When Michael Pollan came to Town

photo from Michael Pollan's website press kit

photo from Michael Pollan’s website press kit

The Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Auditorium was packed with people eagerly awaiting their Evening with Michael Pollan. The low hum of hundreds excitedly chatting permeated the space, words like “food” and “cooking” occasionally presenting themselves to the ear like auditory snacks.

On stage sat a homey tableau – two chairs on a comfy rug, a large stump playing the part of a table for a pair of water glasses.

Michael Funk introduced Beth Ruyack, the evening’s moderator, and Michael Pollan, each emerging from the folds of the theatre curtain onto the stage. They took their seats, sat back, and the discussion began.

Pollan talked about his epiphany, driving down I-5 to Fresno and being hit with the stench of the giant feed lot that’s on the way. He saw head upon head of black cows, standing close together, feet sunk in mud and their excrement. It made him realize that he didn’t really know where his food was coming from.

And then he had a second epiphany while working on a story about a potato farm in Idaho. The farmer sprayed his fields while protected inside a bunker, the neurotoxins coating his fields too deadly to be exposed to. The potatoes had to off-gas for six weeks after harvest before they were suitable for consumption. Meanwhile, the farmer had a small, organic plot of potatoes right next to his house for his and his family’s meals.

From discussing epiphanies, Ruyak steered the conversations to the books that had grown from those first seeds of realization – in 2001, “The Botany of Desire,” in 2006, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” 2008 brought “In Defense of Food,” 2009, “Food Rules,” and finally this year gave us “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”

Pollan wove in knowledge gleaned from his most recent undertaking into many of the discussions that filled the evening, including the theory that cooking allowed for our bigger brains, how much he enjoyed writing the book, and how important cooking is to our humanness.

“Cooking is a powerful way to reengage with nature … to connect with people … we’ve lost a lot as cooking has declined,” he said.

As food politics were covered and audience members were welcomed to pose their own questions, Pollan maintained a gracious manner, answering with sincerity and thoughtfulness. He engaged with each questioner a level of both professionalism and approachability that spoke to his years of journalism and teaching.

For almost two hours, the auditorium was filled of laughter from witticisms, gasps of surprise when a food policy or process was brought up for many attendees’ first time, outrage at how industrial farming has disconnected us from the source of our food, and inspiration when Pollan showed that change was attainable. “An Evening with Michael Pollan” was one heck of a night, and one that the attendees will long remember. When the house lights came up and Ruyak and Pollan exited the stage, the excited hum from the crowd was as permeable as ever.

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