The Soul of a Carrot – Michael Pollan at UW-Madison

Food is more than nutrients – much more, as Michael Pollan told me and 7,000 other eager listeners at the UW-Madison Kohl Center, (See my post In Defense of Food and Books) where huge crowds gather to cheer and jeer at basketball and hockey games. Last night they were all cheering.

Carrot creativity  Photo credit Brettf at Flickr

....Carrot creativity Photo credit Brettf at Flickr

My husband and I biked over and joined the throng siphoning through the doors.  We started up the stairs, and who should we see walking down the same flight but Michael Pollan himself.  I was so excited.  I gave him the thumbs up, and he smiled and said, “How’re you doing?”   It was a magic moment.  But the best part was hearing him speak to us all.

The study of nutrients can be useful, Pollan acknowledged but viewing food as only the sum of its nutrient parts is making us and the whole world sick.

Program for Go Big Read

....Program for Go Big Read

Some highlights:

Food Science can be wrong.

“We still don’t know what is going on in the soul of a carrot,” Pollan said.  He noted that we have identified 15 carotenes in the carrot, but carotene pills do not replicate the health benefits of munching on actual carrots.  “ It’s a wilderness in that carrot!”

Nourishment is complex stuff, he added, saying that there are as many neurons in our digestive system as there are in our spinal column.

Food Science is a young science, Pollan said.  It’s about where surgery was in 1650 –really promising, but are you ready to get on the table?

Most scientific information on healthy diets that we see in the media comes from studies using the Food Frequency Questionaire (FFQ) This is the most common dietary assessment tool used in large studies of diet and health.  It’s self administered and covers the last three months. How accurate would your information be in this context? Take a look at it here.  Try to fill it out.  Then decide for yourself how much you trust conclusions based on this info.

The study of nutrients mainly nourishes agribusiness, which uses food science to earn a healthy lable for Fruit Loops.  (Check the box, it’s true!)

Pollan went on to obseve that humans can live healthily on many diets.  Traditional diets around the world include one mainly comprised of cow’s milk and blood, and one of simple, unprocessed corn and beans, and even one mainly of seal blubber.

Yet, the only diet that consistently makes its eaters sick is the American diet of highly processed foods and lots of meat, which since its introduction about 100 years ago.

Cardiovascular diseases, obeisity and Type 2 Diabetis – These are the Preventable Chronic Diseases linked to what we eat.  You can read his editorial on Big Food vs. Big Insurance here

Pollan said we have two choices:

  1. ADAPT  to this diet and live with the consequences.  There is a huge amount of money to be made in this scenario.  Check out magazines  that are popping up, like Diabetic Living and just think about our thriving pharmaceutical industry.

Not just what we eat, (skip the Edible Foodlike Substances) but HOW we eat.  Eat together.  Eat at tables.  Eat until you don’t feel hungry – not until you feel full.

Eating this way would be good in so many ways.

  1. Roll back our health problems.
  2. By selecting real food, not agribusiness products we will make it possible for famers to change and farm in a way that is healthy for the soil.

Health is about wholeness and involves not just our own bodies, but our society and our soil.  If consumers demand varied locally-grown food, farming can move away from the government subsidized monoculture trap they are caught in.

Finally, Pollan put in a pitch for farmers markets, saying

Where we buy food is as important as what we buy.

We cannot get healthy in isolation.  Plug into your local farmers market.  They are playing music there.  People are politicking.  It’s our new public square.  Give your food dollars to people in your neighborhood and build your community.

Pollan ended with this quote from Wendell Berry,

We must never forget “that our land passes in and out of our bodies, just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are a part of one another, so are all who are living as neighbors here, human, plant and animal, are a part of one another, so cannot possibly flourish alone.”

What we bought at the farmer's market on my birthday.  Now that's that way to celebrate!

....What we bought at the farmer's market on my birthday. Celebrate!

I couldn’t agree more.

When you go to your farmer’s market every week for your good, you get much more than nutrients — you plug into a community.  Last week, one of my favorite farmers (where I get my locally grown, fresh-ground whole wheat flour, eggs, garlic and greens) invited me to a potluck for the customers he has grown close to.  I am honored. I am excited.

I feel I have inched a little closer to understanding the soul of a carrot.

7 replies

  1. Denise,

    My favorite moment last night came during the Q&A session when Pollan responded to a question regarding unfair expectations placed on women to make healthy food. He said something to the effect of: “Cooking can no longer be a sexist activity, we must reclaim cooking as a collaborative, communal, and creative activity.” Yes! Coming from a family of collaborative cooks, and striving for the same in my own relationships I couldn’t agree more.

    Today at the panel discussion I particularly liked the new food maxim he had picked up, presumably from someone in the Madison community: You won’t get fat from food you pray over. Its a practice I grew up with, but fell away from when I stopped participating in organized religion. However, in the past year I’ve begun saying grace again before meals, and find it to be a wholly satisfying and appropriate ritual. Gary Snyder makes a wonderful case for the practice in his essay Grace (type Gary Snyder Grace into Google Books to get a hold of the text).

    Was great to bump in to you today and I look forward to crossing paths in the future. Perhaps we’ll see each other at the farmers market; do you have favorite booths?


    • Nic, all your points are really salient.

      Yes, my daughter and I were just talking about that same point this morning — how much fun it is to prepare food together. My two daughters often make tortillini from scratch when they get together, which is insanely time consuming, but they have a blast. I think people crowding companionably into a kitchen to prepare a shared meal is one of my favorite ways to interact. Eating it is almost an anticlimax — (no not really).

      And I share your feeling (having fallen away from organized religion) that I should take a moment to be grateful for my food. Grace is an interesting concept on many levels.

      It was an amazing coincidence to connect at Pollan’s panel!

      We go to the Dane County Farmers Market just about everyweek all year long. We like to go early. I like to get there while the farmers still have time to chat for minute. This morning (no surprise) the talk was all about Pollan.

  2. Wasn’t that an incredibly exciting evening? What I enjoyed the most was hearing new ideas in community and seeing what resonated with other people. It’s so much different than just listening to someone on TV alone in our homes.

    If you don’t have a tradition of saying grace at the table, I would like to recommend my family’s tradition. Everyone says one thing they are grateful for that day. It’s inspiring and starts our communal conversation on a positive note.

    • It was exciting to see how many people gathered, listened, laughed and cheered for Pollan’s compelling message. There is an energy that a group can generate, which is like nothing else. On election eve, after canvasing all day, I was very tired, but my husband talked me into going to Monona Terrace where the local Dems were gathering. To be in that room and participate in that communal upswelling of joy was incomparable. (On the flip side, I am terrified of group anger.) But yes, yes, yes!
      And I like your way of saying grace. Taking time to appreciate good fortune and celebrating that of others is really time well spent.

  3. Denise, Nic recommended i take a look at your excellent blog – thanks for this write-up of Pollan’s visit. Here in Missoula, Montana, I spent most of the day yesterday preparing for the first hard frost of the fall – tucking in the garden, scrambling to glean hundreds of pounds of food from the student farm before it returned to the ground. The frost didn’t come, but the preparations for it have put me in a contemplative mood, thinking about food and how we ever came to disassociate it with culture to the point that we now talk about nutrients rather than foods. It’s so reaffirming to re-enter this natural cycle and become connected with the place that sustains me. Hats off to yourself and to Pollan for helping us along this path!

  4. Hi Micah,
    Thanks for your comments. As you probably heard, I got a chance to meet Nic in an uncanny coincidence. Looking forward to getting to know him better.
    I wonder if people used to have a way to celebrate the first hard frost. It’s such a pivotal event. I guess that’s what harvest festivals are about. But that frost really does boot us into the next season with exhilarating velocity.
    What ever season we are in is my favorite season, and I especially love the transitions between seasons (which is where we are now, so that’s probably why I’m loving it so much at the moment).
    A student farm sounds wonderful! What are you studying?

Leave a Reply to denisedthornton Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s