An Evening with Michael Pollan
Back in September of 2001, I was a nerdy, overweight freshman at Rutgers. During that first semester, I took Expository Writing 101 (AKA Ex-Pos), the dreaded freshman writing course. The first assignment for that class was to read an essay about genetically engineered potatoes and write a paper about it. The author of that essay was a certain Michael Pollan, a fact I only remember because I thought how funny it was that a guy named Pollan wrote about plants.
Before the teacher handed back those first assignments, she said most of the class did pretty poorly. She explained how that can be expected on our first papers and that we shouldn’t get too discouraged; we can only get better. When she handed my paper back, I was shocked by my grade. It was a B+. That’s when it happened. It was at this point, dear reader, that your humble narrator realized he could write. Since then, I’ve pursued writing educationally, personally, professionally, and blogally.
So where am I going with all this?
Nine years (holy shit) after that fateful day, I heard that Michael Pollan was giving a talk at Rutgers. I couldn’t pass up the chance to hear the guy who indirectly launched my writing career at the place where it started. So, this past Wednesday, I headed up to the College Ave gym, where the talk was being held. On the way, I passed the Rutgers Student Center. There was a big sign in front of the building saying there was going to be a memorial for Tyler Clementi that night. The sign also said that both New Jersey senators, Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, were going to be there. I thought about ditching Pollan and going to this event for no other reason than the remote chance that I could convince one of the senators to sit down for an in-depth interview for this little old blog. But they clearly had something more important to do that night.
So, I went to Pollan’s lecture as intended. He began by poking a little fun at the Armpit of America. He said how he always thought it was such a paradox that New Jersey is called the Garden State. Like we’ve never heard that one! Anyway, he began the talk by showing everyone some food items he picked up at Rite-Aid just before. One by one, he took each thing out of the bag and said what was wrong with it. Whole grain Wonder Bread has 40-something ingredients, a little cup of yogurt has more sugar than a bottle of Coke, and, if you’re gonna use Splenda with Fiber, you’re better off eating a piece of fruit to get real sugar and real fiber.
From there, he talked about everything that’s wrong with the American diet. The portion sizes have gone up, the amount of sugar, fat, and salt in our foods has gone up, and the rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes have gone up. The food corporations create what Pollan asserts can’t even be called real food, since it’s so overly processed and includes ingredients created in a lab. These food-like substances are then packaged and aggressively marketed to the public, who gobble them up.
As a remedy, Pollan asserts that we eat as much real food as possible. Instead of buying groceries from the middle aisles of the super market, we should just shop around the perimeter to get produce, meat, and dairy products. He also said to avoid products that are lite, reduced fat, enriched with fiber or omega-3, as it’s human nature to just eat more of these things since we think they’re good for us. Additionally, we should try to shop at farmers markets, to get the freshest produce and support local farmers. All of these changes, and whole lot more, may eventually change the way that the food corporations and supermarkets make food available to us.
Though it seems absurd that the nation can change its eating habits, Pollan claims it’s not impossible. He said how when he was in college, all the classrooms had ashtrays and smoking was pretty much encouraged. If the country can move away from smoking like that, maybe we can move away from our self-destructive foods. He even said it’s possible for New Jersey
Throughout his 90-minute presentation, though, I could only imagine all the Rutgers students pigging out at the Grease Trucks down the street – a tradition I used to take part in a couple of times a week. Pollan’s idea that we can move away from such garbage is a stretch. But then again, there are these new “grease-less” trucks appearing around Rutgers. So maybe Pollan is onto something?
Either way, he gave a really interesting and inspiring talk. And I still find it amusing that his last name is Pollan and he writes about plants.