Picking up on the thread from yesterday’s Q&A with Michael Pollan , the author argues that America has had, for decades now, its own twisted eating culture. It’s one we semi-proudly carry on today. Just look around you while driving. Notice anything strange? Like all those road hogs chowing down on a McRib in the car?
The same sort of mindless, pleasure-deprived eating takes places countless times at day at office desks (guilty!) and at restaurants across the land, as we tapdance across our smartphones while shoveling grub by the forkful into our mouths. Is it any wonder Americans have had to learn to respect food?
Pollan picks up the conversation from here.
Michael Pollan: America has been a special case. We’ve been careless eaters for a very long time in this country. I mean, you read 19th century accounts of how Americans ate; even the English were scandalized how quickly we gulped our food. We ate while standing up, on the run. We just refused to sit down for a meal. We thought it was kind of effete to do that. As we still feel that way.
But there are these other cultures that take a very different view of it. So I think we’re building a food culture, where that can happen. That’s part of what Alice Waters has done. That’s part of what Slow Food has done. This whole elevating the importance of food. I think one of the goals of the movement is to show people through storytelling and example that this is worth taking seriously. It’s worth spending money on. It’s worth spending time on. Cooking, for example.
It’s a cultural shift that’s driven by me getting up on stage and talking to as many people as I can and writing books and getting people to look at food through a different lens than the industry would have you look at it, which is essentially fuel that you eat on your own.
Food marketing is definitely highly individualized. When you go down that frozen food aisle — there’s food designed for your kid, there’s food designed for you. There’s the Manhandler, one pound of meat in this dish. Then there’s food designed for the woman watching her weight. They want to break us up, because they’ll sell us more food that way, and we need to push back against that. The idea that everybody eats the same thing at the same table is a very powerful idea — and, by the way, happens to have health implications.
AWCE: Trickle that down. The audience you’ll be speaking to tonight…
MP: I know, I’m going to be talking to affluent people.
AWCE: Right, affluent but also preaching to the choir. People come here because they know you, they’ve probably adopted many of your thoughts and beliefs. These aren’t the ones you need to work on.
MP: Well, yes and no. I mean, very often there’s a division in the household about the choir. [Laughs.] Maybe the woman is in the choir and the husband’s not in the choir, or vice versa. So we need to work on that. That’s always an issue: One spouse is dragging the other usually. There are definitely people to work on.
I try to talk to varied audiences. Invariably I find myself talking to affluent, slender people about obesity. [Laughs] And they’re asking me about the high price of food, which is not a problem for them. It’s wonderful that they care.
But this [evening] is a snapshot for you. I was at Bridgewater State College talking to a really working-class audience last year, and I looked out and I said, “Wow, there are a lot of people struggling with their weight in this room.” And that hardly ever happens.
That argument about the choir, that stings, and I’m always trying to figure out ways to get past it. That’s why I wrote this book. The original “Food Rules” was an attempt to write a book for people who don’t want to read a whole book on food. A book that people can hand their parents or their kids or doctors can hand to their patients, that is really just cut to the chase, entertaining, pretty simple. That was my goal.
I never set out to write a bestseller before, and that book I did set out to write a bestseller. I wanted to do everything I could to sell as many copies of that book as I could, and that reached a lot of people who are not in the choir. And has been given to a lot of people who are not in the choir.
AWCE: Forgive the comparison if it doesn’t work, but the book is a basic, straight-forward approach to how to eat better. It reminds me of MyPlate. It’s trying to make some very complicated ideas about eating simple.
AWCE: I wanted to ask you: What do you think of the new MyPlate and does it have impact?
MP: I don’t know what impact it has. It has a second-order impact in that people designing institutional food pay attention to it, school food pays attention to it, the next generation of health claims will be influenced by it. It doesn’t ramify through the food system. I think it’s a big improvement over what we’ve had before. It’s the first time since 1977 that the government has actually issued “eat less” messages about anything.
They’re a little garbled and mumbled about soda and things like that. They have this weird phrase: We should reduce “soFAS” — solid fats and added sugars.
AWCE: They refuse to use direct language in it.
MP: Yeah, so, there were some pulling of punches. Clearly. There is a recommendation about soda buried in there somewhere, but it’s kind of hard to find. The “eat less” messages are not as prominent as the eat more good foods. And they still stuck with this maximum 35 percent of calories should come from fat, no more than that, which has led to a lot of ingestion of refined carbohydrates. They’re still supporting 50 percent of carbohydrates can be refined, which is a really high number, I think. It may be realistic, but it’s very high. It’s not perfect, but it’s such an improvement.
To me, when I read it, it has scars of compromise with industry, but so many fewer than in the past. It hasn’t been censored by industry, which is essentially what’s happened in the past. I don’t understand why the milk is out there and gets this special status as this holy drink, which it is not. We’ve been completely bamboozled that you can’t be a healthy person if you don’t drink a lot of milk, and you’re a bad parent if you don’t give your kid a glass of milk every day.
AWCE: Is this a milk industry add-on?
MP: The milk industry has convinced us of this. They’ve done a brilliant job...But I think one of the reasons [MyPlate] was better: Control over these guidelines was brought into the White House, as I understand it, and that hasn’t happened before. That’s why it speaks more clearly than it has in the past.
So, could it go further? Yes. I’m a little baffled by the fact that they talk about foods on the plate with one exception: That’s protein. There’s kind of an unwillingness to talk about meat in a direct way, because there are other things on the plate that already have protein, like grains. It’s weird; they changed the vocabulary for one category of food. I thought that was curious. I’d been assured by people that was not a product of industry pressure.
AWCE: So did you ever think that you would be the voice of a food movement?
MP: No, absolutely not. No. No.
AWCE: Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and go, ‘How did I get here?”
MP: Every time I stand on stage like this, I do. It’s like, “Why are all these people here?” They could be listening to music. And they’re listening to me talk about food. You know, it’s been a wonderful thing.
To me…as a journalist at a moment when journalism is really struggling, it’s an amazing sign that the word still has great power, can have great power, that you can change the public conversation or affect it in some ways and get people to pay attention.
AWCE: It also strikes me that maybe people don’t want pure journalism. They want advocacy journalism.
MP: That’s a whole other issue. We can have a conversation about that. I think there is a sense in which people want to be told what to do, not just the facts, but I have written both kinds. And I’ve gone back and forth. And that’s another lesson: I think you can go back and forth between doing straight, fair, reportage and doing something that’s advocating for a certain outcome.