Michael Pollan does have a way of getting you to think about the food you eat. His most recent bestseller, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, explored the natural history of four plants that have adapted themselves to our needs, in the same way that a flower might transform itself to meet the needs of a butterfly or a bee. The idea came about when he was planting potatoes and realized, as gardeners often do, that perhaps the garden didn’t really serve him at all. Maybe he served the garden. Maybe plants persuade us to cultivate them by offering something we desire: sweetness, beauty, intoxication.
He chose four plants for his book—the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana—and I’m willing to bet that the allure of these plants have convinced most of you to grow at least three out of four of them. (We won’t ask which three, but suffice it to say that it’s hardly worth nursing a tulip through our soggy winters.) His research on the potato in particular led him into the uncertain future of genetically modified foods; when he sat at a farmer’s table chewing a potato salad made of Monsanto’s ‘New Leaf’ potatoes, he knew better than most of us what he was putting in his mouth.
Since then, his articles on food in the New York Times Magazine have been so startling and insightful that I found myself holding onto them over the years, eventually creating a little file just for them, as if just accumulating them would someday give me the answers to life’s big questions: What do we grow? How do we feed ourselves? How do we stay well? How do we live?
Take a story he wrote on corn, for instance. The United States has been cursed with an overproduction of corn for generations. In the nineteenth century, the best way to get rid of surplus corn was to distill it; he cites evidence that Americans went on a real bender thanks to the abundance of cheap corn whiskey, a situation that brought on any number of social ills and eventually led to Prohibition. Now that same corn gets turned into corn sweeteners and processed foods. For the bargain-basement price of $19 billion a year in crop subsidies, we can flood the world market with our grain and suck down supersized soft drinks (sweetened with high fructose corn syrup) or, even better, create ethanol, a fuel that many scientists point out uses more fossil fuel to create than it saves.
Now he’s turned his attention to the food chain. In his forthcoming book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, due out in spring 2006, he analyzes four specific meals (including a McDonald’s meal in Marin County and a meal made up only of food he grew, foraged, or hunted himself) to illuminate the ways in which food gets to our table and what that says about our place in the food chain. “I knew how to garden,” he said when I spoke to him by phone last week, “but I didn’t know how to hunt. I didn’t know how to find mushrooms, or salt. That took some doing, to kill and clean an animal. I don’t know if I’ll do it again.”
Whether he’s writing about the industrialization of the food chain or the hybridization of tulips, Pollan always brings a personal perspective to his work. “In all my writing I really try to put myself in the story and have an experience about what I’m writing about, whether it’s owning a steer or shooting a boar or growing something in my garden that I’m writing about. It all comes out of my garden, which is where I first realized that I could use my own perspective to reflect on these larger questions.”
For his talk at HSU, he plans to bring a bag of groceries and talk about where food comes from and what we don’t know about it. “I’ll probably talk about industrial food,” he said, “how it’s grown, how it’s made, from the industrial farm to the fast food restaurant where we eat it. When you eat that kind of food, you enter into a food chain, and you’re implicated in what happens all along that food chain.”
In his forthcoming book, he traces a bushel of corn from a farm in Iowa to a McDonald’s in Marin. “I’ll talk a lot about corn,” he said, “because corn is really the keystone species of the industrial food chain. So a lot of it will be about what you are really eating when you eat a chicken McNugget—and what kind of world are you contributing to?
“Everything we eat is an engagement with the natural world,” he continued, “although we forget it, and the food industry is designed to help us forget it. But there’s a relationship to animals, to plants, to the soil, that goes on in those eating decisions. So the journey of the lecture will be to show people those relationships.”
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