Peter's Blog, A Visit with Michael Pollan

A few weeks ago author Michael Pollan came to Charlotte to speak at a local university. Earlier that day I was fortunate to be able to appear with him for an hour on our local NPR radio program, Charlotte Talks, where we discussed many of his favorite themes. Most of you already know who Michael Pollan is, but in case you don't, he is the author of a number of best selling books on food and culture including The Omnivore's Dilemma which is, arguably, the most influential book on our relationship with food since Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring. He has a new book out called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, a book that I think every serious food lover should own and read, especially the many pizza freaks who follow us here on our "journey of self-discovery through pizza" and who intuitively grasp the notion of cooking as a transformational act.  The Omnivore's Dilemma is one of those rare, but painful to read books (because of the subject matter, not the writing, which is brilliant) that has often been called a true game-changer in terms of its impact on so many of us. Cooked, on the other hand, is like sitting down to a great meal that you never want to end.

Regardless of which Pollan books you've read or not read, his message is clear (and I'm not referring to his now classic "Food Rules: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," which makes for a great sound bite as well as good guidance). No, his deeper message, I believe, has to do with connectivity and consciousness. His books help us connect with the whole lineage of sources -- from seed, to soil, to farmer, miller, merchant, consumer, and cook -- that transform things of the earth into things of nourishment and joy. He quotes Emerson and Wendell Berry with abandon, and in so doing connects us with them and all they stand for. He reveals our inevitable complicity in the taking of life for the sake of our own, and also the priestly (or, if you prefer, the shamanistic) dimension inherent within each of us to effect the transformation of raw ingredients into something totally other. In fact, what I love about this new book is spelled out in its sub-title, A Natural History of Transformation.  I think it is this word, transformation, that transfixes me; it as akin to transubstantiation, or transmutation -- lots of "trans" words! It is the power to change one thing into something else, whether through skill, talent, training, artisanship, or simply through seeing and knowing -- knowing that everything exists on many levels and is never only what we think it is. It is knowing that everything, ultimately, emanates from something, or from some Thing, or, as I believe, from some Being -- if only we had the eyes to see it as so; or if we knew how to perform a series of actions that reveals it as so. Because, when you think about it, transformation isn't only about changing something from one thing into something else, but in the ability to see that the "something else" was there all along, hidden behind the veil of the thing we think we see. When Michaelangelo turned a slab of marble into a David he said that he just revealed the David that was always hidden in the slab. Transformation is, in this sense, a kind of revelation, a revealing of what already is.

Now, Michael Pollan didn't say all that I just wrote above, but he writes about things that make me think of things like this. When I say, as I have in many of my own books, that the mission of the baker is  "to evoke the full potential of flavor trapped in the grain," it touches on this notion of connectivity as an act of transformation. In Cooked, Pollan shows how, throughout human history, we have learned to harness fire, water, air, and earth into tools that allow us to transform (or perhaps "evoke" or "reveal" are just as accurate here), the full potential of an ingredient, whether it be animal, vegetable, fruit, or grain, into something tasty, and also digestible and nourishing, and even more important, something other than what we thought it was while revealing what it actually could be.

So the best part of Michael Pollan's visit is that I not only got to talk about things like this with him on the radio, and then had the chance to introduce him to some of our young culinary students at Johnson & Wales, where he encouraged them to realize how much power and responsibility was within their grasp to change the world, but then, after all that, and before he spoke to a thousand people that evening at Queens University, where he continued building verbal bridges of connectivity for all in attendance -- in the midst of all of that, Michael and I broke away for lunch at Pure Pizza, where we spoke for awhile about, well, about how much we love pizza. And, of course, we spoke about a few other things too....


PS You can listen to the podcast of our radio interview by going to Scroll down the page till you find our podcast, dated Oct. 10th, and click  "listen."



#1 Ben F 2013-11-17 02:50
If you get a chance to meet Norman Wirzba at Duke Divinity, do. He's like a third leg for the Pollan/Berry table of healthy consumption. AND he has a deep respect for pizza.
#2 Peter Reinhart 2013-11-19 06:27
Thanks Ben! I will try to connect with Professor Wirzba the first chance I get. Plus, I hear there's a great pizzeria in Durham, NC...
#3 Ramsons & Bramble 2014-01-24 04:00
After about eight years of cooking passionately, it occurred to me only the other week that one of the things I love about it is the transformative element. How much I love looking at the base ingredients of whatever I'm about to make and envisaging the many processes of preparation that will enable me to turn them from what they are into the joyfully delicious dish that I want them to be (hopefully!). Great to read this idea articulated so well by one of my food heroes.
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