Michael, unlike most men, is not repelled by staying in the kitchen. On the contrary, he loves the purely-human instinct of cooking, so much that it became an inspiration and directed his path as a food writer. Michael is on a crusade; he intends to make people realize how twisted the food culture has become. As the “cooking culture” is dwindling, cooking is left to big corporations who care little about what they are feeding to the public. It’s clear that their priority is to make more money; how can we remain stoic in the face of this crisis?
Food is not just sustenance, it is information; information that’s interpreted by even the smallest cells in the body which react to anything we consume. Michael wants to inspire people to go back to the kitchen and whip things up from scratch. You need not be as ceremonious as a chef on TV. The important thing is we know what is in our food and how it was prepared.
Early writing career
There are limited accounts about Michael’s early life, except that he was born on Long Island [New York] to a Jewish family on 6 February 1955. Writing runs in his blood; his father, Stephen Pollan, is an author himself and a financial consultant. His mother, Corky Pollan, is a columnist.
It’s no surprise that Michael chose writing as his profession. He majored in English at Bennington University and went on to complete his Master’s degree at Columbia University in 1981.
Three years later, Michael became the Executive Editor of Harper’s Magazine, and he served as such for the next ten years. While at Harper’s, he began contributing to the New York Times magazine in 1987. His works have been included among the “Best American Essays,” published in 1990 and 2003.
Michael published his first book, titled “Second Nature: A Gardener's Education,” when he fell in love with gardening. At a TED talk, he told the audience:
"I'm a very devoted gardener... And one of the things I really like about gardening is that it doesn't take all your concentration, you really can't get hurt—it's not like woodworking—and you have plenty of kind of mental space for speculation." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
Gardening led him to an epiphany about how plants and animals see the world. From gardening, he was able to see things in a different light and meet people with fresh outlooks; people who are not afraid to challenge the norm.
Joel became Michael’s mentor of organic farming (although Joel insists he is a grass farmer). From Joel, Michael learned how farming without chemical fertilizers can still be productive. We are led to believe that the world’s population calls for brilliant technological systems in order to meet food demand, but what he learned while under Joel’s wing was different: organic farming is not only sustainable, but it can also feed our entire population.
From then on, he began speaking about the importance of bringing the animals back to the farm. Most of them have been relocated to gigantic feedlots where they are fed anything but real food; the fastest way to grow them and turn them into processed food is to feed them with lots of carbohydrates. He explained feedlots to Amy Goodman:
"Feedlots are where we grow our meat, in these huge factory farms that have become really the scourge of landscapes in places like Iowa and Missouri, I mean these giant pig confinement operations that basically collect manure in huge lagoons that leak when it rains and smell for miles around. I mean, they’re just, you know, miserable places. And they’re becoming a political issue in the Midwest. And I think they will become a political issue nationally, because people are very concerned about the status of the animals in these places. My worry is, though, that when we start regulating these feedlots, they’ll move to Mexico." (SOURCE: Democracy Now)
Michael published his second book, “A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder,” in 1991, and re-released it in 2008 with a different title: “A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.” Unlike his first book, it didn’t talk about food or gardening, but rather the experience of creating his very own writer’s nook.
We can certainly deduce that Michael is the kind of writer who is driven by passion. And, because of his top-notch talent, his books sell.
Michael’s Bestselling Books
In 2001, Michael published “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World” which became the foundation of the talk he gave for TED. His third book earned him the “Borders Original Voices Award” for the best non-fiction work in the same year it was published. The American Booksellers Association and Amazon.com also recognized “The Botany of Desire” as the “Best Book of the Year.” It inspired a two-hour PBS special in which he made an appearance. He focused on apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes to analogize the desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control.
His fourth book surpassed his third in terms of accolades. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” was published in 2006, and it was named by both the New York Times and Washington Post as one of the top-ten books of the year. The book also won the “Best Food Writing Award” from the James Beard Foundation. The University of Pennsylvania's Reading Project also made “The Omnivore's Dilemma” its book of focus in 2007, while the Washington State University's Common Reading Program made it their book of choice in 2009 and 2010. The book was an eye-opener to many, as it explores the history of human procurement of food from hunter-gatherers to self-sufficient farmers. Then, everything shifted as big organic operations took over until, one day, the industrial system was calling the shots.
Publishing “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”
It’s clear that Michael has finally found his niche. He released “In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto” in 2008, which became controversial for toppling beliefs like “nutritionism” and other New Age diet advice. The book has a simple, three-part piece of advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Why does he have to defend food?
"Food’s under attack from two quarters. It’s under attack from the food industry, which is taking, you know, perfectly good whole foods and tricking them up into highly processed edible food-like substances, and from nutritional science, which has over the years convinced us that we shouldn’t be paying attention to food, it’s really the nutrients that matter. And they’re trying to replace foods with antioxidants, you know, cholesterol, saturated fat, omega-3s, and that whole way of looking at food as a collection of nutrients, I think, is very destructive." (SOURCE: Democracy Now)
In the end, it isn’t “nutritious” food we are eating. If he had it his way, he’d advise people not to eat what their great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as edible. His claims have been questioned, however, by people who have criticized his background and know-how about food.
Concerning “nutritionism,” he has never been sold on the idea. According to him, corporations now alter the nutrient factors of products and use “agents” in the process. He fearlessly shatters such assumptions:
"Nutritionism is the prevailing ideology in the whole world of food. And it’s not a science. It is an ideology. And like most ideologies, it is a set of assumptions about how the world works that we’re totally unaware of. And nutritionism, there’s a few fundamental tenets to it. One is that food is a collection of nutrients, that basically the sum of — you know, food is the sum of the nutrients it contains. The other is that since the nutrient is the key unit and, as ordinary people, we can’t see or taste or feel nutrients, we need experts to help us design our foods and tell us how to eat.
“Another assumption of nutritionism is that you can measure these nutrients and you know what they’re doing, that we know what cholesterol is and what it does in our body or what an antioxidant is. And that’s a dubious proposition.
“And the last premise of nutritionism is that the whole point of eating is to advance your physical health and that that’s what we go to the store for, that’s what we’re buying. And that’s also a very dubious idea. If you go around the world, people eat for a great many reasons besides, you know, the medicinal reason. I mean, they eat for pleasure, they eat for community and family and identity and all these things. But we’ve put that aside with this obsession with nutrition.
“And I basically think it’s a pernicious ideology. I mean, I don’t think it’s really helping us. If there was a trade-off, if looking at food this way made us so much healthier, great. But in fact, since we’ve been looking at food this way, our health has gotten worse and worse." (SOURCE: Democracy Now)
Releasing “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual”
After three bestselling books on food, Michael condensed his words of wisdom in his fifth book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” This also became a bestseller, and provided valuable insights on how we can change our lifestyles by changing the way we eat.
He again extrapolated on “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” and gave his readers advice on how to make sure what they’re eating will not shorten their lifespan. There were a total of 64 easy-to-recall food tips in the book. Blogger Scott Dinsmore listed the following as the most useful:
1. Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.
2. Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
3. Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
4. It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.
5. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
6. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.
7. The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.
8. Have a glass of wine with dinner.
9. Stop eating before you’re full.
10. Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored. If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry.
11. Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
12. Do all your eating at a table.
13. Leave something on your plate.
14. Break the rules once in a while. “All things in moderation. Including moderation." (SOURCE: Live Your Legend)
There are easy rules to live by, especially if you want to live a long, full life.
His newest release is “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” He made use of the classical elements: fire (cooking with heat), water (braising and boiling with pots), air (bread-making) and Earth (fermenting) to get his point across.
Melissa Katsoulis of “The Telegraph” writes about Cooked:
“Learning about cooking with fire from the great pit-masters, for whom the word ‘barbecue’ means nothing but a whole hog cooked over wood smoke and served with cornbread made from the animal’s lard, he revels in ‘cooking’s primary colours – animal, wood, fire, time.’
“For ‘Water,’ he explores the gentler cooking style of a pot with liquid in it, under the tutelage of a charismatic young chef who reveals the subtle wonders of the braise. She is all about never rushing a mirepoix and heavily pre-salting all your meat. Pollan, being a sensitive soul, observes that ‘the pot dish, lidded and turbid, has none of the Apollonian clarity of a recognisable animal on a spit,’ but is a naughty ‘primordial Dionysian soup.’ Professional kitchen tips abound, such as not being afraid to cook with just water, and personal ones too, about creating something communal for others.
“Moving on to ‘Air’ and ‘Earth,’ things start to get fantastic and a bit crazy. Fully aware that seeking authenticity is ‘a fraught and often dubious enterprise,’ Pollan none the less scours California’s artisan bakeries for the tastiest loaf and sets out to meet its maker. His lessons with the bearded, solemn Chad open his eyes to the incredible, invisible world of airborne microbes and their role in keeping us healthy. Never heard of wild fermentation? You haven’t lived.” (SOURCE: MichaelPollan.com)
Well, Michael is not after leading a movement; he writes these books to inspire people to mind their diets and consider how their food is made. Food is just as important as the air we breathe; we could be eating inedible meat for all we know. The best way to be sure is to go back to our kitchens and take the time to feed our loved ones with real, nutritious food.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Greater Good Science Center
- New York Times Magazine
- Localvore movement
Awards and Achievements
- 1977: Received a B.A. in English from Bennington College
- 1981: Received an M.A. in English from Columbia University
- 1984-1994: Served as Executive Editor of Harper’s Magazine
- 1987: Started contributing to The New York Times magazine
- 1990: Essays included in “Best American Essays”
- 1997: Received the “John Burroughs Prize” for best natural history essay
- 2000: Received the “Reuters-I.U.C.N. Global Award for Environmental Journalism” for his reporting on genetically-modified crops
- 2001: “The Botany of Desire” received the “Borders Original Voices Award” for the best non-fiction work and was recognized as a “Best Book of the Year” by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon.com
- 2003: Received the “James Beard Award” for the best magazine series
- 2003: Received the Humane Society of the United States “Genesis Award” for his writing on animal agriculture
- 2003: Essays included in “Best American Essays”
- 2003: Appointed the “John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism” at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism
- 2003: Appointed Director of the “Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism”
- 2004: Essays included in “Best American Science Writing”
- 2006: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was named one of the “Ten Best Books” by both the New York Times and the Washington Post
- 2007: The James Beard Foundation named “The Omnivore's Dilemma” its winner for the best food writing
- 2007: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” became the book of focus for the University of Pennsylvania's “Reading Project”
- 2008: Received the “Truth in Agricultural Journalism Award” from the American Corngrowers Association
- 2009-2010: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” became the book of choice for Washington State University's Common Reading Program
- 2009: Was a finalist for the “National Magazine Award for Best Essay”
- 2009: Named by Newsweek as one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders”
- 2009: Received the “President’s Citation Award” from the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the “Voices of Nature Award” from the Natural Resources Defense Council
- 2009: Appeared in a two-hour PBS special based on “The Botany of Desire”
- 2010: Named to the “2010 TIME 100”
- 2011: Published an illustrated version of “Food Rules”
- “The Omnivore's Dilemma” won the “California Book Award” and the “Northern California Book Award” and was a Finalist for the “National Book Critics Circle Award”
- Received the “QPB New Vision Award” for his first book, “Second Nature”
- Appeared in the Academy-Award winning documentary “Food Inc.”
- Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
- The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
- A Place of My Own
- Second Nature
- “Opium Made Easy”
- “When a Crop Becomes King”
- “An Animal's Place”
- “Mass Natural”
- “Six rules for eating wisely”
- “Unhappy Meals”
- “You Are What You Grow”
- “Our Decrepit Food Factories”
- “Why Bother?”
- “An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief”
- “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”
- “Big Food vs. Big Insurance”
MichaelPollan.com (About Michael Pollan)
Wikipedia (Michael Pollan)
Berkeley Journalism (Michael Pollan)
Slate (Sun Food vs. Oil Food)
The New York Times (Behind the Cover Story: Michael Pollan on Why Bacteria Aren’t the Enemy)
Democracy Now (In Defense of Food: Author, Journalist Michael Pollan on Nutrition, Food Science and the American Diet)
AlterNet (Michael Pollan: We Are Headed Toward a Breakdown in Our Food System)
TED.com (Michael Pollan: A plant's-eye view)
Live Your Legend (Michael Pollan’s Top 14 Food Rules to Healthy Eating)
MichaelPollan.com (Cooked by Michael Pollan, review)