When artist Fritz Haeg interviewed journalist Michael Pollan in Minneapolis this spring, the setting was key. The pair met up at the Birchwood Cafe, a foodie destination since 1995 and long a community hub for discussion and activism around sustainability. As their conversation neared its end, Birchwood owner Tracy Singleton — who’s also doing the catering for the August 8, 2013, opening of Fritz Haeg’s Walker exhibition — joined in, and the trio discussed genetically modified organisms, the influence of another restauranteur, Berkeley’s Alice Waters, and the meals Pollan’s own mother made as he was growing up. Here’s an unpublished excerpt from the discussion that didn’t make our official interview between Haeg and Pollan:
Michael Pollan: I find it very empowering to learn that, “OK, here’s a bunch of people just making decisions about what to eat for dinner. We’re building a new food economy.” We all feel so helpless in the face of these huge problems, but we’re not, actually. If we organize our lives in the right way, we can have a tremendous impact. One of the things that draws people to this food issue is that they are seeing it happen in front of their eyes.
Tracy Singleton: When I try to talk to people about food and where it comes from, I don’t want to scare people or leave them feeling like they can’t go out to eat again.
Pollan: It’s definitely not all or nothing. I have to be really careful of that because people do feel like, “If I can’t go all the way, I am not going to go anywhere.” That’s why I said that last night [at Pollan’s talk at Beth El Synagogue] that if you can just cook one more meal at home, that makes a difference. If you can spend $10 on local food every week, that makes a difference. We’re in this all-or-nothing culture, and I think that’s used to make people stop doing anything. “It’s not realistic for me to cut down my carbon footprint, so fuck it.” But to me, half a loaf is still half a loaf. It’s not trivial.
Singleton: I am noticing that a lot with the GMO [genetically modified organism] labeling issue. Once people become aware of GMOs, they’re like, “Well, I’m not going to eat those.” I say, “Good luck trying to avoid them!” As long as we’ve been in existence we’ve been trying to source our food under certain principles. But it can be hard to totally avoid them. With the non-GMO foods, people have this expectation: they think that because I’m talking about the issue they therefore think I’m a totally GMO-free restaurant. As much as I try to be–
Pollan: —It’s is very hard to do. But not only that, a lot of people now think if they’ve made that choice, they have taken care of the whole issue.
Singleton: No. That’s not good enough either.
Pollan: In fact, people selling organic food are struggling with this because now the consumer feels that if they get the no-GMO label, they’ve done their bit. But in fact, they’ve only taken agriculture back to 1996, where it was not so great. People are not buying organic now and buying non-GMOs, which is really bad, because they are not connecting the dots. I was talking to someone who is selling some organic grain product or something, and she said, “Yeah, the consumer just feels like our stuff costs more and non-GMO costs a little bit more and they are figuring I have done my bit if I get that,” which is really a shame because it’s hurting organic producers.
Singleton: So if they are choosing a non-GMO item then it’s not an organic item?
Pollan: It’s not organic. It just means it’s made with conventional agricultural without GMOs, which is OK, but you’re not really doing much for the environment.
Singleton: How did you two first meet?
Fritz Haeg: Around six years ago, when I was writing and editing the first edition of the Edible Estates book, I emailed to Michael to inquire if he might let us reprint “Why Mow?” from his book Second Nature. We have corresponded a bit ever since, and last year Alice Waters invited me to come join her presentation to the Edible Education class that Micheal teaches at Berkeley. It’s an amazing, amazing class.
Pollan: Yeah. Fritz came to my class last year and gave an amazing lecture. He and Alice Waters each. It was a powerful class.
Singleton: Dynamic duo right there?
Haeg: After class we went to Chez Panisse. I was with Michael and Alice, and thinking, “OK, this is cool” — pinching myself a bit.
Pollan: It was fun. We’ve had so many great people come through this class and the students of class have become so inspired. They’re all online — Edible Education at Berkeley. Watch his class.
Haeg: Sitting here at Birchwood, Michael, I have one last question: What was your table like growing up?
Pollan: My mom was a really good cook, and she was a stay-at-home mom until I was 14 or 15, then she got a job. She had four kids, and we had family dinner four to five nights a week. But she was kind of a progressive 1960s woman, so she watched Julia Child and learned and she would try. She would make beef bourguignon or coq au vin for us. Just the kids. My dad was never home for dinner because he worked really late.
Haeg: That’s amazing.
Pollan: We were kind of lucky that way, but then we had our basics. There was a rotation. Monday night, it was usually beef. Tuesday, it was pasta. Wednesday, it would be exotic, like stir fry or pepper steak with canned pineapples. She had her rotation, and I loved her food. It was really good. Then we would get to have TV dinners on the weekend when they went out. They would go out on Saturday night.