“There’s a conversation about food taking place in the culture that sometimes verges on the ridiculous,” says author and activist Michael Pollan. He refers to this hysteria as the “Portlandia Effect,” where the farm-to-table narrative is pushed to its comical limits. Even Pollan—America’s de-facto food ethicist—sees the truth of the TV parody: “You have people going on and on about the chicken’s name being Colin,” he says, mimicking the punchline of one of the show’s most memorable episodes.
For a global avatar of social change, Pollan’s sense of humor is refreshing, as is his Gladwellian ability to translate complex issues into pop-culture fodder—a rarity in an era when food writing and social issues are too often divorced.
Pollan, you learn, is a guy who can roll with the punches. And, after years of preaching his gospel, he’s wise enough to understand that both the absurd and devout interpretations of his work are symptomatic of a growing interest in food culture. Thanks to manifestos like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his latest Netflix docu-series, Cooked, his teachings have urged a new generation of food-obsessives and chefs to embrace organic, sustainable, and seasonal eating habits. If Alice Water’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, is the food movement’s spiritual center, then Michael Pollan is its moral compass.
From Pollan’s perch, no issue seems too big (agro-farms) nor too small (farmers’ markets) to take on. For him, even the 30-second cooking tutorials that flood our Facebook feeds have value in the crusade to increase awareness about how we eat: “Watching people trade recipes, watching them go viral—it’s great,” he says. “It’s going to send a message that, yeah, this is worth doing. In every revolution, there are going to be people who go way too far, but on balance it moves the center.”
“If Alice Water’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, is the food movement’s spiritual center, then Michael Pollan is its moral compass.”
Perhaps his acceptance of the rise of recipes as memes and short-attention-span cooking for millenials is also an acknowledgment that there is a glass ceiling to the fooderati’s influence. As part of a coterie that includes the likes of Dan Barber and Marion Nestle, Pollan knows the success of his advocacy starts with changing the perception that caring about where your food comes from is little more than a status symbol of the liberal elite. “If you look at the history of social movements in this country—abolition, women’s suffrage—they begin really from the acts of conscious people who have the time and leisure and resources to pursue them,” he argues. “But over time they spread.”
On a realistic level, the movement’s survival depends on its capacity to influence policy—which ultimately means drawing lawyers and policymakers into the fold. “I don’t know how to fix the farm bill. I know where I want it to go, but I don’t know how to craft that proposal that’s going to win enough support or divide the farm bloc in a productive way,” he says. Two weeks after our conversation, Pollan was scheduled to speak at Harvard Law School to recruit students for the cause.
“I think that the charge [of being trapped in a bubble for affluent foodies] will be serious if it’s still mostly elites interested in this in ten or 15 years.” Even before Pollan arrived at this crossroads in the food revolution, several formidable meals put him on track to think about food in broader strokes. From a loaf of bread so remarkable that he wanted to dip his face into it (don’t we all), to a simple bowl of fruit that he considered “daring,” here are the 10 dishes that shaped Michael Pollan’s career.
Chicken kiev at The Russian Tea Room (New York)
When I was a kid, my parentswould take us to the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan, usually on Christmas Day. It was right next door to Carnegie Hall and was owned by Warner Leroy, who was a legendary restaurateur. It was a place where you could see Mikhail Baryshnikov having lunch or dinner. It was pretty awesome for a kid to go there. The most amazing dish I had there—which then turned into a staple for my birthday dinner—was chicken kiev. You never see it anymore on menus. I think the low-fat campaign may have killed it off. But it’s essentially a pounded chicken breast rolled around a block of herb butter and deep-fat fried. You cut it open with a fork and this perfume of herbs comes up, and then you watch this pool of butter form around the gold torpedo of the chicken kiev. I just thought it was magic. Kids love anything that has a secret interior, and this one was a surprise. It was kind of “narrative food” because it changed as you ate it. My mom would make it for me on my birthday, and I loved learning how to seal it tightly and then fry it. (Photo: foodanthology.com)
Vitello tonnato in Italy
I remember my first meal in Italy. I was in my early 30s and landed there after an overnight charter from Kennedy Airport. I was picked up at the airport and driven to Orvieto. We went into a restaurant and I had tuna [vitello] tonnato, which is a very weird dish. It was a very thin slab of veal scallopini with a sauce that was made from tuna and capers. It’s a completely white dish, and I don’t know if I’ve had it more than two or three times since. In retrospect, the idea the doesn’t appeal to me that much; I don’t eat veal as a matter of course anymore. But it was my “wow, this is Italy” dish. (Photo: Flickr/cyclonebill)
Loaf from Tartine Bakery (San Francisco)
I described the first time I had a Tartine loaf in Cooked. Somebody brought it to a dinner party; they had picked it up since it comes out of the oven late in the day there. Tartine is a freaky bakery in that way. I opened up the loaf and the contrast between the leathery exterior and the soft, almost pudding-like interior—I just wanted to put my face into it. It smelled so good and it was so amazing. I have to tell you, Alice [Waters] talked about the Poilane Bread in her 10 dishes—I’ve had that since and it doesn’t hold a candle to it. That really started me on baking, but I have yet to get near it in my own pursuits. When I have something like that I want to see if I can do it myself. It becomes the goal. I know I’m never going to make it, partly because I don’t have the gift, but I also don’t have his oven. But, you know, when you’re writing something too, you have this pulse star, you have this model. If I could only make it this good; if I could only make these sentences as great as a Wendell Berry sentence. I know I won’t get there, but you know what direction and where you are trying to go. (Photo: Facebook/Tartine Bakery SF)
Barbecue sandwich at Mitchell’s (North Carolina)
I went to North Carolina and ate at Mitchell’s Barbecue, where I had my first barbecue sandwich. The thing that really got my attention about [that process] was the fact that the skin is cooked separately after it comes off the pig and is crisped. It’s called crackling. Then, the crackling is shattered like little pieces of glass and mixed into that chopped pork. You get these little bits of flavor intensity. They are very bacon-y in a way, plus that’s where the smoke comes into the dish. That was a revelation. I’ve spent years trying to do something close, but I can never get the crackling quite right. The distinction between undercooking it—when it’s still leathery and doesn’t crack—and then burning it…that sweet spot is very hard to hit. You’re talking about live fire, and crackling is full of fat. It’s flammable. We almost started a fire in our house. We cranked up the oven to 500 degrees and we put this sheet of pigskin with a layer of fat under into the oven. Boom. It ignited. It was terrifying. Now I do it outside. It’s intimidating to think, can I do this? But it’s a goad to progress. I think we all need to aim for something when we make a dish like that. (Photo: Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance)
Fruit bowl at Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA)
I’ve had a couple of dishes at Chez Panisse that are definitely mind-blowing. But the first time I saw that fruit bowl, that copper bowl…it was completely unimproved by the chef. Here you have these incredibly brilliant chefs and they are saying, “We can’t improve on this mandarin, we can’t improve on this date, so we are just going to put it in a bowl and give it to you for $14.” And it’s so good. It’s curated very carefully. They’ve chosen the peach at the exact moment of perfection. Or the pear. That’s hard to do, actually. So for me that was this great reminder that, in the end, great food depends on great farming. You can trick it up, but sometimes you can’t improve on nature. I think that bowl teaches a really important lesson. You can look at it as incredible temerity on the part of the restaurant. They are washing some fruit and marking it up by a factor of three or four. But on the other hand, the pleasure is greater for me than a cake or something like that. I always get the fruit bowl. Ever since I wrote a little essay about the fruit bowl for Alice for the 40th anniversary, they bring me one without my having to ask. I’ve been better paid for that little essay than anything I’ve ever written. (Photo: Aya Brackett)
Carlo Petrini tribute dinner
I remember another meal at Chez Panisse. It was a dinner for Carlo Petrini [founder of the Slow Food Movement]. Alice had the nerve to make tortellini en brodo [for an Italian]. It was incredible and as good as any tortellini I’ve had in Italy. I watched Carlo Petrini be virtually orgasmic over it. He was sitting across the table. There was something about that broth—I don’t know how many chickens died to make that broth, but it was so intensely flavored. (Photo: WikiCommons)
14-year-old steak at Etxebarri (Spain)
In Cooked, I head to the Basque country in Spain, where I had 14-year-old steak from a restaurant called Extebarri. Bittor Arguinzoniz, the chef, cooks everything in the restaurant over fire—over wood, he would say, not fire. He’ll do a scallop for literally twenty seconds, just to perfume it with the wood and warm it. I went there when I was working on my book and spent time in his kitchen watching him work, which was astounding. He uses individual pieces of wood that are just at the perfect moment. He changes the kind of wood for the different foods. He made a steak over grape vines and it was the most spectacular steak I’ve ever had. What really blew me away about it was asking where it came from. He said it was a dairy cow that was 14-years-old. That’s not going to be an impressive looking beast. The idea that a cow that old could produce meat that delicious—I still can’t wrap my head around it. In America, they never live past age five. It was just astounding how much flavor this had. It was like a different meat. If you told me we were eating elk or something, I would have believed it. It was the best steak I’ve ever had, and it was grass-fed. There are many people who will tell you that your best steak will never be grass-fed, that it has to be corn-fed. But this had such a clean flavor. The fat was so light. (Photo: asadoretxebarri.com)
Sliced duck (Paris)
I was in my late 20s when I went to Paris with my wife. We were staying in a hostel and had very little money, but we decided to splurge on one meal. I remember having sliced duck breast at a restaurant from one of those neighborhood places that don’t exist anymore, or barely exist anymore in France. For me, growing up on Long Island, duck was this gray meat that you cooked the hell out of to get all the fat out. But this was Moulard duck, the kind they use in France. It’s not the Peking duck we had on Long Island. When it came to the table I tried to return it; I thought it was a mistake because it looked like beef—it was so red. We struggled through my high-school French, and they explained that it really was duck. I ate it and it was delicious. The texture, the color, the flavor—everything about it was different. (Photo: Flickr/Star5112)
My first real Mexican food (Cuernavaca)
In Cuernavaca, in 1976, my sister Lori, who was living there, took me to a totally nondescript little place for tacos al carbon. They were a revelation: no melted cheese, no refried beans (and in those days you never had Mexican food without those things)—just the clean flavor of lime, cilantro, charred beef, and fresh tortillas, made from Mexican (i.e., pre-NAFTA) corn. (Photo: Flickr/Eugene Kim)
Roast loin of wild boar
This was from the boar I shot when I was learning to hunt for The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I wanted to make a meal I hunted, gathered, and grew, and this was an animal I had not only killed, but also helped clean and butcher. It was a female and not too old, so the meat was tender and mild and delicious. I had not expected to be able to enjoy it, having participated intimately in its “production” and having felt disgusted during the butchering, but lo and behold, the alchemy of fire allowed me to enjoy it tremendously. (Photo: Flickr/drazz)