These past few weeks have been rather busy here at HowGood. We moved into a brand new office and have had our hands full putting together new furniture (why does Ikea furniture come in a million pieces?!), stocking office supplies, figuring out our new phone system, and of course investigating all the near-by coffee options in our new neighborhood.
So, it was with a sigh of relief and a sense of having earned it that we headed out on a HowGood field trip last night. Michael Pollan, guru of the food movement, was speaking at the 92nd Street Y and we couldn’t pass that up. For the uninitiated, Mr. Pollan has been writing about our environment and food culture for the past twenty-five years. He is one of those rare talents that can take complex and incredibly important issues and make them accessible and palatable in written form; he manages to accomplish this without watering down his content. I was thrilled to discover that Mr. Pollan achieves the same with his public speaking.
The appearance was a part of a tour promoting “Cooked,” his most recent book that delves into the history of cooking and brings said history into his own, modern kitchen. One of my favorite bits of “Cooked” and a passage that he shared with us last night tells the story of a cheese-making microbiologist nun who performs an experiment on the vessel she used in her cheese production. Traditionally, her particular variety of cheese was made in wooden barrels. A health inspector informed her that in order for her production to be up to code, she’d need to use stainless steel instead because it would be more sanitary. So, she put his belief to the test. She created one batch in her traditional wood and one in stainless steel and then inoculated both with E. coli. She then tested each batch a few hours later. The batch in steel was absolutely riddled with E. coli but the one in the wooden barrel was almost free of it. She found that the “good bacteria” - lactobacilli had created an environment where the E. coli could not survive. Those wooden barrels were doing good work by housing that bacteria deep within their grain and protecting cheese consumers from disease - something that is lost when we shift to “cleaner” stainless steel.
This captures one of the major lessons that Michael Pollan teaches in his writing: when we change the way that we produce our food, we often end up with consequences for that food and the people who eat it that we don’t anticipate. Considering the full scope of how a food item is grown or produced is difficult to do, but essential if we want to avoid negative consequences of bad or ill-informed practices.
If you want to hear more of Mr. Pollan’s thoughts, and I encourage you to because he’s awesome, you should check out his website. I’m particularly fond of this article about the bacteria who seek residence on and within our bodies (gives a whole new meaning to living off the land). It’s amazing how something so small can be so impactful.