An intrepid chef sets out to prepare dinner for the "God of Healthy Food."
Driving through the California farmland near my home, I was listening closely to an interview on National Public Radio with Michael Pollan. He’s a hero in these parts, and I was really surprised to hear him say that he’s had to eat restaurant food while on tour for his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”
Here he is writing about the process of preparing our own foods in our home kitchens, and no one had invited him over for a home-cooked meal. That seemed a shame. I assumed he would have been invited to many home feasts, laden with local bounty and creativity.
For the past 25 years, Pollan has been writing about, in his words, “the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.”
Pollan was going to be speaking in nearby Petaluma, Calif., at an event sponsored by the Seed Bank and Copperfield’s, an independent bookstore. The Seed Bank, a garden store that’s located in a former bank constructed in the 1920s, is known for its 1,200 varieties of heirloom seeds, along with local handmade gifts and food items, all natural and non-GMO (genetically modified). Pollan’s kind of place.
So I set out to make a home-cooked meal for Pollan and serve it in the balcony of the exquisite old building. I was looking forward to sharing food prepared with much heart, but I had to figure out how to reach him to extend my invitation.
Turns out that he’s a Jewish kid from Long Island, like me, now living in Northern California. And I knew that according to six degrees of separation theory, we were one link apart. I have a friend in New York who is Pollan’s first cousin. Twenty-five years ago, we both worked for Eli Zabar and would go on buying trips to Paris together — I would buy cheese and she would buy candies and charming French toys to sell at EAT.
Tickets to the Petaluma event were sold out, and lots of people were trying to ease their way in. “Everyone is Michael Pollan’s cousin,” one of the store managers said to another, fielding a phone call. I overheard this conversation just as I was first explaining my idea for cooking him a meal, and that I really was a friend of Pollan’s first cousin. The organizers of the event were enthusiastic about my idea but couldn’t get past his handlers, who wanted to know, “Who is this person?”
I sent a note to Pollan, explaining who I am, how I know his cousin and that I live in the hills above Sonoma and create nourishment from local ingredients with global flavors. My focus is on food, farming and community. I told him that I understood that his schedule was tight, and that we could still make something casual and fun.
To my delight, he agreed.
The meal — more a presentation of dishes, all served at once — had to be quick, as he had a short interval of time. For me, though, it was a long process. I had to source locally harvested and produced ingredients. The gathering process is not going to a supermarket but to a trail of farms and cheese makers, with a day of preparation.
I wanted to honor this man who has spent time raising a cow and learning firsthand the growing process and chemistry of what goes into what we eat. Much praise goes out to Pollan for consolidating research, history, science and experience into articles and books that have gracefully influenced diverse populations across the world. While he has written many serious pages, his aphorisms have stuck: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And then, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
In his talk at the Seed Bank, Pollan spoke about how we, as a society, have lost the knowledge of food preparation. He’s particularly interested in the process of fermentation, mentioning the Eastern European tradition of making sauerkraut. For the mad genius fermentos — whether brewers, cheese makers of picklers — he’s full of praise. He recalled his own first fermentation project when he was 10. When his family was on Martha’s Vineyard he collected wild grapes and left them in a sealed jar. Returning some months later, he found purple polka dots all over the ceiling, a fermentation explosion. Now, at his home in Berkeley, he has an array of traditional foods fermenting to nourish his family.
Immediately upon our meeting, Michael Pollan and his wife Judith had the comfortableness of that one-of-the-Tribe-feeling. They were extremely appreciative as they began to inquire about the smorgasbord of taste:
Stuffed Grape Leaves with gathered pine nuts and currants * Estate Kale Chips * Cusp of Summer Squash stuffed with Oakhill peppers & pumpkin seeds * Bodega Smoked Salmon * First-of-the Season Heirloom Tomato and Basil Goat and Sheep Cheese and Potato Rosemary Flatbreads Rhubarb Rose Tartlet * Apricot Almond Tart * Dark Chocolate Lavender Cookies…
And the God of Healthy Food began to nibble, and saw that it was good.
Isa Jacoby is a chef, caterer and culinary artist.
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