Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Church of Michael Pollan

Last night I joined Portland Psst! and the Jordans Meats Mycologist on a trip to Bates College in Lewiston for a free lecture by Michael Pollan, the journalist who's become a guru for the organic/local foods movement by virtue of his three most recent books, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire.

The Bates College chapel, allegedly the largest venue on campus, was ridiculously packed, with at least seven hundred people of all ages in attendance. The fire marshall made about a hundred people in the aisles leave before the lecture could begin.

Pollan was an engaging speaker, and had a quiver of entertaining anecdotes about the food and nutrition industries. His main arguments were aimed to dispel the notion that we can understand human dietary needs or dietary evils as discrete sets of chemical nutrients. Real foods, he pointed out, are complex, living systems, much like the human digestive system. Principles of "nutrition" are little more than articles of faith.

In fact, Pollan's opening remarks laid out a number of similarities between the nutrition industry and organized religion. I found the metaphor a bit ironic, given the fact that he was standing in the pulpit of a chapel and speaking to hundreds of eager disciples. I completely agree that we spend too much time obsessing over what we eat (mostly, whether it has trans fats, or omega threes, or corn syrup, or animal products, or whatever). But at the same time, as the huge crowd attests, the American obsession with food has been very, very good for Pollan and his book sales.

What Pollan is really asking us for is for a different kind of obsession over our food. Instead of poring over abstract "Nutrition Facts," we should think more about where our food comes from and the natural and human resources that brought it to us. If we knew more about the differences between a home-cooked meal and a processed TV dinner sourced from feedlots and agribusiness factories, or the differences between an organic apple shipped from New Zealand and an unlabeled apple from the orchard five miles away, then our economy, our environment, and our bodies would probably all be a lot healthier.

As someone who obsesses over where my sewage goes, I'm only too happy to explore where my food came from. And as an aspiring interpreter of the urban environment, I'll be curious to see how Pollan convinces the rest of America to become agro-naturalists.

Pollan's dietary advice boils down this seven-word incantation: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." To which I would only add, "And get over yourself already."

No comments: