The Gourmet Q + A: Michael Pollan

continued (page 2 of 3)

CH: This morning I was looking at what I had in my house for a quick breakfast, and it wasn’t much—I haven’t gone shopping in way too long. My options were plain yogurt or an energy bar with soy protein isolate and all this other stuff in it. I went for the yogurt because it was actual food, but I was thinking, what if my choice were not between yogurt and the bar, but between a fast-food egg sandwich and the bar? Those are the options that a lot of people have when they’re in a hurry—and the sandwich is probably more of a real food than the bar is.

MP: Well, for Eggs Benedict in the abstract that’s true; but look at the ingredients in the bread they use [at the fast-food place]. It’s a 40-ingredient bread. So although it looks like a real food, the actual way they’re making it is more “foodish,” or “foodlike.” But one of my messages is that taking the 15 minutes to put a real breakfast on the table is not that long—so why has it come to seem so Herculean? I really think we’ve been sold a bill of goods: that we’re too busy and there’s absolutely no way that we can feed ourselves [without convenience food].

CH: For me personally and for lots of people I know who care about food, I make the time at dinner, but not always at breakfast.

MP: And breakfast has been the site of so much processing for the reasons you’re talking about, the convenience question. It’s really the pioneering meal for food science, with breakfast cereal being the big first step, and a continual ratcheting up of the innovations. I don’t know if you’ve looked at a cereal aisle lately, but the latest is the breakfast cereal “straw,” a strawlike thing made out of cereal material, with a layer of white “milk” on the inside. Kids are supposed to suck out the “milk” and then eat the “straw.” So you don’t even need a spoon.

CH: That’s disgusting.

MP: It really is. I haven’t tried one yet. But I think we’re real suckers for innovation at breakfast, because we’re kind of in a fog and don’t want to have to think. Also, a lot of kids eat in the car or on the bus on the way to school. I talk about the percentage of our eating that goes on in cars, and a lot of that is breakfast.

CH: Yeah, you can’t really take a nice bowl of oatmeal or a poached egg in the car with you.

MP: Nah, I can’t drive that way.

CH: But you must be spending a lot of time on the road when you go on book tours, and it’s got to be hard to find real food in some of the places you end up.

MP: It is very hard. When you’re traveling it’s really a challenge. In general, unless there’s some kind of information on the menu to reassure me about the meat, I tend to eat vegetarian when I’m on the road. And restaurant portions—especially when you’re in hotels—have gotten so huge. It’s really obscene, the size of the plates and the platters. Plates today are what platters were 20 years ago. And one of the keys there is that Okinawan lesson, hara hachi bu—eat until you’re 80 percent full. It’s really a radical idea.

CH: But how do you tell 80 percent full from, say, 65 percent full?

MP: I was just reading a study that says in practice, [when you aim for 80 percent], you eat 10 percent less than you would otherwise—so there’s a 10 percent margin of error there. But it’s basically just quizzing yourself and saying, my goal is not to be full; my goal is to be something short of full.

CH: I thought your discussion of cuisine in the book was really interesting—you talk about how combining certain foods in classic ways (like corn with beans) actually makes them more nutritious. But taking ingredients out of context is something that chefs love to do—whether they’re creating a “fusion” cuisine or just trying to keep things interesting.

MP: Right, it’s novelty. But before you upend tradition it’s worth asking, did that contain any dietary wisdom? Is there a reason that some cliché like olive oil with tomatoes has lasted so long? It’s like most clichés in the world: There’s some truth or value in them, even if they might seem a little tired to you. I think it’s a fascinating question, and more work needs to go into it. But there are a whole lot of examples of how a method of cooking or combining things makes a food dramatically more nutritious, by unlocking nutrients that might not otherwise be available, by completing the proper balance of protein. It’s a fascinating literature, and I just touched on it a little bit, but very often if a food combination has gone on a long time, there’s a good reason for it.

CH: You also talk about certain culinary practices that are actually sort of arbitrary, like the polishing of rice. I think my great-grandmother probably would have recognized white rice, and maybe even white flour or white bread, as food. So how do you decide which culinary practices to follow and which ones to ditch?

MP: That’s a good question. You know, your great-grandmother might have recognized it as food, but there was a very common popular understanding that white bread was not the kind of bread to eat. Somebody at a talk told me a line that her grandmother used to say: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” So there was a wisdom around carbohydrates, and if you go back even to Brillat-Savarin and The Physiology of Taste, he says that the cause of fatness is eating too much sugar and too much flour, and drinking too much beer. It was kind of understood. But the prestige of refined grain is kind of a mystery. It’s fairly recent; we’ve only known how to create it for 100 years, 150 years. And maybe soon there will be a feedback loop discouraging us from [refining grains]. But you’re right, that’s one area where your great-grandmother may or may not have it right.

Subscribe to Gourmet