Gullible’s Travels: Our Puritan Dilemma

Americans obsess about food, and marketers feed off that obsession. It’s an unhealthy cycle that needs to end, Michael Pollan says.

By Denise Gee

Photography by Spencer J. Eggers


Laden with plastic grocery bags (yep, plastic), good-food guru Michael Pollan strides across a Southern Methodist University stage. It’s March 1, and some 2,000 people have turned out to hear him speak as part of the university’s Tate Lecture Series. His Cheshire Cat grin offers a hint of what’s to come. One by one, the latest and greatest “edible foodlike substances” from a Dallas supermarket begin to emerge from the sacks, and, all the while, Pollan handles them a bit like science specimens. Perhaps, in a way, they are.

Out comes the milk with fish fat. The ubiquitous canned chips that are “now with multigrain!” Boxed fruit snacks “that are sort of like fruit but not at all like fruit,” Pollan says, regaling the crowd. Then comes the pièce de résistance: a box of frozen, premade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches—“part of the genre of food that offers superior convenience, because, of course, we’re way too busy to make such a sandwich,” he says. “Just thaw and eat. Put this right in a kid’s lunch box and you don’t have to dirty a knife.”

And to think, Pollan adds, tongue firmly in cheek: “People worry about innovation in America not being what it used to be. I see no reason to worry.”

Well, Pollan, the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California Berkeley, does worry. And he isn't afraid to tell it like it is—performing a balancing act between exposing the ugly side of the corporate food world and encouraging us to approach eating “with a little more happiness and sanity”—in such celebrated books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and the recent Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual illustrated edition; and in the documentary Food, Inc.