DATE April 11, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Michael Pollan discusses his new book, "The
Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
What's for dinner? And when you eat will you have any idea where they food is
really from and what's in it? My guest Michael Pollan has traced the history
of four very different meals and, in the process, tells the larger story of
industrial and organic food in America. One meal is fast food, one is from
ingredients he bought at a natural foods supermarket, the third meal comes
from an organic farm, the fourth is food that he hunted or gathered himself.
Pollan is the author the best seller "The Botany of Desire." He's a
contributor to The New York Times Magazine and teaches at the graduate school
of journalism at University of California at Berkeley. His new book, "The
Omnivore's Dilemma," is full of surprises. He traces a bushel of corn from a
field in Iowa to its ultimate destination in a fast food meal. It turns out
that about 13 of 38 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget come from corn. Lots of
our food industry is built around corn. Pollan calls it "the plague of corn."
Corn's great food, what's the problem?
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, corn itself is a great food. But that's--we don't
eat it as a food. We eat it as a kind of raw material in our food. What
happens is we grow vast amounts of corn. It is the most important crop grown
in this country. And then we, instead of just eating it off the cob, we feed
it to animals, pass it through their digestion to turn it into protein, and we
break it down into its constituent molecules, and then we reassemble it as
high fructose corn syrup, as all the different chemical flavorings. So we're
not really eating corn as a food, it's kind of a food substance. And that's
GROSS: So a lot of corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup, which is a
sweetener. What are some of the many foods that are sweetened with that as
opposed to with sugar?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, high fructose corn syrup turns up in all sorts of places
you wouldn't expect to find it. And if you spend a little time at the
supermarket you will find it, not just where you'd expect to in the sports
drinks and the sodas, but you'd find it in the breads, you'd find it in the
relishes, in the mayonnaise, in the cookies, and all the different condiments.
High fructose corn syrup is becoming--it's kind of infiltrating the entire
supermarket. And the reason for that is--well, there are a couple of reasons
for it. It has other properties beside sweetening things. It ends up helping
preserve things. It stabilizes food products so they last longer. It also
creates that nice brown color on a roll or a hamburger bun. That comes from
high fructose corn syrup. And, you know, we are hardwired to like sweetness,
so if you can sneak sweetness into our ketchup, into, you know, into all these
other products, you're going to sell more of them.
GROSS: So you are saying it is like a covert way of sweetening foods and,
therefore, we eat more of them because we like the sweetness so much and you
don't even know that that's why we're eating more.
Mr. POLLAN: That's right. I mean, it's hidden in the foods unless you read
the labels, and it does work on us without us realizing it. You know, we are
suckers for sweetness, and we always have been. And, you know, it's one of
the ways that processed food lies to our bodies, essentially. Because, if you
think about it in nature, the experience of sweetness is very rare. You know,
you've got ripe, ripe fruit, and you've got certain vegetables--root
vegetables get sweet, and you've got honey. And that's about it. But now
that--thanks to all this cheap corn--the experience of sweetness is so cheap
and available that, if you're a food processor, you know, you would be stupid
not to take advantage of it. So they put it in everything with the result
that we're each eating 66 pounds of high fructose corn syrup every year.
GROSS: And that's one of the reasons why you think that corn-based
agricultural economy is helping to make us obese.
Mr. POLLAN: Yes. I mean, it's not the only thing cause, but it is the
prerequisite to have all those cheap calories around in such attractive forms.
You know, cheap corn gives us supersizing. Cheap corn gives us an experience
of sweetness that is so promiscuous in the supermarket that it's unavoidable.
GROSS: You know, you went to a really big corn farm. Would just, like,
describe what it looks like?
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, I went to Churdan, Iowa, and I found that, in a way,
that's where all our fast food, all our supermarket food begins in this farm
field in Iowa. Iowa is really the state of corn. I mean, Iowa, basically, is
owned by the corn plant. It is the most developed state in the country, which
is kind of a weird concept because we think of that as being New York or
California. But, in fact, there's less pre-existing nature in Iowa than there
is in New York or California.
Iowa is where corn goes to party, essentially. And this is--you know, it has
the run of the place. And I went to a very typical corn and bean farm owned
by a man named George Naylor whose family has been farming there since the
1880s. And I use his farm to basically tell the story of modern industrial
agriculture. And it's an interesting place. It feels like the middle of
nowhere. It's a wide open black landscape. I was there in April or early May
and there is nothing growing at that point. The corn is just being planted
and the land is black. There are no fences any more. They've all been taken
down as, gradually, these farms--which used to have eight, 10, 15 different
crops and animals, used to have lots of fences, used to have parts that were
green all year round, the pastures for the animals. Well, corn has
essentially pushed everybody out, including the farmers. There are very few
farmers left. The farms are getting bigger, and one man or one woman can
basically take care of a thousand acres of corn field in a couple of days
using high tech equipment and pesticides and herbicides. And I spent a day in
a tractor with George Naylor, and we planted a huge amount of corn. We must
have planted 100 acres, 150 acres, sitting in a tractor the entire time,
talking, getting acquainted.
What was striking about this farm is how much food it produced. George was
getting somewhere close to 200 bushels of corn off this land. Now, we hear
the word bushel, it sounds like a lot. No one really knows what it is. Well,
a bushel is 56 pounds of just the kernel, just to give you some idea. And if
you can get 200 of those off an acre, you are growing 10,000 pounds of food.
And what is striking about it is he's going broke doing it. He cannot make
enough money to support the farm. The farm is essentially subsidized by his
wife's job and, of course, a big check from the Department of Agriculture
GROSS: Now, why is it so hard do make a living on corn if we are using it in
Mr. POLLAN: Well, because it--we grow so much of it. You know, I said he
was growing about 200 bushels a year. His grandfather was growing about 20
bushels a year. As we've achieved these incredible increases in yield, due to
technology, by and large, and new hybrid seeds and everything, the prices
crashed. A bushel of corn today in Iowa is selling for about $1.45.
Remember, we're talking about a 56 pounds of food. That is dirt cheap.
That's a lot of anything you to buy for $1.45. And, basically, what has
happened is, as the better American farmers get at producing, the lower the
price of the commodities they're selling. The reason that corn has taken over
the food supply is precisely because it is such a cheap raw ingredient.
You know, in 1980 when Coca-Cola started adding corn to its soda in the form
of high fructose corn syrup, it's kind of a watershed moment, and the reason
they did it was it was just so cheap. And that allowed them to take the, you
know, that svelte eight ounce Coke of my childhood and turn it into that
chubby 20 ounce bottle that we see in every gas station today. So the fact
that its gotten cheaper has been wonderful for the people who process
corn--for the Cargills and the ADMs and the Coca-Colas of the world--but it's
been a disaster for the farmers because their price just keeps going down
GROSS: You mentioned the big corporations of processed corn. You described
corn as the part of the food chain that allowed us or encouraged us to turn
from the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry when it comes to
food production and processing. In what way?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, corn is in a way, it's the perfect industrial and perfect
capitalist plant. I mean, if you think about it, first of all, it offers a
wonderful form of intellectual property since, with hybrid corn and now with
GMO, genetically modified corn, the company that breeds it can really control
it. The farmer cannot replant it every year. And that was a prerequisite to
getting companies to invest a lot of money in corn, so they--because they
could get their investment back. But it's also the proto-capitalist plan. I
mean, it's just really thrived in the sunshine of capitalism because it lends
itself to the way industrial capitalism works, which is to say, it's a
wonderful factory product. You put in huge quantities of fertilizers,
pesticides, and you get out huge quantities of a raw material that you can
turn into just about anything. You know, virtually, anything that can be made
from oil can be made from corn and--not to mention all the food stuffs. So it
allows a company to buy a cheap, raw ingredient and add value, whether it's
the convenience of a Go-GURT or, you know, a ham or corn liquor--you know, a
beer is made from a lot of corn--ethanol. You start with this raw, cheap
ingredient, and then you can build value. You can sell various services such
as convenience or flavor or whatever and then sell it back to us. So you
take--you know, in a soda, I mean, you're talking about a penny or two of this
raw ingredient. It's actually something like 4 cents, I think, and you turn
it into something you can sell for $1. It's a wonderful--it's a wonderful
opportunity, basically, if you are making processed foods. But it actually
dictates the making of processed foods, too, since we can't really eat it as
GROSS: Where do Cargill and ADM fit it? They're two big agribusiness
Mr. POLLAN: They are involved at every stage, and their names are not really
that familiar to Americans unless you, of course, listen to public radio and
watch public television, because they don't really sell consumer products.
What they do is they help the farmers grow it by selling them the inputs--the
fertilizers and that kind of thing--and then they buy it from them at this
network of elev--grain elevators all across the Midwest. And then they feed
in on feed lots to animals or turn it into high fructose corn syrup.
And, you know, in following this bushel of corn through the whole system, I
really wanted to go through every step of the way. And it would have been
very useful but, as it turned out, impossible to go to one of the places where
they turn corn into high fructose corn syrup, which is one of the most
important products. But ADM and Cargill would not let me in. And that's sort
of narrows the sluice gate where the whole river of corn, that 10 billion
bushel pile of golden kernels passes through those companies, most of it. Or
at least a large percentage of it, something like a third of it, actually.
And they wouldn't let me near it. That was kind of a shame. The reasons that
they offered were biosecurity, which I thought was kind of interesting.
There--they say that they're worried, post 9/11, that, with such a centralized
food system, a terrorist with a vial of microbes could poison an awful lot of
people if they could get into a facility like that. And they may well be
right. Or it's an excuse.
GROSS: Or they're worried about bad press. Is that what you are suggesting?
Mr. POLLAN: Or they are worried about bad press. I don't know. I mean, for
me, getting access to the food system gets harder and harder the more I write
about it, and especially if you've got companies that really aren't interested
in consumers. They don't have consumer products. They really don't care, and
they're happy to say no to journalists. You know, plus they've had sort of a
checkered history. A lot of ADM executives have spent a lot of the last
decade in jail involved in price fixing schem--scandals having to do with high
fructose corn syrup and lysine, other corn derivatives. So they're not that
interested in having journalists there. But that's kind of where I couldn't
follow the bushel the whole way. I had to pick it up on the other side of
that network of tubes and tanks and enzymatic reactions by which they turn
that corn into all these high value-added ingredients.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Pollan. His new book is called "The Omnivore's
Dilemma" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Pollan, author of the new book "The Omnivore's
Dilemma." When we left off, he was describing how much of our food industry is
built around corn. Corn is cheap, but Pollan says there's lots of hidden
Mr. POLLAN: We have to talk just basically about basic biology. Basic--most
of what we eat is carbon. Most of that carbon started its life as carbon
dioxide, atoms floating around in the air. Only plants can take that carbon
and turn it, through photosynthesis, into a useable molecule of carbohydrate.
And that's how the system works. You know, all of life is a competition to
get that carbon that only plants can give us. And we either eat the plants or
we eat the plant eaters. And my image of corn is that it was basically
participating in this process. But the more you look at it you realize that
even though that corn is waving beautifully under the bright sun in the
summer, in fact, it is sipping fossil fuel. Because what allows you to grow
corn in such quantity, that 200 bushels an acre, is a huge quantity of fossil
fuel fertilizer. How we make all that fertilizer--it's a greedy plant. It
takes an incredible amount of fertilizer. And that fertilizer is essentially
made from petroleum, usually natural gas, but it can be made from oil. So, in
fact, every bushel of corn takes somewhere between a quarter and a third of a
gallon of gasoline, equivalent, to grow. So, as much as it might look like a
solar driven process, this corn-based food system is--is, in fact, a fossil
fuel process. Corn is really the SUV of plants. And this whole system that
is built upon it is adding, you know, adds more and more fossil fuel down the
line. To process the food, to create that high fructose corn syrup, lots of
oil. To ship all that food--it's a national food system around, lots more
oil. And you end up with a situation where about a fifth of our fossil fuel
use is going to feed ourselves industrially. And so it's another, you know,
it's another problem with a corn-based food system. It's a very high energy
way to feed yourself.
GROSS: So, you know, one of the things you do is trace what happens to this
fossil fuel fertilizer after the plants are done with it because there's still
stuff that gets in the air and that runs through the earth and ends up going
Mr. POLLAN: River water.
GROSS: ...rivers and streams and ponds and so on. So what are some of the
side effects of this fossil fuel fertilizer?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, all this cheap corn is incredibly expensive by
several measures. One is, as we just talked about, energy. But also in terms
of its environmental footprint, which is huge. All that fertilizer--and
farmers use way too much of it, it's fairly cheap and they consider it crop
insurance--but a great deal of that fertilizer runs off the fields, ends up in
the water. I mean, from the farm where I was at, it ends up in the--it starts
in the Beaver Creek and goes down to the Des Moines River. And women in Des
Moines, young mothers hear blue baby alerts in the spring. You can't use the
water--because Des Moines sips from the Des Moines River--because there're so
many nitrates in it that it will compromise your baby's ability to get oxygen
to their brains. So they have to move to bottled water in the spring during
the period of runoff. It then goes into the Mississippi, and it ends up going
down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. And the Gulf of Mexico now has
a dead zone, that's to say kind of a Bermuda Triangle for fish--they go into
it and they die--that is the size of New Jersey. That is cheap corn's waste
product. It's its septic system, essentially. So that's part of the cost
that doesn't show up in your--you know, your 99 cent hamburger or your
$1.20-ounce Coke. And so, you know, Wendell Barry once said that the motto of
our industrial food system should be "cheap at any price."
GROSS: So do you try to stay away, personally, from the foods that have the
high fructose corn syrup in them?
Mr. POLLAN: I do. You know, I don't think high fructose corn syrup is an
evil substance, but I think it's a marker for food that is way too processed.
I mean, if you think about it, what chef uses high fructose corn syrup? What
cook uses high fructose corn syrup? It's a marker of a food product, rather
than a food. So, if you avoid high fructose corn syrup, it's a pretty good
shorthand to avoid highly processed food. And I do try to avoid that. I
think that eating that kind of food simply doesn't give us what we need. And,
to my mind, you know, having seen those farms and having seen that fertilizer
runoff, I don't find it that appetizing any more.
GROSS: So do you think corn is kind of controlling the way we farm in
America? In other words, are these kinds of big industrial corn farms driving
out other kinds of agriculture?
Mr. POLLAN: Absolutely. What the corn did was, essentially--I don't mean
to--corn is sort of the hero of one third of this book, and I do see it as an
actor driving its own story to a certain extent. But it, for example, these
farms, such as the farm I was on, used to have animals on it, and the
farmers--which was, in retrospect, a wonderful system, because you had crops
here and then you had animals here. The animals would eat your crop waste,
all the cornstalks and extra stuff that you produced, and their manure would
give you your source of fertility. So you had this kind of closed nutrient
loop on all these farms all over the Midwest. And what we have done instead,
again to quote Wendell Barry, is taken a solution and neatly divided it into
two problems, which is to say we have this enormous pollution problem in the
way we grow animals now because we have moved them off the farms and into feed
lots. And we have an enormous fertility problem on the farms because we don't
have any animals to provide fertility, so we have to buy all this fossil fuel
Now, why did the animals leave the farm? Well, in this sense, corn pushed
them out. Since you can buy that bushel of corn so cheaply on the
market--$1.45 now--a farmer--it costs a farmer about $2.50 to grow that bushel
of corn. So he cannot grow it as cheaply as the feed lot can buy it. So,
therefore, it's not economical for him to keep animals on his farm. And the
animals get driven off, and they end up in these vast cities that float on the
sea of, you know, oil-fed corn, and that's how we get our meat now, on these
vast feed lots. So, essentially, what's happened is corn has sort of
urbanized the landscape of the Middle West. I mean, to nature, having one
kind of species, essentially corn and soybeans--two--is as dull a place as had
it been paved over. There are no birds in Iowa. There's no biodiversity in
Iowa. It is as urban a landscape as you can image. It just happens to be
green with these plants. So corn has simplified everything. It's simplified
our diet. It's simplified our landscape. And I know I must sound a little
bit like a monomaniac on the subject of corn, and this is not the corn theory
of all history, but it is a chunk of history, a very important chunk of
history, that we are living and are completely oblivious to.
GROSS: Michael Pollan is the author of the new book "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
GROSS: Coming up, do the organic chickens and cows really leave the pasture
alive as described on the labels in organic supermarkets? We continue our
conversation with writer Michael Pollan. Also a Passover song from the
satirical band What I Like About Jew.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael Pollan. In his
new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," he traces the history of four meals and,
in the process, tells the larger story of the American food industry,
including fast food and organic food.
Now, one of the things you do is go to--you walk through all foods. You walk
through a big, you know, like organic supermarket that's a chain, and you
describe what--you talk about what you describe as "storied food," the kind of
food that comes with a story on it. Give us some examples of what you mean.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, I--look, I have a real weakness for Whole Foods. I think
that they are some of the most brilliant storytellers in America right now,
and, as you walk through that store--in fact, I just came from a Whole Foods
store where I had some lunch--and as you walk through a Whole Foods, you see
all these wonderful pastoral tales. You know, the milk that came from cows
that lived according to their natural predilections with the company of their
own kind, or the chickens that were ranging free, or, one of my favorites, the
cage free eggs. Now, I didn't really know that eggs really thought much about
whether they were in cages or not, but apparently they like being cage free,
And the, you know, and these images of farmers, you know, that are up--in my
Whole Foods in California where I live, the walls are covered with these
pictures of small farmers, the pioneers of the organic movement. And you have
this kind of very seductive, wonderful, pastoral experience. It's like
reading Virgil in the supermarket right now. And they're very clever about it
and I think their success, which has been astounding--I mean, they are the
most successful supermarket chain in America in terms of their
growth--suggests that we're searching for an alternative to industrial food,
suggests that we want--that we're very concerned about our food. You know,
we're very anxious about what we're eating and confused about it. And we're
looking for a set of answers. We're looking for food, I think, to reconnect
us to the natural world, which is, of course, what it always did and still
does. I mean, even the Twinkie starts out in that farm field somewhere. I
don't know what it comes from, but it comes from some plant. So we're very
desirous of returning food to some kind of meaningful relationship, a
connection between our bodies and nature. Because eating is our most profound
engagement with the natural world, and we forget that. But I think there's a
collective act of remembering and Whole Foods is part of that, and they're
offering one set of answers. As it turns out, though, you know, they're
wonderful storytellers, but if you read between the lines and you actually
kind of follow that food back to the earth, as I did, the results can be a
GROSS: You know, a lot of people are trying to eat eggs from free range
chickens and, you know, chicken meat that's from free range chickens. So you
went to a farm where the chickens are supposed to be free range chickens.
What were you expecting? And compare that to what you found.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, I don't want to disillusion you, Terry, but the life of a
free range chicken is not quite all it's cracked up to be or the image that
you would have looking at the package in Whole Foods.
I went to a place near me in California that grows organic, free range
chickens, and what I found was, essentially, an organic factory farm--chickens
grown in tremendous sheds about the length of a football field in a series set
up like barracks, marching down the landscape. There are 20,000 of them in
one of these sheds, and they're getting organic grain, and they're not eating
meat by products, which arguably, is not such a good thing, because chickens
are omnivores. They do eat protein. They do eat meat protein. And they live
indoors except, after five weeks, a little door at either end of this giant
shed is opened, and it opens onto a narrow strip of lawn. And you have to
imagine sort of the front lawn on your house. And there's a little ramp down
through that door, and the chickens, at their option, could walk down that
ramp into that lawn and range free.
Well, when I was there, they didn't, and I was kind of curious as to why that
was. And I asked the people in charge, and they said, `Well, you know, the
door's been closed for five weeks of their lives and..' By the way, what you
need to know is they die at seven weeks, so we're not talking about a
lifestyle, we're talking about a two-week vacation option, essentially, for
these chickens. But the whole flock is indoors, the food is indoors, why
would they go outside? They've never been outside. They don't know any--you
know, it's like that Manhattan cat who imagines on the other side of the
door--it's never been outside--is an alternative universe. They're terrified
to go outside. And you know what, that suits the farmers, so called, quite
well, because they're terrified, since these animals are raised without
antibiotics, that they'll catch their death of cold out there. And they might
well. I mean, one of the ironies about practicing organic agriculture on an
industrial scale is that it is incredibly precarious because you're not giving
those chickens antibiotics, and they still are living in close confinement,
you know, a tremendous monoculture--one, essentially, set of genes--that they
could very easily be wiped out by a single microbe. So you'd just as soon
they didn't go outside, and you essentially have organized things so they
GROSS: You went to one chicken farm that you thought really did treat the
chickens well. Would you describe what was good about it?
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. You know, there's organic and there's organic and--or
beyond organic, as some farmers like to say. And, you know, I did find farms
that I felt wonderful about eating from. And I went to one in particular,
this is Joel Salatin's farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and he's
doing--not just--he's doing chickens, both for eggs and for meat, and he's
doing grass-fed beef and turkeys and rabbits and pigs. And he is showing--and
I think this is perhaps one of the most sustainable farms in America--that
there is a way that you can grow animals in a way that is--they get to sort of
live according to their creaturely character and end up producing very high
They way he does it is every day he moves the cows to one pasture to another
pasture. So they get to graze one day, let the pasture recover, move on. And
then he brings in--after three days--his egg mobile, which is a portable
chicken house, essentially. And those chickens fan out over that grass. They
eat some grass, and they also eat the grubs out of the cow patties, which is
their favorite food because they're evolved to eat insects and larva. And
they perform several functions. And it's a very kind--it's interesting
because it's a different concept of efficiency than--it's not an industrial
concept of efficiency, it's an ecological idea of efficiency. And,
essentially, what happens is the chickens perform several services for the cow
or vice versa. And so the chickens are eating the grubs, which is to say the
fly larva, that would bother the cows if they were allowed to hatch. They are
also spreading the manure by digging through it. And they're fertilizing the
pasture. They're laying down all this nitrogen in their manure, and then they
move out, and you wait another couple of weeks and then you bring the cattle
back in. And the result of this kind of very elaborate rotation--and it's
basically modeled on what happens in nature, because, if you think about it,
birds follow herbivores in nature. They always have. They clean up after
them. The result of this is land that is actually improved at the end of the
year. And, for me, this was perhaps the most heartening thing I saw in my
entire kind of investigation of the food system.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Pollan. His new book is called "The Omnivore's
Dilemma." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Pollan, and he is the author of the new book "The
Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals."
You know, people are so into mocking people who buy only organic foods. It's
like, `Oh, you can only eat boutique food?' `Oh, you're so spoiled that you
only can eat things that are certified organic and that are really expensive.'
`Doesn't that make you very privileged?' What do you have to say about that?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think there really is an issue. I mean, look, to eat
well in this country, which is to say eat in a way that is healthy for you and
healthy for the environment and doesn't use a lot of energy is more expensive.
So that's an issue we have to grapple with. A lot of this food is elitist
food and can be called elitist food, and often is usually by, by the way,
proponents of the industrial food system. You know, any situation where
McDonald's is claiming the high moral ground, I'm a little dubious of. And
this is one of them. But I think we have to confront this. And, you know,
there are several different ways to look at it. One is cheap food is not as
cheap as it looks. The real cost of that 99 cent burger, in terms of--is
charged to the public health, is charged to the environment, is charged to
your health. So, even though it's cheap at the register, that is not the real
cost of that food. That is an irresponsible price. And I don't know that
people want to buy irresponsibly. Now, some people don't have a choice, and
there are a percentage of people in this country who probably can't afford to
eat organic or even eat more sustainably. Because organic is not the only
answer. Let's not oppose organic to everything else. There are many other
alternatives out there. Grass-fed beef is not organic, but it's better, I
think, than organic beef.
If you go to the supermarket, it is true that--and you are a rational actor
and you don't have a lot of money, if you want--if you are basically buying
energy for your family, that's to say calories, the rational thing for you to
do under the system we have is to patronize the center of the store, all the
processed food, because a dollar will get you 2500 calories of cookies, of
snacks, of potato chips. And if you go to the produce aisle, it will only get
you 250 calories of carrots. So, you know, we are programmed by evolution to
seek the most energy with the least effort possible. And the supermarket has
created an environment where that forces people essentially to buy the least
healthy calories. But that's not a function of the free market. That's not a
function of nature, either. That is a function of policy. There's a reason
that the least healthy calories in the supermarket are the cheapest, and that
is essentially a policy. We subsidize the cheap calories. We
subsidize--those calories that come from corn and all those calories, all that
high fructose corn syrup is subsidized by our taxpayer dollars. The carrots
are not. So it seems to me, for the people who are shopping this way, the
challenge is to change the set of incentives and figure out a way to make the
healthy food cheaper and the unhealthy food a little bit more expensive.
GROSS: You know, to compound the problems that you're writing about and kind
of what's gone wrong with the food industry, the food industry is global now
so, in addition to all the fossil fuel that is being used for fertilizer, it
takes so much fuel to drive around all the produce and the meat from the place
that it's grown and produced to the place where it's actually purchased and
eaten, so that's another problem you talk about in your book.
Mr. POLLAN: It is. And that's a problem with organics as well, and
I--that's a big problem with Whole Food. I was just in the Whole Food in
Union Square in New York where there's an interesting kind of drama taking
place because you have one of the best farmers markets in the city going head
to head with Whole Foods. And there in that Whole Food was grass-finished
beef, wonderful environmentally-sustainable product. But guess where it was
coming from? New Zealand. Directly across the street, in the farmers market
in Union Square, were two people selling grass-finished beef from the Hudson
Valley, from 90 miles away. Why are we going to New Zealand to get that beef?
You know, that long industrial organic food chain ends up consuming just as
much energy as the rest of the food chain. And that's why I think, really,
local food is the really important movement going on in food right now.
GROSS: And do you try to eat local food?
Mr. POLLAN: I try to eat local food whenever I can. And--because local
food, you know if our food dollars are votes, local food supports a lot more
values, I think, that organic food. Organic food supports a certain level of
care of the environment, no pesticides. Local food supports controlling
sprawl, keeping farmers in my community, a kind of landscape. You know, when
we think of the New England landscape that we love, or--you know, what is
that, those forests and fields bisected by those stone fences? Well, that's a
landscape created by farmers and their animals and the people who ate those
animals. It will not survive without people still eating from that landscape.
So, in a way, buying local is a vote for land conservation as well, and
probably a lot more useful and sustainable than writing checks to
GROSS: Your book ends with you eating a meal that completely comes from
ingredients from foods that you--from animals that you hunted and foods that
you foraged. And it's--why did you want to do that?
Mr. POLLAN: To see if I could. I was very curious to see--I looked at the
longest food chain. I wanted to look at the shortest, and, of course, the
shortest food chain is the hunted, gathered and grown food chain. And I had
done a fair amount of gardening in the past. I had never hunted. I had never
foraged for mushrooms. And I really wanted to get back to the basics. And,
you know, this isn't a practical solution. I don't offer this as something
anybody else should do, but as a ritual matter, as a way to, you know, for
once in my life--and I don't know that I'll ever do it again--to really
understand how my eating connects me to the natural world--I killed a boar as
part of this process in Northern California, and when I watched that boar
hanging from the tree, and we were cleaning it, which was really a difficult
and disgusting process that, you know, made me really think about eating meat
and how I felt about it and really confront the difficulties of it--but there
I could see an entire food chain. You know, the sun was feeding these oak
trees, the acorns were feeding this pig, and this pig was going to feed me.
And there was something quite beautiful about that, as well as being
disgusting. And I felt I understood something important that we forget, which
is to say that, you know, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and we
forget that. And every time we eat, we're engaging with the natural world.
And all of our eating decisions are supporting one set of species or another,
one kind of landscape or another. And, you know, we can't live in full
consciousness of that all the time, but to live in greater consciousness of it
than we do is the first step toward changing our relationship to nature. I
don't think you can call yourself an environmentalist if you're thoughtless
about your eating. It's too important a relationship to the rest of the
So for me it was a ceremony as much as anything. It was like my bar mitzvah.
And it was a kind of a--and like my bar mitzvah, I don't have to do it again.
But it was a kind of coming of age in my own eating, and I eat a lot more
carefully. I eat meat, I don't waste meat.
There's a story told about Thomas Keller--who, you know, some people think is
the greatest chef in America today at The French Laundry and Per Se, New
York--once deciding he should kill a rabbit to see what it was all about. And
it was really hard, and he couldn't grab the rabbit, and he broke its leg
accidentally, and it was a messy killing. And he felt terrible about it. But
he resolved at that point to make the best rabbit dish anyone had ever had,
that he was going to treat that rabbit with reverence and kind of redeem the
sloppiness of the act. You know, that's conscious eating and conscious
cooking. And that's the beginning of taking better care of the animals we've
co-evolved with and of the land that we depend on.
GROSS: Michael Pollan, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. POLLAN: My pleasure, Terry. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Michael Pollan is the author of the new book "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
He's a professor in the graduate school of journalism at the University of
California at Berkeley.
Coming up. A Passover song by a satirical band called What I Like About Jew.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum, founders of satirical
band What I Like About Jew, discuss
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guests Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum are the founders of the satirical
band What I Like About Jew. In the Boston Globe, their songs were described
as racy and funny and smart and affectionate, written for a generation of
fully-assimilated Jews who grew up on punk rock and South Park. Tannenbaum is
the music editor of Blender magazine. Altman is a performer with Kol Zimra
and Voices for Israel. Their new CD, "Unorthodox," features a song about
Passover. It's called "They Tried To Kill Us, (We Survived, Let's Eat)."
(Sound bite of "They Tried To Kill Us [We Survived, Let's Eat]")
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT JEW: (Singing) We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt. The
year was 1492, Hitler had just invaded Poland, Madonna had just become a Jew.
Moses was found on the Potomac. Then he marched with Martin Luther King. He
came back to free us from our bondage, 'cause S & M has never been our thing.
They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat.
They tried to kills us, we were faster on our feet. So they chase us to the
border, there's a parting of the water, tried to kill us, we survived, let's
Then the pharaoh, who looked like Yul Brynner, heard the Jews were trying to
escape. Charlton Heston came right down from the mountain. He said,
`Pharaoh, you're a damn, dirty ape!'
The menorah was almost out of oil. Farrakan was planning Kristalnacht. The
gefilte fish was nearing extinction. It looked like Moses and his flock were
They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat.
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet. And we knew how to resist
'cause we'd rented "Schindler's List," tried to kill us, we survived. Let's
The 10 Egyptian plagues.
(End of sound bite)
GROSS: That's the band, What I Like About Jew from their new CD,
Sean Altman, Rob Tannenbaum welcome to FRESH AIR.
Now, your Passover song is called "They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let's
Eat)." Does the title of this song sum up what a Seder used to be like when
you were growing up?
Mr. ROB TANNENBAUM: In fact, it sums up pretty much every Jewish holiday,
Mr. SEAN ALTMAN: But we were comforted by the fact that every Jewish holiday
can be summarized with the phrase, `They tried to kill us. We survived.
Mr. TANNENBAUM: And Sean and I both grew up in very reformed households. In
my family, Passover Seder was pretty much a sprint to the finish. It was,
`How quickly can we get through the four questions? What if we read only two
of the four questions? What if we went from the back of the prayerbook
because, you know, Jews read from back to front. What if we went from one end
the Seder book to the other in about six minutes?' And it never seemed,
really, to make God angry. So year after year, we just made the Seder shorter
and shorter. It was speed reading.
Mr. ALTMAN: Also, you know, the Seder is the first time that most Jewish
children get to drink alcohol, and so some of my fondest memories are chugging
that deliriously sweet kosher wine called Manishewitz.
GROSS: I always thought that Manishewitz wine was adults' attempt to convince
children that there was no pleasure to be had in wine.
Mr. ALTMAN: Manishewitz is--is Ripple for Jews. Basically, we drink like
bums at Passover. It does seem to be part of a specific Jewish tradition of
not experiencing or not associating any real joy with your religion.
GROSS: You know, I'm thinking holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas have so
much song. They're like song holidays. I can't think of any songs that I
know about Passover, except for yours.
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Well, there is an old Hebrew song that the Jews sing at
Passover, but, I mean, let's face it, it's in Hebrew. How far is that going
Mr. ALTMAN: Yeah. It's a song about one little goat. I mean, you can't
compare Irving Berlin--Jew, by the way--you can't compare songs like "White
Christmas" or "Easter Parade" with a song about a little goat.
GROSS: So do you have Passover gigs coming up? Are there such things as
Mr. ALTMAN: We have a whole slew of Passover gigs. In fact, Rob and I are
about to embark on our first tour of the West Coast. We're referring to this
as our Exodus tour because it is a chance for us to get the hell out of New
GROSS: So are you going to eat matzah on Passover?
Mr. ALTMAN: If...
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Sure.
Mr. ALTMAN: ...you'll remind us when Passover is...
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Yes.
Mr. ALTMAN: Matzah with a nice big shrimp on top of it tastes really
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Matzah is another one of those unfortunate lessons for Jews,
like the bar mitzvah. You know, how are we going to celebrate the holiday?
We're going to eat flat, dry crackers. I remember when I was a kid at
Passover, my mother would pack me a lunch of matzah and cream cheese. You
know, that sounds pretty good, but my mom didn't like to get up in the
morning. So she would pack it the night before and stick it in the
refrigerator. And, basically, by noon the next day, it would be sort of like
glue between a couple of thin twigs. And, you know, I would go to school and
everybody else would be taking out their ham and cheese sandwiches on French
baguettes, and I would be eating, you know, a paste sandwich and think, `God,
life is so much better when you're a Christian.'
Mr. ALTMAN: A Jew's relationship with Jewish food is interesting because I
actually enjoy all of the so-called grotesque Jewish foods. Most of them
start with the word K, like kishka, kasha, kugel, knaidel...
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Kreplach.
Mr. ALTMAN: Kreplach. Most of them are derived from Eastern European foods
where typically, you know, Jews couldn't afford to eat the good stuff, so this
was the stuff like the wealthier people threw away--you know, the intestines,
the feet. the, you know, the weird internal organ things that nobody else
wanted to eat, which Jews have made into delicacies.
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Gefilte fish is just like the slime that sunk to the bottom
of the ocean that nobody with any kind of money wanted to eat, but somehow was
turned into a delicacy in the Jewish ghettos.
GROSS: I want to thank you both for talking with us. Thank you.
Mr. TANNENBAUM: Thanks for having us.
Mr. ALTMAN: Thank you, Terry.
(Sound bite from "They Tried to Kill Us [We Survived, Let's Eat]")
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT JEW: (Singing) The 10 Egyptian plagues: one, blood; two,
locusts; three, boils; four, dandruff; five, acne; six, backne; seven, piles;
eight, cataracts; nine, sciatica; 10, Sickle cell anemia.
We fled on foot, there was no time to tarry. Leavening the bread would take
too long. All we had was egg foo yung and matzah while battling the fearsome
Viet Cong. And so tonight, we gather to remember the ancient Hebrews who paid
the price. We have a Seder every year in December to commemorate our savior,
They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat. They tried to kill us, we were
faster on our feet, so we never did succumb to the annual pogrom. Tried to
kill us, we survived, let's eat.
(End of sound bite)
GROSS: Rob Tannenbaum and Sean Altman are the founders of the satirical band
What I Like About Jew. Their new CD is called "Unorthodox." You can find out
more about the band on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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