Great-Granny Meets Gogurt: Michael Pollan’s Foodie Enlightenment


Natalie Overton

What’s the worst thing that we as humans have done to our food?

“We haven’t left well enough alone,” said Michael Pollan on the night of Thursday, April 30. “We felt that the food that came out of the earth was not good enough.”

The University of California, Santa Barbara Arts and Lectures program hosted a talk by author and “ethical-eating guru” Michael Pollan last week at the Granada Theater, where he discussed 20 years of writing about food and the many agricultural and industrial experiences that have advanced his career.

Pollan offered us a few choice nuggets of food advice: EAT FOOD, NOT TOO MUCH, MOSTLY PLANTS. This simple mantra was offered along with a plethora of information about our food industry and its direct connection (or lack thereof) to the earth. Pollan’s three simple rules stem from a well-rooted understanding of the history of humans and food.

EAT FOOD: More specifically real food, not processed food or packaged items sporting health claims. He says that “silent” foods are usually the best ones because they have nothing to prove.

How can you tell what “real” food is? Employ the Great-Grandmother test. If she wouldn’t recognize it, you probably shouldn’t eat it. People have become obsessed with flawless-looking food that doesn’t die.

“Food is living and so it should die at some point,” Pollan says, “Think about the chemistry involved in keeping our food from dying, and whether you want to eat it.”

This is a big issue. Preservatives aren’t good for us, and the chemical additives are terrible for the environment. Pollan used an example of a pesticide used for potatoes. While touring a farm in the Midwest, he was introduced to the pesticide “Monitor,” a neurotoxin that is so powerful that farmers must leave the field untouched for up to five days after applying it to their potato crops.

Monitor, chemically known as methamidophos, is a restricted pesticide used to prevent net necrosis in Russet Burbank potatoes. Net necrosis is the browning of the inside of the potato, caused by aphids, and the discoloration can be seen in the resulting potato products.

Why prevent these harmless brown spots? Because McDonald’s won’t purchase the potatoes otherwise; they look too unappealing. Pollan asked the audience—why don’t we grow the Kennebec potato instead, which are resistant to net necrosis? Because Russet Burbanks are the only kind of potatoes that will yield the long shoestring fries that McDonald’s serves in happy little bouquets.

NOT TOO MUCH: Apparently, those who enjoy their food (this is a consequence of the first rule) don’t eat as much of it. In France, Pollan is eager to add, they eat very rich, very “fattening” (as we nutrition-obsessed Americans would call it) foods that they take a very long time to eat, and so they end up eating much less of it. This allows the French to eat satisfying amounts of food and to be in-touch with the amount of it they eat.

“If we have higher quality food, we do not need so much to be satisfied,” Pollan says. Because the French tend to value the quality of their food more than Americans, they take better care in preparing it and raising it.

Learning how to value food is a part of the education system in some schools. In environmental science classes, students are learning about our food industry and the environmental consequences of unsustainable agricultural practices. Through a program called the Edible Schoolyard Project, children take on food as a class. Pollan greatly encourages this and has sat in on these on multiple occasions.

“Ultimately we’re going to have to treat lunch as an academic subject and give them [students] credit for lunch,” Pollan says. He talks about how we need to focus on educating kids, and that the food revolution is a defining characteristic of our generation. He also mentions how college campuses have been putting incredible emphasis on improving the quality of their food, mainly through local farmers markets and student activism. “The food in college has gotten significantly better,” Pollan notes.

MOSTLY PLANTS. This is fairly simple, given the copious research on the amount of meat we should be eating in comparison to the amount of vegetables that are missing from our diets. A lot of the plants grown in America are not actually edible.

“Corn can be a good food when eaten as corn; the corn we grow in the Midwest is a raw industrial material,” he says. As to whether organic is important, it’s important, but not completely necessary. Antibiotic free is important, and he stresses that our country needs stricter regulations on that front, because the ones we have in place are really not making a difference. Merely stating that none can be used for growth purposes does nothing because farmers can still use it for treatment and prevention of diseases. If the living conditions of the animals was improved, this would no longer be an issue.

The take-away? Value the food you eat. Consider it. You and the environment will benefit. Pollan, expressing his view on the drought says, “What I hope the drought will lead to will be a rationalization of our thinking of water.”

Also, value the people who make food for us. “Our society has become dependent on cheap food. We need to pay a living wage to the people that are feeding us.”