The Kohl Center was filled with around 8,000 people tonight, Thursday, September 24, 2009. Included in the crowd were hundreds of UW first-year students, upperclassmen, graduate students, faculty and staff, alumni, librarians, and members of the surrounding Madison community who all shared one common interest: they had all read Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food” and they were all there to hear what the author had to say.
The event commenced with a welcome from Chancellor Biddy Martin. One of the very first remarks she made was that this was the first annual Go Big Read project. Which to me, as a graduate school student who happens to be personally and professionally invested in the program, means that the pilot year has proven itself to be successful and we have the Chancellor’s support to continue the program in the years to come.
It was encouraging to hear Biddy mention right away that the reason we were all drawn together in this place at this time was because we all wanted to talk about the same book. It was refreshing to be reminded that despite all the media attention and news stories, and rumors about protesting farmers with tractors that might show up to sabotage the event, that we were all there for a reason bigger than the issues in Pollan’s book. We were all there because we believed that there can be something to be gained from pulling together as a community and talking about all sides of an issue that are important to us as a whole. One of the most valuable outcomes of a common reading project such as Go Big Read is starting a conversation and getting all kinds of people from different walks of life that would never normally interact, all in one place, talking about something that they care passionately about. As Biddy put it, what could be more elemental than food? It is essential to life and to culture and influences each and every one of us. Biddy declared that she could not imagine a more appropriate first topic for this campus than a book getting us to rethink how we look at food. I agree and think it speaks directly to the main goal of this program, which is to get everyone involved and talking to each other about ideas.
Pollan’s lecture was captivating. He is an excellent public speaker, and is often quite funny. His perfectly timed jokes interjected throughout the lecture helped to ease the tension in the room, which was also lessened by his opening remarks addressing the protesters at the event. He actually claimed that he completely agreed with the message on the In Defense of Farming group’s green t-shirts, and stated their message would even be an appropriate title for his lecture tonight: “Eat Food. Be Healthy. Thank a Farmer.” He argued that the protestors might discover as they listened to his lecture tonight that they shared more common ground with Pollan than they might have thought, and that he actually believed that American farmers held the key to solving three of the major crises facing our society today: the healthcare crises, the climatic crisis, and the energy crisis. He hoped that tonight’s lecture would expand for everyone there our working definition of the word “health.”
Pollan reiterated many of the main points from his book, “In Defense of Food,” especially the fundamental problems with nutritionism and how it has affected the processed food we eat everyday. He talked a lot about fad diets and how major corporations can take any criticism and market their product to reflect emerging trends in food and nutrition. He broke down the idealism of the American or Western diet and where it came from. He compared it to other cultures’ relationship with food and eating and pointed out that all over the world, people eating the traditional diets of their cultures are much healthier than Americans and other people around the world eating the Western diet.
Pollan concluded by suggesting that we are at a fork in the road with the way we eat in America. We can either adapt to what this diet does to our bodies because over time, evolution should select the genes of the people that are most tolerant of high-sugar, high-carbohydrate diets. Faster than evolution, medicine has enabled us to become a “diabetes culture” as Pollan puts it. We are able to use our human advances in science and technology to medicalize the “catastrophe that is the American diet.” To this remark Pollan received a huge roar of applause.
Our only other alternative, the other way in the fork in the road if you will, would be to change the way that we eat. It is the more practical, economical, and beautiful solution after all. The effects of the Western diet can be reversed quite quickly with the change, and you don’t have to go back to hunting and gathering to do it. Pollan looks to culture as a guide. He believes that studying traditional cultural diets will reveal that the rules of eating that have been developed over hundreds and thousands of years carry great wisdom for us. The problem we are facing is not just about what we eat, but how, when, and why we eat. Americans need to take a deep look at their relationship with food and eating, and learn to take pleasure in the sensation of eating and the company with which we share it.
Pollan ended his lecture by arguing that the solution is for all of us as a community to shorten the food chain. By cutting out the middle men of packaging, transporting, marketing, etc, more of our food dollars will end up in the pockets of the farmers who grew it. Pollan asserted that health consists of a set of relationships between our bodies and the food, soil, animals, and people around us. The best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, and our communities is to take back control of our food and our meals.
The event was wrapped up with a question and answer session moderated by the Chancellor asking questions that were submitted to the Go Big Read program blog and pre-selected by a committee to be posed to Pollan. The entire event ended with a standing ovation for Pollan, as he encouraged everyone to come listen to him speak about other related issues at tomorrow’s events (see the Go Big Read website: http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu/ for upcoming events related to Michael Pollan and the common book project in Madison).
Overall, the event was inspiring. Sitting in the audience you could really get a sense of community empowerment and the ability to make a difference in the world. It is exciting to think of all the things we could accomplish just by joining together to openly discuss important issues that affect us all. Thank you to everyone who participated in tonight’s event and helped make it a huge success!