The Happy Demagogue

Funny how things work out sometimes. Here I am talking about food additives this week, and who should show up in town? My old friend Michael Pollan. I don’t know how I missed all the promotion surrounding his lecture last night, but I did. Once I finally realized he’d be speaking a mere six blocks from Joe Pastry World Headquarters, I dropped everything to get work done and find a sitter for the girls (which is the reason posting was so light yesterday).

My expectation was that the event was going to be on par with my other “live” experiences of him: a hundred or so people sitting in a lecture hall. Imagine my surprise then, when I arrived at Bellarmine University, to discover the event was being held in a basketball auditorium with some 3,000 people in attendance.

All I can say is that the fellow was on. Not so much a lecture as an information-heavy standup comedy performance, Pollan’s speech made for a terrific show. He was funny, he was smart, he was self-effacing and charming. Agree with him or not, it cannot be denied that he has an unusual amount of personal charisma for a bookish journalist. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: on a personal level I really like Michael Pollan. Fortunately, liking people and agreeing with them are two very different things, which frees me up to offer some pretty harsh criticism.

Because the thing is, if you listened to Michael Pollan — really listened — you could discern that he was saying some very disquieting things. The thrust of last night’s talk, appropriately enough for my topic this week, was largely anti-scientific. Pollan lamented that people today know what gluten, beta carotene and antioxidants are. Indeed he regards such knowledge as an example of a broad social pathology, one he’s dubbed “orthorexia”, an unhealthy obsession with healthy food — specifically individual nutrients.

“We need a priesthood of experts to mediate our relationships to food,” Pollan said. “We’re way too focused on ‘good’ nutrients and ‘evil’ nutrients.” I’ll say I was in broad agreement with that latter statement. Yet the very next moment he was pounding the table about ingredients that we know “for certain” are evil. Those of course being his pet bugaboos: trans fats, high fructose corn syrup and concentrated carbohydrates.

It was the old familiar Michael Pollan double-bind that I’ve written about in the past. Nutritional science is junk unless it supports my argument. However this time, maybe it was because of the astonishing crowd, the message seemed to take on a more sinister dimension. You don’t need to know anything about food science beyond what I’m telling you. I could be imagining things, of course. However what’s clear is that there is little science out there to justify Pollan’s ever-more-dire proclamations about our food system, our agricultural system and our society in general. In fact the more science you apply to his claims, the more their substance seems to disappear through your fingers like so much organic felafel mix.

The conclusion I came to walking away from the event last night was that there’s a heck of a lot more to Michael Pollan than I once thought. He’s not only a writer of effective screeds, he’s a heck of a delivery man — an entertainer, even. His arguments may be gripey and circular, built on unsound science and anecdotal data, but he delivers them in such a way that there’s an appearance of real meat there. And that’s a dangerous thing, in my opinion, because he’s got the ear of a heck of a lot of people. Some of them quite influential.

I remember I predicted some time ago that Pollan’s next move, bookwise, would be away from the inconveniences of science and nutrition and toward psychology and cultural criticism. Based on clues I gleaned from the content of last night’s speech, I have a feeling that my intuition will shortly be validated, and that in the coming months he’ll be unveiling a Pollanite grand unification theory, in which he will put forward his vision for restructuring not only our food system, but our food culture as well. Woe unto us on that day.

“It’s crazy to reorganize your life according to nutrition science,” he said in his summation. What’s even crazier is to reorganize a colossal segment of our economy and/or society according to the whims of a man who cares little for the rigors of research, the scientific method or the economics of agriculture. Yet I fear, based on what I saw last night, that there are at least 3,000 people here in Louisville who would be willing to do just that.

6 thoughts on “The Happy Demagogue”

  1. I really like what you have to say about Michael Pollan. I have not read all of his book. You are being sincere and realistic. Wouldn’t it be so groovy if we all grew our own organic food and never trucked anything? But if I want to eat in the winter, since I live in Indiana, I need vegetables trucked in since I do not can. I travel a lot, and go to school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris last year and for the next two years, in the winter for 5 weeks, and can tell you right now, that everyone thinks the French only eat what is in season, what is grown locally, blah blah blah. That is absolutely NOT TRUE. They get their oranges from Spain or Israel, they get their olives form southern France or a Mediterran country, they get food from other places or areas of France just as we do! Perhaps just as much, I might add. Yes they get excited when strawberries are in season as we do, but I think if they had a state like California, they would take advantage of it as well. I would be interested to see what other people think regarding this.

    1. Thanks Laura! I appreciate you taking the time to make an excellent point. Pollan draws strength from the fact that most people don’t know how Europeans (like the French and Italians) really live and eat. The food Valhalla he imagines simply doesn’t exist. The more people understand this, the better off we all are!

      Cheers and thanks again!

      – Joe

  2. I’ve read one of Micheal Pollan’s books just to see what all the fuss was about. I felt as you do — much of his “science” isn’t and he seems to be very, shall I say, left of center on his views of what it takes to feed a nation. I grew up on a conventional orchard (apples early on and later pears) and now am helping my mom run the orchard my dad ran until he died. Most people have NO idea what it takes to raise a crop of any kind or how much it costs (labor, taxes, equipment, taxes, insurance – crop & health & property , sprays, taxes. . .did I mention taxes?!?) and how little the average farmer actually takes home at the end of the day. Also, for pear growers, we pick our pears in August/September, but often don’t see all the pears sold until almost a year later. Sure, I’d like to grow fruit where I wouldn’t have to use so many sprays (it’s expensive!), but it’s even MORE expensive to grow “organic” (and I feel that really shouldn’t be the term used) and the “organic” farmers spray just as often if not more than the conventional farmers. As my dad used to say, “Why would I spray things that aren’t rigorously tested and would harm my family and customers?” And trust me, everything we use is very accurately measured and only use what we need — less if we can. The problem with Micheal Pollan is that he thinks we should all grow our own food — where, I don’t know. And he doesn’t realize that growing your own doesn’t necessarily mean it will be cheaper — just ask someone who raises their own chickens!

    Sorry for the rant! I really appreciate your blog BECAUSE you check the science and the facts and reasons behind things. Thank you!

    1. My very great pleasure, Tonia. I assume you’re referring to that article in the New York Times which found that the eggs of home-kept chickens had high levels of lead…yet people kept feeding them to their kids because at least “we know where they come from.” If there was ever any doubt that “local” had become a fetish for some people, that piece erased it.

      But I’m with you for certain. As you may know from my Pollan pieces, I come from a long line of corn farmers. We make the same sorts of compromises and we worry over every application. It’s the reality of farming, and as you know very well, it ain’t easy and it doesn’t make you rich!

      Cheers and thanks for the rant!

      – Joe

  3. Reading these posts leaves me wondering what’s your approach to ingredients and food in general? Do you fit in any particular category (organic, local, etc.)? Do you have some never-touch-that rules? What do you think of sugar and pastry (I mean pastry is mostly not pastry without sugar)?
    I’d love to read a whole post on this. (In case such a post exist on your blog, just refer me to it, please.)

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