The Pollan Report

Interview by Jeffrey Steen |
Culinary Personalities

As you travel around the country on book tours and speaking engagements, do you find that your advice on eating responsibly—particularly recognizing our relationship as human beings to the natural world—is being taken?
Every time I go speak anywhere, I meet people who are taking it to heart. People are always coming up to me and saying that my books have changed their lives. It usually means that they have changed their whole approach to food—they’ve planted a garden, they’ve started cooking for themselves, any number of things. It’s been one of the most satisfying things about doing this work.

What other means are you using to spread the word about nutrition and eating?
I do a certain amount of engaging with chefs, and they, in turn, are very interested in issues of sustainability (health a little less so). I gently lobby them on some of these issues, working with them on their sourcing. But there are a lot of chefs doing this already—butchering their own animals, or drilling down to the core questions of where their food comes from and not relying on distributors to solve all their problems. They’re doing a lot of things themselves.

I also do a lot of political work, talking to people in Washington about nutrition and the more environmental considerations of agriculture. There’s a whole lot of jawboning going on, but that’s because we’re in the middle of a movement. There’s this moment now when we who are involved in this movement need to take advantage of the public attention and drive it as much change as we can.

What are you doing in your own life to manifest this responsibility?
I try to be careful about the choices I make, but I don’t get it right every time. I’m very careful about things like meat-eating—I don’t eat meat at places that don’t source meat well if I can help it. At the same time, I’ve met people who obsess about it more than I do. We just need to shrink the role of meat in our diet—eating less of it when we do eat it.

Through all of this education and owning of new responsibility, it’s very important not to think about getting these choices right as an all-or-nothing proposition. Moving in the right direction is important, too. People think if it’s all or nothing, it’s unreasonable, and they’re not going to do anything. But if we do just one thing every day, that’s big.

You’ve also made a point that food is more than just nutrition—that it’s cultural.
And that’s just as important as the nutritional or environmental element. The meal, in the end, is the important thing. It’s the social occasion of our society, and an important institution of democracy.

As far as journalism is concerned, what has been the biggest ethical struggle for you since you started writing your first book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”?
Well, you know, I’m not a beat reporter, so I don’t really have to worry if Monsanto gets pissed off and doesn’t talk to me anymore. Sometimes you have to burn bridges to do good journalism, and I don’t mind that. But I’ve also burned bridges and rebuilt them. I had a terrible relationship with Whole Foods after “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” came out, but now we have a productive relationship. In the end, you can’t worry too much about what the industry or government thinks about you—your first obligation is to your reader.

Does your advocacy involve more conversation or argument?
Sometimes there’s a conversation—a negotiation—but usually, groups and businesses either decide they’re fine with what’s being written about them, or they don’t want to let you in at all. Other people honestly want to convince their critics, and let you in to talk about what you’re doing. Other people act like they have something to hide. It just depends—it’s always dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

What are some restaurants and who are some chefs we should look to as leaders in this movement of responsible eating and sourcing?
Well, besides Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif., I think Dan Barber in New York is an outstanding figure, as well as Peter Hoffman, who had a restaurant in New York called Savoy. He was really the first farmers’ market chef in the ‘80s—he built his menus out of what he found locally. Going around the country, I think Greg Higgins in Portland has done good work, especially with meat. Andrea Reusing at The Lantern in North Carolina is a standout. Scott Peacock who once helmed Watershed Restaurant in Atlanta does great work in a Southern idiom. Mario Batali in New York is doing great work, too, and is very careful about where he sources his meat and fish.

What’s the next big challenge in this movement?
Oh gosh, there’s so much more to do. There are a couple big things, though. Fixing the school lunch is really important. It’s under-funded, for one. Then there’s the fact the industry just won the right to put french fires on our kids’ plates, despite the National Institute of Medicine saying that was a really bad idea. Next, there’s going to be a fight over “competitive foods”—the food in soda and snack machines outside of school cafeterias. That’s going to be a pitched battle between the USDA and the food industry.

In the culture at large, we need to get people to take cooking seriously. It’s really the single most important step to improving the health of families and eating right. That’s an uphill battle. Truth be told, home cooking is in trouble—the meal is in trouble. There was an amazing article in USA Today recently that said younger generations are giving up on the meal. They’re eating whatever they want, whenever they want. When the meal is in trouble, then society is in trouble, because it’s a foundation of our culture.