The Gourmet Q + A: Michael Pollan

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With white rice, not a lot of people had it. These foods that have been around for a long time and that we know are maladaptive were not eaten in great quantities. We have always eaten things that were not necessarily good for us, and we call them special-occasion foods. And probably, given the trouble of polishing rice, you would not have that much. Even if you were wealthy it wouldn’t necessarily be your staple—it would be like a sugary dessert: You have a little bit of it, and you have it at the end of the meal, where its effect on the insulin level and your metabolism is blunted by all the other food in your stomach.

And frying chicken, French fries—all these foods that are very hard to do, very expensive in terms of time—people did eat these things, but probably not in the quantities that we do today. Because of technology and industrialization we can outsource all the work. Somebody I was reading was saying it would be fine to have French fries, as long as you’re willing to cook them yourself. So then how often would you have French fries? Maybe once a month, because it’s a real pain, and you’ve got to clean it up. I was talking to someone from the South, who was saying that everyone thinks she ate a lot of fried chicken growing up, but that fried chicken was so much work and such a mess, and the oil was so expensive, that you only made it when you were having a party. You couldn’t justify it for yourself or even just for your family. So it was special-occasion food. But now our special-occasion food has become everyday food—and that’s been one of the achievements of industrialization. So you could even include in your dietary guidelines, “have all the French fries you want, as long as you make them and clean them up yourself.”

CH: A lot of people are making reinterpreted versions of those kinds of comfort foods—you know, the housemade mac and cheese with chanterelles on it or something—and it does satisfy a certain nostalgia for those foods.

MP: That’s true. I think somebody is going to do a really interesting, high-end chicken nugget at some point, because this is the comfort food of a whole generation. But you know, Proust’s Madeleine—you have it now and then, you don’t have to have it every day.

CH: But there’s also this real nostalgia for the actual junk food that people used to eat growing up. One of our food editors has this undying love for Swiss Miss and turns to it whenever he wants hot chocolate. So you get the nostalgia factor going, and people who otherwise know better and eat better are going back to the unhealthy things.

MP: I think that’s true, and I get it. I was in an airport and I saw a Mounds bar, and I hadn’t seen one of those for a while, and I thought wow, I have to have it. And it was fantastic. But when I really thought about it, you know, there are two in a pack, and the first one was transcendent, and the second one was like, eww, this is so sweet, I can taste the corn syrup. And the whole psychological benefit of the thing wore off very quickly when I tried to think, what does this really taste like, besides the memory? So you know, I think if you eat with a little more consciousness, those things will just be tastes and not ways of life.

CH: In the book you describe the “nutritionist” or scientific approach to food as being a really venerable, long tradition in America, starting back with the Kelloggs. Why do you think that is?

MP: Yeah, we’ve been suckers for scientific eating in this country longer than anybody else. I think it’s because we have not had a strong culinary tradition. Since we were a nation of immigrants, there were so many different ways of eating that there was no unifying tradition, so science had a vacuum into which it could step that I don’t think would have happened if we’d had a stronger [tradition]. The main culinary tradition, the British one, wasn’t compelling enough to win everybody over. And also we’ve always liked technology, and we like starting from scratch, and we don’t like looking back to history, we like looking forward. And we give an incredible amount of prestige to our scientists and technologists, so when they came along and told us ‘this is the way to eat,’ we all lined up. It was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now.

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