Friday, September 25, 2009

The Omnivore's Solution: The Michael Pollan Lecture

About a year and a half ago I stood in line for about three hours to get Alton Brown’s autograph. In the end, I felt exhausted and a little frustrated (I am what you might call short on patience), and insisted that I would not be doing something like that again. Don’t get me wrong. Alton Brown was very cool. He was gracious to his fans and seemingly tireless, which I greatly admire. I’m glad to have met him, as brief as the encounter was. I’m just not the type of person who gets fired up to go to great lengths to meet a celebrity.

Then, earlier this year, I found out that “real food advocate,” and brilliant author of three of my favorite books (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, and In Defense of Food), Michael Pollan would be speaking at Winona State University as part of their Lyceum series, I was really, really excited, but pretty nervous, too. What was I going to have to go through to see this lecture, and would it be like my Alton Brown experience?

As it turned out, there was a bit of an ordeal involved in getting the tickets, which were free of charge and in quite high demand. I got to the point where I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get tickets, but I was very proud of my community for supporting such a great author and advocate. Local, sustainable food is “in” in this part of the country, and I got a warm fuzzy just from knowing that.
Enough about the tickets. I got them, and that’s what matters. It was a close call, but hardly painful. (I did get wet on the way back to the car, despite the use of an umbrella, but what’s a pair of drippy jeans when you’re going to get to see Michael Pollan speak!)

Mr. Pollan spoke to a packed house about the concept of “nutritionism,” or the reduction of the concepts of food and eating to mere nutritional components, devoid of culture, connection to food sources, and, worst of all as far as I’m concerned, pleasure. This seems to have led us to a national dysfunction and a collective eating disorder. “No other species requires experts to tell them how to eat,” Pollan says, but he doesn’t just make fun of our near-religious experience with nutritionism or laugh at us as we become suckers to clever marketing of “edible food-like substances” (I’m especially susceptible to the fun-size candy bars, and holiday-colored M&Ms that are everywhere now, and will be through Easter). He also doesn’t just lay the blame, rant, and go home. He, with his seemingly eternal and infectious optimism helps us to find solutions. We can eat less meat and more plants, support local agriculture and local artisan products, cook and eat at home more, and, if we can stand it, avoid buying “food” products that we’ve seen advertised on TV. (Prunes, almonds, raisins, and so on are clear exceptions to this, but I think you get the point.) We can consume less sugar and high fructose corn syrup. (Neither seems nutritionally worse than the other, but the presence HFCS is a sure sign of a highly-processed food.) We can just have a better idea of where our food comes from and decide what to eat for ourselves.

I have to admit that I need Pollan’s optimism in my life. He’s a great speaker, informative and entertaining, and his speech lacked anything like a dull moment. He also graciously signed autographs (there was not a three-hour wait, by the way), and I spoke to him briefly about the visit he had made to the CSA farm to which we subscribe. (He was impressed with, and, as a gardener, envious of the fantastic soil there.) I found Mr. Pollan very friendly and he even cheerfully answered when I asked him what it was like to meet Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report! (He said Colbert is very fast on his feet as an interviewer, and I assured him that he handled Colbert well. You can see the May 13, 2009 interview here.)

In the end, I was anything but exhausted after this celebrity encounter. I felt renewed in my quest for a sustainable and pleasurable eating style, and I certainly knew I was far from alone on that journey. There was an entire auditorium full of people with the same concerns and hopes for a more environmentally- and socially-conscious and healthful future. I think we’ll make a good team!

At one point Pollan quoted a grandmotherly adage he had once heard, “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry.” After that, I couldn’t stop thinking of apples, and since many, many fantastic apples are grown in this part of the country, and they’ve just been harvested, I had a lot of them at home. I could munch optimistically and sustainably. Of course, I had to make a caramel dip to eat them with. Nobody’s perfect.

For a taste of Pollan’s brilliant writing, you can read his open letter to the future president-elect in New York Times Magazine, entitled Farmer in Chief. I also highly recommend the books I mentioned above.

Caramel Dip for Apples
I typically use 1/3 less fat cream cheese because that’s what I have around, and have good results with this dip. I do not recommend using fat-free cream cheese.

1 8-ounce package Philadelphia-style cream cheese, softened
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium-size bowl and stir vigorously to combine until very creamy. Dip apples in it or spread it on apples to serve.

All photos of the Pollan lecture were taken by Harry.

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