Michael Pollan

By Lily Morrissey

19 July 2012 – I’m a big fan of author and influential thinker on food, Michael Pollan. I have to admit that from the outset. You can go call David Marr but in this instance I will stand by my bias. Pollan’s 2008 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an amazing piece of journalism that’s – yep, I’m going to go there – changed the way I see the world.

So, as a devout fan and self confessed food nerd, I turned up to see Pollan talk at the Opera House last Tuesday practically twitching with contained nerdy excitement. I dutifully had his book under one arm and a spare pair of undies in my pocket ready to fling. I slotted neatly into a buzzing concert hall full of my own kind.

The talk was structured as a conversation between Pollan and Sydney writer Rebecca Huntley, a host nicely picked for her down-to-earth demeanour and sense of humour. After a brief “rock-star” introduction, Huntley and “the food guy” spent the first half of the night discussing the “Pollan 1001”  ideas which his raging fans have already tattooed on their thighs.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pollan’s ideas, here’s that half of the night in a nutshell. In a world saturated with diet fads and food confusion coming from industry and nutritionists alike, Pollan brings things back down to basics with his Food Rules. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.

The simplicity of his approach belies a much more sophisticated critical analysis of our industrial food system. In the making of the Omnivores Dilemma, he purchased a cow that spent its miserable life in a feedlot, worked on Joel Salatin’s closed-loop “grass farm” and shot a pig –  all in an effort to investigate what it means to be an omnivore in our contemporary food landscape.

Through this journey he discovers something very wrong with the way we currently eat. The middlemen who process food earn more than the people who grow it. We buy food based on cost rather than quality. We have no idea where our food comes from. Western people are eating more calories than ever before, but we suffer from preventable diseases directly resulting from our diets.

Pollan is adamant that this is an historical anomaly. Previously we had culture to guide us toward healthy food choices. The western diet, he reminded us in the Opera House on Tuesday, was invented “only 150 years ago,” when we learned how to process food.

“We now know that people who eat like this get sick,” he pointed out, and yet we still eat it, because, “Processed food is engineered to appeal to us [as hunter-gatherers looking for rare sources of fat and sugar]…There is now a disconnect between the animals we are and the food world we live in”.

In a crazy, crazy, messed-up world, here’s one bespectacled man who just makes sense. Bless his biodynamic cotton socks. Apparently he was mystified when his books took off. “I was just writing about what I wanted to write about… this whole ride has been kind-of a shocker,” he told the audience, “you can do very well selling people common sense.”

At half-time the question I’d submitted online was read out, so I was actually talking through Huntley to Pollan directly, obviously a highlight for me (Oh my God! Can you sign my organic, free-range potato?). Will Coles and Woolies have to be brought on side if organic is to become mainstream in Australia?

Yes, was the answer, but there are other ways of buying food that are fairer to farmers. He reminded us that, the organic market tends to create a new food economy and as in nature, diversity is good for economics. Having our market dominated by two main players is just not cool, man.

Rebecca Huntley and Michael Pollan

The second half of the night involved a few more new ideas for us veterans. Genetic modification? Hasn’t really demonstrated any promised benefits, according to The Man, and so it’s probably not worth it. Vegetarianism? Won’t save the world, but it’s better to eat meat only on occasions.

In a humorous little anecdote, Pollan told us about his own son laughing at him for asking if a McChicken Nugget tasted like chicken. “No Dad, it tastes like chicken Nuggets” his son responded. Creepy when you think about it.

And finally, gender relations were highlighted in a refreshing discussion on the breakdown of food culture in western society. “Grandmothers were there before nutritionists,” Pollan reminded us. Then, during women’s liberation, “a conversation started between men and women about housework. Before that conversation could be finished, the food industry stepped in and said, hey, ‘we’ll solve that’.”

Before long, KFC advertisements donning the words “women’s liberation” started appearing. No need to talk your husband into doing cooking if you can go to work and buy fast food, right? It’s essential now, in Pollan’s view, that we finish that conversation.

That was basically it for the night except for several books worth of insight, so you should probably just go and read them. OK, so much like Prince’s recent Homebush gig, for most of the night he played his classics to his fans. But unlike Prince, not everyone knows his tunes. I found myself wishing like a true evangelical that the audience was made up of more newbies for a little less preaching-to-the-choir.

As I left, head-down, into the rainy night, I pondered instead that maybe bringing enlightenment to a fresh audience isn’t the aim of thirty-dollar talks at the Opera House. Maybe just like Prince, it’s enough that we fans come and feel part of a community where we can hang out with someone we believe in, hear what they say and enjoy all being right, together.