We chatted extensively with Michael Pollan the other day, covering:
- Criticism from Jonathan Safran Foer -- and others -- for not being anti-meat enough, and not "grappling" with meat
- The animal-rights community
- How middle- and low-income meat eaters can stop eating feedlot meat
- Nose-to-tail eating and "rock star" butchers
- Food trucks, street food, and redefining our "fast-food" eating culture
- His last three meals
- Salt, high-fructose corn syrup, food marketing, and health claims
- Grilling season, men re-entering the kitchen, and the feminist revolution's affect on cooking
- Oprah, and tangling with the food industry
And much, much more. Accompanied by prints and photographs from the Library of Congress, here are the highlights:
Read the full transcript of the interview, with special thanks to Jennifer O'Reilly, here.
Photographs and prints from the Library of Congress
See extensive highlights from the interview below, here.
Photographs and prints from the Library of Congress
Full transcript, with special thanks to Jennifer O'Reilly, of our interview with Michael Pollan:
HP: Jonathan Safran Foer seems sort of hellbent on directing lots of his ire at you, and people like Joel Salatain, saying you don't grapple with meat and Salatan's(?) farm is a joke. Others have said Food Inc wasn't anti-meat enough. How do you respond to those types of accusations and how does it bode for the effort to actually, positively change the food system in America?
MP: Well, look, nobody is anti-meat enough for the animal-rights purists, except for someone who says that eating meat is morally indefensible. So there's certain people that are never going to be satisfied by any message short of 'Don't Eat Meat,' and that's not my message.
In terms of the argument that I don't grapple with meat, I would refer Jonathan and anyone else to Chapter...hold on, I can dig it out... (flips through book)...it's a very long...Chapter 17 of Omnivore's Dilemma, "The Ethics of Eating Animals." And that is where I try to grapple with the best arguments against meat eating, which in my view are Peter Singer's arguments, and defend a very limited kind of meat eating, which is the kind I do, which is to say from sustainable farms where I think the presence of animals contributes to the most ecologically sustainable system that you can have, and I argue in favor of meat eating in this very limited way for environmental reasons, not for any others -- that there are certain circumstances where animals are allowed to live the best possible life on these farms and have a merciful death. And I would count Joel's farm -- people disagree about that -- I don't know if Jonathan has been on Joel's farm -- he relies on Frank Reese, I think, so as a journalist I would go there before I attacked a farmer for his methods. And has Frank been there? I don't know. But there's a lot of farmers who throw stones at one another.
Look, I feel like I've grappled with meat eating quite a bit, it's a really hard issue, and I welcome Jonathan's contribution on that issue. I don't agree with him. I think in principle he accepts the idea that there is a good farm, where animals are better off having lived and died than not having lived at all. So then the issue becomes: what is that farm? And I think even Peter Singer would agree with that. Is the issue that you can't justify meat eating under any circumstance or are we disagreeing on the circumstances under which you can justify it? And that's a question for Jonathan. i think he's saying the circumstances, and that there isn't enough of that kind of meat to justify it. But I basically agree that industrial animal agricultural is horrible from any number of perspectives, environmental, ethical, moral, karmic, but I do think that there is a way to design an animal agriculture that is better off having than not having, and lots of people in the animal rights community would agree. I think one of the changes you've seen in the animals right's community in the last five or ten years is a lot more interest in mitigating the worst abuses of animal agriculture -- even PETA and Peter Singer have worked hard to negotiate a better animal agriculture, which I think is a more realistic goal than abolition.
HP: You've been off feedlot meat for how long now?
MP: Since 2002, that's when I wrote Power Steer and visited feedlots in Kansas.
HP: For some people, it seems not realistic to do that. How would you recommend that somebody middle or lower-income, who wants to eat meat -- how would they do that same sort of thing?
MP: Well, it is more expensive, there's no question about it, with the result where you end up eating less meat. I'm lucky enough to live in a part of the world where I can go to the supermarket and buy grass-fed meat from people doing it right. And some places you can't do that but I think that as more people ask for it, it will become more accessible. It definitely costs more. But that's true for organic food, that's true for sustainably raised food of all different kinds -- it costs more -- and that's an enormous challenge: how do you democratize the values of the food movement? How do you make healthy food more accessible? And that's something the food movement is working very hard to do -- through changes in policy, which ultimately are largely responsible for the fact that well-produced pastured meat costs more than feedlot meat. So you have to address that question. The consumer can only go so far -- we can all buy grass-fed meat and the price will come down and there will be efficiencies in distribution and slaughter, and that sort of thing, but ultimately feedlot meat enjoys large subsidies, in the form of subsidized grain, in the form of not having to clean up their waste -- they are in effect exempt from many environmental laws, and also the fact that they're allowed to use antibiotics on healthy animals. So until you change the three struts of federal support for feedlots, that kind of meat is always going to be more expensive.
HP: You've probably spent a lot of time, and possible money, dealing with lawyers from the food industry, particularly the feedlots and the cattle industry, who call statements of yours into question, and of course the dust-ups at a couple of universities on the west coast, and in regard to your endorsement of Meatless Mondays, what's the last you had to deal with in that arena?
MP: I have not had to spend any money on legal fees, knock on wood. There hasn't been any litigation or threats of litigation. I engage with the industry all the time -- they come to my events and sometimes they try to cancel my events, but that's a healthy debate. We are embarking on a debate in this country about the future of food and farming and I go to agricultural schools and universities that are part of the agro-business complex and talk about these issues. In general, it's been a very civil conversation. I mean, sometimes people try to shut it down, as happened in San Luis Obispo and Harris Ranch protested my presence, but in general, even when there have been protests, it's been in a civil spirit and I trust it will continue that way. I'm going to Michigan State University on Monday and there are people there who are upset about my message, but there's kind of an organized counter-attack going on -- the farm bureau has encouraged its members to go on attack against food reformers -- Michelle Obama has been attacked for planting an organic garden by the industry. So there's a lot of sensitivity and defensiveness on the part of agribusiness right now.
HP: Does the growing trendiness and influence of nose-to-tail eating give you any hope that we're evolving in a positive direction in terms of how we cook , interact and use our food or is it an isolated occurrence.
MP: I don't know how significant that is. That's something happening in the foodie world; I don't know that it's happening in the larger world. To the extent that nose-to-tail represents a reckoning that taking an animal's life is a big deal and therefore you should be as respectful of the animal and use as much of it as possible, I guess there's an ethics in that, but I don't think it's affecting the larger debate. There is an interesting kind of fetishism of meat going on in the culture right now. People take lessons in butchery, we read about rock star butchers, and that's a peculiar development, but I don't think its central to the main issues of the food movement. I think it's generally a healthy thing when people are reminded that meat comes from an animal. For too long we've had these shrink-wrapped packages of boneless meat in the market where it becomes very easy to forget that it this is a leg of a mammal or this is the ribs of a mammal and that to the extent that we're paying attention to butchery and meat, we're grappling with what's at stake and that's probably a healthy thing.
HP: What chefs cooking right now do you admire most?
MP: Well, there's so many today that are really paying attention to the provenance of their food, that are supporting good farmers and sharing their glamour with those farmers. There are people in every city now, who are using their restaurants to educate people and figure out interesting ways to support farmers and cook seasonally so I don't know if I want to single out anyone by name.
HP: The explosion of food trucks to some is a positive step in fast food eating, redefining what it means to eat spontaneously and fast, and proprietors like that of Kogi BBQ, who was just named a Food & Wine Best New Chef, they see it that way too. Do you?
MP: Where is Koji barbecue?
HP: It's four food trucks in LA.
MP: In LA. And what do they have?
HP: Korean influenced barbecue. it's kind of an homage to mexican street food as well, with tacos and things like that.
MP: I think street food is one of the good ways to democratize the values of slow food and figure out ways to make it inexpensive and accessible, and it all depends on what they're serving -- I mean, are they paying attention to where the meat comes from. You can do it right and you can do it wrong. I think it has enormous potential and to take this kind of food that is too often too expensive and make it available to more people.
HP: What they call 'grilling season' is upon us, which encourages many people who wouldn't otherwise cook for themselves to do so. Do you think the positive aspects of increased home cooking like grilling are potentially outweighed by the negative consequences of treating such an activity, as you've said before, as a form of sport or play, where you dress up iin your Williams Sonoma garb..
MP: No -- I think any kind of home cooking is great, and if people enjoy doing it more dressed up in their Williams Sonoma garb, I don't have a problem with that, and I think grilling has traditionally been the way that men find their way into the kitchen, or (laughs) somewhere close to the kitchen. You know, I like cooking over a fire a lot, I think there's something powerful about cooking over a fire, and do it whenever I can. So, I think its a great thing. I think it's a big challenge to get men back into the kitchen. There is some evidence that with this generation of young people its happening to a greater extent -- the percentage of men who are cooking is up, and if we're going to rehabilitate cooking and recreate a culture of cooking in this country it's going to have to be shared, not just by husbands and wives, but by children as well. One of the problems with cooking was that we isolated it -- it was just women's work -- so that when the feminist revolution came, it was rejected, I think that there's some evidence that even feminists are having second thoughts about that -- was that a good trade-off getting out of the kitchen or did it come with high costs? But the answer is not for women go back into the kitchen alone. If you go back before the industrial revolution, men and women were both involved in food preparation -- there was a division of labor, but they were both very much involved. It was only with the rise of factories when men went off to work and women stayed home and cooked. So we need to turn back the clock to an era where both men and women were crucially involved in putting food on the table.
HP: Can you tell us what your last three meals were?
MP: Breakfast was a bowl of grape-nuts with banana and currants. Last night, I actually ate at the Chez Panisse cafe with my son and had Wolfe Ranch quail, and yesterday, at lunch, I just had a lettuce and cheese sandwich, at home. So that's three meals -- I haven't had lunch yet.
HP: When Oprah ended your recent appearance on that show, she said something to the effect of 'you have her opinions, [she] has hers, everyone else has theirs' Do you think she was stepping back a little too far from it, missing the opportunity to be a little stronger there, or is that overthinking it?
MP: I think it is. I mean, I think - I mean look, she had a very bad run-in with the cattle industry, and she doesn't want to spend any more time in court, so it was much to her credit and it took a certain courage for her to air the issues and show clips from Food Inc., especially, and to have me on, and the fact that she was willing to re-engage on these issues of factory farming was all to her credit. I don't fault her for being a little bit careful in voicing her own point of view. By allowing me and Steve Ells, the guy from Chipotle, and showing extensive clips from Food, Inc., she waded back into food politics in a very powerful way I think.
HP: You've talked about how bad food and health journalism has led to lots of unintended consequences that we're still grappling with, like the lasting effects of the low-fat campaign, that we're still enduring -- do you see any of that happening right now, anything that journalists are getting wrong that may be impeding our progress? Is salt on that list.
MP: I think salt is really a public health problem right now. There's far too much salt in the diet and people sounding the alarm about it and pressuring food companies to reformulate with less salt -- that's probably all for the good. I'm trying to think of other health messages. I think right now, the biggest problems are the marketing messages from the food companies. I think the FTC and the FDA were sort of asleep at the switch for the last eight years, because the outrageousness of some of the health claims that the companies have been making has just ratcheted up. I just saw an ad on TV for a cereal that promises to improve your kids focus in school and they show kids answering questions and the ones who ate the cereal could answer more questions. Let me just see... I wrote down the company that it was, just one second... Kellogg's Mini-Frosted Wheat: "Help keep your kid focused." And the kids are shown answering hard geography questions. Now, that is deceptive marketing and that is very confusing to people. I mean, is this a sugary cereal or is this an educational program? And during swine flu, with all the cereal companies bannering that they were gonna boost your kids immunity? I mean the idea that cereal was somehow going to prevent swine flu at the height of that epidemic, that's really irresponsible. There's some signs that the Obama FDA is cracking down on these claims, which is good news, but in terms of... you still have journalism that is I think exaggerating the benefits of various nutrients. Resveratrol -- there's a lot of stuff about that. And you still have a certain amount of hyping of lycopene and all these phytochemicals, which I don't think is very helpful to people, but I don't see particular places in journalism where -- I'm sure that there are tons of blogs out there pushing this nutrient or that nutrient. But we're in this kind of... it's not a consensus moment. The consensus against fat is sort of falling apart. Well -- I'll give you one example. Sugar is being... there's a lot of anti-sugar stuff out there. Sugar is definitely a problem, but the fixation on high-fructose corn syrup. The idea that there is one nutrient that you have to worry about is always a problem, I think.
HP: So, anti-high-fructose corn syrup hysteria is maybe too much?
MP: I think it's very important to keep the focus on the whole foods and not go down the path, "the one problem in the American diet is high-fructose corn syrup," or, "the one problem in the American diet is fat." We need to look at those individual problems, but I think that we should be talking more about food and less about nutrients.