Food Fighter

Michael Pollan is the sage of the local food movement.

Researcher, teacher, writer, speaker, advocate and above all, thinker, Pollan is the most prominent voice in the U.S. on food issues. His special talent, which gives him such influence, is his ability to take complex components, especially those rooted in science, and make them not just understandable but compellingly appealing. That and the fact that he never seems to forget it’s about the food.

He clearly loves food. His books have become the canon of American food writing. Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals is arguably the most influential synopsis of the modern food movement. But the book that followed, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, brilliantly refined his message further, in fact, captured it in seven words: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. UW–Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin made the book her inaugural choice for the Go Big Read common-reading project on campus. With both books, and with lengthy pieces that followed in The New York Times Magazine—one an election-season letter to the president-to-be requesting that food policy be a priority of the next administration, and the second a discourse on the dying practice of cooking our own meals—Pollan has captured, explained and expanded the multi-layered food conversation in this country.

He has a marvelous command of words and ideas and a great understanding of communication. We’ve been in the audience for several of his presentations or panels he’s moderated and each has been a tribute to his ability to craft a message. And what we find so appealing, and genuine, is despite all the acclaim and attention, he has kept his own voice. He doesn’t have a stump speech. Part scientist and part journalist, he takes hard–to-understand concepts and makes them comprehensible. While Slow Food pioneer Alice Waters uses her restaurant to teach people through aesthetics, Pollan uses words to reach people. His impact in this country is second only to hers.

He communicates not just facts but ideas supported by facts. He’s never vitriolic or preachy. He disdains hollow rhetoric and impossible-to-achieve expectations and instead espouses the value of small steps, the value of making one good choice of the many we’re presented each day of what to buy and what to eat. In other words, not throwing the culinary baby out with the bathwater, never again to enjoy a hamburger.

He’s always aligned himself with the values of Slow Food, respect for the land and environment, for the people who produce the food, for the traditions of various cultures and the protection of heritage varieties, and especially taste, the pleasures of the table. But he is never a shill for the movement. He also has great humor. Addressing a session at the Terra Madre gathering of Slow Food Communities in Italy a few years ago he unbuttoned his shirt to show off the picture of an ear of corn on his T-shirt. Suffice to say he made his point.

As such, Pollan is in great demand around the country (and the world for that matter). His three-day visit to Madison is quite a coup. He’s giving a free public talk on Thursday, September 24 at the Kohl Center as part of the public lecture series Humanities Without Boundaries sponsored by the Center for Humanities in partnership with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, among others.

Thanks to that same partnership, Pollan is also speaking at the 11th Annual Food for Thought Festival at 10 a.m., Saturday, September 26, along Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. That event is organized by REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy Food Group). For a festival schedule and more information go to reapfoodgroup.org.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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