Michael Pollan’s food classes

Posted by Christine, December 28, 2011

Joe Fassler  writes in The Atlantic about Edible Education 101.  Joe Fassler, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. In 2011, his work for TheAtlantic.com was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism. He hosts The Lit Show on KRUI radio and litshow.com.

This fall at the University of California, Berkeley, a new course surveys the political, social, environmental, and gustatory stakes of modern food production. In his Edible Education 101: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement, Berkeley journalism professor and best-selling author Michael Pollan yields the spotlight to other experts: Though he appears frequently as introducer, moderator, and panelist, the classes are focused on an all-star cast of guest lecturers. Taken together, these food A-listers and innovators provide a compelling, comprehensive portrait of 21st-century eating. Each lecture is available, for free and in full, via UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel.

For people learning about food systems for the first time, this class may be the very best place to start.

“This is a very powerful lineup such has never been accumulated for a single class,” Pollan told students in his introduction to the course. If you’re already asking questions about your food, it’s likely your favorite author-activist appears. For people learning about food systems for the first time, this class may be the very best place to start.

Edible Education 101 commemorates the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant founded by chef Alice Waters, whose culinary approach — fresh food, prepared simply and sourced well — has influenced several generations of eaters. This year, Waters has rebranded her Chez Panisse Foundation as the Edible Schoolyard Project, which will seek to recreate the Foundation’s Berkeley-based teaching garden in other school systems throughout the nation. Waters thought that a Berkeley course, taught by Pollan, would be a fitting way to usher in the new era of student outreach.

Pollan found a co-teacher in Nikki Henderson, a Bay Area activist who directs The People’s Grocery, a non-profit that seeks to improve the health and wealth of West Oakland residents with locally grown food. Her focus on food education and social justice complements Pollan’s interest in the philosophy and semiotics of eating, as well as Waters’ farm-to-tastebuds culinary approach.

As they planned the course, Waters, Pollan, and Henderson decided that each weekly meeting would focus on a specific theme — lecture topics like “Nutrition, Health, and Diet-Related Disease,” “School Lunch and Edible Schoolyards,” and “Corporations and the Food Movement.” From there, they began reaching out to qualified authorities on each topic, slowly assembling a food Dream Team.

“Alice brought her years of experience and relationships to the table, which was fantastic,” Henderson told me by phone. “Michael wanted the course to be academically rigorous — a sophisticated inquiry and exploration and into some of the more difficult topics.”

“My focus,” she said, “was to make sure that justice was central — that race and class and power were concepts to be digested deeply by the audience, and by the speakers.”

In the Bay Area, Edible Education 101 has become a phenomenon. Each week, Berkeley made 300 free tickets available to the public, and, according to Henderson, tickets to the first lecture sold out within 10 minutes. But even by live stream, it was thrilling to watch the boldfaced names lecture at the university podium — Raj Patel’s wryly comic illuminations of farm economics, for instance, or Carlo Petrini’s passionately gruff exhortations on the virtues of Slow Food, the movement he founded (extemporaneously translated from the Italian by our own Corby Kummer).

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