Author Michael Pollan
For over a decade, New York Times best-selling author Michael Pollan has been documenting how our country grows and eats its food with his books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules. In his new book, Cooked, Pollan writes about visiting our local farms and mills, and he dishes to Sactown about Sacramento’s rich bounty, spending more time in the kitchen, and getting caught red-handed buying Fruity Pebbles.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation?
Well, [cooking] was the part of the food chain I kind of took for granted and knew the least about. I had studied agriculture and nutrition science, but I hadn’t really studied this middle link where the food coming off the farms gets transformed. I reached out to people who were really masterful at baking and fermenting and brewing and cheese making. I was working with people who essentially devoted their lives to bread or beer or whatever it was. I found that most cooking, regardless of culture, fell into one of four elemental transformations, so I used those to organize the book. Fire is one, water is the second, air—which is what I call baking—and then earth for fermentation.
I was lucky enough to have a mom who was a very good cook, and I enjoyed being in the kitchen and watching her do her thing, watching these miracles unfold. I learned how to scramble and fry an egg, which is a useful skill. She made a chicken Kiev, which I thought was the most astonishing dish. But I was an ordinary cook. I was impatient the way most of us are in the kitchen. I also was kind of thoughtless about the whole process. So [writing Cooked] was my opportunity to really dig in and get better at it.
For the “Air” section about bread, you visited the Certified Foods mill in Woodland, which mills wheat grown by Sacramento Valley farmers. What was that experience like?
There is something of a revival of local wheat in California. [Proprietor] Joe Vanderliet is a very good miller working in Woodland in a small mill. He’s very sophisticated in his milling. He produces excellent local flour that makes beautiful bread and pizzas. There’s a lot of interest in local wheat right now, and Joe is kind of at the center of it, along with this company in Oakland, Community Grains [which sells Certified Foods flour]. The product is very good, and I’ve been baking with Community Grains’ flours for a long time. They’re at Whole Foods. There are more and more places to find them.
You also toured one of our local wheat farms.
Yeah, I went to [Bruce and Rick] Rominger’s farm in Winters and they actually let me get up on the combine and harvest a couple of rows. Wheat fields are just beautiful. I mean, all the way to the horizon, they’re these rivers of gold. It is just miraculous in every way. You can build a human body and a civilization based on that very simple seed. I don’t think people realize what an important crop this was for many years, beginning with the Gold Rush [when] we started planting a lot of wheat to feed the miners. It was a great crop for California because you could grow it without irrigation.
Additionally, in Cooked, you mention your trip to the Hostess plant in Sacramento, which is now closed. What did you learn while you were there?
It was fascinating. They made something like 155,000 loaves of bread a day, completely mechanized, and they made it really fast. They could get a loaf of bread from powder to finished package in four hours. I was watching them make these various modern, industrialized whole grain products and they were putting in tons of calcium because they wanted to make a health claim about calcium. Everything was driven by the desire to make certain health claims on the package, and to support them, they had to add all sorts of chemicals and minerals to the bread, which then made it taste bad, so it needed lots of sweeteners to cover all of that up. It speaks to the phenomenon of the industrial food system creating problems and then adding on [temporary] solutions rather than fixing the problems. If we’re allowing corporations to cook our food then we’re not going to be eating a very healthy diet. They simply don’t do a very good job of it.
Last year, Sacramento declared itself America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. You’re based nearby in Berkeley [Pollan teach-es journalism at UC Berkeley]. What other farms in this region, besides Rominger, have you visited?
I’ve been out here for 10 years and many stories have taken me to the Sacramento area. I bought a goat off of a farm in Rio Vista for a piece I was doing for [The New York Times] a couple of years ago. We were trying to see how many different dishes we could get out of one goat and one fire. Oh, and I brought my [UC Berkeley] classes [to this region]. We went to Superior [Farms] slaughterhouse in Dixon. I also brought my class to Craig McNamara’s [walnut] farm in Winters and Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley. People don’t realize how much agricultural talent is right in the Sacramento area, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of it in my reporting.
Speaking of Craig McNamara, you’re on the national advisory board for the Center for Land-Based Learning, which he founded. How did you get involved with that project?
[Several] years ago, when I was looking for a place to take my students on a field trip, [Craig] offered to do an event. I spoke and [the center] did a big farm-to-table dinner. I think [Craig and the center] are doing really good work teaching people about organic [farming] and how it works. Organic farming is very sophisticated. It’s the kind of agriculture that wasn’t practiced 30, 40 or 50 years ago. And when you go to Craig’s farm you see that instantly. I think [organic farming] is poised for a lot more growth. But that does depend on people’s willingness to cook. That’s one of the reasons I thought it was so important to write a book exploring the value of cooking.
When you cook, what are some of your favorite go-to farms for ingredients?
I have a bunch of places that I source food from. I end up with a lot of things from Riverdog [Farm], which is out your way [in Capay Valley], and Full Belly Farm. Riverdog is doing beautiful eggs and pork. Full Belly is doing some very nice wheat flour that I bake with and they have beautiful produce—I get [their stuff] at the [Berkeley] farmers’ market. I think working the local markets and diversifying economically as well as agriculturally is a
coming trend, and you happen to have a lot of very creative and smart farmers there [in Sacramento] who can seize some of these opportunities.
You have to travel a lot for book tours and lectures. How do you eat well when you’re on the road?
It’s always a challenge eating on the road. Airport food is a particularly treacherous thing to navigate. When I’m on the road I’m basically a vegetarian or I eat fish. I don’t eat meat on the road because you don’t know what you’re getting. I always have oatmeal when I’m in a hotel and avoid the breakfast buffets. There are good farm-to-table restaurants now in every city in America. I ask some of the Slow Food chapters [for restaurant recommendations] if I can find them. [Still] I was so happy to get home this week and have a home-cooked meal. I’ve been cooking every night.
What would you tell people who say they are too busy to cook?
I guess the first thing I would say is take an inventory of how you spend your time and make sure that’s true. My argument in [Cooked] is that [cooking is] very important and very rewarding, and therefore worth finding time for. We all found two hours to navigate the Internet outside of work in the last 10 or 15 years. We find time to get to the gym or yoga class, because we feel these things are essential to our sanity and our health. I feel that way about cooking now and I didn’t used to.
I think our biggest problem is we’re just kind of thoughtless about our eating. The more you cook, the more conscious you are about the whole process, and inevitably you make better decisions. There’s great pleasure in working and growing food or in cooking your food. Do it a little bit and you will feel more self-reliant and less dependent. To carve out a little space where corporations are not in your business doing your business is really rewarding to do.
Do you have any guilty food pleasures?
Well, I have more of a fat tooth than a sweet tooth, so I would be more likely to binge on really good cheese or pork belly than on dessert. Bacon is a weakness I have. And Cracker Jack is my junk food of choice, although I would argue that it’s not junk food. It’s a traditional Native American treat. They invented it, supposedly.
As a well-known advocate for healthy eating, when you’re out buying food like Cracker Jack at a grocery store, do you ever feel like you’re under a microscope?
I have had a couple of cases of being recognized in the grocery store. I remember I was at Berkeley Bowl [supermarket], which is a paragon of right-thinking foodies, once. My son was quite young then and on weekends he was allowed to have a sweetened cereal. So I was reaching for the Fruity Pebbles just as this tall, bearded graduate student tapped on my shoulder and said, “I’m watching Michael Pollan shop for groceries.” I was really freaked out. I stayed out of that store for a while.
But now I just don’t care. I’m less fanatical than a lot of the people who have read my books think. There’s no right answer. All I hope to do is encourage people to learn about where their food comes from and make truly independent, informed decisions and not be a victim of marketing. That’s it. That’s all I care about. And wherever [people] come out on meat eating or not meat eating or veganism or raw food, as long as it’s considered, I’m thrilled.