826, food politics, and i have an intellectual crush on Michael Pollan.

after letting the ideas from the 826 food politics discussion marinate in my brain, i’ve decided to serve up some thoughts in bite-size morsels rather than one huge and  indigestible essay. sorry, the whole evening ended with a nod to bad food puns, i can’t help myself.  i’m doling out ladlefuls from the jumbled soup pot of topics and carving off idea slices from the humongous turducken of food politics thought in my brain (that’s a gross mental picture. i’ll stop now).

here’s some details about the evening and the panelists, thoughts about food culture and ecology and production systems, and a whole lot of michael pollan…

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I’ve got a whole lot to say about the amazing food politics discussion at 826 Valencia, so be prepared. It’s been a long time since I wrote an essay, so my apologies for the meandering nature of this post. Although Irene and I mostly started this blog to share our food adventures with macaroni and cheese cat cakes and salmon cupcakes, we’re both also very interested in larger issues of food and how food affects people’s lives in so many ways besides whether it’s cooked in bacon fat. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about food on a large scale in considering issues of food production – sustainable vs. industrial, its relationship to the environment and natural world, its effect on health and our bodies and more. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about food on a very personal level – the role that food plays in my life as a consumer, a food lover, a person attempting to make conscious food choices, and as a human whose health is affected daily by what I choose to put in my body.

Wednesday’s discussion touched upon all these issues and more, and I feel very blessed to have been able to hear the opinions of the three incredible panelists: Harold McGee, Bonnie Azab Powell, and my serious food writer crush, Michael Pollan. The discussion was moderated by the dryly hilarious and also very thoughtful Chris Ying (he’s an editor for McSweeney’s, which explains why I was laughing so much all night). Harold is best known for his influential book called On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, which is probably why he reminds me of someone’s super smart dad who likes to putter around the kitchen and listen to classical records alone in his study all day. Bonnie is a food writer and editor who manages to juggle an impressive array of sustainable food-related activities like writing about food politics and managing a meat CSA. I’m really excited to explore her group blog, Ethicurean.com, which addresses a lot of issues I’m into, and the magazine Edible San Francisco.

Last but certainly not least, Michael Pollan. Irene and I may or may not have mentioned him once or twice because, now that I think about it, I consider him the most influential author in my life. His most popular book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has actually affected the choices I make regarding my consumption of food on a daily basis, an ever-present topic that all humans must consider (at least those who are old enough or able enough to feed themselves). MP (his nickname in my notes, cause we’re tight like that… I wish) discussed, among many other topics, how information he learned while writing Omnivore (for example, the horrific details on the cruelty, dangers, and environmental harm of industrial meat production) deeply affected how he ate and helped shaped certain decisions he makes about purchasing and preparing food. He spoke about the idea that, once you’re made aware of certain truths, you often can’t continue to act in the same ways as before. He rejected the statement, made by someone at the Knight School of Journalism at Berkeley where he teaches, that you shouldn’t be in journalism if you want to change the world. On the contrary, journalism is all about researching fact, synthesizing ideas, conveying information and getting people who read your work to think about an issue. If you manage to reach one person and give them a deeper understanding of a certain topic and a broader range of facts upon which to base their decision making, they may change one behavior as a result. If your book sells a million copies and more people make better decisions informed by what they read, what else is ‘changing the world?’

I would say Omnivore had this exact effect on me by making more aware of the systems I support by buying, for example, grass-fed pasture raised beef instead of processed hormone-injected meat product. Apparently, an article of MP’s (in the NYTimes I think) had the exact same effect on Bonnie. I was fascinated to hear that this woman who manages a Bay Area meat CSA and writes articles on Midwest vs. California pork used to be a vegetarian. But not only a vegetarian…a PETA member!! (which explains her reference to food being a safe topic in her household, considering her father is an ex-Marine Republican. Whew! I can just imagine the dinner table arguments there). As she said, Omnivore was her tipping point and it’s actually Michael’s fault that she now thinks about food as a citizen and not just an eater.

I enjoyed hearing all of the panelists discuss their food writing influences, including each other, and MP actually talked a fair amount about one of my other favorite books, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. He referred to the book as the starting point of tipping the public consciousness towards the current drive to make food production more sustainable. It’s a major example, as MP said, of a book that made people act differently by bringing a deeper awareness of industrial food systems and the many ways they are harmful to society. This happened for me when I read the book in college, then heard Eric Schlosser speak. Without even making a definitive conscious decision about it, I stopped eating fast food and haven’t touched it since then. No more Chicken McNuggets and no more Big Macs, (although I did stuff an entire mickey d’s cheeseburger in my mouth on tape for a game at work once. That shit took up so much room in my very small mouth, I couldn’t have swallowed it even if I wanted to.It’s amazing how it tasted exactly the same as the last hamburger I had like ten years ago. How do they do that? Oh right, there’s no variation because it’s not really food, just assembled chemically food product). Anyway.

I absolutely recommend reading both Fast Food Nation and Omnivore’s Dilemma if you’re interested in learning more about the industrial food system, which MP discussed a fair amount during the talk. To paraphrase his words, the goal of food policy in the U.S. over the past century has been to make food as cheap and accessible as possible. Our current reliance on processed ingredients and industrially produced food has been supported and encouraged as policy in order to produce cheap calories. And it’s been immensely successful – food is as cheap here as anywhere else in the world and that, in and of itself, is a good thing. However, this industrially processed food isn’t necessarily healthy to consume, nor is it sustainable for the environment. And that’s where things get complicated. It’s easy to look at numbers and cut costs in food production any way you can. It’s much harder to look at what you’re producing and how to make it healthy and sustainable and ethical. As MP said, quality is a much messier issue than quantity.

However, people are starting to think about these issues, and many of them have been made aware by Fast Food Nation and Omnivore’s Dilemma. In Michael’s opinion, food culture also changed when things started to go wrong with the food system that used to be largely invisible and behind the scenes. Mad cow disease. E.coli scares. The Jack-In-Th-Box food poisoning. In addition, eating and making decisions about food on a daily basis became a way for people to ‘vote with their fork’ and support certain methods of food production and avoid others, whether that was eating vegetarian, purchasing only organic chickens or maybe just buying a few more vegetables instead of TV dinners. As MP said, in a world full of hugely daunting problems like climate change and the current economic crisis, it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of these seemingly intractable problems. But you can make little choices every day, maybe to spend 15 cents more on organic apples, or reading a label to buy a loaf of bread without added corn syrup. It’s these choices that I’m trying to examine as a conscious foodie (I’m starting to hate that term already) or just a person who cares about food and its journey towards my mouth. Educating myself on these issues is a huge part of the process, as is doing more cooking (that’ll be another individually wrapped portion of the food politics discussion) and doing more writing (the final piece of pie in the dish).

Thanks for reading, if anyone managed to make it this far. I’m getting sick of the repetitive sound of my own voice inside my head too.  To finish things up, here are some handy links to the books I mentioned and others I think everyone should read:

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating, by Mark Bittman

Here are some books and authors suggested by the panelists that I plan to read:

Food Politics, by Marion Nestle

Wendell Berry

M.F.K. Fisher

Francis Moore Lappe

Thanks to 826 Valencia, all the amazing panelists, Chris the moderator, Leif and Anthony the chefs, and everyone else who made this awesome night happen. MP, any time you want to grab a Big Mac, by which I mean scrape some sea salt off boulders and shoot a wild pig, give me a call.

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2 thoughts on “826, food politics, and i have an intellectual crush on Michael Pollan.

  1. Hannah says:

    Great blog and hope to have time soon to come back and read some more! xx

  2. Flinner says:

    Mei-dog! I’ve been reading your blog a bit and loving it. I am a huge Michael Pollan fan – try watching interviews with him and see how long he can go without saying “Boon”. Another book that I think you should check out is The Tao of Health Sex and Longevity by Daniel Reid, written in the 80’s but very prescient… (also his other books are legend but that’s his Omnivore’s Dilemma). It had a major impact on my eating habits (it’s OK to skip straight to the sex chapter but then you need to get on to eating!). Love you dude and hope to see you soon in Ghana! ps give yourself some extra days there to hang out with Flinner and Rootster and, you know, make the flight worthwhile xxx

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