What Are You Ordering, Michael Pollan?

By Claudia Garber

One week ago at Burlington’s Hen of the Wood restaurant, I shared a meal with Michael Pollan. The gathering was the epilogue to Pollan’s talk at UVM earlier in the evening (summarized in a previous Food Feed post by Eric Garza). Amidst the crackle of the open fire oven, the thick slabs of glossed wood that served as tables, and an air filled with rich aromas, I dined among some of the more prominent food systems characters on campus. After being chosen from the UVM student body to partake in this amazing opportunity, all I could ironically wonder was: what should I get from this elaborate menu? Being the generally outgoing and enthusiastic character that I am, I leaned over to Michael Pollan and asked, as I have so many times to my own mother, “What are you getting?”

Michael Pollan on stage with UVM Professor Amy Trubek. Credit: Sally McCay.

While this question, the age-old kindle for first-date conversation flames, seems simple, it is heard not only in a fancy evening out with Michael Pollan, but in our quotidian food choices. In one of my favorite Mumford and Sons songs titled Timshel, the lyrics, “And you have your choices/And these are what make man great/His ladder to the stars” allude to a passage of author John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which Steinbeck explores the idea of choice as power in society. I believe this quote can be applied to the food movement taking place in our current culture; after all, each day we ultimately make a choice at every meal. In last Thursday’s discussion at Ira Allen Chapel, Pollan noted that when we ingest food, we ingest nature. It is not solely food on our plates, but nature itself. If we choose to eat for taste, for presentation, for social gatherings, for a sense of family, we must also consider choosing to eat for nature, for sustainability, for Earth.

At dinner, I chose the same meal as Michael Pollan: a bed of house-made ricotta cheese, topped with farro and broccoli. Golden crowns of squash rested upon the top, so sweet and succulent for a vegetable and sharply contrasting the salty flavor of the ricotta and farro. In the quaint setting of Hen of the Wood, there could not have been a bad choice. However, there are clearly some choices that are better than others in the slow food movement. While I do not come from a family that buys exclusively organic or has our own garden, I have come to value the importance of ‘real’ food. I have learned that you do not have to be Michael Pollan or a self-proclaimed ‘locavore’ to make these choices. Here at the University of Vermont, I find it empowering that students and faculty work together both on campus, and off, to reform our relationship with the nature that we eventually consume.

Each choice we make at the dinner table essentially comes back to the basic question: What do we care about? Our “Ladder to the stars,” in the words of Mumford and Sons and Steinbeck, may just be our choices around food. Somewhere between the first bite of broccoli and the last swipe of white ricotta, Michael Pollan commented on today’s revolution in the food world. He noted that somewhere down the line we will be able to look back at this movement and see how radically we can change the structure of our economy, the sustainability of our environment and the appreciation for food in our society. While this may not occur for generations, it is important to remember that choices bring the power back to the people. The next time I am sitting in a restaurant, I will not only question which entree looks most appetizing, but also the process and efforts that have gone into the food on my plate.

Claudia Garber is a first year student at UVM pursuing a double major in chemistry and French.

Posted in: Environmental, Health, Social, UVM.