Michael Pollan suspects that his seven-word manifesto on diet — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — may go with him to the grave.
“I need to come up with another phrase, or that one will be on my headstone,” he jokes.
Perhaps the journalist, activist, and author will find inspiration for future pronouncements when he begins teaching in the Creative Writing Program in September as the Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer. Blending science, the environment, and culture, Pollan has written five New York Times best-sellers, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and, most recently, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” He is the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and the recipient of numerous honors, including the James Beard Award.
GAZETTE: What will you be teaching in your first semester at Harvard?
POLLAN: “Following the Food Chain” is a hybrid of a writing workshop and a background course. There will be enough reading assigned to ground someone who wants to write about food and agriculture, and to understand how our agriculture and diet are part of a system. There are important links between what we grow and government policy, public health, and the state of the environment. The course will help students connect all the dots. This has implications not only for our understanding, but for good storytelling, since the connecting of dots makes for a good narrative technique.
For part of the class, we’ll be reading and discussing books on agriculture, nutrition, the food industry, and the American landscape, but the other part of the class is a writing workshop where students will write a series of articles for possible publication. These will be personal pieces, such as the role of food or food practices in one’s life or culture, to op-ed pieces or reported works of journalism. In my experience at Berkeley, I primarily teach graduate students, but I’ve always included a few undergrads to keep things lively. I’m looking forward to the diversity in the student body here. This is not a course limited to students in the humanities. I’m hoping for some science and public health students as well. Food is interdisciplinary by nature, and I’ll definitely want to reflect that in my roster.
I’ll also be teaching a writing workshop on the personal essay, “The I’s Have It.” The genre is a lot trickier than people realize. Much of what we read online is in the first person, but it’s usually a generic, undistinguished first person. How do you create a voice on the page that is distinctly yours? We will be reading and writing exemplary essays and unlearning the four-paragraph essay form kids learn in high school. We’ll explore the tradition all the way from Montaigne to David Foster Wallace, Leslie Jamison, and Teju Cole. The idea is to deploy the first person not simply as a means of self-exposure or confession but as a narrative and journalistic tool. There are ways you can use yourself as a character that can be revealing and compelling. I write in the first person all the time, but I don’t really reveal that much about myself — that’s not the point. We all have a multitude of first persons and you choose the one that unlocks this particular story. Depending on the story, I’ve written as an eater, a gardener, a son, a Jew, a Californian. It’s interesting finding which of the several hats you own are particularly right for whatever it is you’re trying to write.
GAZETTE: When you were here two years ago researching psychedelics as a Radcliffe fellow, you said your goal was to lay low and do less in the way of public events. Now, as faculty, what’s your plan?
POLLAN: I don’t really have one. The heavy lifting on the book is done, so I feel free and light enough to focus on my teaching, which is my goal for the semester. I’m sure I’ll get involved in other activities on campus. I’m not sure what forms that will take yet.
The working title of the book is “How to Change Your Mind.” There’s a renaissance of research going on in psychedelics, to explore what these substances can teach us about the mind and consciousness, and to see what therapeutic applications they may have. I researched and wrote several chapters when I was at Radcliffe. Part of the history takes place at Harvard. Not only Timothy Leary; the pioneering ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes also plays an important role in the history. Like all my work, this book layers several different narratives and perspectives. It’s a weave of social history, science writing, case studies, and memoir.
GAZETTE: How will your eating habits shift living in New England?
POLLAN: I spent the year in Cambridge looking for something really good to eat. I lived on the East Coast before I started teaching at Berkeley so I know what to expect and what not to expect. I vividly remember my first farmers’ market in Berkeley, realizing just how good a peach could be. It was an order of flavor and quality that was completely new to me. It’s harder to find that kind of life-altering produce here. The farmers market fizzles out in November. I’m not coming to Cambridge to eat. But I did find some great restaurants. I love Sofra [in Belmont], and in the fall the apples are wonderful — better than California’s.
GAZETTE: How would you characterize the state of food today? Do you feel like you’re moving the needle?
POLLAN: There’s no question the needle is moving, but I don’t take credit. Journalists might accelerate social or economics trends but they seldom create them. People give me credit, yet when I published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in 2006, there was already a lot going on — Eric Schlosser’s “Fast-Food Nation,” Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” were both published in 2002 when I was just starting to write about the food system. The whole time I was writing that book I felt like I was actually late.
Would the changes we’re seeing in the food system have happened without me? Absolutely. There was something in the air already. A publishing mentor of mine once said, “You want to be a short-term visionary.” Because if you see too far ahead, no one will know what you’re talking about. I don’t have that problem. As journalists, we’re good at picking up faint breezes of change before others notice them, but they’re already moving. We’re not making them happen.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.