Michael Pollan is known for books about food including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” and “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” “Cooked” became a Netflix series and “In Defense of Food” a documentary. Pollan recently turned his attention to the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms in “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.” Pollan will speak Nov. 8 at the Improv Conference New Orleans: A Festival of Ideas.
G: Improvisation involves letting go of the mind and letting the “gut” take over. Is there a connection between that idea and your studies of psychedelics and food?
Pollan: Improvisation is a way to approach anything. It seems to me that when you’re meditating, you’re having all these free associations as you’re trying to focus on your breath. That’s a kind of improvisation of your subconscious mind. When you’re cooking without a recipe, that’s another kind of improvisation. Or playing music. I don’t play music, but there is some sort of syntax that you still follow, a key in music. Or in recipes some basic principles that you have in your head, that this goes with that and that doesn’t go with that. But it is about spontaneity in part.
I think since psychedelics suppress the control mechanisms in your mind, they kind of create an improvisational space of thought and perception. I describe in the book Aldous Huxley’s idea of the filter and how mescaline for him opened this filter. There’s so much we’re keeping out of consciousness, whether it’s material from outside ourselves or from deep inside ourselves, unconscious material, we’re basically holding all that stuff at bay. And what psychedelics seem to do is open that filter wider so more material gets in. It is the release from various controlling or editing mechanisms.
G: Is it possible for us to let go of anxiety around things like cooking and let our gut take over?
P: There’s such an industry out there complicating everything we do and teaching us to distrust our instincts. That’s just part of how capitalism works; it’s getting you to distrust your instincts and need a book or an expert or tool or product because left to your own devices, it will be disaster.
G: Is this kind of exploration something you could have done earlier in your life?
P: I don’t think so. It was very much a product of a certain moment in my life. My dad was dying of cancer during a lot of that process, so I was talking a lot about mortality. The opportunity to engage with these cancer patients who’d been in this psilocybin trial was such a blessing because here were these people right up against eternity, and they were able to talk about it with incredible openness and candor in a way that my father couldn’t and I couldn’t.
There was also a desire to refresh things. What I love about journalism is you get paid as an adult to learn new subjects. I had written three or four books about food, and I had lost my naivete. I really like writing more as a naif than as an expert, and over time you become an expert. That’s not the voice I enjoy writing in. It might be fine for giving public speeches, but I enjoy being closer to the beginning of the learning curve in my writing.
G: Do you cook from recipes?
P: I seldom cook from recipes. Sometimes my wife and I start with a recipe, and then five years later we won’t even remember what recipe it is since we’re doing it by heart. That’s why I like a book like “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” and learning from Samin Nosrat. It gives you tools for improvisation. You have a way to know that this dish really needs more acid to work, and there are five different ways you can add acid, and you decide which one.
Recipes are kind of infantilizing because they never tell you why to do anything. They tell you, “Follow these instructions and you’ll get what we’re promising.” I’m more interested in the why, so I’ll use them to get the basic principles and then strike out on my own.
G: You’ve said “I don’t want to lecture people into the kitchen. I want to lure them into the kitchen.” Is that happening?
P: That’s what [“Cooked”] was about. I was really sensitized to the fact that so much of the change I was arguing for in my previous books would never happen if people were going to throw their fate at the mercy of fast food and processed-food corporations. It was going to be very hard to imagine supporting, say, small local farmers unless people were willing to cook. It gradually dawned on me that cooking was a really important part of the solution.
Yet I was fully aware of the fact, and even more aware now, that cooking is daunting to people. They don’t feel they have the skills or the time. They’ve been convinced that it’s drudgery. I realized you can’t argue people into the kitchen with all those ideas in their heads. Pleasure is the best way to do it.
“Cooked” was an attempt to go back to the first principles of cooking, which is transformation of nature – an exciting, dramatic thing. I was trying to rekindle that primordial flame, both metaphorically and actually, and look at the wellsprings of this essential human activity which is in trouble.
I’m hoping I lured some people into the kitchen. I think the series did more than the book. It was gorgeous and seductive. It made you want to bake bread, and indeed it created tons of bakers. There was a period on my Twitter feed where people were sending me pictures of loaves of bread, and it was incredible. Men seemed to like to bake bread more than women, and getting men into the kitchen is key.
I think there is something of a revival around cooking among young people. I find people in my son’s generation — he’s in his twenties — are really into cooking and baking and fermenting things. I think the millennials are having a moment of returning to the kitchen. We’ll see if it lasts.
G: You are based part-time in Berkeley, California, which might be a bubble when it comes to food. Is it challenging to communicate with people who live outside that bubble?
P: I’m highly aware of that. It’s really possible to forget that high-quality produce is not available to a lot of people whereas my farmers’ market in Berkeley is 50 weeks a year and always fully stocked. The better the ingredients, the easier cooking becomes. I try never to forget that I am cooking and eating in a bubble, but I do get out of it.
There was a whole critique around “Cooked” that people can’t afford to cook, although it is more economical, because they don’t have the time. And that it was elite to promote this because people need fast food in order to hold down two jobs and long commutes. I hear that. I think it is harder the harder you work.
It also depends upon getting men in the kitchen. Part of the stigma attached to cooking is that it was gendered, as they say. It was women’s work. Part of the solution is sharing it. I’m encouraged by the fact that in my son’s generation, boys or men don’t have any stigma about cooking. They are happy to do it. But again, I’m talking about a pretty affluent college educated group. Is that true among working class males? I couldn’t tell you.
G: What do you think of plant-based “meat” products, like the Impossible Burger?
P: This seems to me a good alternative. Here is something that looks like a burger, bleeds like a burger, tastes like a burger, is as unhealthy as a burger. Great. But how much better is it to actually eat the plants without having to process them into this highly processed product? I’ve had an Impossible Burger and a Beyond Burger, and they do kind of satisfy that desire. It’s an impressive piece of food science. It’s one way to attack the problem: the fact that we eat too much meat, more meat than the earth can withstand.
But there are other ways to attack it too. One is to change the culture around food to emphasize plants or deemphasize meat and make it more of a flavoring than a centerpiece, as most cultures do. But we need a whole kit of tools if we’re going to change habits around meat eating, which climate change makes it imperative we do. And for a certain kind of person, this is one.