Monday, October 27, 2008

Super star Pollan attracts massive Maine crowd

Around 6:45 pm this evening, Adam and I arrived for Michael Pollan's much-anticipated talk at the Bates College Chapel. More than half the chapel was already full, making us extremely grateful we got there when we did for the 7:30 lecture.

We grabbed seats and then watched as a steady stream of students, professors, farmers, foodies, activists, bibliophiles and ethical eaters poured into the space. As the pews filled, people were invited to sit on the stage and those with a seat were urged to squish closer together.

Soon the wide center aisle was jammed with a combination of standing and sitting spectators. By 7 pm there was no where to squeeze another person.

That's when Thomas Wenzel, chair of the school's environmental studies program, approached the microphone.

"We've never had to do this at an Otis lecture," Professor Wenzel told the crowd, before informing the hundreds of people in the aisle that they would need to leave. The building was wildly beyond its capacity, he said, and the talk couldn't begin until the aisles were clear. To compensate, the college would replay a videotape of the speech at numerous times and places. Clearly a poor substitute for the real deal.

As the crowd got up to exit the building, Professor Wenzel returned to make another announcement. Michael Pollan had graciously offered to give a reprise of his lecture tomorrow morning at 9 am. Those who show up then won't be disappointed.

His speech was just as full of big picture insights and intriguing details as his books. Pollan (who you can barely see on the distant stage in this photo) reiterated many themes from "In Defense of Food," including how our focus on nutrients rather than foods has led to the current epidemics of type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. He mentioned the FDA's repeal in 1973 of the food Imitation Rule (which allowed fake foods to be marketed and sold to the public) and the 1977 firestorm created when the nation's first dietary guidelines advised: "eat less red meat." Under pressure from industrial agriculture and the cattlemen's lobby, it was reworded to read: "choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake."

He concluded by pointing out that there is no ideal human diet when it comes to good health. But there is one way not to eat: the Western processed food diet.

Asked whether or not either Presidential candidate had read his "Farmer in Chief" open letter in the New York Times, Pollan pointed us to this interview with Senator Barack Obama done by Time columnist Joe Klein, where Obama references the letter in response to a question about energy policy. And who knows? Maybe those of us jammed into the chapel tonight were listening to this country's future Secretary of Agriculture. I can't think of a more perfect candidate for the job.


J said...

I couldn't think of a more qualified candidate for the job either. That is really exciting that he came to talk in your town, and even agreed to come back again the next day to speak to those who couldn't hear him when you went.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that would have been a great lecture!

Bianca said...

Neat! I'd love to hear Michael Pollan talk!

Meg Wolff said...

I can't think of a better Secretary of Agriculture either, Avery. Wow, great that you made the cut and amazing that Michael Pollan offered to come back the next a.m. at 9! Change is in the air, and that is great.

Anonymous said...

When you take flash photos, try and aim at the stage rather than the audience. It works out much better.