Total rock star to the Whole Foods set Michael Pollan comes to Pittsburgh on Mon., March 5, spreading the gospel of eating food your great-grandmother would actually recognize as dinner. His most recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, has been ubiquitous on best-seller and Top 10 lists since it came out last year.
The book details Pollan's quest to trace the food we take for granted back to its origins. He investigates a fast-food meal; an organic meal from the trendy Austin-based grocery chain; dinner from a small, sustainable farm; and a meal he chases, gathers, plucks and kills himself.
Pollan traces the McMeal back to a huge monoculture corn farm, and riffs on how much corn rules in just about every processed item Americans eat. It's chilling, and makes the thought of eating an actual ear of sweet fresh corn seem somehow vulgar and excessive. The Whole Foods meal, while tasty, is overpriced and leaves a huge carbon footprint, as organic out-of-season asparagus has a long way to travel before finding its way into your reusable canvas tote bag. It's a pointed critique of food that bills itself as friendly and guiltless. The most hopeful portion of the book details Pollan's time at Polyface Farm, a small and obsessively sustainable patch in the Shenandoah Valley -- it actually makes looking a chicken in the eye before slitting its throat seem decent and humane.
But the final meal, a boar Pollan hunts and mushrooms he forages, ultimately proves the most satisfying for him. His connection to the meal is direct and elemental -- which, he argues, is what's lacking from America's psychology of food. Our collective eating disorder, he says, stems from too many options too far from their roots: What the hell is a Twinkie, anyway?
Locally, the idea of eating "real" food is gathering steam: Groups like Slow Food and Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture are active here, and restaurants like the bigBurrito group are focusing on using food produced as close and sustainably as possible. Even local comfort-food stalwart Eat N' Park is getting into the act, ramping up efforts to use local produce and explain to customers where their food comes from.
"I definitely think the public is becoming more savvy," says Jamie Moore, director of food and beverage for the Eat N' Park Hospitality Group. "They're becoming more and more aware of where their food is coming from." That awareness, in which the book played a part, is leading to customer demand for more knowledge. The restaurant group, he says, is happy to oblige.
Michael Pollan visits the Drue Heinz Lecture Series 7:30 p.m. Mon., March 5. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $19 ($8 students). 412-622-8866
- Michael Pollan, between meals. Photo by Ken Light.