Monday, May 26, 2008

An Omnivore At Large: Michael Pollan at the Sydney Writers Festival

A Book Review for the Dedicated Foodie.

There is always such an array of good things to choose from at the annual Sydney Writers' Festival that often you just have to flip a coin to decide who to see. But this year, there was no doubt in my mind as to which writer was on the top of my bill: Michael Pollan was my man.

After discovering and reading each of Michael Pollan's five books over the last year, I have become his Number One Fan. Actually, that's not strictly true - there are probably a million other people who are also his number-one-fan - he is a New York Times best-selling author and Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, after all...
And judging from the way the crowd filled the cavernous warehouse at the end of Pier 3 at Walsh Bay on Saturday, there are a fair swag of Sydney-siders who are among the converted.

Suffice it to say, after reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma - A Natural History of Four Meals" c.2006 (gifted to me last year by Warren Salomon of Sustainable Transport here in Sydney) I went out and bought five more copies, just to give away - I thought it was that good!!!! Pollan's adroitness as a story-teller makes this book a pleasure to read. More like a detective novel than the serious journalism that it is, "The Omnivore" is a rollicking good read, packed full of solid research and interesting philosophical discussions about food, ethics and eating.

The book, as the title suggests, examines the food-chain right from the micro-organisms in the soil, all the way to the dinner plate, from the viewpoint of four different meals:

1. The McHappy Meal, eaten in his car with his son on a road trip.

2. The Supermarket meal, made from industrial agriculture and factory process methods.

3. The Organic meal - subdivided into Industrial Organic and small-farm Local Organic agriculture.

4. The completely wild Foraged meal.

The book takes you on a journey through the mid-western corn-fields of Iowa propped up by government surpluses, to the associated cattle feed-lots and industrial processing, through to an organic farm that has a strict policy of only selling locally to cut down on the oil consumed in transporting food around the world. The book ends up with Pollan hunting for wild mushrooms in the mountains, curing his own prosciutto with an old Italian man he befriends and cooking a very special meal for friends. Quite a journey!

I read his first book only last month (sorry, all out of order, I know... but better late than never). "Second Nature, A Gardener's Education" c.1991, is likewise an enriching read, examining humans' relationships with the natural and farmed/gardened environment. He visits the lineage of the generations of gardeners that come before us and the wisdom they have nurtured and passed on - something that we all benefit from daily in the foods we eat and the clothes we wear. His explorations of the importance of biodiversity and the imperatives of sustainability are particularly valuable.

This is a theme he again explored in
"The Botany Of Desire - A Plants'-Eye View of the World" c.2001
- another run-away best-seller - positing the idea that it is the plants that are farming us, exploiting our desires for what they have to offer - Sweetness, Beauty, Intoxication and Control - in their own quest for world domination.

You can see what a fun mind he has...!

His latest book, "In Defense of Food. An Eater's Manifesto" c.2008 is a little bit more of a technical read, but it too is chock full of good research and good advice. At the Writers' Festival "Future of Food" session that I saw him in at this weekend, Michael himself said that this book can essentially be distilled down to the following 'haiku':

Eat Food,
Not too much,
Mostly plants.

What Pollan says we should avoid are the "edible food-like substances" that fill the shelves of our supermarkets, with "fortified this" and "enriched that" and to avoid any product that makes loud claims to be a "health food", because it probably isn't! His rule of thumb is not to buy anything that has more than five ingredients listed on the side of the pack - which definitely includes: chemicals listed as numbers, 'flavour enhancers' like MSG, colourings, 'anti-caking agents' and the like. He says we should shop over in the section of the supermarket where the 'quiet' food is, the real food. Or better yet, try to find local growers of organic produce and support those ethical enterprises.

That seems pretty good advice!

Any way you look at it, Michael Pollan's books come as a well-recommended read - and you will want to lend them to all your friends when you have devoured them yourself - fortunately, books are recyclable!! They are also available as talking books.

At the end of the discussion panel at the Writers Festival on "The Future of Food", (which will be broadcast on ABC Radio National later this year), I spoke briefly to Michael Pollan and gave him a card about this blog - cheeky, huh?!

He said: "Great, thanks! A Food Photography blog - I'll have a look at that!" and put it in his pocket...

It felt nice to give The Master something, when he has been giving so much to so many...


PS: I have no vested interest in promoting these books,
(i.e. I don't make any money from this blog) except that I think the world will be a better place if more people know about this stuff!

It will be back to the usual Recipes and Food Photography next week!


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