I was asked to do a reading last week at The Friends of the Public Library’s annual celebrity poetry slam, MC’d by the erudite and hysterically charming Glenn Miller. Glenn and I worked together when he was at Point 2 Point and I was trying to get into the TV biz. He was one of the first people to help me early in my career, so it was great to see Glenn again. I read "The Centipede’s Song" from James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. I regularly make it a habit to read out of Dahl’s Vile Verses to our son Noah before bedtime. Amelia Santaniello read "Marriage" by Khalil Gibran (from The Prophet), and she was fantastic, as was Brad Childress, who in real life is shockingly more gracious and funny than he is on TV when we see him prowling the sidelines of Vikings games. I arrived just before my call time at the Library since I was rushing there from the Michael Pollan chat out at the Minnesota Arboretum.
Good thing I was reading children’s poems after the Pollan event. I have not been that mad in a long time, and I should have seen it coming.
Several months ago I got wind of the Pollan talk through a friend, and I made some inquiries about an interview with the living legend, the one true rockstar of the food world. Years ago, restaurants were all the rage (the fifties through the seventies), then chefs became hot (the eightees), then dishes (the nineties), and finally, in this last decade, the ingredient. Eclipsing all of these trends and bursting on the scene like a supernova has been the sociology and cultural politic of food. The movement’s great populist communicator is Pollan, the former Harper’s editor, the NY Times contributing writer, currently the Knight professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, and bestselling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. This man is the most prominent and public intellectual of our day, a man who explores in deeply profound ways how we relate to nature. Not since Thoreau has there been a greater need for the dissemination of a naturalist's ideas about man and his place in the world. In 2007, more than any other time in our history, it is deeply important that we explore the ways in which we are altering the natural world around us, because the future of our species may depend on it. Sound extremist? Have you read the paper recently? Seen An Inconvenient Truth? Visited a third world country? Read The O.D.? If you have not, you should get it today. I won’t take space to detail Pollan’s case, but you need to read the O.D., and quickly.
Pollan’s book follows our food chains in a clever series of stories. He is a philosopher-journalist-detective, and his thesis is that the food world we are living in is unsustainable economically and environmentally—from a public health standpoint it is dangerously toxic, it's financially untenable, and so on. Moreover, it reeks of gulag-era Eastern Bloc ideology, relying on ignorance to maintain its grip on us. As Pollan sees it, if we could visit the feed lots, the commodity corn farms, the food factories, and so on, we would not only begin questioning authority in a new way, but we would rethink the way we eat, cook, shop, and live in relation to food in the way that a cancer patient is motivated to seek help once diagnosed. I think we are addicted to an unhealthy food system, and, like junkies and street drunks, we perpetuate the system that we get high on in an illogical way because we are too scared to try to live without it. When confronted with the truth, we deny it exists. I believe Pollan’s conversation is one of the most important discourses of our time.
I was perplexed that the masses were not aware he was coming here, a little irked that the attendance was limited, and eager to have access to him for the magazine, for the TV news show I used to work for, and for my radio show. And I met a stone wall at every turn. I expected it from Pollan’s office—he is an academic and an insulated one at that. But the U of M’s Public Policy Programs at the Landscape Arboretum was bringing him in, along with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. Not only was Pollan going to be here for a Wednesday night meet and greet, but also for a DAY-LONG CONFERENCE at which he would deliver the keynote. The event organizers know how important Pollan’s message is, and while they could have held his chat in a larger venue on the main U of M campus, they did not. I can understand why they would want it held at the Arboretum. I may not be sympathetic to the reasoning, but I can see why they would want to. But there is no excuse for not promoting the event in a mainstream way. In fact, once I got to the Wednesday night event, I started to get really ticked off when I saw that there was no press coverage at all, no press Q & A, no interviews for the mainstream media. I was told by Pollan’s people that they were only granting four opportunities to connect with Pollan, limiting it to that number, period . By my reckoning the Strib had one with a Kim Ode blurb-interview that appeared the week before he arrived, and an MPR rebroadcast of the keynote speech next week on Midday (which you should all listen to) counts as the second. I assume the other two appeared somewhere I'm unaware of, and if I'm unaware of it, then chances are you missed it, too! Perhaps because of the Public Radio angle there will be an article some month downstream in MNMo, or perhaps Dara has something coming out with him this next Wednesday, but even if both those things happen, the largest possible audience is still not being served. Good for those media outlets, and they have some great writers, but that’s not the point. The problem lies with the church that we all want to worship in—the deacons have to get some PR savvy as far as I am concerned. And that includes Pollan. His belief in the dire aspects of the situation obligates him to help spread the word, not inhibit the dissemination of his message by narrowing exposure to his ideas. Like it or not, he is a star.
The Thursday event was well-attended by 500 or so people, every single one of which has read the book and knows the message already. All the folks from the farm collaboratives and co-ops, community organizers, politicalized farmers, some food producers, and a smattering of local chefs were there. Pollan was preaching to the converted. The fence-sitters and naysayers, not his choir, need to be exposed to his ideas. Where was KARE-11,WCCO-TV, FOX 9, KSTP? Where were the local radio stations? Either they didn't know about it (in which case the organizers of the event blew it) or they didn't show because they were not given access (in which case the organizers need to rethink their protocols) or they were given both and ignored one of the biggest stories of the last twenty years. For ages, I have sat in meetings with grassroots groups trying to figure out "next steps," and we end up merely making more meetings. Until our movement reaches out to and partners with the traditional vehicles of communication on a local level, we are doomed. The message of our time is one of hope, and there still is some left . . . trust me. Pollan himself acknowledges as much when he makes the case for the biggest positive changes on the issues coming from the public, an enlightened public that is aware of the choices available and makes some smart decisions about what we eat and how we do it. That’s why the day-long conference was titled What’s for Dinner: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Food. I hope the next time Mr. Pollan comes to town, whoever brings him in makes sure that one of the seminal messages of our time falls on all ears.
Want an opportunity to get involved? Check out Pollan’s column from last week's NYT Magazine about the Farm Bill, a regularly updated piece of legislation that affects all Minnesotans and is especially relevant given the unique position our state holds in the both the production end of the spectrum and the subsidy side of the equation. His piece will get you e-mailing your legislators faster than you can scream, “Sanjaya got ripped off!”
More on the Farm Bill in one of my next blogs.