It is not surprising that the first book published by Michael Pollan, who has built a national reputation for his magazine articles and bestselling books about food and nature, was actually a no-holds-barred travel guide to Martha's Vineyard.
Co-authored at the age of 20 with his mother Corrine, the 1975 book has flashes of the self-effacing humor and singular style later embraced by the acclaimed journalist and longtime Aquinnah seasonal resident, who likes to write about everyday things that go unnoticed by others.
But, blaming what he characterized this week as a youthful journalistic zeal, The Best on Martha's Vineyard was dominated by a spate of relatively harsh restaurant reviews. In the 70-page guide, Mr. Pollan pans various Island establishments for, among other things: a filet of flounder that tasted like breaded Elmer's glue, rabbit food passed off as Greek salad, and lobster with a tail as tough as an army mule and claws reminiscent of soggy raisin bran.
"Euthanasia is okay for elderly lobsters," the young Mr. Pollan wrote, reviewing an Oak Bluffs restaurant that surprisingly still offers the same dish today. "But they shouldn't have made us dispose of the body."
The Bunch of Grapes Bookstore originally agreed to sell the self-published guide book, but "in an act of censorship I'm sure they're not proud of," according to Mr. Pollan, pulled it from the shelves at the request of an aggrieved restaurant owner.
"They essentially doomed it," he said this week, estimating that fewer than 50 people ever saw the book.
Though he has moved on from the subject of poorly cooked lobsters, Mr. Pollan is still writing about food and, luckily, his journalistic zeal has remained intact. Through his books and regular pieces in the New York Times Magazine, he has explored with investigative vigor the realm where the human and natural worlds intersect.
A striking success since its release in April, his latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, is a collection of food detective stories, tracing the contents of four meals back to their origins in an attempt to answer the simple question: "What should we eat?" His findings - which highlight the importance of small-scale local agriculture carried out with sustainable practices - have captured the attention of a hungry audience and even sparked some changes within the food industry.
His 2002 New York Times Magazine article about cattle feedlots, which later formed a basis of the first section of the book, is credited with bringing grass-fed beef into the mainstream consciousness, while the second section of the book, which criticizes mass-produced organic agriculture, inspired the chief executive officer and cofounder of Whole Foods Market last month to pledge $10 million in annual low-interest loans to small farms.
"As a journalist, I feel like I've had more of an impact writing about food than anything else," Mr. Pollan said. "It's so seldom that what you do can make a real difference. So any time you see it, even in small instances, it's powerful. To see it nationally is a great thrill."
Mr. Pollan's work has also struck a chord on the Vineyard, coinciding with efforts currently under way to develop and promote sustainable farms, such as Community Supported Agriculture at Thimble Farm and the launch of the Island Grown Initiative earlier this summer. He said it is heartening to see such programs take hold in a place where the seeds of his own food passions were first planted.
"I think the Vineyard forgot about its agriculture for many years," Mr. Pollan said on Tuesday, after a home-cooked Chilmark meal featuring only Island-grown vegetables and a pig raised in the front yard and slaughtered the day before.
"There has always been a great tradition of thin produce out here," he said, listing a few of his favorite small farms. "To see it being celebrated now is such a great thing."
Originally from Long Island, Mr. Pollan has been coming to Gay Head with his parents and three younger sisters since the age of six. And most of his Island memories are food related.
Without realizing the recurring theme, he said he remembers gardening and clamming with his mother in Gay Head, making beach plum jam, buying raw milk at Nip N' Tuck farm and produce at Greene's farmstand, fishing off the docks at Menemsha and watching the landing of a large swordfish. He also had a pet pig, Kosher, who took first prize at the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair (she was the only pig in her class), and, prior to the ill-fated guide book, manufactured a series of other precocious entrepreneurial endeavors such as a bagel delivery business and plans to bottle and sell water from the Aquinnah Spring on State Road.
Mr. Pollan described the Vineyard as a touchstone in his life, and noted that it is also where he began his journalistic career. Shortly after he was graduated from high school, he moved to the Island for the winter and took a job with the Gazette. He recalls his first published piece of writing, coverage of a Gay Head school board meeting, which he dictated over the telephone on a Thursday night deadline.
"I was very enchanted with the whole romance of the Gazette," Mr. Pollan said. "The history of the paper, its environmental coverage and the courage of Henry Beetle Hough."
After the stint at the Gazette, Mr. Pollan continued his education at Bennington College in Vermont, where he met his wife Judith Belzer, a landscape artist. He later earned a master's degree in English from Columbia University, and parlayed a series of magazine jobs into the executive editorship of Harper's Magazine. Mr. Pollan developed the first Harper's Index and Reading sections at the magazine, and spent a decade on the Harper's masthead before stepping down to write full time after his son, Isaac, was born in 1992.
Mr. Pollan wrote a number of gardening articles for the New York Times Magazine, and published books about both gardening and architecture before his third book (or fourth if you include the Vineyard travel guide) burst onto the scene. Released in 2001, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, became a surprise national bestseller and earned wide critical success. Written from the perspective of four familiar plants - the apple, potato, tulip and marijuana - it also served as a natural evolution to his next book about food.
While researching The Omnivore's Dilemma, Mr. Pollan was recruited to teach environmental and science journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. It is not a coincidence that the dean of the graduate school of journalism, author Orville Schell, is also the co-founder of Niman Ranch, a pioneering sustainable cattle ranch that opened in Marin County, Calif., nearly 30 years ago.
"Food would not have gone over so well at other journalism schools," Mr. Pollan said. "But in Berkeley, they treat food the way they treat national security in other places."
He has received a strong reaction to his food writing during his nationwide book tour, and said he felt a lot of energy from the Vineyard crowd that turned out to hear him speak at the FARM Institute on Monday. But Mr. Pollan graciously deflected the attention away from himself.
"It's not me; it's the issue," he said. "I've just happened to catch this wave right when there was an extraordinary groundswell about food."
Mr. Pollan believes it is an important issue, of course, and acknowledges that food ties into global concerns about energy, development and public health. But he quickly notes that there are other far more serious things going on in the world, and wonders whether those seemingly unmanageable issues may be partly responsible for the droves of people attending events where they can talk about food.
"If you find the actions of our government deplorable, and you don't want your tax dollars funding secret prisons in Romania, there is really very little you can do about it without winding up in jail," Mr. Pollan said.
"With eating decisions, however, we can decide what we put in our bodies, and we can affect change," he said. "If you find certain agricultural practices deplorable, you can withdraw your support from the industrial food system. Which is very empowering to people."
It is a very hopeful time in food, Mr. Pollan said, pointing to some of the "beyond organic" methods of agriculture - like those at the Allen Sheep Farm in Chilmark – which can actually enhance the health of the land, rather than diminish it.
"These are some of the most positive things I've seen in 20 years of writing about nature," Mr. Pollan said.
He said the Vineyard is an ideal place to carry out these initiatives, which can both preserve the beautiful landscape while also building a sustainable local economy for people trying to make a living.
"It seems to me as a formula for preserving what people love about the Island," Mr. Pollan said, "focusing on locally grown food is a wonderful way to go."
Michael Pollan next week will return to the site of his childhood square dances and softball games, the Chilmark Community Center, to talk about the last section of his book - a meal he hunted, grew and foraged himself. The event is scheduled for Thursday, August 3, at 8 p.m.