Lecture Hop: Michael Pollan

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Bwog Official Omnivore Julia Mix Barrington skipped out of a “riveting lab session” hoping to catch a glimpse of Michael Pollan’s bald head. When she actually got to hear him speak, she was so happy she sent in this report. Warning: this Lecture Hop includes incinerated woodchuck.

I joined middle-aged Upper West Side intellectuals, American Studies majors, and other nascent foodies in the line stretching from the doors of Low past Alma promptly at 5.15, hoping only for a seat at the back.  Fortunately, Low Rotunda is always much grander than I’d remembered, and I ended up with a pretty excellent seat at a really excellent talk with Pollan, the author of, among other things, The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and, most recently In Defense of Food, and also a frequent commenter for the New York Times and the Washington Post

Pollan (who also got his masters here in 1981) started out by saying that he spent his collegiate salad days in the hallowed halls of Philosophy, steeping himself in English, particularly Emerson, Thoreau, and the American tradition of “nature writing.”  He sees their “Wilderness Ethic” as the thread connecting each of his books, and it ran through his remarks, as well.  Between insightful and extremely humorous passages read aloud from four of his books, Pollan offered a retrospective narrative of his journey from humble English major to revered food writer and advocate.

The seeds of his first book, Second Nature, stemmed from a house in “rural Connecticut,” after abandoning graduate school (because “you have to learn German and read The Fairie Queene,” which didn’t mesh so well with his real job).  He planted a garden “as only a student of Emerson and Thoreau would” – sans fences or any of the resultant allocations of higher privilege to cultivated or uncultivated land.  This experiment lasted one night, a night during which a recalcitrant woodchuck dined on each of Pollan’s carefully-planted seedlings.  Then, he said, he learned how infuriating it is when a “small-brained creature outwits you”; determined to eradicate his enemy, he embarked on a “horticultural Vietnam.”  Pollan described his anti-woodchuck strategy—from damming up the entrance to its burrow with stones (woodchucks, it turns out, always have a back door), to attempting “behavioral modification” by pouring eggs, motor oil, jam and creosote into the animal’s home, to an act of “terrorism” (shoving the carcass of a road-killed woodchuck into the hole in hopes of getting his message across), to finally trying to incinerate the woodchuck and nearly incinerating himself and his garden instead.  Knowing that Michael Pollan, champion of real food and God of the farmers’ market, could, and did, resort to a woodchuck holocaust humanized him immensely in my eyes; nobody’s perfect.

The Botany of Desire, he said, also arose from his fascination with the natural world; contemplation of a bumblebee and his potato patch inspired the question of how plants manipulate people into propagating and cultivating them while tricking people into thinking they’re in charge. In the course of searching for the answer, Pollan examines the evolutionary agendas of apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana, as well as what these plants’ styles of steering us says about our wants as a species.

Pollan selected a section from this book dealing with many a college student’s favorite topic – cannabis – and, in a treacherously good stoner imitation, made a really brilliant insight about the mental baggage which we carry to all of our experiences.  The “wonder” which a marijuana high brings is, according to Pollan, directly related to the drug’s ability to make us forget; pot strips away all prior experience, allowing a user to see, hear, touch, smell and taste as if for the first time.  Things become “italicized.” Vanilla ice cream turns into vanilla ICE CREAM; chairs are CHAIRS!  Pollan’s audience – made up, for the most part of college students, with a few long-haired older folks sprinkled here and there – gleefully made the leap with him, listening with goofy smiles and unrestrained chuckles.  I could make connections, but I won’t.

Eventually, Pollan meandered away from the topic of recreational drugs and onto the topic of industrially-farmed potatoes—“people in the East have no idea how big farms actually are—and the pesticides used on them, chemicals so poisonous that potatoes must sit for six weeks after harvest in piles that would practically fill Low Rotunda before their toxicity has subsided enough for consumption.  Pollan saw these potato mountains while researching The Botany of Desire, and they opened his eyes to how little he actually knew about where his food came from.  Voila, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was born, which traces four meals (McDonald’s fast food, industrial Whole Foods organic food, hardcore locavore organic food, and a meal he hunted and gathered completely from the land surrounding his California home) from their beginnings (photosynthesis) to their ends (stomachs).

Pollan’s talk ended with a meditation from the last few pages of Omnivore concerning “the perfect meal.”  It’s a meal, he says, which is completely paid for, which leaves “no debt outstanding”; however, even Pollan admits that such a meal—equivalent to the final one he serves—is completely implausible in daily life.  Rather, he suggests, both the first super-fast meal and the last super-slow one should be treated as ritual “thanksgivings”—held once a year so that we truly think about what we are eating and how it gets to us. (photo:

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  1. Actually...  

    Pollan did his undergrad at Bennington and got a Master's in English at CU in '81. He's also hilarious, brilliant, and the talk was truly enjoyable.

  2. alum

    thanks for covering this! I wanted to go and couldn't, so I'm glad to read the review :D

  3. Ah!  

    I had no idea he was speaking. Sad I missed it.

  4. Anonymous

    Well... it case one of you would consider learning The Fairie Queene after all...:) I would recommend this online German course which I am taking these days, its great.

    Cheers, great post

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