National: A Slow Chat With Michael Pollan

With Slow Food Nation all around, a Civic Center marketplace of local, sustainable foods, and every retailer in the city jumping on the bandwagon, it could be easy to make all kinds of grand lifestyle decisions this weekend—“Who says it’s hard to be a locavore? Look at all this stuff”—but what about in January, long after the fruit stands are packed up, when school or work or whatever it is you do is in full swing, where will your new-found values get you then, in the face of Egg McMuffins and Pop Tarts?

I chatted on the phone with food politics whiz and general cage-rattler Michael Pollan yesterday about how to incorporate some slow-food values into one’s day-to-day life. How does one stay a responsible eater when one is busy as all hell? Can you still go to restaurants without ruining the planet? And what’s this all about, anyway?

“There’s been a lot of effort to complicate [the issues],” Pollan said, but in fact, the global effect of your food is simple. “In general, the closer your food is grown to where you eat it, and the less it is processed, the lighter its carbon footprint.”

“Sometimes the drive to complicate things is done in the interest to frustrate people’s desires to do the right thing,” Pollan told me.

Wait, that sounds awfully nefarious. Who would complicate important issues like this on purpose?

“The food industry is always trying to confuse the issue… If you have a sugary cereal and you slap a health claim on it, what are you doing but confusing the issue?”

Pollan pointed out that the highest-impact foods at the store, from an environmental and health point of view, are the highly processed ones, as well as meat, eggs, and dairy. In his most recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, he advocates shopping around the edge of the grocery store, where you find dairy, meat, produce, and bread, and avoiding the middle, where you find Hot Pockets, Pop Tarts, and Fruit Roll-Ups.

Pollan laid out three simple metrics by which to determine how damaging your food is to the planet, and yourself:

• Find out the animal’s feed. Grass-fed beef makes less of an impact than grain-fed. Most grass-fed or otherwise sustainably produced meats are labeled as such in gigantic letters.

• How processed is your food? The more that happens to it between the field and the table, the more resources it absorbs and the more nutrients are sapped. “In general, processed food like that [Pop Tart] takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy,” Pollan said.

• How far does it travel? The closer to you that your food is produced, the better.

Okay, that’s great and all, and most city-dwellers have access to some Berkeley Bowl equivalent, but dude, who shops for groceries? Many of us eat at restaurants almost all the time. And traveling? Hell, how are you supposed to stay responsible in an airport?

“When I’m on the road I tend to avoid meat unless I’m a place where I know where they get their meat,” Pollan said. “There’s one restaurant in every city these days that’s conceived in the spirit of Slow Foods and Chez Panisse, so I try to find out where that is, and, you know, just keep it simple.” God, he’s unflappable.

“If a restaurant offers grass-fed meat, I’ll order that. I want to support that industry and I really like it,” Pollan said. “I don’t order conventional meat that hasn’t been grown sustainably. I’d be much more likely to order fish, avoiding big, predator fish… those are the ones that are in most danger. Things like tuna and swordfish.”

But Pollan pointed out that there are sustainable fisheries, such as salmon in Alaska. “If it’s wild salmon from Alaska, they’ll usually tell you… More and more, restaurants will tell you where their food comes from and how they source it because it’s a selling point… that’s a very positive development.” You can print out a guide of sustainable seafood from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Neat. So where do you eat out, Michael Pollan?

“I really like restaurants where the chefs are serious about sourcing their food and elevate quality of ingredients over technique. To me, that’s what I really like. And I like pretty simple food. I don’t like fussy food.”

Pollan mentioned Chez Pannisse Café right off the bat, of course. “I love Picante, Oliveto. In the city I like Zuni Cafe, Quince.” He also mentioned Kirala, Cesar, and Saul’s deli, in Berkeley, and the new Camino, Pizzaiolo, in Oakland.

Pollan naturally wouldn’t single out an event this weekend as the most important, but he made an interesting point about the planning: “The architects they recruited for this—people in the restaurant business should pay attention to the design.” So there you go, restaurateurs. Get those business cards.

As for the rest of you, hey, good luck getting in to hear Pollan speak this weekend. Most of his events are sold out. But you can check through the Slow Food Nation schedule just in case, and also keep up with the man via his own website. He speaks publicly all the time. Come next busy January, catching a lecture might help you stay off the Pop Tarts a little longer.

Slow Food Nation [Official Site]
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto [Amazon]
Chez Panisse [Official Site]
Seafood Watch [Monterey Bay Aquarium]
Michael Pollan [Official Site]

[Photo: via “>Ken Light/]


National: A Slow Chat With Michael Pollan