Edible Education 101: A Complete Course on Modern Food Production

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We've gathered all of the lectures from Michael Pollan's Berkeley class in which the bestseller introduced students to several food A-listers

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This fall at the University of California, Berkeley, a new course surveys the political, social, environmental, and gustatory stakes of modern food production. In his Edible Education 101: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement, Berkeley journalism professor and best-selling author Michael Pollan yields the spotlight to other experts: Though he appears frequently as introducer, moderator, and panelist, the classes are focused on an all-star cast of guest lecturers. Taken together, these food A-listers and innovators provide a compelling, comprehensive portrait of 21st-century eating. Each lecture is available, for free and in full, via UC Berkeley's YouTube channel.

For people learning about food systems for the first time, this class may be the very best place to start.

"This is a very powerful lineup such has never been accumulated for a single class," Pollan told students in his introduction to the course. If you're already asking questions about your food, it's likely your favorite author-activist appears. For people learning about food systems for the first time, this class may be the very best place to start.

Edible Education 101 commemorates the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant founded by chef Alice Waters, whose culinary approach -- fresh food, prepared simply and sourced well -- has influenced several generations of eaters. This year, Waters has rebranded her Chez Panisse Foundation as the Edible Schoolyard Project, which will seek to recreate the Foundation's Berkeley-based teaching garden in other school systems throughout the nation. Waters thought that a Berkeley course, taught by Pollan, would be a fitting way to usher in the new era of student outreach.

Pollan found a co-teacher in Nikki Henderson, a Bay Area activist who directs The People's Grocery, a non-profit that seeks to improve the health and wealth of West Oakland residents with locally grown food. Her focus on food education and social justice complements Pollan's interest in the philosophy and semiotics of eating, as well as Waters' farm-to-tastebuds culinary approach.

As they planned the course, Waters, Pollan, and Henderson decided that each weekly meeting would focus on a specific theme -- lecture topics like "Nutrition, Health, and Diet-Related Disease," "School Lunch and Edible Schoolyards," and "Corporations and the Food Movement." From there, they began reaching out to qualified authorities on each topic, slowly assembling a food Dream Team.

"Alice brought her years of experience and relationships to the table, which was fantastic," Henderson told me by phone. "Michael wanted the course to be academically rigorous -- a sophisticated inquiry and exploration and into some of the more difficult topics."

"My focus," she said, "was to make sure that justice was central -- that race and class and power were concepts to be digested deeply by the audience, and by the speakers."

In the Bay Area, Edible Education 101 has become a phenomenon. Each week, Berkeley made 300 free tickets available to the public, and, according to Henderson, tickets to the first lecture sold out within 10 minutes. But even by live stream, it was thrilling to watch the boldfaced names lecture at the university podium -- Raj Patel's wryly comic illuminations of farm economics, for instance, or Carlo Petrini's passionately gruff exhortations on the virtues of Slow Food, the movement he founded (extemporaneously translated from the Italian by our own Corby Kummer).

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The class also introduces somewhat lesser-known academics, farmers, doctors, and activists who are noteworthy for their innovation, expertise, or influence. And though most speakers emphasize the labor, environmental, and health costs of large-scale food production, the corporate perspective gets a nod too: Jack Sinclair, Walmart's purchasing director, provides a multinational food retailer's perspective.

After a lecture, guests typically join Pollan or Henderson for a discussion, followed by an audience Q&A session. "The questions come from a mix of young college students, who haven't really been out in the work force yet, and people who are journalists and academics and activists who are out on the ground doing this work every day," Henderson told me. "It leads to a very rich discussion." During the Q&A, the dialogue can become excitingly freewheeling and unscripted -- I'm not sure if a Walmart head honcho like Sinclair has ever taken questions from a throng of Bay Area foodies, but it's fun to watch him sweat.

Despite the famous guests, Edible Education features none of the glitzy stage lights or talk show polish seen in TED Talks and other online webinars. Berkeley tapes Edible Education with the same drab, head-on camerawork it uses for its Astrophysics and Applied Math lectures. But there's a certain charm in the unadorned PowerPoints, or the way Henderson admonishes students for slipping in late to class, or watching Pollan improvise when a microphone shorts out. For me, the intimacy and no-frills production is part of the appeal: Each class is simple, and fulfilling, like an Alice Waters dish.

Edible Education 101 aired live every Tuesday at 6 p.m. PST on Berkeley's YouTube channel. Unfortunately, there's no easy or chronological way to browse the lectures (perhaps one reason the videos still have such modest view counts). So, if you're new to the course, or missed a meeting, use our slideshow to catch up on your homework.

Image: jreika/Shutterstock.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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