Michael Pollan Visits UBC Farm

September 1, 2009

On the third day after Michael Pollan left Berkeley, California, he set out from his suite at the Opus Hotel for the UBC Farm, and the faithful were camped there in their hundreds. Then Michael Pollan summoned the people, and especially the elders and the youth, and he set before them the words Mother Nature had commanded him to speak. When he told the people Mother Nature’s words and laws—the words and laws he had recorded in his bestselling books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food—they responded with one voice: “Everything Mother Nature has said, we will do.”

Michael Pollan had written down everything Mother Nature had said in these and other books, and in articles for the New York Times Magazine and the Nation and Newsweek and Time and Mother Jones, and he had spoken the words in appearances on The Bill Moyers Journal and The Colbert Report, and he had become a prophet, anointed in March even as Rolling Stone’s 69th Agent of Change. “Do not be afraid,” he seemed to say to those who had come to the farm. “Mother Nature has come to test you, so that the fear of Her will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

And after Michael Pollan had gone to the people and spoken for a half-hour and told them of the goodness of the soil and the harm of high-fructose corn syrup and McDonald’s and Archer Daniels Midland and had reminded them that “nutrition science is where surgery was in 1650: really promising, really interesting, but I’m not ready to get on the table yet” and the people on their blankets had chuckled, he consecrated them in their hundreds and they did give him a standing ovation and then he walked freely among them, snacking on artisanal breads and locally sourced plant stuffs artfully prepared and presented by the Chefs’ Table Society. And together they ate wild arugula with Agassiz hazelnut pesto from O’Doul’s, and Farm House Camembert with caramelized shallots from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, and from Bishop’s they savoured savoury rhubarb shortcake with Metchosin-grown wheat, crème fraîche, and sweet cicely. And the people loved the food, and they all responded together in unison: “Everything you have said to do, that is what we will do.”

And when the people had left in their hundreds, Michael Pollan—who is not simply an articulate journalism prof at the University of California at Berkeley, nor just an informed defender of sensible eating in the face of global agribusiness, nor merely a friend of Alice Waters and Mark Bittman, nor just a writer of the first order with a lovely style and a knack for aphorism, but who is also a real mensch, a guy who does the right thing and loves his family and shops at farmers’ markets and strives for a carbon-mindful life and whose 16-year-old son is spending a second summer in the kitchen at Waters’s Chez Panisse—did not return to the Opus. He did not pass the night arrayed in his Wal-Mart boxer-briefs with room service and Speed Channel. No. He ventured forth to the Harwood Street penthouse of old friends from the tribe of Berkeley. And the patriarch of that tribe is himself a journalist, though not a former executive editor of Harper’s like Michael Pollan but rather a writer of mining stories, and the tribe of Berkeley (the journalist and his wife both) did celebrate the bounty according to the laws handed out by Mother Nature and written down by Michael Pollan. And those laws are merely, famously, this: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

And Rob Clark, executive chef of Nu and Raincity Grill and C, was in the kitchen. And he was mindful of the laws and so we did not eat anything that our great-grandmothers would not have recognized as food. There were no Go-Gurt portable yogurt tubes in the starter satays—satays of compressed watermelon and glazed red carrots and miso-sake tuna—that were served upstairs on the gorgeous deck. This food had not been airlifted and trucked thousands of miles, or bought at corporately owned supermarkets, or wrapped in wasteful styrofoam and plastic.

And along with the tribe of Berkeley were Barbara-Jo McIntosh, who owns Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks and who masterminded the UBC Farm event. And from the event she raised $12,000, that the Farm might spread its message unto the End Times. And there also was Mary Mackay, who owns Terra Breads and who lives and cooks by these same laws. And when we moved downstairs to the bijou living area—with its profusion of West Coast art, including a mantel carved by Ben Davidson, son of Robert Davidson (they’d had a work by Davidson senior, too, until they were updating the hardwood floors and needed to move it out; the private gallery that housed it had put a “stupidly high” tag on it and sold it), plus photographs by Yousuf Karsh and museum-quality artifacts such as a sturdy fish club and a carved canoe for girlhood rites of passage.

And we ate food, we seven, mostly plants, especially leaves, and not too much. We ate spring pea soup with spot prawns and Hannah Brook Farm steamed asparagus and quail’s eggs. And we talked of Michael Pollan’s Berkeley students, themselves now writing books and articles for the New York Times, spreading the gospel in their turn, and we ate beets from the Pemberton Valley, both white and purple. And we heard of Michael Pollan’s coming pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to promote Eric Schlosser’s Food, Inc. And we ate not processed but whole and where possible wild foods: we ate wild mushrooms with Bayne Sound scallops and fava beans and new potatoes. This was all a long way from Berkeley, though Vancouver has “that West Coast vibe,” Michael Pollan proclaimed, and “seems to get it.” And Michael Pollan reminisced about his first author appearance, judging a Fort Worth flower show, and he spoke of a new project: a pamphlet on healthy eating, all folk wisdom collected through his website. And as we learned, so did we drink wine, which is also a law brought down by Mother Nature. We drank Tantalus Old Vines Riesling and Cameron Winery Pinot Noir. And we ate not too much, even when it was Little Qualicum cheesecake with stewed North Arm Farm rhubarb and preserved sour cherries. And we ate slowly, and we were not alone, and we were together at the table. And we were satisfied. And then we rested.

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