Wendell Berry wrote that "eating is an agricultural act." But with supermarkets stocked full of processed foods, can this be true anymore? Author Michael Pollan will speak on this subject as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' speaker series at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.
If you read, eat and bother to educate yourself about nutrition, there may be no name more prominent of late in these regards than Pollan. His book "The Botany of Desire" was a riot of enlivening stories dealing with the reciprocal relationship between people and plants. "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times and the Washington Post. As theKnight professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times, where his many food-related articles have made riveting reading.
This year he published "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." The book brilliantly skewers what many people believe. Now he asks, "If science isn't a reliable source on what to eat, what is instead?"
In "In Defense of Food," Pollan writes that health issues like cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity are linked to "the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy."
So if food has been replaced by nutrients—protein, fat and carbohydrate—and common sense by confusion, the question is, what can we eat?
"I'm going to address the whole problem of our confusion and how we cut through it," Pollan said. "The talk is very practical. Now that we know about the whole landscape, how do you navigate it?"
Nutrients are invisible, so it falls to the scientists and marketing departments to label food for consumers. What is low-fat? What has beta-carotene?
"In 'In Defense of Food,' I wrote about the problems with the science of food—how limited our knowledge is and how we elevated science as the last word. There are other ways. Tradition is one of them. Culture is another. I believe in the premise that culture can teach us more about what to eat in the rules that are handed down. Science has proved to be a false guide on what to eat."
Pollan would like us to consider how our ancestors ate. In "In Defense of Food," he writes, "Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," including such everyday items as non-dairy creamer, margarine and cereal bars.
At the center of his "defense of food" is a simple mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
As long as we eat whole foods rather than processed products we should be fine. And those whole foods should be grown in healthy soils and preferably from a farm nearby, if not in your own backyard.
"That's the great thing about eating food as compared with nutrients: You don't need to fathom a carrot's complexity to reap its benefits," Pollan wrote.
Which brings us back to an integral part of Pollan's manifesto. Backyard gardening, some have said, doesn't help global warming so much as it strokes the gardener's ego. However, Pollan is insistent that if you can garden, do.
"There are reasons to grow your own food that are about much more than seasonal produce," he said. "Planting a garden is one of the most important things you can do. It's exercise without getting in the car to drive to gym. It sequesters carbon. And most important you're learning certain habits of mind, which we will all need as we go into the post-oil era. It supports your body. It's an easy way to take care of yourself."
Indeed, Pollan delivers his findings, advice and manifestos in a decidedly non-solemn manner, but in a way that can't be ignored. Next time you're in the market, take a look at the front of packages.
"There's a lot of humor in this," he said. "I hope."
As a speaker, Pollan travels around the country frequently and sees a growing number of groups adapting such practices as slow food cooking, local foods and farmers' markets.
"There is a lot going on on the West Coast," he said. "Ground zero is where I live in the Bay Area. Iowa City, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee have a lot going on. The Pacific Northwest has tremendous communities and restaurants that use produce and meat from local farmers."
On his way to the Wood River Valley he will take a tour of Lava Lake Lamb, one the sponsors of his visit.
It's important that agricultural areas are not "forced out by sprawl," Pollan said. Encouraging that spirit, the day after his talk, a Taste of Idaho's Bounty fundraiser and local food fair will be held from 4-8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, at nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.