Talking Burgers, Fries and Organic Greens

By Erin Hallissy
Photography by Ben Ailes and Gabrielle Diaz ’11

Award-winning author Michael Pollan shares a meal — and his thoughts on food — with SMC students

Michael Pollan talks with SMC students.

On Oct. 22, 2008, 10 students shared lunch with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and a journalism professor at UC Berkeley. The event was part of the new first-year experience program for 2008–09 with the theme “Feast or Famine.” Associate dean of liberal arts Shawny Anderson joined seniors Johanna Timmer, Whitney Medved and Victoria Solarewicz; juniors Theresa Hayes, Obi Uwakah and Alex Branch; and freshmen Jesse Moreno, Ana Ahnen, Porsia Tunzi and Trey Anderson in the discussion. Following is an edited transcript.

Uwakah: Did you expect your book (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) to do so well?

Pollan: No. This one doesn’t have a lot of the things you would expect in a bestseller: a really simple argument or one narrative line that you follow the whole way. It’s long and it’s complicated and I’m talking about carbon isotopes on page four, which is a little bit of a dangerous thing to do. The book after that, In Defense of Food, I knew it was going to be really successful. (People were saying) you tell me what’s wrong with the food system, you’ve scared the hell out of me, what should I eat?

Timmer: Did you have a personal interest in the topic?

Pollan: I’m not a food writer, and I didn’t always write about food. I see my topic as the places where the natural world and the human world intersect and get really messy. I was fascinated by that whole American tradition of nature writing — Henry David Thoreau, Emerson, Melville. It was a very religious idea for them, and they really thought the landscape was how God was speaking to us and it was God’s second book. And then I started gardening, and I suddenly found that all that love of nature and that religious sense of the landscape runs into a problem when woodchucks start attacking your crops, and raccoons harvest your corn before you do. I got very interested in how do we have a relationship with nature that goes beyond admiring it, worshipping it and actually using it in a way that doesn’t destroy it?

Shawny Anderson: I’ve noticed what you’ve been writing in people’s books as you sign them. Can you talk about that?

Pollan: Yeah, it’s “vote with your fork.” You get to vote three times a day, what you’re going to take in your body, what you’re not going to take in your body. In a way, it’s your most primal vote. You watch little babies and you start feeding them and you bring that fork up to their mouth, and they go (shakes head no), and that’s the first time you assert your identity, your power, and your parents cannot make you eat it.

Timmer: How are you working on making sure that this revolution that you’ve started isn’t just going to be a fad?

Pollan: It really could be a fad. People could try eating this way and decide they don’t like it. The fortunate thing about eating this way — if you can afford it and that really is big — is that there is real pleasure in eating this way. It’s the pleasure of the quality of the food when it’s grown with care and conviction by the farmers or ranchers.

Shawny Anderson: What kind of food issues are coming up for (students) in college?

Pollan: It’s the first time your parents aren’t in charge of your eating.

Trey Anderson (a freshman basketball player): My mom and my dad, they both worked real late. It’s better here, because at home I was always eating on my own, like fast food or a turkey sandwich here and there, but here I have a scheduled time when I eat every day.

Pollan: And you’re playing basketball of course, so eating a lot of food, it doesn’t really matter. If you weren’t, it might be a problem. You’ve all heard of the “freshman fifteen,” right? One of the facts I came across was that sugar’s really bad for us, but the people who work on the cane fields in Cuba and Brazil, they apparently eat 6,000 calories a day, most of it is pure sugar. They’re as skinny as you are because they’re burning it off.

Pollan: How’s the food different here than at home?

Ahnen: It’s got a lot more grease than I’m used to. My grandma always made our meals. And it was always a very balanced meal. There was always meat, always salad, always rice. Rice and beans were our staple foods at every meal. It was hard for me to adjust (at SMC) to having to resort to a hamburger.

Pollan: So are there always hamburgers on offer in the dining hall?

Trey Anderson: Yeah, I literally eat three hamburgers a day.

Uwakah: Dinner is the worst meal.

Pollan: Really?

Uwakah: Yes, lunch is not, probably because commuter students have to come here to eat, and staff sometimes goes in. So lunch is usually the best. Late night’s usually whatever lunch had left over designed to look differently. I don’t care for burgers here, but I eat the fries continuously.

Solarewicz: In all fairness, though, there is a fruit bar

and a salad bar that’s always there.

Tunzi: And sandwiches.

Ahnen: And cereal.

Medved: I don’t go in there that much, but it seems like they’re trying to step it up. Especially, like you said, at lunch.

Tunzi: I really like some of the wraps that they’ve been making. The chicken can be a little sketchy, but they still put in lettuce and cut-up carrots and stuff. I feel pretty good eating that.

Pollan: It’s a challenge at school because they operate on a really tight budget. On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure from college students on their food services. And, a lot of food service companies are responding to it. They’re starting to offer more alternatives, like this Sodexo with this organic meal, and this is pretty good food.

Timmer: So you mentioned earlier, “If you can afford it.” Some are not lucky enough to be able to eat the way you suggest. Is there a solution to that?

Pollan: A lot of people will tell you they can’t afford to spend more on food, but sometimes it’s a matter of priority. They’d rather have the money to spend on entertainment, consumer electronics, a new computer, cable TV. In the last 10 to 20 years, the amount of money we spend on food has gone down to under 10 percent of disposable income. If you go to Europe, which has just as high a standard of living or higher, it’s 15 to 17 percent. If you go to the developing world, if you go to Asia, it’s 40 to 60 percent. And I think we need to address the policy level. We have a set of agriculture policies in this country that subsidize high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil — the building blocks of junk food. We don’t do anything for people growing fresh fruits and vegetables, or people growing organic.

Medved: Have you seen the recent commercial by the Corn Refiners Association about corn syrup consumption in moderation being fine?

Pollan: Some people say it’s directed to me. But, since the book came out, those are the people I hear from the most. They’re really defensive, and their point is that it’s no worse than sugar. And they may be right. The point is it’s so ubiquitous and it’s so cheap, and so it ends up in products that never were sweetened before, like bread.

Hayes: We had a meeting with a woman from the Health and Wellness Center. They would like to take the late-night option away.

Pollan: What is the late-night option?

Hayes: It’s from 9 to 11 p.m. We have options like French rolls with sauce and cheese like a pizza; there’s French fries and burgers and lots of fried food. But the salad bar is still open, and the fruit bar.

Solarewicz: Anything greasy, fatty, you can think of, it’s there. The main thing for the (Health and Wellness Center) coordinator is that it’s bad for us to eat past a certain time, so there’s that issue, and on top of that we’re not filling ourselves with healthy options.

Uwakah: Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s not be too drastic here! I tried to let you guys talk, but I would die! That can’t happen! Students don’t sleep before 2 (a.m.).

Solarewicz: Which was our argument. Maybe bring in healthier options, but still, people are defiant, because they want their French fries, right?

Uwakah: I would rather they just give me all my options and not force me to eat what they want. And I need to eat at that time, that’s not an option for me.

Hayes: And student-athletes, we can’t eat before practice, so when you’re done, you go to late night, and that’s when I would prefer the healthy options.

Pollan: I think it’s a real mistake telling people what to eat, but I think you have to have really attractive healthy choices all the time. You want to seduce people off the French fries and hamburgers with something better. You have to lead with pleasure, not with punishment, to get people to change their diet. Have you ever heard of the Slow Food organization?

Medved: I went to (the Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco in August). It was awesome. So much of this whole movement, and the “eat whole, eat organic” — it becomes buzzword, and it’s trendy, and and we love a good ride on the bandwagon

in this country. But going to Slow Food Nation was cool. It felt like there were people who were actually serious about it; it felt like it was actually going somewhere. How do you make it not bandwagony?

Pollan: Part of it is exposing people to really good tastes that they perhaps haven’t had. Junk food is designed to push our buttons. We respond to salt, fat and sweet. I think your taste buds get educated like everything else about you. The Slow Food idea is that if you educate people’s palates the way you educate the rest of them, over time you’ll ruin their taste for fast food. It’ll just seem too simple, too basic, not interesting.

Hayes: What stops you from being a vegetarian?

Pollan: It’s a great pleasure of life, and I realize that even if you’re a vegetarian, there are still a lot of animals dying in agriculture. Half of those dairy cows born are not dairy cows, they’re males, and they get turned into meat. And also, discovering there are alternative kinds of farms where animals actually had really good lives and they only had one bad day. A lot of these domesticated species would not be alive if we didn’t eat them. Chickens do not make it in the wild. Cattle are probably extinct without humans. If you really want to have a sustainable agriculture, you need a system where the plants feed the animals and the animals in their waste feed the plants. If you’re going to keep animals on farms, you’re going to eat them, so that’s one of the reasons I eat meat, and in a limited way.