Posts Tagged ‘michael pollan’

A Taste of Justice

February 22, 2010

Think of agents for change in American eating habits, and Berkeley’s Alice Waters and Michael Pollan come immediately to mind.

Indeed, eat-more-greens advocates can appear as white as Wonder Bread.

On the menu at the local La Pena Cultural Center last night: some much-needed color in the conversation about good food matters.

Read my entire post on the foodcentric performance piece Visceral Feast over at Berkeleyside.

I first learned about the evening from accomplished choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken Amara’s Rhythm & Motion dance class for almost two decades. The girl knows how to inspire joy and shake her booty like nobody’s business. Believe me when I say she raises the roof. There’s a reason I think of dance class as my church.)

Well, turns out, Amara, artistic director of  the Oakland-based Deep Waters Dance Theater, has been investigating edible issues, such as where food comes from and its impact on the community and the environment, in performance pieces that address the soul and spiritual connections to eating and cooking.

Last year she showcased a work in progress, “Our Daily Bread,” as part of an artist in residency at CounterPULSE, a non-profit theater in San Francisco.

Amara describes herself as “mostly vegan” not initially for political reasons but because she doesn’t care for the taste of meat. But she cooks meat for others and acknowledges her roots as a child growing up eating her mother’s gumbo.

She’s planning several food parties as part of her exploration of eating this year. One she’s dubbing Raw Meat, where she hopes raw food folk will dialogue with confirmed carnivores.

Find Amara’s Recession Root Stew recipe, inspired by the times and in the spirit of African American food traditions, right here.

It’s vegan, can feed lots of folks, and includes dinosaur kale, cilantro, and coconut milk. Sounds just the dish for a cold winter’s night.

At last night’s performance the audience was asked to share a favorite food memory.

I listed my sister’s pavlova and family barbecues with the proverbial “shrimp on the barbie” (Aussies call them prawns). And Vegemite on white toast, comfort food when you’re sick. All of these foods remind me of home.

The man seated next to me wrote simply, “I miss my mom’s chai.”

Now it’s your turn.

Photo credit: Alan Kimara Dixon

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Book Giveaway: Food Rules

January 27, 2010

Does the award-winning, best-selling author Michael Pollan and his new eater’s manual Food Rules need any introduction?

The haiku version: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

For more on the evolution of Pollan’s latest book, read my recent blog post on Berkeleyside, reprinted yesterday by Civil Eats.

Or tune in today when the good food guru makes an appearance on Oprah, on a show devoted to food issues called, Before You Shop Again: Food 101 with Michael Pollan.

Here’s what I like about this little guide: It’s full of common sense. It’s not preachy or dogmatic.  It’s doable. And it’s all delivered in “cultural blips that stick in your head,” to quote the New York Times Magazine contributor and University of California, Berkeley, professor himself.

Think short, simple, catchy, often funny, nuggets of nutritional wisdom for consumers about consuming:

#18: Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap.

#36 Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

My 11 year old read Food Rules over dinner, got it, agreed with most of it, and it got us talking about food and meal times in a different way.

That’s the beauty of this book. It’s just a slip of a thing, a glorified pamphlet really, but it could be the starting point to a healthy, lifelong relationship with food.

Do you have a food rule you think belongs in this guide?

Share your idea for a chance to win an autographed copy of Food Rules.

Alternatively, come up with a different title for this manual. When I hear the word “rules” my rebellious nature kicks in. Why not “pearls” or “gems” or even “wisdom”? Got a better title? Bring it on below.

Comments close at 10 p.m. Pacific Time next Wednesday, February 3. Winner chosen at random.

If you’re stuck for suggestions, here’s a tip: While researching this book, Pollan asked readers of the Times blog the Well to pass on ideas. He got, oh, about 2,784 responses (and counting), some of them quite funny:

Only put one meat on the pizza.

Don’t eat anything bigger than your head.

Never eat sushi from a convenience store.

Don’t buy your food where you buy your gas.

Bonus points if you pass on some kitchen wisdom that makes me laugh.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, what’s Pollan’s guiltiest pleasure?

French fries. But don’t sweat it, he’s got it covered with:

#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.

Update: Apologies for my tardiness in following up on this contest. I was out of Internet range for three days and then felled by illness. But I’m back in the saddle today (sort of) and happy to announce that the randomly chosen winner of Food Rules is Heidi Bokor, #14 of more than 40 entrants. Thanks to all for playing — and for great title suggestions, such as Small Bites and Bites of Wisdom, along with all the food rules folks shared below. Look for future food book giveaways coming soon.

Michael Pollan Talks Food Rules in San Francisco

January 23, 2010

Find out what the affable, ethical epicurean had to say today in my post on Michael Pollan for Berkeleyside.

And check back here next week for this month’s book giveaway, a signed copy of Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

August 20, 2009

Uber-funny urban farmer Novella Carpenter has gone from indie garage band status to full-fledged rock star of the urban homestead movement in a matter of months. In part, perhaps, because of zingers likes this one, about the lengths she and her partner go to — including nightly dumpster diving sporting head lamps — to keep two hungry and hefty pigs fed in the city. “If we had had time to think about it,” she says, “we would have realized that we had become these pigs’ bitches.”

novella-carpenterPhoto: Sarah Henry

Carpenter, who grows greens and raises livestock on a dead-end street in the ghetto, is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.  For the past decade, the 38-year-old has cultivated land in the city, the last six years on GhostTown Farm, the sunny, squat lot in Oakland, California next to her rundown, coral-colored flat — complete with a back porch covered in goat poop  — where she lives with mechanic boyfriend Bill and a menagerie of her so-called edible pets, including rabbits, chickens, and, on occasion, a turkey or two.

The ‘hood is also dotted with long-shuttered businesses, drug dealers, prostitutes, multiethnic neighbors, and what Carpenter affectionately refers to as “fellow freaks.” She feels right at home there. “The neighborhood had a whiff of anarchy,” she notes in her memoir. “Spanish-speaking soccer players hosted ad hoc tournaments in the abandoned playfield. Teenagers sold bags of marijuana on the corners. The Buddhist monks made enormous vats of rice on the city sidewalk…And I started squat gardening on land I didn’t own.”

A child of back-to-the landers, Carpenter has received stellar reviews, most notably in the New York Times, for chronicling her exploits in the urban jungle. An excerpt from the book — some 15 pages on raising pigs and learning the craft of charcuterie — fills the August food issue of San Francisco magazine. She’s been featured everywhere from mainstream outlets like Time, foodie circles, like Culinate, and eco-green arenas like Grist. Not bad for a first-time author.

A former student of Michael Pollan’s, she regaled an audience at a recent reading in Berkeley with tales of foraging for food for her ravenous pigs (everything from rotting fish heads, frosted cakes, and organic peaches for these well-tended swine), before the hogs eventually wound up as cured meat. “You work your ass off trying to feed your pig really well,” she tells a crowd who eats up her colorful quips. “And then you find yourself thinking: This is going to be good. It’s a little sexy.”

But hers is not some sort of groovy-urban-gal-goes-green shtick. She’s the real deal. On a recent Friday at 7 am she greets me at the door and then diligently goes back to milking her goats.  Once the task is done, she heads outside for a farm tour. She checks in with and feeds her animals and waters her plants by hand. Clearly, tending creatures and crops nourishes her in more ways than one. “I realized that not only did I make the garden, it made me,” she writes in her book. “I ate out of this place every day. I had become this garden–its air, water, soil. If I abandoned the lot, I would abandon myself.”

It’s also clear it takes discipline to be a city farmer. She goes to great lengths to source supplies for her animals (like trips to the local racetrack to pick up alfalfa for her goats). And she takes personal responsibility for killing the animals she eats. She’s surprised that some vegans buy her book — and pleased that people on either side of the omnivore aisle respect her efforts to eat meat with integrity. (Still, I suspect many vegetarians would wince at her descriptions of slaughtering animals, however humanely and humbly she goes about it.)

For those of us who have a hard time growing veggies in the backyard, a big part of her appeal may simply lie in knowing that a modern day urban homesteader like Carpenter is out there doing her thing, day in and day out. She’s a fixture in the ‘hood, along with hookers, dealers, homeless dudes, and kids who stop by to visit the animals. Her Cuban neighbors take care of the farm when she’s away; the Yemeni liquor store owner down the block offers advice on goat husbandry pulled from his earlier life as a goat herder. Talk about community.

I admire Novella’s moxie, and I suspect others do too. I’m not much of a meat eater, but the fact that she buys these farm animals and learns as she goes, in true D.I.Y. fashion, how to raise them and get them on the table for dinner is pretty impressive. Plus, just like me, she really doesn’t like rats, an unfortunate fact of life for an urban farmer.

Novella estimates that about half of her food comes from her farm and she sells some of her animals to fancy pants restaurants that want well-fed, farm fresh meat on the menu. But the girl isn’t raking it in, with animal expenses, vet visits, and seed and feed costs this is a labor of love not a moneymaking venture. The advance for her book, for instance, promptly paid for a milking goat.

So when she’s not tending her farm, Novella divides her time between writing, she’s currently at work on a how-to book for folks intrigued about urban farming, and running a biofuel station, the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, where she’s one of the owner/worker biodiesel divas. It may well be the only fueling station around that holds classes on raising chickens and bees in close quarters.

Her advice to those interested in joining the urban farming bandwagon? Start small, go slow, and grow what you like to eat. Radishes are easy, she points out, but if you don’t love ’em, why grow ’em? “The easiest urban farm animal is the bee, since they do most of the work and require little maintenance,” she says. “After that, try chickens; the eggs are amazing and they’re funny to watch.”

Curious to learn more? If you live in the Bay Area, check out Novella on the farm in person on Saturday, August 29, during Oakland’s Eat Real Festival next weekend. She’ll give farm tours, sign books, teach workshops on slaughtering chickens and raising goats, and harvest food to share. Oh, and she has a trio of dwarf goats for sale. Anyone game?

Organic Food Fight

August 6, 2009

Mulling over whether it’s worth spending more on organic greens, nectarines, or milk? You’ve got company. The assumption that organic produce tastes better and is better for you than conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables is as bruised as an organic farmers’ market peach brought home on a bike.

fruit-vegetable-mosaicPhoto by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

Consider this: A major study out of Britain which garnered loads of press last week, concludes that there’s no evidence that organic produce and livestock products are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 50 years of scientific literature on the subject, and focused on 55 rigorous studies.

Of course, not everyone buys organic for its health benefits. Some choose organic for environmental, animal welfare, or farm worker concerns, all of which were outside the scope of the U.K. report. Many buy organic apples, berries, corn, or eggs because of what’s not in these foods: no chemical pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. No irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge, and no genetically modified ingredients. “I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably,” writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle in a recent Food Politics post, echoing the sentiment of others. “I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics.”

Nestle sites superior taste as another factor in forking out more for organic, and many consumers concur. There’s nothing like the juicy, flavorful first bite of a richly-red, ripe, organic, locally-grown, sun-warmed, freshly-picked tomato to make organic converts out of people used to mushy, bland, pale, cold-storage, conventionally-grown tomatoes flown in from afar to sit on supermarket shelves, right?

Wait, not everyone agrees. The notion that organic produce is always more delicious than conventional fruit & veggies has also been called into question of late.  Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, a self-dubbed, non-believer in organics, notes that the label doesn’t guarantee superior quality or taste.

He hit a nerve: His recent column received around 90 comments — the overwhelming majority in agreement with Parsons’ position.  The idea that if you aren’t eating fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, then you might as well be “mainlining Agent Orange or handing your money straight to some giant industrial agricultural corporation,” is inaccurate, writes Parsons. “Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one,” he adds. “For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.”

Still, sales of organics have doubled since the federal government began certifying food as such about seven years ago (though it still represents a tiny percentage of overall food sales). Most U.S. grocery stores now stock some organic produce or products, and 1 out of 3 Americans have purchased organic food at least once.

What’s in the label, anyway? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition is essentially a marketing term that has little to do with food safety or nutrition, says a spokesperson for the department in a recent New York Times piece by food writer Mark Bittman. The government’s designation also falls far short of the desires of many organic farmers and advocates, notes Bittman. Some small-scale sustainable farmers can’t afford to go through the government’s organic certification process, or don’t think the label is meaningful so don’t bother. And much of what is produced in America under the umbrella of organic food is part of large-scale food production practices.  (Check out the documentary Food, Inc. for more details.)

Given the bad economy, even people who are predisposed to buy organic are finding themselves on a tighter food budget and making choices on what organic produce to buy based on lists like the “Dirty Dozen”, from the Environmental Working Group. (Of course, the assumption that organic equals more expensive isn’t always true either. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean “local.” )

Bittman argues in his recent post that the national debate on food should focus more on how to eat well — sticking to real ingredients, eating more plant-based food and less animal products and highly-processed foods, cooking from scratch (aka author Michael Pollan‘s thesis) — rather than whether or not you load up on organic versus conventional goods.

(Interesting aside: Judging by another recent research review, eating well is harder to do now than in the past.  A study published this year in HortScience revealed that the nutritional content of today’s conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is 5 to 40 percent lower than produce picked 50 years ago in the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps another reason to grow your own?)

Despite the recent ballyhoo, farmers’ markets overflowing with organic food continue to draw crowds willing to pony up good money for the stuff. On a recent Sunday at one stand, the line for squash, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and other summer bounty rivaled the wait to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain. When this shopper got to the head of the queue she overheard one seller say to the other, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

So, then, readers, where do you stand on the organic debate? Is buying organic produce worth it or a waste of money? Share your opinions below.

Eat Food, Cook Food, and Don’t Forget the Salt

July 29, 2009

Perhaps the best thing about Cook Food: a manualfesto for easy, healthy, local eating is that it’s a slim little volume.

That’s not some snarky reviewer comment. Writer Lisa Jervis aims to demystify how to eat well and cook simple food by keeping her book brief. She includes 20 recipes of the beans, greens, grains, tofu, and tempeh variety. Well seasoned, as Jervis advocates, these ingredients can form the basis of a decent recipe repertoire for the eco-conscious (both environmental and financial).

This guide may hit a chord with people interested in food politics who don’t have a clue about what to cook in the kitchen and don’t need pretty pictures to motivate them to make a meal. (This is not your typical photo-driven cookbook.)

Folks inspired by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Stuffed & Starved author Raj Patel, whose book blurb adorns the back cover, come to mind. And Cook Food might also serve as a handy reference for college students, making the switch from dorm life to truly independent living, who need assistance figuring out essential equipment, pantry basics, and practical tips and techniques (note to self: ditch the lame-o rice cooker and get a jelly roll pan for roasting veggies to perfection.)

Regardless, if Jervis, who sports a cool beet tattoo, happens to be reading in your neighborhood do stop by. At The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco last Friday, it feels like I’ve entered the kitchen of a friend who could use a little help getting the dinner on.

More group discussion and less book reading, Jervis distractedly composes a farmers’ market salad for her audience to sample to support her thesis that preparing satisfying food is within everyone’s reach.

She fields questions while she chops. We learn she’s politically aware (conscious of her carbon footprint, locavore advocate, mostly vegan), and a bit of a renegade (a liberal user of oil and salt, she signs her book, salt early, salt often). She also confesses during her cooking demo that she’s confused an Asian melon for a lemon cucumber. It doesn’t seem to faze her. There’s nothing slick going on here, which leaves you feeling comfortable that you, too, can cook food.

In this era of celebrity chefs and network cooking shows, it’s easy to feel intimidated by food.

Jervis serves as a reminder that we don’t need to be.

Food, Inc. May Make You Lose Your Lunch

June 30, 2009

A film about what we eat could well win the award for the best horror flick showing in theaters this summer. Take a look, if you’re game, at Food, Inc., though a heads up for animal lovers and vegetarians: This documentary is hard to stomach.

If you’ve read both Fast Food Nation by writer Eric Schlosser, a Food, Inc. co-producer,  and Omnivore’s Dilemma by author Michael Pollan, dubbed the ethical epicurean by the New York Times, you may feel like there’s nothing new to be said on the subject of mass produced food. Nonetheless, these two food gurus serve as the talking heads on this doco by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner.  In the course of the film Schlosser rightly refers to himself as an investigative reporter. As a journalist with a muckraking past, I was pleased to hear the term and disheartened that it now applies to covering what we consume. Still, as a mostly vegetarian farmers’ market fan, I also figured I was immune to the evil things cooked up by the multinational food conglomerates that Pollan and Schlosser calmly and methodically feed us throughout the film.

Wrong on both counts. I was surprised and outraged all over again about what’s happened to how food is grown and sold in the U.S. and how a few large companies control almost all the food served up in supermarkets. Consider, too, as the film does, a poor Latino family of four who deal with a dilemma faced by many working Americans, namely how to eat cheaply and well. When a burger costs a buck at a drive-through and you can’t even get a pound of broccoli for that, what are you going to do? Deal with a dad with type 2 diabetes and a young daughter well on the way to getting the disease, that’s what.

And don’t get me started on the whole soybean seed saga. Turns out Monsato, a chemical company infamously known for producing both DDT and Agent Orange, has the monopoly on that franchise — its patented a gene in 90 percent of the country’s soybean seeds — and uses its multimillion-dollar muscles to squeeze out any small-time, old-school, seed-saving farmer who stands in their way. Nice.

Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt is supposed to play the role of the bright spot amid the gloom.  Hmmm. Not sure I buy that one. We watch as Hirshberg starts selling his organic yogurt to Wal-Mart and listen as he tells us that every food purchase is a political act. There’s an ironic moment when an organic dairy farmer tells the fresh-faced Wal-Mart reps that her family has boycotted the chain store for years. And we learn that Stonyfield was recently bought by global behemoth Groupe Danone, the France-based makers of Dannon yogurt. Call me a worrywart, this kind of corporate match-up makes me nervous. Despite the film’s lively use of music and graphics and a catchy call to action at the end it all feels a bit bleak — until Schlosser points out that Big Tobacco eventually took a beating from consumer activists — take that corporate corn lobby!  I hope he’s right. Time will tell.

Hungry to see the film for yourself? A word to the wise: Have a meal before heading to this movie. And skip the artificially-buttered, non-organic, genetically-modified popcorn, which, as the screen reveals, is a big part of what’s wrong with the current food system.  As for high-fructose corn syrup? It’s the stuff of nightmares in our house now.

The last word goes to my son, who sat cowering in his seat for much of the playing time, when he wasn’t whispering, ” Mum, why did you bring me to see this movie?” Mind you, this is a kid with a healthy appetite for screen violence, fantasy films featuring orphaned children, and other frightening standard movie fare.  But animal abuse, E. coli, and early death by diet — it’s enough to turn a young one off his food forever. As he said on the way out, “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”

Food, Inc. screens nationally, check local listings for details.

This is the third in a trilogy of food-themed films reviewed here this season. Read about the documentaries The Garden and Food Stamped in previous blog posts. And chime in if you have your own recommendation in this genre. I hear, for instance, that both King Corn and Dirt! The Movie are good, but haven’t seen either documentary yet. Have you?

The First Lady of Food

June 19, 2009

So the week began with Paul McCartney’s plea for Meat Free Mondays and ended with Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter discussing slaughtering chickens, rabbits, goats, and pigs for dinner.

What a difference a few days makes. Carpenter, in case you’ve missed her, is the author of Farm City, a new book on urban gardening that’s garnering rave reviews, like this one from Dwight Garner in last week’s New York Times. She’s not just growing greens people, she’s got an animal farm in her ghetto-fabulous digs. She describes how she lovingly cares for her edible pets and the respectful rituals she performs before readying them for the family meal. There are amusing accounts of dumpster diving near chi-chi restaurants for high-end swill for her hungry pigs.  She’s very funny, peppers her speech with cuss words, and this past week she packed both the bio-diesel gas station that sprang up overnight in my neighborhood and a church, no less, full of folk eager to here her talk dirty. She didn’t disappoint. “You work your arse off trying to feed your pig really well,” she told the church crowd, “and then you find yourself massaging salt into her leg and thinking, ‘this is going to be good’ — it’s a little sexy.”

Linda McCartney just rolled over in her grave. Meanwhile, I’m probably the only person alive in Berkeley who hadn’t attended a Michael Pollan food chat. As advertised, the man who urges us to Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. is accessible and charming and graciously played the role of the proud professor lavishing praise on his student and her success.

But here was the real take-home message from the evening. Carpenter, the relative newbie to food writing, asked Pollan whether this whole obsession with what we eat isn’t getting a little out of hand. Pollan used the opportunity to point out that the politics of food is just getting interesting, now that there’s an administration that gets why it’s important to reform this country’s food system. Of course, as he pointed out, it’s one thing to “get it,” and quite another to bring about change.

That’s where the First Lady of Food comes in. It seems Michelle Obama is on a mission to raise people’s consciousness about our diet. The White House Victory Garden was just the beginning; this week she revealed a plan detailing how to profoundly alter the way we eat. Pollan thinks if the Obama administration can get people to realize that to carry out health care reform the country also needs to overhaul its food industry (drawing the connection between obesity, type 2 diabetes, and skyrocketing health care costs) then maybe real change is possible. That’s something to chew on.

Photo: Lynn Sweet.

To learn more about what Michelle’s got cooking on the culinary political front follow her every food move at Eddie Gehman Kohan’s amazingly exhaustive Obama Foodorama blog.

Book Banning Abated

May 28, 2009

Have you been following the controversy over the summer reading selection at Washington State University? It looks something like this: The best-seller Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by good food guru Michael Pollan was slated as a must read for all incoming freshmen. Then the university administration scrapped the book and an appearance by Pollan, saying it was simply too costly given the tight financial times the institution faces this fall.

But pulling Pollan and his award-winning polemic — which casts a critical eye over industrial farming in America — may have been triggered by political pressure within the university hierarchy, cried some. The land-grant university in Pullman, Washington, sits in an area known for its big agribusiness operations, including wheat crops.

Enter university alum and former chair of the Board of Regents Bill Marler, a well-known food safety lawyer, who shone the spotlight on this subject in a blog post this week. He even offered to foot the bill for Pollan’s appearance. University president Elson Floyd accepted his donation and the event will go ahead as originally planned.

A date has yet to be set for Pollan’s food-focused chat. For now, a victory for free speech, intellectual debate, and academic freedom. Oh, and the benefits of blogging. And maybe the makers of the soon-to-be-released film Food, Inc., which features Pollan, might want to capitalize on the controversy. Food for thought.