Cooked: An Evening with Michael Pollan

by Christine Varnavas, M.S., RYT (owner of Anandaworks yoga, Yoga for Everyone and more)

“Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die,” are the song lyrics from The Dave Mathews Tripping Billie hit, that food justice advocate Michael Pollan opened up with. How fun was this going to be? One of my food heroes and humor to boot all wrapped up into one. So who is Michael Pollan? Author, champion, researcher, foodie, and advocate for eating healthy and why we should do it. Mr. Pollan spoke for an hour on Thursday, May 3, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, on how crucial it is to understand the connection between where the human world and the natural world intersect in reference to our food. His mantra, by understanding the human-food experience, is, “This is how we build health, wealth, and social change.” He speaks to my foodie heart.

Pollan is a leader in the food movement and has written numerous books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; Food Rules; and has just finished his seventh book Cooked. Cooked is a work about “the ethics of eating, how we align eating with our values, morals, and ethics.” In writing Cooked, he spoke of embarking on a journey with his wife and son into his own kitchen where he discovered the power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and that it is here, in the kitchen, that we demonstrate our “ethics of eating.” It is the cook who holds a special place in our lives not only because he/she provides us with sustenance, but that the act of cooking represents much more than simply putting food on the table. It represents family, memories from childhood, nurturing, and lays the foundation for the most important institution we have—the meal. Cooking connects us.

The night was full of anecdotes and details as to how his literary food journey came about. It was in 2000 that Pollan first stumbled into the world of genetically modified foods (GMOs), industrialized farms, and the wide use of pesticides in the farming industry. He shared a story about visiting an industrialized potato farm in Idaho where he saw the sheer mass of pesticides that were used. The farmers themselves couldn’t eat their field potatoes out of the ground because they were so contaminated with systemic pesticides, nor could they go into the field to do maintenance or fix a broken sprayer, due to the toxicity of the chemicals. The potatoes also had to be stored for six months after harvesting to off-gas the toxins. This was the only way the purchaser, McDonald’s, would buy them. These same farmers also grew small gardens of organic potatoes by their houses for their personal consumption. Yikes! Behold, the French fries.

He told of another farm on Route 5 in California, the Harris ranch, a huge feedlot next to the highway (most are hidden). He said he could smell the stench for 2 miles before he got there. The visual he described is only something I’ve seen in movies or read about. He described miles of manure-encrusted land with thousands of animals and a giant mountain of corn and a giant mountain of manure, each mountain a supplier for the other. “Ah, the Big Mac!”, he said with a grin.

When Pollan spoke of the processed food industry, he spoke with such passion that the majority of the 1,500 foodies present nodded, smiled, and grimaced. Processed foods became more popular in the 1960s as more women went to work, which created a deficit at home as they couldn’t be expected to do everything.  Pollan doesn’t hold the movement accountable. He points the finger at the food industry as “aligning itself with the women’s movement through marketing.” Entire meals, “home meal replacements” as the food industry terms them, appeared in all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. The outsourcing of cooking, traditionally considered women’s work, made it easier for women to “invest in other pursuits.” There were benefits to this undoubtedly. However, when you couple the increase in outsourcing our meals and fast food with the decrease in home cooking, which undermined our “primary eating” as a family, a problem arises. The problem manifests in the decrease of the health of our bodies, families, communities, and land. We spend more time now on “secondary eating” (eating while doing something else), an average of 78 minutes per day. We spend more time watching food being prepared on TV than we actually do cooking and eating it.

Given our country’s current history of providing cheap food (farm subsidizing of corn and soy) and the outsourcing of food, it is time we look at the basic institution of cooking the meal as more than women’s work. We should address it with the care and nurturing that our grandmothers did. I bet it is safe to say that most of us have fond memories from our childhood of spending time in the kitchen with an adult who magically transformed miscellaneous food items into a dish that fed our senses. I most certainly do. Cooking just might be one of the fixes to some of our health and environmental needs in this country. If we could spend just 78 minutes a day planning, creating, making a mess, and eating together, we may just be on to something here. So here’s to all the cooks out there…bon appetit and keep up the good work.

Christine Varnavas is a local foodie, cook, yoga teacher, and traveler. She also is the creator of the Chippewa Valley WellFEST, an interactive wellness event coming to the Valley March 8, 2014. A Second Opinion will be playing a major role in WellFEST … mark your calendars!

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