by Marion Nestle
Apr 17 2013

Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” and Appraisals by food academics

Michael Pollan’s Cooked comes out April 23 but the New York Times jumped the gun and reviewed it yesterday.   I can’t wait for the copy I ordered to arrive so I can read it for myself.


Whenever the book comes, this seems like a good time to post Geoffrey Cannon’s interviews with some of Pollan’s academic foodie fans (including me) about how we assess his work.  These appraisals are now posted in World Nutrition, the online journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.

cover april 2013

Geoffrey Cannon: When did you come across Michael Pollan?

I had been reading Michael Pollan’s articles in the New York Times Magazine with admiration, to say the least, so when he invited me to participate in a food conference he was running at Berkeley in the fall of 2002, soon after he arrived to teach there, I was looking forward to meeting him. The conference was splendid. It brought together a huge number of journalists, academics, filmmakers, and government and industry officials. The speakers were glittery. Alice Waters did the catering. The side trips were to a farm in Bolinas and an olive orchard in Sonoma run by the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle (they had sketches by Wayne Thibaud tacked to the bathroom walls). Sometime after that, I spoke in one of his classes. But the first meeting I remember in detail must have been in about 2004. I asked for his advice about the book I was working on at the time, which later became What to Eat.

What impressed you at that time?

We met for lunch at Chez Panisse, where he was clearly a regular (I was still having trouble getting a reservation). I wanted his advice about how to write for a general audience. He said he wasn’t the right person to ask, because he didn’t write as an expert. His starting point in developing books was from lack of expertise. As he learned, he brought readers along with him. This turned out to be hugely helpful.

I got to know him better in the spring of 2006 when I taught at Berkeley in a complicated arrangement between three schools. I was paid by public policy, had an office in public health, but journalism – meaning Michael – ran the life support. The following spring I went back to Berkeley to teach a course in science journalism in his program. We did some speaking gigs together.

Rate his work and impact

Obviously, I think he is terrific but I have to do full disclosure. He just wrote the splendid foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics. I’ll just say this: lots of people in the US have been working on the food movement for decades, but his work reaches so large and so passionate an audience that he has to be given much of the credit for its expansion.

Quote one of his sayings that stays with you

In What to Eat, I said dietary principles were simple: eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t eat too much junk food. Pollan says: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Oh to be able to write like that.

 Give an example of where he has made a difference

Students read his work and want to act. Our NYU programs in food studies are filled with people who read Pollan and want to do something to make the food system healthier and better for the planet.

Has his work changed your thinking and if so, how?

I don’t think I ever understood the importance of meat animals in balanced ecological systems to the extent that I now do. The idea of the omnivore’s dilemma is mind-changing on its own. I like it because it is so inclusive of different ways of eating and enjoying food. And I can’t wait to read Cooked.

Does his work have relevance outside the USA?

People outside the US are going to have to answer this one but of course it does. Food systems are global. How we in America eat affects the food systems of countries everywhere else and, to some extent, vice versa.

In what ways if any do you think he is mistaken?

I’m of the belief that although health very much depends on what you eat, body weight depends on how much you eat no matter where the calories come from (one of the theses of my new book Why Calories Count). We argue about this all the time. Eventually, the science will get to the point where this gets resolved one way or the other. In the meantime, it’s fun to debate.

Reference: Gussow J, Kirschenmann F, Uauy R, Schell O, Nestle M, Popkin B, Cannon G, Monteiro C. The American genius. [Appraisals].  World Nutrition 2013;4:150-170.  My answers to Geoffrey Cannon’s questions start on page 161.

Addition, May 1.  World Nutrition has published a second set of Appraisals, with some commentary.

  • Fiona Fraser

    Does his work have relevance outside the USA?

    I have recently finished the Omnivores dilema and am currently defacing my new copy of In Defence of food with underlining, comments all along the margins. Over the last year I’ve learned an incredible amount from watching documentaries on YouTube ( thank you to all the Universities and people who posted such amazing information). I have got your book Food Politics on order and should have it by the end of the month.
    Food is universal. The adulteration, genetic modification, the over-production and the downright disrespect of food is global problem. I very recently learned that out South African legislation ONLY REQUIRES GM labels if more than 5% of GM product is in the food!!! It horrifies me that MY government cares so little about MY RIGHTS. It is not my choice, I do not support the fast food or pre-packaged food industry. I cook. I take care about what I choose to eat )…I also have chosen to support the local farmers markets. It takes more time but in the end, it makes for a healther human, a healthier environment…. Dirty politics, bad, adulterated food are an international concern…Obesity in my country is becoming a big problem, morbid obesity is certainly also sure to follow suite… I have far more readily access to international information, than I do local, so all those who are writing the amazing books, blogs, appearing in educational documentaries, thank you for the education… It is improving my life, and hopefully will rub off on those around me.

  • Hi Marion,

    I actually have a copy of this book and the topics which are discussed in the book are excellent.


  • Hi Marion! Thanks for sharing this very informative article. Also, thanks for the links. I will read Michael Pollan’s book as part of my research. Thanks for sharing!

  • Polly

    I have all of Michael’s book on my iPad that comes with me all over the world.. I live on a yacht, work as a chef and just love his work especially as a vegetarian, health conscious, Eco friendly chef. I push all kinds of people into reading his books as they are so imformative and make the normal person think before they eat their next meal.
    Traveling constantly can be difficult when I want to buy organic, or at farmers markets, but I strive constantly to get the best that is available where ever I am and in certain parts of the world the food movements are changing making it easier for us all to enjoy good healthy foods.
    So yes Micheal Pollen’s work is relevant outside of the USA and so is Marion Nestlé’s work. Thank you for your great work…

  • FarmerJane

    In 2009, during the Great Milk Price Crash, I first encountered Michael Pollan. In Deep Rural NY, dairy farmers were crushed under a massive downward price swing for milk. Farmers held rallies, demonstrations, ag students picketed for “Fair Trade Milk.” We saw farmer suicides, families broken up and farms lost in rural NY. Calling out to NYC food movement groups for help, to a group, we were told that they actually supported more of “local” food, like vegetables and farmers markets. Some referred me to read Michael Pollan or Frances Moore Lappe.

    I read “In Defense of Food” and liked the message. After all, many of us dairy farmers have pushed for real milk, butter instead of margarine, enforcement of standards of identies in cheeses, real food. We see our product as nutritious, the work of the land and our hands.

    Mr. Pollan is a good guy. He has responded thoughtfully to me when I emailed him about the average dairy farmers (unlike plenty of food movement leaders who never deign even a grunt back). I’d say his work is very influential. Whenever I ask a book store if they have any books on agriculture, they refer me to read Michael Pollan. Most farmers I know are very happy with Michael Pollan’s message of cooking and good nutrition.

    We are glad that Mr. Pollan has gotten the ball rolling in terms of people thinking about the food system. In my lifetime, I witnessed the depopulation of US farms. I watched as 9 out of 10 dairy farmers, many friends, lost their farms or just plain left. Upstate, some 3,000,000 acres of former grazing lands now stand empty or underused. Drive around and look at the broken barns, abandoned lands, empty Main Streets in former farming villages. The same goes for other types of farming…massive farmer depopulation. The public generally was silent as it happened, even working to make it happen with demands for cheaper food. Up until 1998, NYC food groups were openly fighting for cheaper milk from Upstate NY, breaking up our farmer collective bargaining efforts. So, Mr. Pollan’s books about food and agriculture are a good thing. He’s a great writer!

    For his next venture, I’d like to see Michael Pollan drill down into talking with the farmers across rural America. So far, the literature of the food movement has expunged the history of farmer justice past and present…that is the story of what we, the American farmers did (and are now trying to do) as we fought for the land and our farms in recent decades. From the tractorcade of 1979, the demonstrations of the Mid-1980’s in the Farm Crisis, the mobilization of rural churches, milk strikes, farmer action networks…there is a rich history of farmers themselves trying to stave off and warn the public of the industrialization of US food. Foodopoly is the first book to touch upon the now industrialized structure of food. The concept of simply buying our way out of the mess is not enough.

    My primary criticism of Mr. Pollan is that he (along with other food movement writers) should talk more to commodity farmers. “Local” fruit and vegetable farmers are lauded, while Deep Rural commodity farmers not so well placed to sell into “local” markets are looked down upon, almost demonized. Global scale cities need to take a look at their regional resources to see how they translate into good food for their region. Here in NY…millions of acres of well watered grasslands equal to great milk and meat nearby. Are we not good food producers, too?

  • Really enjoyed reading this book review. This is the first I have heard of Michael Pollan, but I may now get his book!!

  • Cathy RD

    FarmerJane — such great ideas. Yes, a Pollan “recent history of farming in North America” would be fantastic. I was reminded of how much things changed when trains starting have refrigerated cars when I re-read “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Since then, technology, industry and farming have not been able to be easily separated. Understanding the relationships are crucial for foodies. Not every farm can be independent. Or should be. Not every food we buy can be local. Or should be! Pollan speaks and writes eloquently about the need for systems, imports, and exports, as well as individual actions and exceptions to the systems.

  • I think eating well is relatively simple. Giving people the right incentives to eat healthy is another story.

  • Its fairly obvious that Michael Pollan’s work is of the picture-postcard-perfect variety for foodies.

    However, it needs to be interrogated a little, and sociologists/anthropologists who study food professionally often worry about Pollan as cultural capital (a way for middle class people to reinforce their place in society over ‘lower’ classes, and justify the never ending notion that the world would be a better place if only the working class tried a little harder)

    Here’s what anthropologist Laura De Lind said in 2011 about his work (specifically his 9 food principles in this case) , and more specifically, about ‘the Pollan effect’ – an effect already apparent in the comments here thus far. (and indeed in the post itself!)

    “The proposed diet is largely context free and, like magic bullets and self-help manuals, taken to be sufficient, in itself, to generate basic food system reform. Most likely this is not what Pollan had in mind. Nevertheless, his manifesto has become so publicly lionized that it almost single-handedly fills the local food
    bandwagon, leaving little room for the appreciation or practice of place-based inquiry and innovation. As indicated earlier this absence has divisive, exclusionary, and hegemonic implications.”

    Simply put – if the world could change into a Michael Pollan one, it would have happened years ago,and the process would have been very easy. Life, unfortunately, is more complex than that.

  • Suzanne

    Regarding this statement in the post, “I’m of the belief that although health very much depends on what you eat, body weight depends on how much you eat no matter where the calories come from (one of the theses of my new book Why Calories Count). We argue about this all the time. Eventually, the science will get to the point where this gets resolved one way or the other. In the meantime, it’s fun to debate.”

    Keep an eye out for research from NuSI to settle the debate.