my wife’s friend Aimee Epstein emailed us about the Pollan talk, I knew I was going to write a long blog post about it, as I’ve been reading his book with surprising relish for a few weeks now. I decided to try to shoot video of the interview, and I’m happy to report I was successful. This event was a free event, and there were no prohibitions posted or announced about recording. Furthermore, the event was broadcast on the radio. The event was held in the Heritage Theatre at 1 West Campbell Avenue, and every one of its 800 seats was occupied, and people had to be turned away at the door. The mayor of Campbell was on hand to welcome Pollan.
I am so happy to be able to share Pollan’s interview with you here by video. I hope this video will open a discussion about the interesting subject of food. To comment, click the comments link above just below the title of this post.
There were some funny moments in the interview. Mike from the Mercury News started things off of a humorous note when he began by saying he was running late and was hungry, so he stopped by the McDonald’s drive through window and picked some items from the dollar menu for himself and Michael. Mike handed Michael a bag of McDonald’s products, and Michael pulled out a cheeseburger wrapped in yellow paper and waved it around, to great effect judging by the audience response. I would guess most everyone there had read Omnivore’s Dilemma based on how they reacted to seeing Michael wave a cheeseburger on stage. I had earlier been joking with my wife Monika that I was going to bring Michael a bouquet of corn dogs and put them on stage like they were flowers. Pollan is particularly hard on corn in Omnivore’s Dilemma, blaming it for many of the ills of the country’s industrial food system, in ways that I found surprising and frankly disgusting. I thought it was funny that the interviewer made much the same joke I had thought would be funny, but would never have done.