I attended a lecture by Michael Pollan this past Tuesday. What amused me the most was the general reaction of the typical, wholesome San Francisco crowd you would expect at these events. Imagine a teenager squeal “Oh my god, its Michael Pollan!” - I heard different versions of that sentiment among the not-so-young audience. After the lecture, I stood in line to get both Michael Pollan’s books (The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) signed by him. As we were nearing the front of the line, the woman behind me exclaimed yet another “Oh my god, its Michael Pollan!” and added “What am I going to say to him?”. As I stepped forward, my friend, new to Michael Pollan’s work, asked her what was it about Pollan that impressed her. I handed my books to Pollan, and said “You’ve changed the way I look and food and the way I eat”. I think I heard a very similar response from the woman behind me.
After living in the US for 11 years and constantly struggling to maintain an optimal weight with diet and exercise, I left for France to do my MBA in 2005. In the one year I was outside US, I lived a student’s life in France and Singapore, eating mostly in the campus cafeteria or local restaurants, drinking cheap but good wine and barely finding time to work out. A year at INSEAD is often described as drinking out a fire hose – its intense and there is no time to obsess about weight. I didn’t have to, it was maintaining itself.
I was convinced there was something wrong with the way we eat food in America, when after returning to the US a year later, I gained 8lbs in less than 3 weeks. I banned all canned food from my kitchen, joined a gym and picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
In this book, Pollan doesn’t really tell the readers what they should or should not eat. He basically traces every food group to its origin - the way it is grown or raised, processed, packaged and brought to the consumer. It’s a heavy read, but eye opening. You learn all about agriculture and farming and the distribution of food via supermarkets. You learn why majority of the items in the supermarket contain high fructose corn syrup and how the popularity of the term “organic” has led to an industrialized organic food system.
The book was the last push I needed to change my food habits forever. And it wasn’t hard. Three simple rules – buy local, eat fresh, avoid heavily processed and packaged food as much as possible. I am lucky I live in California, that grows a lot vegetables and fruits, and the closest grocery store to me is one that sells locally grown organic produce. Freshly baked goods from local bakeries taste so much better than any packaged cookies or bread; it is well worth the extra dollar. Turning cooking into a hobby rather than a chore, keeps me interested and excited about new recipes and seasonal produce.
I will admit I am not a fanatic about it. I still eat out a lot (its still freshly prepared food), drink European beer and wine and buy imported chocolates. And how do I feel about my heath and weight issues? It’s never been better. All it took is for a journalist to break down barriers and bring transparency to the American food system so that we all actually understand what we eat.