Hunger Strike—01/22/10

The Tao of Michael Pollan

By Iliya Gutin

Michael Pollan is a god among foodies. Like Jesus, he can take seven rutabaga plants and, with responsible farming, help feed a country. Like Yahweh he believes that all good food is “kosher” in an ethical sense. And finally like the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda he is… never mind. But secularly speaking, he is a hero. For in a desolate, industrial world of Twinkies and McRibs, he is a shining beacon of hope and rich, locally-produced culinary diversity.

But who is this divine Michael Pollan? He is a food author whose work has gone hand-in-hand with the organic/local food movement of the past decade. Perhaps the most prominent supporter of local farming and fresh ingredients whenever possible, his body of work speaks for itself.

Botany of Desire showed how humans and plants, from apple trees to marijuana, are mutually dependent on one another for survival and how genetic modification can destroy this delicate bond. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the common man’s manifesto against agribusiness. Anyone from a twenty-something hipster to your eighty-something grandma can tell you that corn is taking over the world, blazing a path of sweet, yellow destruction right through the heart of America. Meanwhile big businesses like ADM and ConAgra are following right behind, like the a-holes that tail an ambulance. In Defense of Food, Pollan bluntly told Americans that everything we know about nutrition is completely wrong, our food is crap, and we’re all going to die faster than the best friend in a horror movie.

But if the past Michael Pollan was the God of the Old Testament, criticizing and punishing us for our ignorance, Pollan seems to have turned a new leaf with his recent release, Food Rules. He wants to save us, nourish us, elevate us all to an enlightened plane of culinary cognition. And how does one go about this in today’s day and age? How do you reach out to the masses and make sure they heed your words? Most importantly, how do you hold on to their incredibly brief and fading attention spans?

Go the way of the Internet: Make a list.

And that is exactly what Pollan created; a list of 64 rules for fixing and maintaining our diets. The moral of the book is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And most of the rules reflect that simple sentiment.

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” “Don’t eat anything that wouldn’t eventually rot.” “Avoid foods containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.” I guess on some basic level this is the same as your mother telling you to eat your vegetables, except in this case your mother is a bald, liberal man from Berkeley. The rules do ring true and aren’t really subject to debate. “Avoid foods you see advertised on television.” “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.” Plants are basically healthy and chemicals are usually bad for you. If anything, Food Rules just reminds you of the fundamental principles of eating: the most basic ingredients are the best.

Pollan even throws in a helpful hint: “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.” That’s where the produce is.

With these foundations reestablished, Pollan goes on to explain that the key to our success is quite literally within our hands. We, as a society, have to start cooking again. His emphasis is on the preparation and consumption of food as a social process. Cook food for the table; for your friends, your family, and sometimes just to prove your own ability. At the same time, cooking is about transparency in your diet and a connection to your food. If you can see your ingredients, then you should see how they are assembled. You are taking control over your food and, in some respect, your life. Even junk food is fine, as long as you actually make it.

But as admirable Pollan’s plan to fix America’s nutrition is, it’s also slightly futile. I’m just keeping it real. There is a reason we are so dependent on the institution of fast and industrial food. It is cheap, easy, and convenient. Pollan acknowledges this time and time again in his books. Shifting the essentially petrified eating habits of America is just about as impossible as it sounds. His books, especially Food Rules, propose an alternate lifestyle, even if it seems somewhat obvious. Whether the reader treats his opinion as a curiosity of just how screwed up we are, or as a profound guide to nutrition, it is completely out of his control.

But we can all take solace in the fact that Michael Pollan has not yet abandoned the flawed human race. He sees through our stubbornness and the cholesterol in our arteries. He has not retreated back to the celestial garden from whence he came. And he will probably remain in this mortal coil, publishing more and more books and hoping for the day that a rumble of reason will ring within our collective stomachs.