Michael Pollan on the page is engaging, informative, and persuasive. Michael Pollan in person is all of those things, but also relaxed, funny, and kind. Last Thursday night at BookPeople, an overflow crowd got to experience that second Michael Pollan firsthand.
Pollan was in town to promote his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, but as always, he was there to promote a better way of eating for our modern times.
Austin is an interesting place to visit for a man whose motto is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While he attempts to consume just a few ounces of meat per week, that number has been blown apart with all of the Texans plying him with barbecue at every turn. His flexitarian diet will be happy to return to his home base of Berkeley.
Our most famous culinary art takes center stage in Cooked, which is divided into four parts by the classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. In order to study the first of these, he apprenticed himself to a North Carolina pitmaster cooking whole-hog style.
Pollan’s not just a great writer, but quite a performer as well. He had the audience giggling as he talked about making pork cracklins and having waves of people approach asking for “summa that skee-yun.” I think the meat eaters in the crowd got a little hungry, too.
For the water portion, Pollan learned to cook with pots and much more from chef Samin Nosrat, whom he says taught him to engage in “practice, patience, and presence” while in the kitchen. He again drew laughs when he said he would quickly go through the patience portion. It’s harder than it looks.
The section on air involved learning to bake, and Pollan attached himself to one of the best, Bay Area baker Chad Robertson of Tartine (whose gorgeous signature book made my jaw drop the first time I laid eyes on it). Everything from the first attempts at turning “grass seeds” into food to modern sourdough starters was discussed, which led directly to one of our most contentious contemporary culinary issues.
Everywhere he goes, Pollan must answer questions about gluten intolerance as well as the paleo diet. As to the former, he has drawn the ire of many by dismissing the current gluten-free craze as an attempt to find a simple answer to our not-so-simple problems. Allergies are certainly on the rise, but Pollan isn’t convinced that a focus on gluten will yield the answer.
His response to the meat-heavy paleo diet is a simple one: Our meat isn’t their meat. Homo erectus wasn’t eating corporate cattle but rather something closer to our wild game meats. Pollan appreciates the idea of getting back to nature, but thinks the paleo diet often goes too far.
On a much more modern topic, he was asked about the food substitute du jour Soylent. Pollan compared it to baby formula and relayed just how long it took to get that right. Even still, breast milk has benefits above and beyond what a list of nutrients can achieve. There’s much we don’t know about how food does what it does, and it’s that gap in knowledge that makes him leery of a product that claims to have all the answers. The fact that it’s backed by tech money has Pollan seeing hype instead substance.
During our pre-talk conversation, I asked Pollan what he thought of the recent move by companies to remove high-fructose corn syrup from their foods. “A pyrrhic victory,” he said, dismissing the move as a disingenuous one that simply replaced the offending item with sugar, which is every bit as bad for us. Once again, he said, we have fetishized an ingredient instead of focusing on what’s more important.
That’s a big part of the message in his new book. Pollan is a fantastic evangelist for better ways of dealing with food. By focusing on the act of cooking instead of distractions, we’ll live, love, and eat better. That’s worth some time stirring a pot.
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