The Wendell Berry Sentence That Inspired Michael Pollan's Food Obsession

For Pollan, "eating is an agricultural act" offers more insight into how food relates to the world than Thoreau or Emerson's words ever could.

pollan by heart 650.jpg
Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Perhaps more than any living writer, Michael Pollan has convinced America that food is a story—and that there's pleasure, health, and good conscience in untangling farm-to-fork narratives. For many, books like The Omnivore's Dilemma have been a gateway to more mindful eating, a path to heightened curiosity about farming and the natural world, a road to the conviction that we really are what we eat.

But what got Michael Pollan thinking about food? In a recent interview by phone, Pollan explained his transformation from Harper's editor to a writer about gardens—and from there corn fields, supply chains, and food rules. When I asked him if a particular text has guided the ethos of his work, he pointed to a line from Wendell Berry's short manifesto, "The Pleasures of Eating," that urges us to be curious and make connections.

Pollan's new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, focuses on another aspect of American life we haven't thought enough about: the kitchen. In his hands, cooking is no longer a workaday chore: It's alchemy, it's revolutionary, and it's what makes us human. Though we've tried to shrink kitchen time with microwaves and minute rice, Pollan writes that cooking is "the single most important thing an ordinary person can do to reform the American food system"—and if history is any guide, we'll soon share his enthusiasm.

Michael Pollan: My introduction to Wendell Berry came in the garden. I found his work when I was trying, with great difficulty, to grow some food at our place in Connecticut. It was no pastoral fantasy: Weeds thrived and woodchucks attacked, ruining my crop and driving me to homicidal rages. Things escalated to the point where I was pouring toxic substances down their burrow and nearly incinerating my garden—an escapade I described in Second Nature as "my horticultural Vietnam." This tension—How do you deal with pests without chemicals? Are there ways to do a jujitsu move on pests without carpet-bombing them?—led me to look for another set of ethics to govern how one might grow some food in nature. If I'm going to firebomb some woodchucks, I figure I should have some theory under my belt first.

Very quickly, I realized that the intellectual equipment I'd carried with me from my reading did not prepare me for my war in the garden. Everything I'd soaked up in college—Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and Melville and John Muir—was in the wonderful tradition of quasi-religious American writing about nature. Wild nature. Pristine nature. In Walden, there's this amazing chapter called "The Bean-Field" where Thoreau describes trying to be a farmer—and he's tortured by the fact that he's "at war," as he says, with the weeds. He hates to make "invidious distinctions" between his crop and the weeds and birds he felt had more right to this land than he did. Ultimately, Thoreau turns his back on the garden—he gives up!—because he can't reconcile the practical reality of trying to grow his food in nature with these radically egalitarian beliefs about the so-called "wild" species. But this well-intended ethic, seen throughout the history of the West, in the end serves to disconnect us from the land—because it draws a hard line between people and the natural world. Nature's on one side of the fence; then, on the other side, there's us. This tends to mean we leave nature alone, or else drive for total mastery—and that's a very dangerous drive.

This didn't sit right with me. So I kept reading, and I kept gardening, and I came to Wendell Berry, who became an important resource. Berry had gone through the same frustrations as a farmer that I'd faced in my little plot of land. He learned that farmers, by necessity, must take a less utopian view of nature. If Thoreau and Emerson tell you to back off and admire whatever happens, Berry says you have a legitimate quarrel with nature when it comes to weeds and pests. He's willing to intervene in a way that most American nature writers are not. Berry's argument for active, humane stewardship of land struck me as a value system I could use. I'd learned a set of values from Thoreau in the library, but it was only when I tested them—in the crucible of an actual garden with actual pests on an actual patch of land—that I was able to form my values more fully.

It was in reading Berry that I came across a particular line that formed a template for much of my work: "eating is an agricultural act." It's a line that urges you to connect the dots between two realms—the farm, and the plate—that can seem very far apart. We must link our eating, in other words, to the way our food is grown. In a way, all my writing about food has been about connecting dots in the way Berry asks of us. It's why, when I write about something like the meat industry, I try to trace the whole long chain: from your plate to the feedlot, and from there to the corn field, and from there to the oil fields in the Middle East. Berry reminds us that we're part of a food system, and we need to think about our eating with this fact—and its implications—in mind.

Ultimately, this revelation led to a change in my career. I was an editor at Harper's, and I loved editing magazines. I didn't think it was ever realistic that I could make a living as a writer, but my editorial work—helping writers with their prose, watching the process of revision, finding a narrative paths through a complex subject—made me increasingly curious to try it myself. I didn't have a subject until I kind of hit on the garden by mistake. And by engaging with my own agricultural struggle on a small scale, I became reoriented: I learned a way of thinking and living that I didn't know before. I wanted to write more and more about the agricultural and political realities I am joined to by my eating. Eventually, I didn't have time to both write and edit and I had to make a choice. I really did come to a fork in the road, and I decided I wanted to write.

I started doing a series of pieces for The New York Times Magazine on the meat industry and genetically modified food. And as I started to connect these dots myself, I was shocked by what I found. The Omnivore's Dilemma partially grew out of my experience of standing in a feedlot and seeing a landscape that very few people in America had seen (especially on the east coast). I stood in a potato field in Idaho, a 35,000-acre farm that was completely remote-controlled, with regular showers of pesticides so toxic that the farmer's didn't enter his fields. I had no idea that this was how we grew food. I was an Easterner—and farms in the east are tiny and still kinda cute. I realized—if I don't know this, lots of people don't know this. The way our food was being grown was being deliberately hidden from us in many cases. They don't make it easy to visit these feedlots. And much of my work grew out of a sense of shock at the picture that emerges when you do connect the dots.

Because, in recent years, as more people have been wakened to questions about how their food is being produced, we're seeing all kinds of obfuscations. We're in a race between getting good accurate information out there and the obscuring brilliance of marketing. They're showing you a package of eggs with a farmer and a picket fence—what I call "supermarket pastoral"—but behind that beautiful image, and your belief that you're supporting that kind of agriculture, there's really a factory farm. These ag-gag laws? The fact you're not allowed to take pictures of these places and expose their brutality? It's a remarkable assault on the First Amendment. This is all about who gets to tell the story of how food is produced, and the industry wants exclusive rights to that story.

All this makes it difficult to act on Berry's injunction. In fact, capitalism depends on erecting these screens, strives to defeat efforts to see the lines of connection between you, and the farm worker who picked your strawberries, and the corporation that delivered them to your door. This is an important insight capitalism tries to keep us from: that whatever you buy implicates you in a series of relationships. That may be a lot to walk around with everyday—that someone halfway across the world was exploited to produce the iPhone you're enjoying—but we do need to start thinking that way, at least sometimes, to bring about change. So when Berry says eating is an agricultural act, it follows that eating is a political act, too.

Here's an example what can happen when people do connect the dots. When a blogger in Texas last year wrote about "pink slime," there was an overwhelming public response and the company that produced the stuff nearly collapsed. This was terrifying to the food industry—who realized that, as strong as they are, they become vulnerable when people look up from their burgers and say "What the hell is in this?" And then: "You know what? I don't want that stuff." When that happens, an industry can be brought low overnight. There is great power in this.

There is power, too, in growing and cooking your own food. The questions that arise as you grow or cook will lead to new questions—handle meat while it is still the muscle of an animal, say, and your are much more prone to wondering about that animal. Or, out shopping, what does it mean when something's "grass-fed" or "pastured"? I don't know about everybody, but I feel obliged to know some of this before I eat something or cook it. There are other kinds of questions, too—and they can be a challenge and a joy. Recently, chopping an onion, I got curious about the chemical reaction making me cry—and how I might beat it. In Cooked, I embark on a kind of detective story—trying to figure out a way to chop onions that can defeat this teary mechanism.

That's the great thing about food as a way into the world—what we learn gives us so much influence. When people are more conscious about their food choices, they can change the food chain. They can change what happens on the farm. I think it's one reason that so many people are finding their way to food as an interest and as a focus of their political energies. Food issues have a tremendous bearing on everything from the environment to public health to monopolization of the economy, and food activism is producing results that you can see. At a discouraging time, it's a very empowering issue. We don't have to wait for the government to figure it out—not that we don't need to press on that front also—but long before Congress comes up with a good farm bill, people are creating new agricultural policies locally all over the country. You can do it in your own backyard.

We stand to gain so much by connecting these dots. We stand to regain our health. We stand to change the landscape of our agriculture: all the feedlots, the factory farms, closed. We stand to see a revival of farming, real farming, as they empty the feedlots and put animals back on real farms. Because people who see that world don't want to support it—in the same way that people who saw "pink slime" don't want to support it. It would be a complicated transition; it would not be easy. We'd need tens of millions more people working on farms to grow food the way I think most people would like to see it grown. We'd also see ourselves spending more money on food, and that's very challenging for a lot of people. So it will take a revolution—not just in how we eat but how we live. But it offers us so much. A lot beyond a good conscience: a more beautiful landscape. Farms where you'd feel comfortable taking your kids. And healthier bodies, too.

When Berry says "eating is an agricultural act," that's a very empowering statement. He's saying you have political power in your every day actions. When you decide what you're going to eat, what you're going to buy, you have real influence. That's why this idea has the potential to resonate with so many people. It's certainly one of the reasons it's resonated with me: I know I can act today. Three times.

This interview has been condensed and edited.