Michael Pollan: Why the family meal is crucial to civilisation
Michael Pollan, the American food writer and campaigner, says eating together round the table every night is the way children learn best how to get along in the wider world
What's for dinner? Where will you eat it? And who will eat it with you? Michael Pollan reckons that the answers to these questions could determine our survival as a species. In his own case, the answers are: meatballs, round the table, with his family.
An internationally successful food writer and campaigner, he's just got home after a tour to promote his new book, Cooked: A Natural History Of Transformation. Now he just wants to unpack and do some cooking. "I've found this terrific new recipe using ricotta," he says. "It's so light."
He won't be serving it on trays, in front of the television because sitting round a table is so important. "It's where we teach our children the manners they need to get along in society. We teach them how to share. To take turns. To argue without fighting and insulting other people. They learn the art of adult conversation. The family meal is the nursery of democracy."
But the family meal, or "primary eating", is in decline – down to 67 minutes a day, Pollan says. Secondary eating (while you're doing other things) now takes 78 minutes per person per day. Astoundingly, 20% of food intake in America is now eaten in the car, says Pollan. It's unlikely to be nutritious. "I'm sure that some people are sitting in there eating organic baby carrots, but on balance what they're eating is likely to be crap."
Pollan has devoted years to attacking junk food, factory farming and agribusiness. He is also known for his advice on what we might eat, including the celebrated maxim, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Now he would like to add to that pithy advice: "If you can, cook it yourself."
Cooking is what happens between farming and eating. It's a political act, he suggests, because by cooking we can improve our health, break our dependence on conglomerates, and build community. But like anything political, it can provoke fierce debate. Pollan courts criticism by suggesting that the modern-day reliance on convenience food, eaten in isolation, started with women going out to work. One American magazine writer said recently that she wants to "smack him with a spatula", and challenged readers with the question: Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?
"For a man to criticise these developments will perhaps rankle," he concedes. "It sounds like I want to turn back the clock and return women to the kitchen. But that's not at all what I have in mind. I've come to think cooking is too important to be left to any one gender or member of the family. Men and children both need to be in the kitchen, too, not just for reasons of fairness but because they have so much to gain by being there."
His argument is not that feminism destroyed home cooking, rather that the food industry, eager to insinuate itself into the American kitchen, used feminist rhetoric to get there. "Feminism rightly demanded a renegotiation of the domestic division of labour, a very uncomfortable process for millions of us, and the industry seized the opportunity to say, 'Stop arguing! We've got you covered. We'll do the cooking so you don't have to argue about it any more.' And we all leapt at the 'solution'."
Pollan, 58, lives with his wife, Judith, 56, and their son Isaac, 20. Their kitchen is designed for "three people who like to hang out and cook together". Pollan calls it the family's centre of gravity. The dinner table dominates the room: a thick slab of elm with benches that tuck underneath.
In that kitchen, for the last three years or so, Pollan has been learning to "transform" food: to bake, braise, barbecue and brew. He has enjoyed roasting pigs and brewing beer with Isaac, and testing out recipes with Judith. "I like not using a recipe," says Pollan. "Using it for the first time and then throwing it out. Sometimes it goes off the track, but in general that evolution is good. You tend to figure out what's essential and what's not. We now have a nice rhythm. That's some of the best time we have together – in our kitchen."
He has also learned to cook with experts. "I was pinching myself that I was getting paid to learn the things I was learning," he says. "And I was working with people who wanted to work with me. I wasn't having to persuade feedlots [used in US and Canadian factory farming to intensively feed up animals before slaughter] to let me in, or ask Monsanto to have access to their scientists.
"This was a voluntary project. And the end result is more personal than anything I've written."
Pollan grew up loving food – he claims he could still pick out his mother's beloved blue casserole dish from a lineup. But despite writing a series of award-winning food books, he has never really cooked. "I wasn't a complete naif in the kitchen," says Pollan. "But I cooked in a pretty half-hearted way. Like a lot of people, I was divided when I came into the kitchen. None of us has to cook any more so when we get into the kitchen we're conflicted. There's always something else we could be doing that's more pleasurable. Or easier. Or more demanding."
Take onions. Pollan was always too impatient to chop them finely. He didn't see the point. When he put them in a pan to sauté he would wait 10 minutes before he tipped in the tomatoes. "The idea that I would wait 40 minutes for the onions to get really translucent and sweet? I was like, no, I'm not going to do that. But as I learned to cook, I changed. I just let myself be in the kitchen. I disconnected from my computer screens and took time to connect with my senses, my wife and my son. When chopping onions, just … chop … onions. It's a useful piece of life wisdom."
It may also sound time-consuming. But Pollan is good on how we have found other ways to waste time that would previously have been spent cooking. "We forget how much time it can take simply to avoid cooking: all that time spent driving to restaurants or waiting for our orders, none of which gets counted as 'food preparation'. And much of the half-hour saved by not cooking is spent watching screens."
In the book, Pollan writes about a "microwave night" in which he tested how much time is saved by ready meals: none. "That's because the microwave is an individualistic serial machine – it can only do one at a time so if you've got four people eating four different entrees, each has to be individually heated. So our microwave dinner, which was supposed to save us so much time, took about an hour to get to the table. And by the time the last entree got out, the first one needed to be renuked because it was cold. So I'm hard on the microwave. Without question."
Pollan does still have a microwave, but doesn't use it to cook. It's there to defrost things and to reheat his coffee – several times a day. But he has little love for it. "When you compare a microwave with a real fire or a casserole – these things speak sharing. They draw people around them. The microwave doesn't. Nobody wants to get too close to a microwave. It gives them the willies because of the mysterious waves jumping round inside."
If Pollan sounds authoritative now, he wasn't always. His interest in food writing was partly sparked by his son, Isaac, who used to be a terrible eater. "From the age of three or four, he really only ate white food. I could make him a chicken breast [sandwich] without any crusts. But it was a seriously limited diet. If I'd had a more sensitive understanding of cooking I might have been able to feed him with more success. If we'd had a little more confidence as parents we would just have let him get really hungry. [We'd have said], 'He can take it or leave it. He's just jerking us around.'"
Pollan was quite clear about the food and drink he wanted in the house. "We never kept any soda. That's a key thing. If your kids aren't having soda every day, that's half the battle, in terms of weight and diabetes. Potato chips we seldom had around – maybe if people were coming over. We didn't have dessert every night. And we didn't fry too often. My wife is very fat-hostile. She doesn't like a lot of fat in her food. But we didn't really have to ban much."
That is probably why Isaac is still happy to bring friends home after college. "His friends will completely empty the refrigerator and pantry and take whatever crackers and snack foods they can find," says Pollan. "They will then go into the room where we have the TV and distribute the crumbs evenly over the floor and the couch. We're much more normal than you might suspect."
I expected Pollan to be pompous and self-righteous like every other food guru I've met. But he's not like that at all and, it transpires, not adverse to a junky snack or two. "We have a caramelised popcorn called Crackerjacks," he says. "If I'm in a gas station, that's what I'll go for. You could call it junk food I suppose. I prefer to think of it as a traditional native American treat …"
He's a funny man. But, sometimes, bearing the responsibilities of a nation's diet weighs him down. "I've become the food super-ego for a lot of people. And I find that uncomfortable. People like to confess their food crimes to me. I don't want to hear it. Eat what you want. That's not my role.
"My role, I think, is to make people eat with more consciousness. Eating thoughtlessly is the biggest problem we have. If we're not thinking, they can push our buttons and get us to eat all sorts of stuff. The more thoughtful we are, the healthier we'll be."
Pollan doesn't want to argue people into the kitchen. He wants to entice us – to show through his storytelling how rewarding cooking can be. "As good as restaurants are, they tend to throw a whole stick of butter in at the last minute just for the hell of it, plus put in more salt and sugar than the home cook would.
"Home cooking is good for you, and I eat out less. But that's the least of it. What has surprised me is how stimulating it is. How satisfying. You learn a lot about plants and animals. You begin to recognise your place in the world."
To learn these valuable lessons, he says, children do need to be taught about food. "There are few more important life skills we can give them. We already teach them about driving, alcohol and drugs, and safe sex in school, and it seems to me that teaching them to cook is just as important for their long-term health and happiness."
When Isaac was 13, Pollan says, he began to trust food. "Not fear it – because he saw how it was prepared. Kids can be very suspicious: 'Why are you hiding that food with sauce?'
"Once they start making it themselves, they are more likely to enjoy it."
Now, some years later, Isaac often does his work at the kitchen table while his parents cook: "We'll ask him to chop an onion. Or mince some garlic. And he'll offer unsolicited advice in the seasoning. Then, when we're almost done, he'll make a port reduction. The table really is the centre of our family."
• Michael Pollan will be taking part in a live chat at 3.30pm on Tuesday 28 May at guardian.co.uk/wordofmouth
Michael Pollan's food rules for the table
• Eat with others rather than while watching TV/working/driving by yourself – you will eat less.
• Decide how much sugar, salt and fat you want to eat – don't let a food corporation make that decision for you.
• Try to eat food cooked by humans rather than corporations – it will automatically be better for you.
• Don't use the microwave to heat up separate meals – sharing the same food at the same time is better for family life.
• Brew your own beer now and again – it's a great way to bond with teenage children.
• Cook your own meat – then you'll know what animal it really is.
• Enjoy watching cookery shows on TV – but don't let them put you off cooking. yourself and remember your children will learn to cook by watching you.
• Eat as cheaply as your grandmother did by cooking like her – use fresh ingredients and leftovers.
• When chopping onions, just chop onions – give cooking your full attention and you'll find you enjoy it more.
• Eat whatever you like as long as you cook it yourself.