Michael Pollan: High Priest of American Food
by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil
Michael Pollan, the author of seven books including Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and, most recently, Cooked, has been chronicling America’s food system for more than a decade. His mantra—“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much”—has inspired a new generation of foodies. One of the country’s preeminent food philosophers, Pollan speaks with Moment about why Jews have a complicated relationship with meat, why pork may not be an abomination after all, and how cooking is central to healthy eating and changing the world.
What kinds of meals did your mom cook while you were growing up?
My mom was a really good cook, but we had a kind of regular rotation. It was a typical American high-meat diet: Monday would be steak, Tuesday would be pasta, Wednesday would be something exotic, like pepper steak or Asian stir-fry. We often had roast beef. We didn’t keep kosher and would have pork sausage and bacon occasionally.
How did you get interested in food? Why did you want to write about it?
I got into thinking about food in two ways. One was through gardening. I had a vegetable garden as a kid. I really loved growing food. My grandfather was a terrific gardener. He had been in the produce business and loved vegetables, and I loved going to his place and harvesting and watching him garden. So gardening got me interested in agriculture.
Then I did a couple of articles on agriculture for The New York Times Magazine. I wrote one on genetically modified food. It was just being introduced—this goes back to 1988—and I was interested in its relationship to plants. So I asked the agricultural company Monsanto if I could get some of their genetically modified seeds and plant them in my garden to see what all the fuss was about. In the course of writing that article, I went to visit some of the farms in Idaho that were using their products and saw big, industrial agriculture for the first time.
Because I was from the East Coast, where farms are still small and picket fence-ish, I had never seen a 35,000-acre potato farm that was being remote-controlled. And I had no idea how chemically intensive this agriculture was. The potatoes had so much pesticide in them that you couldn’t eat them out of the fields. You had to wait six weeks after harvest. That was my introduction to agriculture and realizing that the story of where people’s food came from was news. People didn’t know how their French fries were made or how their beef was produced.
Did your Jewish upbringing influence your thinking about food?
Without question, yes. There’s an ancient tradition of ethical eating that your food choices—how you eat, what you eat—should be influenced by your sense of ethics and that food is the business of the community. Judaism isn’t the only culture, obviously, to promote that idea, but for me, that’s where it came from. I just developed different ethics from the ones in Leviticus. Whether you’re supporting the kosher rules or you’re arguing against them, you’re accepting the form, which is that there is an argument, and it matters.
I’m very interested in the idea that there are so many rules around eating, especially meat-eating. A lot of kashrut is really about meat. The sacrifices in the Old Testament and the rules of Leviticus are a great reminder of how much consequence is attached to eating meat. It’s not something to be taken lightly. One of the things I’m trying to restore to the way we eat meat is that sense of consequence. If we’re going to do it, it’s a big deal: An animal died, so there’s a lot at stake. Now, in our culture, people do it so thoughtlessly. People eat nine ounces of meat per day in America. They eat meat for three meals a day. It’s our thoughtlessness about it that has allowed the process to get so brutal. I push against kashrut in various ways. I’m not sure that pigs are such an abomination. But on the other hand, the existence of those rules is an important reminder that we should approach meat-eating with a sense of humility and some consciousness.