Michael Pollan considers himself a nature writer, but since publishing “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in 2006, he’s become a major voice in the cultural revolution currently happening around such food issues as sustainable agriculture, health and locavorism.
Pollan is such a cult figure among foodies that people follow him around the grocery store and the farmers market in Berkeley, Calif., where he lives, just to see what he’ll buy.
His new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press) presents an analysis of the science and history of food preparation methods through time and across cultures, and a personal narrative of Pollan’s own relationship with cooking. In the section on meat, Pollan recounts the time his family summered on the beach and temporarily adopted a pet pig — named Kosher.
Forward contributor Sara Rubin caught up with Pollan by phone in Chicago, one stop on his 17-city book tour.
Sara Rubin: How did you evolve to writing about cooking from writing about food systems and agriculture?
Michael Pollan: This book is completing this food chain from the earth to the body. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is about tracing food back to the farm. Then I wrote a couple of books about health. Along the way, I kept bumping into the fact that what happens in the middle of the food chain, where the food gets transformed, had an enormous influence on the two far ends of the food chain.
Many of the changes we see in agriculture are a result of the processed food industry and its needs for cheap meat, cheap sweeteners, cheap oil. The way we were eating influenced what happened on the farm.
If humans are cooking, people tend to eat healthy diets and not get into trouble with salt, fat and sugar.
I came to think this middle link was the most important and the most influential, and the one we had the most control over, too.
How do kosher food and preparation factor into your understanding of cooking?
Meat eating is always surrounded with lots of rules, because a lot is at stake. There is death, there is killing, there is sharing. That’s a good thing; eating meat is consequential, and it should be approached with a lot of consciousness and care, and that’s a very positive thing about kashrut.
I said semi-jokingly in this little sermon [on April 12 at Beth El Synagogue, in Minnesota], it might be time to reconsider pork as treyf.
The beauty of the kosher rules is that food choices should be informed by our ethics and not be careless and just about consumption or fueling up, and ethics change over time.
Pigs can be a very sustainable form of animal protein in that they’re the great recyclers in a sustainable food system. On the other hand, you have to weigh that against the value of several thousand years of tradition. That’s important, too. One of the reasons we have food is to help knit a community together.