Everybody's Got a Hungry Heart

Fangirl Fridays — Michael Pollan

I’m here this week to fangirl about someone you might think is an unusual choice for a Saucy Wench. He has never made a single locatable reference to vampires, leather lingerie, or kick-ass, sword-wielding heroines. But he does share one of my grand passions in life: Food!!

See, when you think of it that way, he’s easy to fangirl about!

Michael Pollan is that food guy you keep seeing on TV lately. Not the one stuffing gigantic cheeseburgers and platters of fried pancakes into his mouth while the clock ticks down. Or the one hurling insults at aspiring chefs who cower in his kitchen. He’s the one smiling, gently prodding us to sit down and enjoy a home-cooked meal with our family.

Relax! Take a load off! Savor the flavors!

As far as literary foodies go, he’s not so much this... 

“I Love Bacon” Merit, 
Sentinel of Cadogan House

He tries to avoid wolfing down deep-dish pizzas, granola bars, and Mallowcakes while chasing around nonstop after villains.

He’s more this...

Claire Fraser,
Domestic Goddess of Fraser Ridge

Prefers to linger with friends over a juicy pork roast à la White Sow and fresh treats from the kaleyard, slather home-churned butter on thick slices of bread warm from the oven, and toast the new homebrew. (Source: Alex Oliver: dibujante on Facebook)

Michael Pollan is a nonfiction author who writes about the kind of food our great-grandmothers cooked. He’s clearly passionate about his subject matter. (He’s Michael J. Fox’s brother-in-law, another outspoken advocate for worthy causes.) And he loves to offer his own patented, slightly off-kilter perspective, which has been known to lure legions of devoted junk food fans to renounce their former food sins.

So click through to read about why I think he’s a pretty cool guy, totally worth a listen whenever he has something to say. And worth sneaking away from the likes of Barrons, Bones, or even Jamie Fraser for a rendezvous between the pages whenever one of his books hits the stands.

Michael Pollan... released a new book recently, so he has been making the rounds on talk shows. If you’ve ever stopped to listen to him, you already know that he’s sharp, articulate, and funny. Three qualities I admire in a man, because they’ll keep me entertained both now and later, long after our scorching hot looks are gone. *wink wink nudge nudge*

But I discovered Michael Pollan because of his writing. And the first thing I noticed is that he LOVES food. Real food. The kind we threw at our siblings ate while gathered around the family dining table when I was young. 


And he loves to garden. He feels a deep connection to the natural world around him. *Me, too!! Me, too!!* He has spent a lifetime observing closely the places where nature and civilization meet up. Around the boundaries between city and farmland, suburb and woods, nature park and lawn (nature under totalitarian rule, he says). Noticing botanical and biological connections, interactions, attraction and avoidance, infiltration and resistance, wars waged and truces negotiated. He puzzles over these things, tries to see them from the participants’ points of view, until he arrives at some awesomely inventive conclusions. Which he then writes a best seller about.

His love of food, gardening, and life along the fringes perfectly meshes with mine. His curiosity to root out the unexpected, pinpoint the essence, and tease apart the ties that bind just enough to observe... these fan the flames of my hippie nature nerdgirliness. His childlike enthusiasm for the miracles we often overlook reminds me to seek the joy. His subversive streak that helps him to root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points (New York Times Book Review)? My inner Deadhead dusts off the tie dye and dances with delight.

But he charmed me one book at a time. So let me share how I became such a fan by recalling the first time I read each of his books.

A sucker seduced by Nature
Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

Amazon recommended Michael Pollan as an author I might enjoy because I’d bought books about landscaping my yard. So I added his book Second Nature to my wish list. It told about trying to garden at the edge of a forest. Having just moved into the exact same situation myself, I figured I could relate. And I totally did. A little too well. He’s kind of a soft-hearted idealist like me. He left the weeds alone if they had pretty flowers. (Uh-oh!) He tried to work around the wildlife a little too leniently. (Did they take advantage? Yes, they did!) And the next spring he dug his way out from under the thriving pile of wildness he had unwittingly enabled and learned the same lessons I did, but somehow his seemed a lot funnier.

Coaxing order from chaos... or not... is exhausting. But it has the power to make us feel vibrantly plugged in to the “real” energy grid!! And his writing captured that excitement!!

So now he had my interest. Who was this guy?

His bona fides

Turns out, he’s an English major who navigated his way into a tangentially related, paying career! No wonder I like him!

He appears on talk shows and investigative reports. He addresses schools, communities, and politicians. He even writes to the President of the U.S. about what’s going on with our food. According to his web site and Wikipedia page, he has also been pretty busy with writing and award winning and movie making:

  • Born and raised in New York. Lives near San Francisco. Married. His sister is Tracy Pollan and his brother-in-law is Michael J. Fox.
  • Received a Master’s in English from Columbia University. Appointed as the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

    • Appeared in TIME magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people, 2010.
    • Named by Newsweek as one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders”, 2009.
    • A New York Times book review bestows the crown of “liberal foodie intellectual”, 2006.

    • Harper’s Magazine, executive editor, 1984 to 1994.
    • The New York Times Magazine, contributing writer, 1987 to present.
    • Published in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, National Geographic, Mother Jones, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Vogue, Travel & Leisure, Gourmet, House & Garden, and Gardens Illustrated, to name a few.
    • Finalist for the National Magazine Award for best essay, 2009.
    • Received the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003; the John Burroughs prize for best natural history essay in 1997; the QPB New Vision Award for his first book, Second Nature; the 2000 Reuters-I.U.C.N. Global Award for Environmental Journalism for his reporting on genetically modified crops; the 2003 Humane Society of the United States’ Genesis Award for his writing on animal agriculture; the 2008 Truth in Agricultural Journalism Award from the American Corngrowers Association; the 2009 President’s Citation Award from the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the 2009 Voices of Nature Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
    • Published in many essay anthologies, including Best American Essays (1990 and 2003), Best American Science Writing (2004), the Norton Book of Nature Writing, and The New Kings of Non-Fiction, edited by Ira Glass.

    • Appeared in the PBS documentary based on his book, The Botany of Desire, 2009 (see trailer below).
    • Co-starred in and served as consultant for the documentary, Food Inc., 2008, which received an Academy Award nomination (see trailer below).
    • Interviewed for the film Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?, 2010, a feature length documentary about honey bees and colony collapse disorder.

    • Most recent book: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, 2013.
    • Four New York Times bestsellers:
      • Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, 2010
      • In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, 2008
      • The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, 2006
      • The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, 2001
    • Early books:
      • Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, 1991
      • A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams, 1997/8

    • The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, and the James Beard Award. Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
    • The Botany of Desire – Received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best non-fiction work of 2001. Recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon.com.
    • Second Nature (his first book!) – Received the QPB New Vision Award.

Impressive! So what else has he written?

Hey, who’s in charge here?
The Botany of Desire

The subtitle of this book intrigued me: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Pollan used an approach that worked so well he would use it again in later books—he came up with an oddball theory, identified four concepts related to the theory and a plant that corresponded to each, then wrote the book in four parts, one for each concept. His theories aren’t really oddball, they are just a fresh new way of looking at something. He observes, researches, reads related theories. He examines the possibilities from all perspectives, translates them through a prism that tilts them just slightly on edge, and suddenly we have a new appreciation for whatever it is he’s talking about.

His theory in The Botany of Desire is that we might not be as clever as we thought for finding plants that satisfy our basic cravings and setting up elaborate environments to keep them in ready supply. Because at the same time we’ve been domesticating our favorite things, those things have also been domesticating us, essentially manipulating our behaviors to suit their needs. So it’s actually a co-evolutionary journey we’re taking together. They evolved a specific scent, or color, or intoxicating effect, or other feature that attracted us—and we helped them survive made damn sure we never ran out of it! From the book’s cover:
He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants have also benefited at least as much from their association with us. So who is really domesticating whom?

In fact, he could (and does) say that a few really smart grasses—like rice, wheat, and now corn—have cleverly seduced us into basing our entire global lifestyle around them.

In 2009, PBS broadcast a two-hour documentary based on The Botany of Desire, which gave a few non-readers I know a chance to get as excited about his message as I am.

Will you be having the corn or the grass this evening, sir?
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

This is his masterpiece, IMHO. And one of my Top 10 Favorite Books, period. He takes four “typical” meals and traces each one back to its inception:
  • Forest-based meal, hunted and gathered by hand from the wilds of California
  • Grass-based, “industrial organic” meal with ingredients purchased from Whole Foods (U.S. grocery chain)
  • Grass-based, “sustainably farmed” meal with ingredients from a small farm in Virginia
  • Corn-based, fast-food “happy meal”

My gut reaction to each?

Forest-based —YAWWWWWNNN

I’m more likely to become a vegetarian than a hunter, and I’m too busy gardening to gather. But honestly, this was the last section of the book, and my brain was already in shock over what I’d read in the other sections.

Grass-based — YAY!! 

A glorious epiphany to me. I had never thought about it, but our natural food chain depends upon grass. It was no surprise to read that large-scale farms attempting to comply (at least on paper) with a mish-mash of organic regulations do not necessarily embody the heart and soul of organic farming. But the small farms restored my hope for the future. I marveled at the simple harmony of a farm in which every animal and plant is guided by the watchful eye of a caretaker who conducts each as a finely-tuned instrument with an essential note or melody to contribute to the symphony. And the whole orchestra runs on grass. If you thought feel-good, community-based farming was extinct, or “happy” cows and chickens and pigs and bugs can’t all peacefully co-exist to the tune of Whistle While You Work, you will absolutely adore this book.

Corn-based — YIKES!!!!!!!! (and @*/%#&!!!!!!!)

Did you know it’s practically impossible for the average American to eat a meal that isn’t based on (genetically modified) corn now? Which would be great if that’s what we—or cows or chickens or fish—were designed to eat. After reading this section, which kept me riveted in much the same way as a train wreck, I permanently lost my appetite for mass-produced, food-like substances and sleazy marketing. So if you like processed, fast, or junk food and you want to continue liking it, you are not going to want to read this section. Or this book. And I cannot stress that strongly enough.

If, however, you’re not deterred by a harsh dose of “behind the scenes” and want to up the ante, might I suggest a chaser of Fast Food Nation?! *cackles with sadistic glee*

Why is this book in my Top 10 Lifetime Favorites List? Because the discussion on where our food really comes from was an eye opener of the highest order. It blew the lid off one of the most important current issues affecting the lives of me, my friends, and my family... about which I feel like I can actually make a difference... in my home, my community, and maybe even beyond. It might feel like a David vs. Goliath struggle, but we all get countless opportunities every day to make choices that determine exactly how our food affects us. And he inspired me to take back control!

Plus it was really entertaining and a lot of fun to read!

Sound dull? Surprise!! I expected this book to be dry, but it sucked me right in. He is a truly accomplished writer, able to blend facts, personal anecdotes, and humorous observations in a way that keeps me so entertained I hardly realize I’m actually absorbing a lot of serious content. What else could explain not one, but four!! books about botany and grandma food being New York Times best sellers?

Real Life(R) Testimonial? You betcha! I lent this book to my best friend, who was enjoying it immensely until her teenage son absconded with it and wouldn’t give it back until he was done. Since it was her birthday week, I decided to buy her a copy so she could hurry up and finish it and talk to me about it. And then she lent it to her husband, who travels a lot on business and began telling everyone he sat next to on planes and trains about what a great book it was. I can’t remember any book I’ve ever recommended that got such an enthusiastic response from that entire family!!

Back to the basics
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual 
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Now that people were totally freaked out about what the heck was on their dinner plates, some wanted to back up and start at the beginning. So he wrote these introductory books, for folks who want to learn a few things about food without having the bajeebers completely scared out of them.

After surviving The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was no newbie. But I was totally addicted to his writing. So I grabbed these as soon as they were available. Here’s how he distilled his foodie philosophy down to 7 words that fit on a bumper sticker:

Sounds so simple, right? Sigh. (Source)

If you think food hasn’t changed so awfully much since your great-grandmother’s day, then Food Rules will wipe that thought right out of your head. (I like to think I’m well informed about this stuff, but all sorts of weird “foods” have snuck right past my radar.)

It answers some basic questions, including a few you didn’t know you had. Why does he call most of the stuff in our grocery stores food-like substances? What exactly is that stuff I’ve been eating if it isn’t food? And why should I interrupt my Lost marathon and 12th rereading of Outlander to make dinner, when I could call for take-out or zap a delicious box of unpronounceable chemicals in that magic microwave contraption?

The rules he sets out seem simple enough, but can be deceptively difficult to achieve: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. Don’t eat things that won’t eventually rot. Pay attention to where and how you eat. Cook your own junk food. Don’t buy food where you buy gasoline.

Here’s a video where he explains it simply and succinctly.

Stop-animation video of Food Rules
RSA/Nominet Trust competition from Marija Jacimovic

If you think we’re living in The Jetsons cartoons, In Defense of Food will explain why we can’t get our nutrients in pill form yet. Whole foods are better for us than parts of foods. Vitamin pills aren’t the same as foods that contain vitamins. Seems simple enough. In the meantime, would someone please invent those other space-age cartoon gadgets so I can have more time to cook? I’d really like to order a Rosie the Robot, please!

These books are easy, fast, and kind of fun to read. They list simple rules that anyone can follow to improve their eating habits. If I had young kids, I’d read these books to them. In fact, there’s an illustrated version of Food Rules made especially for kids.

What a long, strange trip it’s been 
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

His latest book is about how cooking our food has changed our species on the deepest level. Again, he structured his book in four parts, each centered on how one of the traditional elements transformed the nature of our edible ingredients, and in turn transformed the nature of who we are. Then he selected a recipe to illustrate each cooking method.
  • Fire — Barbequeing
  • Water — Braising
  • Air — Breadmaking
  • Earth — Fermenting

He sees these as the methods by which cooks mediate between nature and culture. Again, he examines the point at which nature and culture meet, this time in the kitchen (or BBQ pit, bakery, or brewpub).

To tell the story of how fire transformed our food and our species, he weaves together insights gleaned from his apprenticeship with North Carolina pit masters, centuries of philosophical theory, rituals to mediate the psychological ramifications of animal sacrifice, and a new interpretation for the story of Prometheus.

Ancient fire dance. (Source)

Here’s one interesting theory: [Source]
Attributed to Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist, from his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

Mankind stands apart from other animal species due to his dependence on fire. All creatures need water, air, and earth to survive, but we need fire. Because once we learned to use fire (rather than just putting it out by peeing on it—yes, he attributes this part of the theory to Sigmund Freud *big surprise*) to cook our food, our physical bodies began changing. Eating raw food, especially protein, required a large jaw, lots of big teeth, and about 18 hours a day for chewing, plus a sizable gut and lots of energy for digesting. Cooking let the fire do some of the work instead. Which freed us up to grow a bigger brain!

How did the other elements measure up? Well, when we used our big, new brains to make pottery, we could soften food by adding water. Which meant we no longer had to starve to death when our teeth fell out. And when we figured out how air could help us bake gloppy, wet, wheat paste into bread, we were well on our way to inventing Parisian bakeries. *just following his logic to its ultimate conclusion, ha ha* And lastly we learned to “cook” cheeses, yogurt, pickles, and an ever-popular array of alcoholic libations with earthy elements such as microbes and fungi instead of heat. And then most of us decided this latest way of cooking was hands-down the best, so there was no need to keep looking for others. *jk*

Summing up this evolutionary process in a recent appearance on The Chew

What else has cooking done for us? It civilized us. We gathered over campfires, formed communities, and learned to get along. He talks a lot about the power of food to bring people together, and what we might be missing as we adopt a lifestyle where we eat on the go, in our cars, in front of our gaming consoles and computer monitors and television screens, whatever’s fast, alone.

Some women have taken him to task recently for ordering them back into the kitchen while the rest of the household relaxes in front of the boob tube. But that’s not his plan at all. He wants families, roommates, neighbors, even shy recluses to prepare and share their meals with one another. He wants us to move dining back to the social and emotional center of our lives. He wants it to be fun again, and a means of reconnecting us spiritually with the immense wildness in which all life is rooted.

I’m still reading this book through for the first time, and so far I’m loving it!

For me, here’s his greatest accomplishment

Everything he writes is chock full of stuff I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy knowing. The stories behind our favorite foods and flowers make me love them even more—or fall in love with them for the first time by seeing them through new eyes. Whole hog barbeque in North Carolina... turns out to be fascinating. Who knew? I love authors who make history come alive and the essence of other cultures accessible to me.

He makes learning about some of my favorite subjects fun. He lets me relax with a funny book and learn all sorts of new things at the same time. Practical things. Useful things. Interesting things. Disgusting things. Historical things. Modern things. And...things that give me an excuse to EAT MORE and TRY NEW FOODS everywhere I go. And some off-the-wall weird stuff that’s tons of fun to impress your friends or traumatize random strangers with.

Because the more we know, and engage with the world around us, and exercise our imaginations—the more we re-attune ourselves to the natural world—the likelier we are to discover, rediscover, or learn to see the myriad marvels we’ve been looking right through. There's a multi-dimensional, animated tapestry teaming with life outside our doors (and in our bodies), a raucous array of diversity, symbioses, creatures often too small or elusive or unexpected to be mindful of. Troops of microorganisms mining the damp decay of summer's slide into autumn. Busy bumblebees buzzing amongst the blooms. And a multitude of other wonders (garden gnomes? wood nymphs? faeries? *youneverknow...* ) with which we share this big, blue ball hurtling through space at a mean velocity of approximately 66,600 miles per hour.

A long time ago, a very wise man taught me that if you don’t use your imagination, you’ll lose it. You can become dejected and miss VERY IMPORTANT THINGS. Poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth knew it. Stephen King knows it. And Michael Pollan knows it, too. He might focus on natural foods and botanical interdependencies, but he’s sending a much larger message. When we eat real food or play in our gardens, we reconnect with nature. Many people say they grow stronger, feel more energetic, think more clearly, and are generally happier. We plug back into the grid, sync up with the natural rhythms, strengthen our physical bodies, and prime our imaginations. We notice things we’ve been missing. So I’m keeping a lookout for signs of my previously overlooked cohabitants—be they mushrooms, caterpillars, or The Caterpillar—as I while away the hours tending my garden and cooking my harvest. And I figure it’s just a matter of time before I run across the little leprechaun who has been diligently guarding that pot of gold for me at the end of the rainbow, right under my nose in my own back yard!

And that’s why I gush about Michael Pollan! He led me through a wonderland maze of horticultural, botanical, and gustatory delights until I was back full circle where I began, when I frolicked through a garden at the edge of a forest with my grandparents. When we all pitched in to create and enjoy family meals, sharing times that are among my most cherished memories. Like our family Thanksgiving feasts, which many of us enjoy sharing with our own families this time of year. And I pass on my recharged exuberance to my new family in my garden and kitchen, and hope they’ll pass it on to theirs one day. That special connection with the essential lifeforce we tend to lose through the years. Michael Pollan showed me the way back...and turns out the way to my heart really is through my stomach!

He’s got something for everyone!

So whether he’s an old friend, brand new to you, or just someone you never took the time to check out before… If you have any interest in food nowadays, Michael Pollan has probably written something that’s perfect for you!!
  • Basic guidelines on what to eat ... Check!
  • Inspirations for changing things up ... Check!
  • Fresh perspectives from the front lines between Man and Nature ... Check!
  • Current debate on hot-button food issues ... Check!
  • Suggestions for strengthening our bonds with our family, our community, and the natural world ... Check!
  • Educational, non-pornographic book that a teenage boy liked enough to steal from his mother and hide until he could finish reading it ... Priceless!!!

But why take my word for it when you can hear his message first hand?!!

In his own words

Plugging Food Rules on The Colbert Report, 2009
Stephen Colbert called him a big bossy food Nazi and The Foodstapo.

Plugging Cooked on The Colbert Report, 2013

Trailer for Food, Inc., 2010

TED Talk, 2007

*   Unsourced gifs from http://fuckyeahreactions.tumblr.com/
** Videos and quoted material from http://michaelpollan.com/


  1. I haven't read any of Pollan's books, although I know several people who have and rave about them. Your review, Kathi, has made me want to read one or two, though!

    I like his and Bittman's philosophy of eating real, whole food and how to do it. It would be interesting if they'd tackle the topic of eating around food sensitivities. I just went through the soup section of Bittman's vegetarian cookbook and ruled out about 80% of his recipes for wheat or soy.


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