Michael Pollan never meant to be a food writer. His original passion was nature. “But if you’re interested in where the human and natural worlds intersect, and how we exert influence on nature, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself looking at the dinner plate,” says Pollan, who’s done a lot more than just look for the past 25 years as he’s explored the problems with Americans’ eating habits. A new edition of his 2009 book “Food Rules” ($23.95, Penguin Press), featuring 19 more principles and images from artist Maira Kalman, comes out Nov. 1. He’ll be speaking at Strathmore ($35-$60) on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
What is it about American culture that drives us to poor eating habits?
We’ve always been a very busy people. If you look at accounts of American eating from the 19th century, when Europeans would come here, they would describe us eating and they were disgusted by it because we ate so fast, we ate standing up, we wolfed down food. I think we were also uncomfortable as descendants of Puritans in taking pleasure in something as carnal as eating. So we treated food as fuel rather than as something sacred and ceremonial. I think the other part is we didn’t have a very stable food culture compared to other countries, because we were a hodgepodge of peoples. When you don’t have a really strong, stable food culture, it becomes really easy for advertisers and marketers to sway you. I think we’ve been more vulnerable to the $42 billion a year spent to market food to us.
What’s the one thing you’d change about the way the average American eats?
Be more conscious about it. Think a little bit harder and longer about what you’re doing and how it connects you to the Earth and how it connects you to other people; that it’s a profound engagement you’re having with nature and your family or your friends; and to treat it with the kind of respect it deserves.
You tout social eating. Why?
When people eat together, they tend not to binge; there are a lot of things going on at the table besides ingestion. The manners that surround our eating may be just as important as the nutrients — good and bad — that we consume. Many cultures have taboos on eating alone. The French really think eating in public — like on the bus or subway, or eating in the car — is kind of repellent.
Where do vitamin supplements fit into your nutrition philosophy?
What we know about supplements is that people who take them are healthier than the population at large. What we also know about supplements is that any single one of them that’s been subject to a double-blind test, they’ve had either no positive effect or a negative effect. How could both things be true? It’s probably because the people who tend to take supplements tend to be more affluent, better educated and more health-conscious than the population at large. That’s why they’re healthier, not because of the supplements themselves. So my advice is to be as much like the people who take supplements and then save your money.
What’s your favorite meal?
I really love a roast chicken — preferably pasture-raised because they taste better — roasted along with root vegetables: parsnips, turnips, carrots, celeriac — whatever’s around.
What are you handing out at your place on Halloween?
All the usual crap. I’m not one of those people who likes to watch kids’ faces fall when they’re handed an apple. I remember being on the other side of that gift. I would actually keep maps and anyone who gave you apples or the chance to look at their kittens instead of candy, I would cross off and never go back.