He isn't an elite athlete or part of a rock band, but journalist Michael Pollan packed the Kohl Center Thursday night with similar star power.
Thousands of UW-Madison students, faculty, alumni and community members came to hear Pollan talk about his book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," which was chosen for the university's first common book read program, Go Big Read.
His visit sparked a lively debate on campus and beyond in recent days, prompting farmers and food scientists to take issue with Pollan's food claims in newspaper columns, call-in talk shows and on the web.
Throughout "In Defense of Food," Pollan tries to answer the question of what we should be eating. The short answer is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
"The hard part is distinguishing the food from the edible food-like substances," Pollan said Thursday night, standing next to an array of supermarket products like Fruit Loops and Gogurt. "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
Pollan, who teaches journalism at the University of California - Berkeley, won the James Beard Award for "In Defense of Food."
He is critical of factory farms, the Western diet, and the "food-like substances" that fill grocery stores, suggesting that we return to a simpler model of eating food that has not been modified or processed.
Pollan spoke in front of a crowd estimated at around 7,000 people, which included more than 100 farmers, some wearing T-shirts that said "In Defense of Farming."
Laura Daniels, 34, a dairy farmer from Cobb, which is about 50 miles west of Madison, said she doesn't think the average Wisconsin farm is reflected in the pages of "In Defense of Food."
Technology - like herbicides, pesticides, and genetic modifications - allows farmers to feed more people in less space, she argued, and Pollan's ideal of buying food from small, diversified farms may not be a practical option for many people.
"As a farmer who produces food as efficiently as I can, I want food to be really affordable," Daniels said. "I think that's real for a lot of us who are producing commodity milk or corn."
In some ways the book was the perfect choice for the inaugural common book reading program, for it has provoked the sort of communal conversation hoped for by Chancellor Biddy Martin.
"I hope we'll always be able to pick a book that generates this much excitement," she said Thursday night. "But I doubt it seriously."
The book was required reading in some 125 courses this semester, which meant around 4,000 students were simultaneously reading the work. "It's changed the way I approach eating food," said Teresa Floberg, a UW-Madison student who attended the lecture with her class on business and the social side of sustainability. "Now I try to eat at a table without TV or while doing homework."
Pollan's lecture at the Kohl Center is the highlight of his visit to UW-Madison, which also includes a panel discussion Friday and a keynote speech Saturday at the Food for Thought Festival.
He will receive a $25,000 honorarium for the visit, with about 80 percent coming from private sources.