Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Michael Pollan in Harvard Square

Of all the email newsletters to sign up for, maybe the least regrettable one in the Boston area is that of Harvard Book Store. The speaker series they host has so far included such high profile speakers as Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and just last week, Michael Pollan. You can watch the entire video of Pollan's talk here, or read my summary for The Examiner here.

I was pretty excited to get the chance to see him speak again, since the last time I saw him, it was at a much larger venue, but this time around the crowd was to be small enough that he would be answering questions from the audience, and later signing books.

This talk was promoting his latest book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, which was published last year, but has finally come out in paperback. Cooked is my personal favorite of Pollan's books, because in addition to saying the things that, for better or for worse, people expect Michael Pollan to say, it's a good story that showcases his unique writing style. Part memoir, part travel writing, and part anthropological history, Cooked would be a good read even you aren't a tree hugger or a foodie.

The political message is there, though. And the political message is that we should all make time to cook. For our physical health, and the health of the social bonds that come from sitting down with other people for a meal. At the time I first read this, I was fully on board, taking the gentle chiding to heart, trying to find ways of taking pleasure in cooking, and of spending less time focused on things like work, and Facebook, and Netflix.

As my friends and I were waiting for the talk to start, though, we purchased books for Mike (may I call you Mike?) to sign after the talk. I already had Cooked, so I picked up a copy of Food Rules: An Eater's Manual. As we went back to our seats and started flipping through our new paperbacks, I couldn't help noticing a subtext in many, if not most, of the rules in the book, which was "step 1: be rich." And not the kind of rich that comes from working 80 hours a week, either. The kind of rich that leaves you plenty of leisure time to plan, shop, and cook. You know, such as being a successful writer living in a hub of accessible healthy food like Berkeley, California.

Some rules, like #4 "Avoid food products that contain high fructose corn syrup," and  #36 "Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk," are easy enough for anyone conscientious to follow, but problems come along with #28 "If you have the space, buy a freezer," and #16 "Buy your snacks at the farmer's market."

We all know that inexpensive food isn't actually inexpensive if you take into account the diabetes medicine we'll be paying for in the long run, but factoids like that don't really help when you're at the checkout of Whole Foods- if you're even lucky enough to have convenient access to such a place.

Mike (yes, I'm going to call you Mike) did a good job of addressing this issue with honesty, answering audience questions along these lines with an "I'm just a writer. I can't fix everything; I can just get you talking about it," stance.

So here I am, talking about it. With Corn Free July 2014 just 41 days in the future, questions of access, time, and budget have been on my mind a lot. What can we do to make healthy, sustainably farmed food the norm instead of a specialty item? Is this goal attainable, and if so, will it bring a whole new set of problems with it that we can't yet foresee? Let me know in the comments section, and in the meantime, enjoy some photos from the event.

I wish I had thought of something to say to him that didn't make me sound like Kathy Bates in Misery.

My friend Jenna hanging out with our new buddy, Mike.

Crossing his name out and adding the signature instead was an interesting touch.

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