In the summer of 1971 Michael Pollan’s pig Kosher won first prize at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. But her glory was short-lived.
Folksinger James Taylor had also entered his pig, Mona, at the fair. She, too, won a blue ribbon. Mona, a very large pig, was made famous by a celebrated photograph of Mr. Taylor and the pig walking on his property in West Tisbury. A song was later written in her honor.
As the summer came to a close and Mr. Pollan prepared to go back to New York city, he asked Mr. Taylor if he would take care of Kosher. Little did the two men know that “big pigs will not tolerate little pigs that are not related to them,” Mr. Pollan said in an interview at his Gay Head home. “Mona ran my pig in circles until my pig had a heart attack and died.”
It was one of Mr. Pollan’s first farming experiences on the Island, and one that makes an appearance in his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Mr. Pollan will read from his book at the Farm Institute on Aug. 8. At the event NPR station WBUA will tape an interview for the program All Things Considered, followed by a question and answer session.
At the time of the 1971 fair, “agriculture was pretty well dead,” Mr. Pollan said, save for a handful of farms including Nip’n’Tuck, Morning Glory Farm, Allen Farm and Beetlebung Farm. “There was really very little going on.”
But he’s watched a resurgence of agriculture and a fierce interest in local food continue to grow on the Island, including the high quality of produce and increased livestock.
“The return of animal agriculture is really new,” he said. “There were only two pigs in the fair that year — one was owned by a Manhattanite and one was owned by a singer.”
Mr. Pollan has spent the last 10 years following the food chain, analyzing it from soil to stomach. Books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and The Botany of Desire have become textbooks of the local food movement, both here and abroad, and catapulted the issues of health, politics and science surrounding sustainability into an international discussion.
From observing industrial agriculture practices to the way people consumed those foods, there was a “missing link,” Mr. Pollan said.
“There is this middle area where the food is transformed, it is coming off of the farm and getting transformed into meals,” he said. “I came to realize the longer I wrote about food, that we were neglecting that part of the food chain.”
Mr. Pollan spent about three years working on Cooked, including experimenting with pickling vegetables from Morning Glory Farm and Beetlebung Farm and writing the baking chapter of the book at his family home. Life on the Vineyard includes mornings writing on his screened-in porch on a folding card table and chair, while his wife, a painter, takes to the easel. Mr. Pollan is a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
The Vineyard has played a significant role in Mr. Pollan’s life since he was a child. Today, he and his three sisters share their family’s summer home. Mr. Pollan even lived there for a winter between high school and college when he was an intern for the Vineyard Gazette, covering Gay Head and Chilmark.
Looking back on his years on the Island, Mr. Pollan said the “most notable and exciting thing” to see has been the rise of the local food movement. “It’s a very challenging place to grow local food because real estate is obscene and your prime market is a short [window],” he said. “It’s remarkable what’s been accomplished.”
Mr. Pollan’s involvement with the Island food movement dates back to his high school years when he and a friend, Dan Cohen, started Bernie’s Bagels.
“There were no bagels on Martha’s Vineyard — maybe there was a frozen thing you could get at a supermarket that was shaped like a bagel — so we started this business,” he explained. The bagels came up from New York city with their fathers, who would fly up every weekend. Subscribers paid $6 for six bagels, a bar of cream cheese, smoked salmon and onion. Mr. Pollan and Mr. Cohen would deliver the food in a Volkswagen Squareback.
“My father thought if we appeared to be deliverymen that we could escape the blame for problems and the quality of food and get tips,” he laughed. “So if things got screwed up we’d say, ‘Oh man, we have to talk to Bernie about that.” Bernie, the company’s namesake, didn’t actually exist.
Mr. Pollan’s first journalism lesson came in the form of a food guidebook to the Island called Best of Martha’s Vineyard.
“It was very controversial,” he said shaking his head. “In fact it was banned because we published some bad reviews. I was a sophomore [in college] when I wrote it and it was — sophomoric.”
The reviews included sly pokes at a smoothie vendor, which left her in tears.
“It was painful . . . we had made some joke at her expense and she called crying. It was a real journalistic lesson that what you write has an effect on people and you should be really careful.”
Since the days of his food guidebook, the quality of food has improved dramatically, Mr. Pollan said. Much of the Vineyard’s food issues, including food accessibility, mirror that of the national picture. The price of food here in the summer is “extraordinary,” but when he’s shopping at the market he remembers one of his food rules: pay more, eat less.
Mr. Pollan admitted that the discussion surrounding local food can be “precious.” But it’s part of a “very healthy development. Any revolution has its excesses . . . I think it’s harmless. It’s silly and it definitely needs to be made fun of, but it’s out of an excess of enthusiasm.”
The discussion of small farms and local agriculture will also need to grow at a political level before change can occur, Mr. Pollan said. He criticized the Obama administration for its inactivity on the subject.
“We’ve seen that this administration is not willing to make radical change in farm policy,” he said. He did credit First Lady Michelle Obama for heightening awareness around the nutritional side of food. “I think that’s been valuable.”
But while the conversation in Washington, D.C. may be at a standstill, the movement is growing.
“We’re building an alternative food economy. It’s still very small, but it’s growing really quickly and it’s more profitable than the mainstream food economy. What the food movement needs from the government is some forbearance and space in which to thrive without being interfered with. You get the food system your political system gives you.”
A new farm bill and food safety regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will test that this fall, he added.
“I think that the issue will come to the fore in the next — I don’t know how many years, but it will. The reason I’m confident of that is not just because foodies want it to be so, but because the food system we have is bankrupting us.”
Putting food politics aside for a moment, Mr. Pollan turned his attention to eating. For lunch he feasted on steamers and oysters at Larsen’s Fish Market. Harpooned swordfish was on the menu for dinner, “an annual treat.”
“You don’t get that anywhere else in the country,” Mr. Pollan said. He was also looking forward to August tomatoes.
“There’s something about the salt air and tomatoes that really work. The vegetables here are small but they have very concentrated flavor, and I have no science to back this up, but I always thought it was the salt air.”
This article has been edited to refelct the fact Mr. Pollan's pig won a blue ribbon at the 1971, not 1978, fair.
Michael Pollan will speak at the Farm Institute on Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the event have sold out.