Michael Pollan spends a lot of time thinking about food. The author of the recent bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma, which explores the ethics, economics, and environmental issues related to how our food is produced, Pollan also loves the simple pleasures of cooking and eating. He will try just about anything and clearly enjoys trying new cuisines, especially as prepared at the tables of friends and restaurants in Berkeley, California-locally known as Gourmet Gulch-where he lives.
But dinner at home, which he shares with his wife, artist Judith Belzer, and their son, Isaac, 14, isn't always so simple-or enjoyable. Pollan may have investigated the complexities of big agribusiness, the organic industry, family farms, and hunting and foraging his own food, but he's still working to come up with meals his teenage son will enjoy. "He's picky, incredibly limited in what he'll eat," Pollan says.
Isaac predominately eats simple, bland foods, such as white noodles and rice. And it can't be just any white noodles and rice. "The quality of the water (whether it's filtered or tap water) in which pasta and rice are cooked makes a difference," says Pollan. He and his wife have learned to cook for their finicky son with some success. "Otherwise, he wouldn't be alive," Pollan jokes.
Isaac shares some of his parents' frustration. "I really wish I wasn't as picky an eater," he says. Like many people who are particular about food, he can be turned off by texture, flavor, or aroma. "I can smell the smallest things that nobody else seems to notice," says Isaac. "I feel like I might like more things if I weren't so aware of taste and smell-but it's also kind of cool."
Pollan's own research into the anthropology of food offered a clue to why his son's palate is so particular. Isaac may have what anthropologists call "neophobia," an aversion to trying new foods. Unfamiliar and strong tastes simply overwhelm him. Most of us have a healthy dose of neophobia, as Pollan notes in The Omnivore's Dilemma. The mechanism has helped us survive over the centuries, for example, by avoiding extremely bitter, and likely poisonous, new foods. But most kids balance their neophobia with neophilia-an interest in new things-and eventually try new food, especially if it is in a familiar context, maybe smothered in a favorite sauce. But Isaac hates sauces. "Usually parents dip things in ketchup to get kids to eat them, but if you don't have ketchup or one flavor that makes everything else OK, it's hard to introduce new foods," Pollan says.
So far, they've had the greatest success with Japanese food because Isaac enjoys its straightforward flavors. "I do like a lot of Japanese food-the salads, soups, and grilled chicken," Isaac says. Eating at Japanese restaurants has helped him branch out-he loves broccoli tempura, plain miso soup, fried tofu, and edamame (green soybeans).
Like many teenagers, Isaac sometimes craves junk food, something his dad would prefer he avoid. "Like when I'm eating some junky cereal, he'll take the box and start reading it-'What's in this? How much sugar?'-it drives me crazy."
Pollan also encourages Isaac to cook and experiment with new tastes in the process. As part of earning his allowance, Isaac cooks one meal a week, with his father's assistance. "Cooking is a great way for people to learn an appreciation for food," says Pollan. Complicated dishes can be mysterious to kids. "They think, 'What is this stuff?' But if they actually prepare it themselves, they know exactly what it is."
Isaac agrees. "I love cooking with my dad for dinner parties, and I love cooking desserts," he says. (We share adaptations of some of Isaac's favorite entrées here.)
Eventually, the fact that Isaac has such sharp and refined taste buds will likely work in his favor, from a culinary point of view. "Now it's a burden, but at some point it will flip and become a great pleasure for him," says Pollan. Isaac's abilities to discern tastes and differences in quality are those that make great chefs. "I think he'll be a really good cook and he'll really enjoy food," says Pollan. "He just has to tame those wonderful taste buds. Those wonderful, horrible taste buds."
San Francisco-based freelance writer Laura Fraser is the author of An Italian Affair and Losing It; her work has appeared in The New York Times and Gourmet. Her profile of Walter Willett, MD, appeared in the April issue of Cooking Light.