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Michael Pollan: We Are Headed Toward a Breakdown in Our Food System

Pollan gives a glimpse at the current state of food politics inside the White House and within his own home.

Michael Pollan's famous motto for a smart, healthy diet is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Add to that: "And when you happen to be on your publisher's expense account, splurge." The night we met up to chat at a place of his choosing, he tucked into a roasted slab of B.C. wild Chinook salmon, a tangle of salad greens and several glasses of good Okanagan Pinot Gris in the swank environs of the Blue Water Café in Vancouver's Yaletown neighbourhood.

Pollan, who lives in Berkeley, California, has championed the cause of stronger local food networks with his bestsellers The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. He was in town to sign books and headline a sold-out picnic fundraiser to preserve the University of British Columbia's urban farm as a working laboratory for sustainable agriculture. His rousing talk drew a standing ovation, and even a few tears.

As a dinner companion, Pollan is loose, friendly, and, as you might expect, intellectually omnivorous, peppering his interviewer with more questions than he was asked.

Along the way, he sketched the current state of food politics inside the White House and within his own home. He was surprised to learn the 100-Mile Diet was launched in British Columbia (on The Tyee) and said meeting 100-Mile Diet creators Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon is on his list of things to do (message delivered, Alisa and James). He compared today's food movement to Martin Luther's reform of the Church and he predicted certain breakdown for a North American food system far too dependent on cheap energy and big corporations. Between bites, here's what else Pollan shared …

On raising an ultra-picky eater:

Michael Pollan: My 16-year-old son Isaac has been a very complex, tortuous food story. He was a terrible eater. One of the reasons I got interested in writing about food is he didn't eat anything. I love food, my wife loves food, and he just was tortured about food. He was one of these kids -- and there are many of them -- who only ate white food. He ate bread, pasta, rice, potatoes. There are a lot more of these kids than there used to be. I'm not exactly sure why.

But he basically found food scary and overwhelming. And so he controlled that by eating food that was as bland as possible. He was the same way about clothes. He didn't like any variety in clothing. So he wore black clothes for about eight years of his childhood. Ate white, dressed black. In both cases, in retrospect, he was trying to reduce sensory input. It was overwhelming. Smell was overwhelming, taste was overwhelming, colour was overwhelming. And he just had trouble processing.

A very interesting turnaround happened about two years ago. He discovered food. He became very serious about it, partly through cooking. And now he loves food. But he doesn't eat everything. No seafood, for example. But he'll eat any kind of meat, many kinds of vegetables. Last summer he worked a summer job in a kitchen. He worked as a chef. So he's gone through this really interesting transformation.

But I've since heard that many chefs have gone through this as children. That they couldn't eat because their sensory apparatuses were overly receptive. And I heard this story from [famous Chez Panisse owner and chef] Alice Waters, who herself was a very, very picky eater as a child. She predicted Isaac would flip around. She met him when he was young and actually tried to cook for him when he was eleven. Such a waste of her talent! (laughs).

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