on the page magazine
issue no. 12 summer/fall 2005
shared spaces


at table
with Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of Second Nature (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991), A Place of My Own (Random House, 1997), and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random House, 2001), a New York Times bestseller. His work is included in many anthologies, including Best American Essays and The Norton Book of Nature Writing. In addition to publishing regularly in The New York Times Magazine, his articles have appeared in Harper’s, Vogue, Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, Garden Design, Gardens Illustrated, and House & Garden.

OtP’s Rachel Peterson interviewed Mr. Pollan last fall at a café in Berkeley, California.

OtP:  In your writing about the foods Americans eat and how the food industry serves us, the themes that seem fruitful for you have to do with shared space—gardening or examining our food supply. But sometimes when you’re exploring a topic, you discover the opposite result: that people and nature both pull away from sharing and act more strategically or opportunistically than communally.

MP:  I see what I’m doing as bringing nature writing to areas where humans are mixed up in nature, not standing apart. I write about agriculture and architecture, places where we have to engage with nature, where we change nature and nature changes us. It’s a lot more active and engaged rather than meditative or speculative. I’m kind of drawn to those messy places, which do tend to be shared. When I think about shared spaces in regard to food, I think about the table. It’s one of the most important spaces we share, and it’s one of the most endangered communal spaces. The family dinner is rapidly disappearing. It’s more gone than people realize.

OtP:  In what way?

MP:  Ask a mom or dad, "Do you have a family dinner at your house?” They always say yes. But if you really look, it’s one or two days, maybe. The way our food industry works is driving us more and more into an antinomian relationship with food. I mean in the sense that you have your own relationship with the food industry; it’s not mediated by your mother, your father, or your loved one. They want to make a product that the eight-year-old can microwave herself, and another for the dad who drives to work and doesn’t have time to sit down and eat with his family.

They even have a word for food that you can eat while driving: one-handed food. That food is not designed for communal eating. The problem with communal eating for the industry is that it puts too much power in one set of hands, the mother’s usually, who may want to actually cook and is not going to be seduced by the latest processed or microwaveable food. The microwave has done more to break down the communal eating experience, the shared space at the table, than any other technology. It has allowed children to cook for the first time. You can argue that it’s very empowering for children, but look at what they’re cooking and you could argue something else. So there’s a real erosion of that. The table is really important for civilizing children. It’s where you learn manners. It’s where conversation takes place. I learned all about politics at the table from my father talking about the Vietnam War, talking about what’s on the news.

You could argue that we’re eating out more, so maybe we’re getting our shared eating space at restaurants. But if you look at fast food restaurants, you’ll find that a remarkably small amount of talking goes on. It’s probably because of the speed at which we’re eating. I mean, no one shares food at a fast food restaurant, unless maybe you grab a French fry when no one’s looking.

OtP:  I grew up in a family that seems old-fashioned now: we shopped at a natural foods co-op, and we had to sit down and eat dinner together every night. The moment I had a little bit of pocket money and independence, I bought junk food, because I had never had it.

MP:  Kids go off to college and eat terribly. They put on a lot of weight—the freshman fifteen. My son, who’s now twelve, said, "I can’t wait until I’m eighteen, because I can go to 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee.” I thought, that’s what you’re waiting to turn eighteen for? It’s not to go to college or to get a driver’s license? I’m like, God, aim higher. But for him, that would represent independence because it’s one of the things that we won’t allow. I think once you’ve worked out the symbolism and the independence of eating junk, you might not like the taste of it or the effect it’s having on you, and then you can retreat to something healthier.

OtP:  Very few of my friends ate at the family dinner table while they were growing up.

MP:  Well, working mothers have a lot to do with it. We had family dinners most nights. My dad wasn’t always there; he worked ridiculous hours and didn’t get home in time. But it was still a really important ritual.

General Mills does a lot of studies on eating habits, and they’ve learned not to believe what people say about the family meal. They enlisted families and installed cameras over the dinner table, to record them to find out what they’re really doing. What they’ve found is that the family dinner is over, although the mom thinks it’s still happening. The reason she thinks that is that she’s cooking for herself, and she’s sort of an island, sitting there while other people pass in and out for brief encounters while they eat their yogurt. From her point of view, she’s still having dinner, but she’s never with more than one or two people for more than a few minutes. And that’s just fine with General Mills.

OtP:  That reminds me of the Nielsen TV Families. What do you say to the argument that they’re giving people what they want?

MP:  With regard to food and drugs, you can argue that children don’t know what they want, or that what they want is not what they should have. And protecting children from the so-called democracy of the marketplace is worth doing because they can’t make a decision for themselves. To give a kid what he wants is not doing him any favors. A kid wants soda. We have a food supply that pushes the evolutionary buttons. We’re wired to respond to sweetness and fat, for good reasons, because they’re very rare in nature. When you got them you needed that intense form of energy. So you gorged on it. Now that we can manufacture fat and sweetness so cheaply, you put it in front of people and they’ll eat way too much of it.

What we want is not enough of the answer. I think it’s very important that food be mediated through social forms, whether it’s the family or the culture. Everybody reads a lot about the French paradox, where they eat all kind of unhealthy foods supposedly, the foie gras and wine and fatty cheeses, yet they don’t have as much heart disease as we do. They’re healthier. They live longer. We call it a paradox, but the French don’t call it that. Yes, they eat all those things, but there’s a structure that surrounds their eating, a structure of ritual and habit. The French don’t snack, they never have seconds, their portion sizes are smaller, they don’t eat alone, and therefore their whole relationship to food is much healthier. Maybe it’s the sheer stress with which we surround food, all that dieting.

OtP:  Is everyone on the Atkins diet sharing a common experience?

MP:  Yes, but they’re ruining other common experiences by taking bread off the table. They’re ruining countless dinner parties with their rules. People arrive at the dinner parties with their food fad in their head and you have to accommodate it. If I have any complaint about vegetarianism or Atkins-ism or any highly restrictive food regimen, it’s that it’s fundamentally anti-social. I was a vegetarian for a while and the thing that drove me crazy was that I never knew what to do when I was going to a dinner party. If I told them in advance, then I was in effect asking them to make something special for me, and that’s rude. If I didn’t tell them, and they went to all the trouble to prepare their beef tenderloin, and I said, "Oh, I’ll just eat the vegetables,” that’s rude, too. It’s the worst thing you can do to a chef.

I never found a good solution. If your convictions are such, that’s the cost of it. And it’s true of Atkins, too: you have people coming over, you put a lot of trouble into your pasta carbonara, and they’re not going to touch it. There’s a host-guest relationship that’s very important, and it overrides specific ingredients, or at least it should.

Even though you’re sharing that experience with all the other Atkins people, you’re pursuing your own agenda. In some families, this one’s a vegetarian, this one’s doing a low-carb thing, and this one’s doing a low-fat thing. It may have to do with the fact that we look to find our own individual identity in everything we do as Americans, so we do that with food, too.

I think that we have a real eating disorder in this country. It’s reflected in the fact that everyone’s trying to invent their own diet. Usually, diet—what people eat—is a culturally mediated thing, and there are good reasons for that. It probably has a real survival value. What people have eaten for many years works for that culture—and that’s not something we should give up lightly. But then, maybe we’re happy that people are going their own way—snacking a lot, eating all the time, eating in the car.

OtP:  Does anyone share food anymore?

MP:  You could argue that we’re being pushed in two opposite directions: the industrial system is pushing us away from shared space and the alternative food systems are pushing us back toward shared space. Now, you also have the Whole Foods kind of organic, which is duplicating the supermarket. People think they’re doing something different, but I think it’s pretty much an illusion.

There are alternatives springing up that help people have a stronger relationship to the food and where it’s grown. There is a shared space that’s been fostered as an alternative in the farmer’s market and community-supported agriculture.* New local food chains have a civic component: it’s not just about getting your fuel, it’s a community experience in itself. You have a relationship with a farmer that you might not otherwise have.

OtP:  In San Francisco, the Ferry Building was rebuilt around a very popular farmer’s market.

MP:  And in New York, Union Square was a dead and dying park when the Green Market came in. It had an enormous revivifying effect. Now it’s booming on the weekends—the market brings people there just to hang out. New Yorkers don’t know farmers—and the farmers are getting an education about urban tastes.

OtP:  When I read "Power Steer” I realized how much I didn’t know about how our food is produced. I was rooting for No. 534, the steer you bought and raised, so to speak.

MP:  From what I hear, the piece created a lot of vegetarians. People read it and declared, "I’ll never eat a burger again.” And I asked, why? I’m still eating meat at the end of this story. It turns out that what really upset them was that these cattle have to die before they have their burger. It’s as if people have willfully put out of their minds that these animals have to die before we eat them.

OtP:  The inputs to produce the cattle we slaughter every year that you recite in the article are staggering. To get No. 534 to over 1,200 pounds by the time he was fourteen months old and ready for slaughter, he ate 25 pounds of corn per day, along with alfalfa hay, protein supplements, and antibiotics. You even had an ecologist figure out that he had consumed 234 gallons of oil by the time his life ended, through the fuel needed to grow and harvest the corn for his feed. Is this really a bounty?

MP:  Well, yes, it is a bounty of technology, and of industry. In the end it’s all nature: you are fixing carbon in the field, you are catalyzing photosynthesis, but it is a system fueled not by the sun or natural fertility but by fossil fuel. That’s a really big part of how we grow our food. We use huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, which is made from natural gas. We use diesel fuel to move food everywhere. Most organic farms are guilty of high energy use too, moving organic produce from central California to New York City. There are 5 calories of energy in a strawberry, but we use 435 calories to send it across the country.

When you say something’s unsustainable, this is unsustainable. The ordinary American burger seems like an end product, but look at how many different forces come to bear on it. What kind of system are you participating in when you bite into the burger? Enormous ingenuity and cost has gone into producing that thing, and you are implicated in a whole system of relationships—ecological, social, economic—that I had no idea about when I started that piece. That’s why I did it, to figure it out for myself.

OtP:  "Power Steer” also pointed out the surprising role that corn plays in our food supply.

MP:  Corn is the keystone species of American agriculture. When you go to McDonald’s, you’re eating corn. There’s no corn on the menu, but everything that you eat—the sugars, the meat, everything—is made of corn. Maybe the potatoes aren’t corn but they’re probably fried in corn oil. The irony is that Mexico—the cradle of corn—is now being flooded with American corn. We can sell it cheaper than they can grow it. And aside from the economic unfairness of it, one of the ecological consequences is that we’re losing varieties of corn that have been grown in Mexico for thousands of years.

OtP:  The subsidies we pay to our farmers have been attacked under the World Trade Organization’s rules.

MP:  It’s a little too simple to blame everything on subsidies. The real problem is that agriculture doesn’t fit our usual economic or regulatory models. The fact is the farm policy we have now is designed expressly to cut a check to you for every bushel you grow. So there’s no incentive to grow less and every incentive to grow more. Policies like that certainly benefit those who buy corn—if you’re Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill you want as much corn on the market as possible. We’re flooding the world and bankrupting farmers.

Free trade in agriculture is coming. The next fight over the agriculture bill will be in 2007, which is when we’re going to have to design a system that will be acceptable for the WTO. And while the simple free trade solution is a big unknown, the writing’s on the wall for our subsidies. Even without subsidies, we will overproduce here because of technology. And also because of prestige. Somewhere along the line, we convinced farmers that the measure of success is yield, not profit. What a disaster that’s been! You can have a very large farm that’s a very unprofitable farm, and yet that’s the guy with boasting rights. He grew so much he’s bankrupt.

OtP:  You’ve experienced architecture on a very personal level, by building a small place to work outside your house in Connecticut.

MP:   A Place of My Own is really about the process of architecture. Architecture is done for the community as part of the community. In buildings in general, what you’re doing even when you’re building something for yourself, it’s not a project that you do by yourself. It was really about collaboration. I worked with a builder and an architect and the different views they had of the world, even though it was moving toward an individual space. It’s one of things I really miss the most about Connecticut. Not to offend my neighbors and friends there, but I loved my workspace. It was everything I’d hoped for and more. I put a high value on the quality of the architectural space. I found it has the warmest but subtlest effect on outlook and mood. Living in the wrong house with the wrong light, I think it takes its toll on you. I spent ten years living in a real cave in Manhattan. It was a big apartment, but it faced north and had horrible light. It just depressed the hell out of me every day.

OtP:  Did your small building turn out to be a completely purposeful space?

MP:  If I were to do it again, I might have given myself more counter space all around the building and given up the day bed. I don’t have any pacing room inside, so I go into the garden when I want to pace. But I wanted it to be a machine—this is a workspace, not a leisure room or a teahouse. I’m a very disciplined writer. I go out there every morning. I have all the technology I need out there—it’s important that my workspace have a real connection to the working world. To build a retreat from the world would have been another dream, but I’m a journalist.

OtP:  Does anyone else come in?

MP:  Hardly ever. Right now the people who are renting our space are using it. He’s a real estate agent, and he’s filled it with .le drawers and Xerox machines. It’s a complete clutter of office equipment.

OtP:  Do you mind that?

MP:  I don’t want to go look at it. But I am happy someone’s using it. Spaces that aren’t used deteriorate quickly. There’s a wear and tear that people put on a place, but there’s a worse wear and tear that emptiness creates. Especially in the east, where it freezes and thaws, and freezes and thaws. Critters get in. So I’d rather someone keep that envelope of space warm, and occupy it. Even if he’s filling it with real estate contracts.

OtP:  You’re sharing it.

MP:  I’m renting it. Let’s not be too romantic.

*Community-supported agriculture directly links the growers of food to a group of purchasers. Members cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest. The support helps pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor. In return, the farm provides seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. See Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s Web site for information at www.sare.org/csa/.

**The New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002.

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