This is an essay about what it’s like to be in the presence of Michael Pollan. I’m no expert, but it has happened to me twice now…
I first “met” Michael Pollan the summer before last while working in a restaurant kitchen on Martha’s Vineyard. Quite a few celebrities and notables dined there, but news of Michael Pollan’s presence made my insides dance in a joyous way that lasted the entire night. I’m sure he has that effect on a lot of people. I didn’t actually see him that night, nor did I expect to, nor did I expect to the next day when he popped his head through the kitchen door just as I happened to be passing. A genuine good-naturedness shone through him as he inquired after a bottle of wine he had left the night before. I felt myself smiling really hard (and that crazy dance of my insides starting again) as I squeaked the minimum number of words needed to let him know that I would go find someone who could bring his bottle (if only that person were I) and scurried away as fast as I could. That’s my tactic around people I really like and admire: become completely awestruck then get away as fast as possible. I tracked down the chef/owner of the restaurant and said something like “Michael Pollan is here looking for his bottle of wine,” and never could I remember a time in my life when I had felt so full of purpose.
I saw him again last night, but I had to pay for the privilege as he is on a book tour. To be honest, his newest book, Cooked, is my least favorite of his food books. If you’ve never read Pollan, don’t start there. But I do like it better after hearing his talk. And I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak, no matter his talk’s topic. For so many of us food-centric people, he is the figure and the voice which represents the good food movement. I’m not going to try to recount here the extent of his positive influence on America’s food culture and food system because I would only become frustrated by constantly falling short. He’s a big deal. But he doesn’t come off as one. I’d forgotten how tall and gangly he is. I hadn’t had time to notice in the first encounter that he stands in “first-position” with his toes naturally turning out and he moves his forearms a lot in broad definite motions that have not a speck of grace in them. As he walked around the stage, every few steps were accompanied by a jaunty sort of dip then lift which you’d expect of a guy who’s in a really good mood. A smile easily fits his face. And he has a relaxed, friendly sense of humor that kept us audience chuckling the entire time. In other words, he seems very approachable.
I normally despise “q&a sessions” because they tend to be full of dull drawn-out questions/stories that are asked by/about people who just want to stand up in a crowd and talk. Michael Pollan’s “q&a” wasn’t too bad though. Even the dull, vaguely relevant questions elicited highly interesting responses from him. I think this man is ignited by a question, any question. I think he is one who encounters a question with respect, interest, and great thoughtfulness which enables him to uncover answers that point to truths hidden in all of us. That’s how he’s taken hold of so many of us. If only I could be as riveted by and exhibit such care in handling every question that crosses my path, not to accumulate listeners, but to tap into truths which connect us all…to become the listener, and to understand.
There are so many things wrong with the way we’re letting our food system be run. We see firsthand the damage it’s causing in the rising rates of obesity, chronic diseases, autoimmune disorders, and depression. These horrible conditions that no one deserves to face are more commonly occurring in children than ever before. Last night Pollan pointed out a very simple and vital step in the solution to the mess we’re in. Just as we teach our kids about sex, drugs, and alcohol and how to handle those things in responsible, safe ways, we need to teach them how to cook. The young need to know where food comes from and what to do with it inside a kitchen. Their lives depend upon it. We need to spread that message with reckless abandon and act upon it as soon as possible.
If I had already had these revelations about Michael Pollan’s character that summer so long ago, I hope I would’ve been comfortable enough to shake his hand and say things like “Nice to meet you. Did you enjoy your dinner? What did you have?” Maybe I would’ve asked him to sign my recipe notebook. I don’t think he would’ve minded.
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