Pollan is unlikely poster boy for our food problems and possibilities

 

How on earth did Michael Pollan, a lanky, bespectacled, geeky guy whose day job is as a professor of journalism, become the Martin Luther King of food?

How has Pollan cracked the best-seller lists – number four in the non-fiction section of the New York Times list with his new book, Cooked – when his books are studious, weighty, deeply serious, and referenced and footnoted to within an inch of their lives?

How has Pollan’s message become the lingua franca of modern food, even though the forces of big food are arrayed against him, and even when his message is often unpopular: many feminists find the message of Cooked – that we all need to be back in the kitchen taking control of our diet – to be a fundamentally anti-feminist stance.

Media snowstorm
Pollan’s success is even more mystifying when you consider that he isn’t a “food” writer.

He isn’t a chef, he has never run a restaurant, and he doesn’t write food stories.

His first books were about gardening and building a shed.

Others have toiled in the groves of food writing and politics for decades – Carlo Petrini on slow food; Wendell Berry on agriculture; Joanna Blythman on the politics of the food system – and they don’t have author tours and personal appearances and a media snowstorm like the one Pollan is wading through right now.

Their books aren’t converted into special children’s editions – get The Omnivore’s Dilemma for your teenager – or see a second life as a beautifully illustrated edition, as happened to his book Food Rules.

I think the overt attention Pollan receives is due to the fact he addresses the unease in our lives, especially in our food lives, and within our agricultural systems and western food culture.

Like the canary in the coal mine, he senses what is wrong and, like Martin Luther King, he addresses the unease, the unfairness, the injustice, with a directly moral point of view.

Fundamentally, he is an old-fashioned guy who likes to grow vegetables, make pickles, bake bread and cook up a good epithet: his classic line, “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants” is for food lovers, what MLK’s “I had a dream” speech was for the NAACP.

Poster boy
And yet this old-fashioned guy, in his unfashionable late 50s, is the poster boy for our food problems, and also for our food possibilities.

Because it’s not just the unease that Pollan discloses. His books are all about a journey – how I learned to grow vegetables; how I built a shed; how I learned how the food system works and, in Cooked, how I learned the joy and liberation of mastering the kitchen when I recognised that “we’re drawn to the rhythms and textures of the work cooks do, which seems so much more direct and satisfying than the more abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs these days”.

Pollan takes us on his journey but, because he does so with such humility, we quickly forget that he is just another boy scout like us.

Cooked, like the classic The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is the tale of a guy hungry for knowledge, who sets out to learn from the masters of the art, and who gains wisdom in the process.

That wisdom is the balm for our unease, and no other writer makes you feel as good as Mr Pollan.



Cooked
is published by Penguin Books: michaelpollan.com


John McKenna is the author of The Irish Food Guide: guides.ie

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