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Michael Pollan: Forget Nutrition Charts, Eat What Grandma Said Is Good for You

The author of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' says science has supplanted cultural wisdom as a guide in telling us what to eat.

This excerpt originally appeared in Political Awakenings: Conversations with History, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.Copyright © 2010 by Harry Kreisler. 

Harry Kreisler: Where were you born and raised?

Michael Pollan: I was born on Long Island in the town of Hempstead and grew up the first five years in Farmingdale, on the South Shore, and then in a town called Woodbury on the North Shore.

HK: And looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

MP: Oh, in many ways, my parents and my grandparents. I got very serious about gardening as a young boy. I had a grandfather who had been in the produce business, and he was a passionate gardener--this is the late '60s--and he was very kind of reactionary, and there was not too much we connected on except plants.

I put in a garden at our house, too, in imitation of his garden, but I didn't call it a garden. I called it a farm stand, and every time I could get six strawberries together in a Dixie cup, I'd sell them to my mother. She was the only customer.

That was one thread. Another was that I have a mom who's a terrific cook and very aware of food. My grandparents still cooked very traditional Jewish food, used duck fat, goose fat, or chicken fat to cook with. I remember stuffed cabbage, big deal special holiday food, and blintzes, and a whole range of Eastern European Jewish cooking. My mother did not cook that way. She fashioned herself more of a cosmopolitan, and she cooked every different ethnic food--sometimes French, Chinese, Italian--it was the '60s, it was that moment, you know, the World's Fair.

You wanted to cook in every different kind of cuisine, and she was very good at all of them. And she doesn't cook the way my grandparents did; I don't cook that way now. So, one of the things that has struck me, writing about food, is how little stability we have in our food culture in this country, that we haven't held on to the immigrant traditions. Certain ethnic groups have more than others, but Jews? I don't think to such a great extent.

HK: It's part of the homogenization that comes with American culture.

MP: Homogenization and demonization in the case of traditional Jewish food. Everybody assumes that's lethal, to cook with all that animal fat, that that was too much meat, too much fat. It's all mythical, but the surgeon general didn't approve of a traditional Jewish diet for many, many years. So, I think that's part of it.

HK: Let's talk about being a writer and being a science writer. What are the skills involved here, do you think?

MP: I would argue that you could know too much about science to be a successful science writer. In other words, I don't have a deep background in science, and I have learned what I need to learn, article by article, book by book. I'm not far ahead of my reader. I don't take anything for granted. The jargon is weird to me, too; it's deeply unfamiliar, so I think I can write about it in a way that isn't so daunting. In one sense, science journalism is no different than any other kind of journalism. You find people who know the story, you interview them, you watch as much as you can, and you tell the story. A lot of journalists are intimidated because science seems so much more mystifying than politics, but it's no more mystifying than politics.

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