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Pollan simplifies food choices with book of 64 rules

Author's guidelines aim to help cooks enjoy healthy food, cut through conflicting messages.

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Somewhere in America, there has to be a guy at a farmers market selling red shirts with an image of a bespectacled, beret-wearing Michael Pollan, his eyes gazing off just above the horizon toward that truly perfect meal.

That is, of course, a meal prepared from scratch with a small portion of meat from an animal that never left a green pasture, vegetables that weren't coaxed to fruition in an energy-sucking hothouse on another continent and whole grains grown on fields that have never been sprayed with chemicals.

Pollan is as close to a revolutionary as the real-food movement is going to get. He's too nice, too reasonable to really be compared to the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, but his tireless work exploring the environmental, societal and health costs of the food industry has given the movement a recognizable face.

In the past 10 years, the Berkeley,Calif.-based author, who will be giving a talk at Bass Concert Hall on Friday as part of Edible Austin's Eat Local Week, has written books on nearly every aspect of our food system, from agriculture ("The Botany of Desire") to what we shouldn't eat ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") and what we should ("In Defense of Food").

But Pollan knows that amid nebulous and unregulated claims of "healthy," "local," "natural" and "sustainable," making good food choices can be confusing, even to experienced cooks and farmers market shoppers.

In his most recent book, "Food Rules," Pollan doles out 64 guidelines that are as easy to remember as his most well-known mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (His second most-repeated rule? "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.")

"I really don't want people to have to count calories and to read labels," he says. How we eat has changed so much in the past 50 years that we all could use the reminders: "Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk." "Always leave the table a little hungry." (One of his personal favorites is "The whiter the bread, the sooner you'll be dead.")

Pollan says that one of the biggest problems is that we've been conditioned, primarily by food marketers and manufacturers, to think that we're supposed to spend as little time as possible shopping for, cooking and eating our meals.

"We have a lot of trouble enjoying food," he says. "We've been trained that there's something hedonistic about that." We might watch celebrity chefs indulge themselves on TV, but Pollan calls the majority of food television a "spectator sport." "The advertising suggests that the people who are watching the shows are not actually cooking the food," he says. You're more likely to see commercials for grab-and-go foods like yogurts and frozen meals instead of food processors, pans or other devices to help you actually cook.

But because he's adamant about cooking meals from scratch instead of eating prepared, processed foods, Pollan has been called both elitist and anti-feminist.

He acknowledges that buying organic produce, grass-fed beef and eggs from cage-free birds can be more expensive than buying conventionally produced food, but he often points out that Americans spend less of their income on food than almost anyone else in the world. Cheap food isn't cheap when you consider the impact on the labor force, the environment and public health.

Marketers have been telling women for decades that fast food will liberate them, he says, but with diabetes and obesity at the highest levels in history, processed food clearly isn't the answer. "If you promote cooking, as I do, it's a sin that you want to push women back in the kitchen," he says. "I believe everyone should be back in the kitchen. Men, kids and women," but on different terms, where cooking is a creative outlet that empowers people, no matter their gender or age.

Despite the cost and labor associated with eating better, Pollan says it's a choice that more people are making. "New people are finding their way to this subject every day, whether for health reasons or food safety reasons," he says.

Need proof? Look at the number of grocers trying to sell themselves as farmers markets, as well as the growing number of sustainable food products available in regular grocery stores. "Good food is finding its way into the supermarket," he says. "When people communicate what they want, food producers come forward to provide those products."

Politicians are even starting to listen. Just last week, the Senate passed a food safety bill that requires tougher and more frequent inspections of food manufacturers but exempts farmers with revenue less than $500,000 a year and who sell directly to consumers. Congress also passed the child nutrition bill, which will increase — above inflation — the amount the government reimburses schools for each lunch for the first time in almost 30 years.

Pollan considers both bills good for the food movement, but he says it's important to remember how much power the public holds. "There's a hopeful side, because change is coming whether Washington gets on board or not."

Farms by bike

On Saturday, I was one of more than 500 bicyclists who pedaled from several farmers market locations and Bicycle Sport Shop to a handful of urban farms and community gardens in East Austin. The Urban Farm Bicycle Tour kicked off Eat Local Week, Edible Austin magazine's annual fundraiser that raises money for Urban Roots, a nonprofit that teaches teens leadership and business skills through farming and agriculture.

At each stop on the bicycle tour, chefs from local restaurants were serving everything from chili to charcuterie to show off local produce and meat. Cyclists enjoyed temperatures near 80 degrees on Saturday, but a cold front came in just in time for the coffee festival at Cuvee Coffee in Spicewood on Sunday.

Events continue through Saturday and more than 50 participating restaurants, trailers and other eateries are serving locally sourced dishes, as well. You can find details and buy tickets at www.edibleaustin.com/ eatlocalweek.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Michael Pollan speaks in Austin

Pollan will speak at 8 p.m. Friday at Bass Concert Hall. Tickets ($26-$42) are available online at www.texasperformingarts.org . At 6:30 p.m. that evening, learn more about Central Texas food resources at a farm-direct showcase presented by Edible Austin on the fourth floor of the venue.