Friday, 31 May 2013

Michael Pollan at the RSA - How cooking can change your life

Home-grown courgette
ready to be 'Cooked'

Michael Pollan seems to be everywhere in London this week.  Yes, he has a book to sell but you've got to admire his stamina.  Maybe it's down to all that good home-cooked food he eats.   Let me say at the outset, I have not read his latest book so this is not a review, but I am a Michael Pollan fan.  It's not that I see him as some kind of guru - though some do - it's that what he has to say so often makes perfect sense to me. His RSA dialogue yesterday was chaired by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, London,  who introduced him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  Pollan self-depracatingly pointed out that if he truly was, "then the world would look very different".

His latest book, 'Cooked - A natural history of transformation', is the latest in a series of books exploring our complex relationship with food.  He's sometimes accused of being anti-progress, idealistic and elitist, tags he brushes off lightly.  Pollan is the first to say - and he did again yesterday - that he isn't propounding any radical new thoughts on food, and he isn't trying to turn the clock back either.  Rather he feels that we should be teaching our children to grow food and cook so that they can make choices about food; get away from the mindset of "if it can be outsourced, that's what we should do"; cease to define leisure activities as being "what industry can't do for us".  We need to get the whole family involved in food preparation if we are going to have a healthy relationship with food.  In his own experience, if a child grows and cooks something then he will eat it and appreciate it.

'Cooked' is published at a time when the actions of the processed food industry and its relationship to government are under scrutiny, both in the UK and the USA, like never before.  Pollan propounds instead of feeling powerless in the face of big business, we can refuse to swallow their line that they are making life better for us.  By taking back control of our food, it becomes a political act.  It's what he calls this "middle link" - the processed food industry - that has most influence over our food and health.  They know that the additives they introduce into foods are "addictive" but it's not a word they like to use; they prefer to describe it as "craveability" or "snackability".

Statistics show that home-cooking in the USA has fallen by half since the mid-60's - and where America leads the UK so often follows.  Studies show there are lower rates of obesity in cultures where home cooking is the norm.  Pollan feels we lose contact with the basics of food production and preparation at our peril as home cooking holds families and communities together.  By cooking, as opposed to eating processed foods, he suggests we can break our dependence on corporations while at the same time improving the health and wellbeing our of our family.  This was re-inforced when Pollan revealed the suitably cynical advice given by Harry Balzer, a seasoned market researcher for the food industry, when goaded into answering the question 'what should people eat for good health' he replied "eat anything you want, just cook it yourself".

In 'Cooked', Tim Lang explained, Michael Pollan delved into the 4 elements - fire, water, air (bread) and earth (fermentation/bacteria) -  spending time practically learning about each and considering skills, knowledge and food progress.  He believes many of us fetishise cooking and readily accept we cannot cook because we cannot achieve the standards of professional chefs.  The food industry has demonstrated a phenomenal ability to capitalise on socio-political movements - witness the KFC marketing slogan from the 1970's which was targeted at working women - an illustration of a chicken 'bucket" emblazoned with the words "Women's Liberation".  Thereby redefining 'not cooking' as the progressive thing to do.  Today domestic knowledge is often disparaged as something not worthy of our time.  I should mention here that Pollan is clear that both genders have responsibilities when it comes to cooking and household chores, and so do children.

Asked the inevitable question whether he saw any correlation between class and cooking Pollan said he did, but the answer was probably not quite what the questioner expected.  He opined that real cooking historically came, and continues to come, out of peasant cooking because it's they who had/have to make the most of what's available to them.

On the role of the state, whilst insisting he held no sway at The White House, Pollan praised the efforts of Michelle Obama in championing food growing and healthy eating.  He pointed out however, that her actions so "freaked-out" the powerful food industry that they drew her into a conversation about "reprocessing" processed food and from there she was doomed to failure.  Nevertheless, her digging up of part of the White House lawn to grow vegetables remains a significant example to the world's most powerful nation.

When NYC Mayor Bloomberg faced escalating public health spending with 75% going on diet-related ailments (principally obesity and type-2 diabetes) he was advised the single most significant remedy would be to cut soda consumption.  Trying to ban 32oz soda cups he came up against the power of the fast-food industry.  Whilst legislation may be seen as futile (of course you can order a second 16oz cup, but at least you might stop and think whether you really are that thirsty) Pollan acknowledged that there is no silver bullet but the "nudge effect" can be valuable.

There was even a request for advice on kitchen design, and Pollen managed a thoughtful reply.  There should, he thought, be as much space for food preparation as possible so that everyone in the family can get involved.  On the subject of schooling he feels there are few things more important than growing and cooking and should be given more prominence in our classrooms.

With confirmation that we are 90% bacterial and 10% human, Michael Pollan feels we've figured out a diet for the 10% - those fats, sugars and chemicals which taste so good - but but not for the 90%.  He ended with the advice which will forever be attached to him - "eat food, not too much, mostly plants".  Still, in my opinion, excellent advice.