To a packed crowd in the ballroom at the Hanover Inn, Michael Pollan introduced the evening’s topic: How cooking can change your life. The author spoke of the evolution of his writing on food and agriculture and how he came to focus on his most recent book, Cooked. The evening’s format would include remarks from Pollan as well as a conversation with Anne Kapuscinski, Environmental Studies professor at Dartmouth College (and current chair of the board of trustees of the Union of Concerned Scientists) and audience questions.
The format was more free-form than many author appearances, and in the end I felt it better helped answer the question: “What should I do about all of this”? It was hard to hear him speak and not want to change the world—investigative journalism, at its best, inspires us to action.
In speaking on the food movement—the unofficial term for supporting small farmers, farm-to-table restaurants, and voting with your fork—Pollan suggests that things will fizzle out soon if Americans don’t begin to cook again: “If you’re buying carrots at the farmer’s market, you have to know what to do with them”.
Cooking, baking, and eating meals with your family at home is the next step beyond shopping responsibly. If most Americans aren’t cooking, there will always be a place for big ag and the fast and convenience foods that drive it.
Prompted by Dartmouth’s Kapuscinski, Pollan expanded on next steps for the food movement: Does it need to narrow its demands in order to be more effective? Pollan relates this to the gay rights movement rallying around marriage equality in order to make headway. But with so many players who often have conflicting goals, he says the task is complicated. Will animal rights activists and cattle ranchers be able to unite behind one “ask”? As he puts it, the food movement needs to grow up.
A national food policy may be a place to start. A conflict of interest most surely exists if current agricultural policies are also expected to promote affordable, sustainable, and healthy food for the American public. If Pollan’s role has evolved from journalist to activist, no one in the room seemed to mind.
Where does this leave us? You and me, the ones voting with our forks, frustrated by a lack of policy changes, and hoping for answers. Although the scale of alternative agriculture has grown in recent years, it still pales in comparison to traditional agriculture. Yet, Pollan mentions, the success of Stonyfield yogurt has enabled its founder to have a presence in Washington to go up against some of the most well-funded lobbyists in history. Choosing to buy responsibly and to cook at home does bring financial support to responsible companies and allow them to be a part of the policy conversation. Changes are happening, slowly, and hopefully will continue. There was plenty more talk of politics on Monday night, but I will save that for another day.
For those of you who possibly haven’t heard of Michael Pollan, pick up one of his many books and give it a read. Although others surely came before him, he can be credited in large part for starting something that has now been deemed a movement. And move I hope it will. A thank you to Dartmouth College and all who helped to bring Michael Pollan to speak in Hanover on Monday night.
For those of you inspired to bake: check out King Arthur Flour’s Bake for Good campaign, on their website through the end of the month.