Maira Kalman on What It Was Like Illustrating Pollan's 'Food Rules'

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Given that Kalman is the Michael Pollan of the visual world, it is fitting and proper that the two teamed up on this deliciously colorful edition

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Michael Pollan's definitive compendium, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, is a veritable Whole Earth Catalog of what should nourish us. Maira Kalman is the Michael Pollan of visual storytelling -- she knows what's good and keeps us fulfilled with her charming and witty observations of quotidian and rarified worlds. It is therefore fitting and proper that Pollan and Kalman have partnered on a deliciously colorful illustrated edition of Food Rules. I cornered Kalman on her way to an organic lunch, while exercising a three-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, to ask some pertinent questions.

How did you get hooked up with that healthy-food radical Michael Pollan?

Don't I seem healthy and radical to you? We met at the TED conference some years ago. A mutual liking sprang up.

Did he place any restrictions on the kind of artwork you'd do? Like, your inks all had to be vegetable-based?

I had to eat a carrot before I started each painting. But sometimes I would eat a Snickers. Can you tell which paintings those are?

The ones with the chocolate stains, perhaps? What about Food Rules: An Eater's Manual appeals to your heart, soul, and appetite?

Michael Pollan is a champion. In all ways. A man of great integrity, humor, and common sense and kindness. Even if you incorporate a few of the rules into your life/mind, you will be better off. Plus, I adore painting food, people eating food, the accessories of food. All food related things make me feel celebratory.

Would you call this book the food equivalent to your beautifully produced Elements of Style?

It definitely felt that way when i was working on it, going from moment to moment without any constraints. Heaven.

I know that you once relished onion rings. Did you sneak any epicurean taboos into your drawings?

There is a big portrait of a Cheez Doodle in my introduction. And of course, if I must confess, when [my family] first came [from Israel] to the United States in 1954, I thought a Coca Cola for breakfast was the height of sophistication and pleasure. But my mother quickly sorted that out.

You've applied your art to so many eclectic themes -- from dogs to fireboats to maid service in Scotland -- that mean something to you. Your journals are a form of journalism. Was this book a new direction for you?

I manage to put my story into the paintings. This is a journal of what I saw when I was working on this book. I used many images from my life and photos that I love.

What would you like to explore as your next obsessive theme?

I am doing a giant embroidery of everything I hear and see in Rome. Is that obsessive enough? But in terms of books, I have many coming up that hopefully will take over my spirit. Gertrude Stein looms large in my future. But I would also like to have some kind of shop. WIth a glowing light in the window. We shall see what develops.

Incidentally, do you think it's ironic that his name is Pollan (as in pollen)?

And just to make it even crazier, my maiden name is Berman, which means nothing from nothing. Except I discovered, in the Etruscan museum in Rome, the Villa Giulia, that there was a Russian collector of fabulous Etruscan stuff, named Eugene Berman, and I like to think that he was the successful Berman in my history. But probably no relation.

Image: Maira Kalman/Penguin Press.


See more illustrations from Food Rules.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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