Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Eating out with Michael Pollan.

My suggestion that we meet at a chain restaurant like Applebee's for a reality check on the state of the national lunch went over like a veal chop at a PETA dinner. "We only have three meals a day. I hate to waste one," Pollan said.

We settled on 900 Grayson, a friendly cafe on Berkeley's west side where the menu mixes humor (sides like fries and gravy are listed as "Make-up Kit & Sordid Accessories") and attention to local tastes for high-quality, sustainably raised ingredients.

I was curious how Pollan would decide what to order, given the advice he lays out in his new book. He says he wrote it to answer the question he heard repeatedly from people who ate up "Omnivore's" indictment of American mass food production, processing and government oversight, but then were left wondering: "So what can we eat?"

The new book puts flesh on the bones of an approach to eating that Pollan introduced in the New York Times Magazine last year:

Don't fall into the "nutritionist" trap of treating food like dietary supplements - eating blueberries for the antioxidants, for example.

Forget low-fat and low-carb.

Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains - real foods, not the "foodlike substances" that crowd store shelves.

Pick your proteins carefully. Choose meat raised in traditional ways, on pasture instead of in feedlots, don't eat too much of it, and include lots of fish from sustainable fisheries.

Pollan advocates a return to traditional ways of eating, before processing, hidden sugars and, as he sees it, dietitians got in the way of health and great taste.

"Our government is doing very little about obesity," he said. "How did it get so controversial to say, 'Eat less,' to say, 'Eat fruits and vegetables'?"

He practices what he preaches, cooking dinner at home most nights, often with help from his 15-year-old son Isaac, and sitting down to eat as a family with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer. Much of their food comes from a CSA (a subscription box of produce from a local farm) and north Berkeley's Thursday farmers' market, a short walk from their home.

Following Pollan's mantra sounds so easy until you're trying to navigate a menu - or a supermarket.

For example, the burger at 900 Grayson is "Creekstone Natural Beef," as the menu proudly declares. That's good, right? The company has made a name for itself fighting the U.S. government for permission to test its steers for mad cow disease.

But Pollan points out, "It's conventionally raised, in a feedlot. I'm happy they want to test for mad cow, but that's setting the bar low."

If a grass-fed burger were on the menu, he'd probably order it - but it's not. Chicken is nixed because it's mass produced, he thinks. The waiter, asked if the pulled pork is locally raised, reports back that it's bought from a local distributor - not the same thing.

"Asking all these questions is important," Pollan says. "The chefs hear this. It's another way a consumer can make his or her opinions felt and see results."

Our choices narrow fast. The vegetarian ravioli is one, but we both end up ordering the "Sorry Charlie," a coriander-crusted tuna steak with slaw, and we split an appetizer of local Dungeness crab cakes. At a chain restaurant, Pollan said, he'd fall back on the tuna sandwich.

"We eat entirely too much meat from the point of view of the environment. The carbon footprint of meat is deep," he says. "People think about what they drive, but if you cut out meat, it's the equivalent of trading a sedan for a Prius."

Carol Ness at

Wow! Lots of great information here. By the way, I really like Michael Pollan's books.
One quibble with the article: the accompanying photo of Pollan and his son eating dinner together was clearly faked.

No self-respecting 15-year old would allow himself to be photographed eating dinner with his father, holding chopsticks, no less.
My two sons wouldn't eat with me using chopsticks. But that's because I'm the one who is too clumsy to do it. They do just fine. They're both vegetarians who love international residents of all kinds.
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