Ask the Author: Michael Pollan

Answered Questions (20)

Michael Pollan My guilty food pleasure, the thing I reach for if I'm in a gas station and need a pick-me up (I know, you should never buy food from the same place you buy gas) is Cracker Jacks. Now, you can call it junk food, but you can also call it a traditional native American treat, since the original idea, developed by Indians who would pop corn and then dip the popcorn in maple syrup. Not sure where the nuts came from, or the prizes, which have gotten really lame since I was a kid.
Michael Pollan I do often ask servers or, if I get the chance, chefs, where they're sourcing their food, especially the meat. I do it for two reasons: because I won't order meat from factory farms, and because I'm convinced that the more they get those questions, the more likely they are to spend more of food that has a defensible story behind it. If more of us did this, the meat would get better, fast. This is part of what is meant by "voting with your fork." It's true, it can get a little Portlandia, I admit it, but I'm willing to be annoying to move the needle.
Michael Pollan I eat meat and dairy, but very selectively and as a result not that often. In my reporting I've seen scores of beautiful, sustainable farms that raise animals in the right way-- right for their welfare and happiness, and right for the environment, which turns out to be right for our health. These farms incorporate animals into a system with plants, so that the plants feed the animals and the animals feed the plants-- and us. It's hard to envision a deeply sustainable agriculture without animals to recycle nutrients and produce food from lands not good enough for crops (like many of the world's grasslands). So I think there is a place for animal foods in our diet, and I want to support the farmers doing it well. My motto "pay more, eat less" applies well to animal foods.
Michael Pollan I find the best way to enlist children in eating real food is to get them involved in growing food and cooking food. My son would eat vegetables in the garden that he would never eat at the table-- there was something about picking them himself that made him curious, and he was often surprised how good they tasted. Cooking, too, gives kids an investment in foods they might otherwise not eat. It also demystifies foods for them. To some picky eaters, cooked food is a black box --what the hell is that sauce hiding? they wonder-- and their suspiciousness is allayed when they see how a food is prepared, that it is the sum of ingredients that aren't scary or disgusting. Kids will eat food they cook because they have an investment in it. They also love the process. It's about the magic of transformation, after all. Who doesn't like watch inert, tasteless dough turn into a gorgeous, browned loaf of fragrant bread?
For this reason, I think we need to bring gardens and cooking classes into the schools, probably in middle school. Kids love to learn with their senses, and what better sensory education than food?
Michael Pollan I became interested in food because I am interested in nature --and because I am a gardener. If you care about the environment, eventually you will find yourself thinking about food, because our eating represents our more profound engagement with the natural. Agriculture changes the landscape more than anything else we do, and changes the composition of species. It also profoundly shapes the condition of the soil, obviously, and less obviously, the condition of our waterways and the state of the atmosphere: the food system is responsible for about a third of green house gases. So to the extent one cares about the natural world, one will attend to eating, food and farming.
Michael Pollan It's dangerous to generalize about "poor people," but its important to understand that there are several possible impediments to cooking, depending on the person or family. One is time-- the poor often work more than one job and have longer commute times. But it's important to keep in mind that cooking is an economical way to feed a family-- cheaper than fast food-- and that there are strategies to make cooking efficient, such as making large batches of food and freezing it, or taking turns cooking, either in the family or among friends and neighbors-- each takes a day and cooks enough for three family, for eg. Some people, rich or poor, lack the skills to navigate the time challenges-- which is why we need to bring back an updated version of Home Ec, for everybody.
Michael Pollan Juicing can play a role in a healthy diet, sure, but it's important to note that one of the most healthful components of the plants people juice gets discarded: the fiber. Can you figure out something interesting to do with the fiber, besides composting it? Someone recently told me of a juice bar that made delicious veggie burgers that contained carrot fiber left over from juicing.
Michael Pollan Good question. It's hard to tell from the ingredients, since many of them are vague things like "dough conditioners." It takes dozens of preservatives and other additives to keep a loaf of bread soft for weeks on end, and many of these chemicals are fairly recent additions to the human diet, which is why I tend to avoid them.
Michael Pollan I'm interested in other topics, and have been working on them since the publication of Cooked. Check out my New Yorker piece on plant intelligence, published last December. (Search pollan and plant intelligence, or go to the articles page on my website, I'm working now on one food-related article and one completely unrelated, so I think you will see my interests developing in other directions. And if you look at my earlier work --Second Nature, A Place of My Own and Botany-- you'll see that my deepest interest is in nature and how our species engages with it.
Michael Pollan There have been a few questions along these lines: local or organic? I usually opt for local for a few reasons. First, any farm supplying a farmer's market will tend to be highly diversified --you can't succeed with a single crop in the local economy-- which means there will be very little need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, so even if these farms are not certified organic, many of them will be chemical-free. Also, I'm interested in supporting local farmers, not just avoiding chemicals, and in keeping my food dollars circulating in the local economy. Organic is important, without questions, but local supports a great many more things I care about. That said, it's finally a question of your values-- there is no one right answer for everyone.
Michael Pollan I have a bunch: Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation"; Marion Nestle's "Food Politics"; Raj Patel's "Stuffed and Starved"; Wendell Berry's "The Unsettling of America"; and, just out, Dan Barber's "The Third Plate."
Michael Pollan If the sauerkraut or kimchi is in the refrigerated section, it contains live cultures-- probiotics. However, if it is not refrigerated, it's been pasteurized (which the jar may tell you), meaning the bacteria have been killed.
Michael Pollan Many of the farmers who are raising meat humanely and sustainably work hard to ensure that their animals have as quick and gentle a death as possible, but it's hard for them to audit what happens after the animals leave their care. On balance, these animals end up at small slaughterhouses, where more care is taken, but I'm sure there are unhappy exceptions.
Michael Pollan This is what I tried to do in COOKED, my most recent book. I argued the value of cooking to both our health and the health of the environment, but I hope I also inspired readers by demonstrating how interesting, pleasurable, economical and uplifting it can be to cook for people you love, especially when you draw other people into the kitchen with you. We have been brainwashed to think cooking is complicated and boring (which sounds suspiciously like a contradiction) when in fact it is one of the great satisfactions of life.
Michael Pollan It's hard to say except anecdotally, but one curious effect has been on meat-eating among my readers. After Omnivore's Dilemma came out, I heard from many people who said that, after reading my depiction of industrial animal agriculture, they no longer ate meat and had become vegetarians. Yet at the same time I heard from a number of vegans and vegetarians writing to say that, after reading the SAME book, they had decided to begin eating meat again-- because they had learned about a humane and sustainable way of raising meat animals (in my depiction of Joel Salatin's farm) that they wanted to support. It gratified me that people could reach such different conclusions from the same book.
But overall, it's hard to believe my work has affected the American way of eating except at the margins.
Michael Pollan You're right: my bigger subject is the human relationship to other species and the natural world. Food is just one of several areas where that relationship gets played out. I am writing on non-food topics: my last piece was a long New Yorker article on "Plant Intelligence" and I'm working now on something about psychoactive plants and fungi. By the way, all my articles are available on my website,, where you can see the full range of subjects I enjoy writing about.
Michael Pollan Soylent, the new powder replacement for meals, strikes me as sad. It might get the job done--keeping you alive without eating food-- but they already have those nutrient solutions for very sick people in the hospital, and if you ask those patients about it, they would surely say, why would anyone ever want to voluntarily give up the pleasure of eating meals?!
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I seriously doubt we know enough to completely simulate a healthy human diet-- there's an arrogance here about the state of our knowledge about nutrition.
Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan

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