Marion Nestle, SLOW COOKED: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics

Marion Nestle, SLOW COOKED: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics

Zibby is joined by molecular biologist, NYU professor, and leading public health advocate Dr. Marion Nestle to discuss her engrossing and deeply moving new memoir Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics. Marion describes the challenges she faced as a woman working in a science lab in the 50s, and the career sacrifices she made to raise her children. She also talks about her late-in-life successes – from pivoting to teaching and navigating exclusionary academic environments to falling in love with food studies and becoming one of the most important voices in the food world.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Nestle. I’m sorry, I could not bring myself to call you Marion because I just have so much respect. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics.

Dr. Marion Nestle: I’m really glad to be here. It’s really okay if you call me Marion.

Zibby: Okay. Thank you so much for sharing your whole life story and everything from the personal to the political. It’s all in here. It was so fascinating to read. I’ve been following you for a long time. I worked with the Eating and Weight Disorder Center at Yale University with Dr. Kelly Brownell when I was an undergrad and worked at Weight Watchers for a time and got this Institute for Integrative Nutrition degree. I’ve had this long fascination with food and all of that. I’ve just been following you forever, so this is a real honor for me.

Marion: Glad to be here.

Zibby: Awesome. In the back of your book, you conclude by mentioning several things you don’t like when interviewers ask you, questions you don’t like asked. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I have to make sure I don’t ask anything she doesn’t like people to ask her. I will politely ask if you could describe the reasons for writing this book. Maybe we can go through. Just take it where you want to take it.

Marion: That’s a softball question.

Zibby: Yeah, softball question.

Marion: The easy answer is the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, I moved out of Manhattan and moved upstate to be with my partner, who lives in Ithaca, New York. It’s very quiet up there. I couldn’t get into a library. My office was closed. The libraries were closed. The NYU library was closed. The Cornell library was closed. I couldn’t do the kind of research that I usually do when I’m writing books. I thought, okay, what do I do? What am I going to do here while I’m here? Then I thought, maybe this is a fabulous opportunity to rely on memory and try to answer the questions that I get asked all the time. How did you get interested in food? How did you get interested in nutrition? What made you do it? Did you always know that you wanted to do it? How do you feel about taking on the food industry? How do you feel about the way the food industry reacts to you? What should I do? I want to do what you do. How do I do it? Those kinds of questions, I’ve always kind of tossed them off and just given very casual answers to them. I thought, maybe this is really a time to think about them since I get asked them so often by students and colleagues and reporters. Maybe this is a good time to really sit down and try to reflect on how what I did happened and what it means and what I think about it now. That’s what I did. It was a really interesting project. I didn’t have access to research materials or even any of my own papers. I describe this as my first work of fiction because I relied on memory. Memoirs are about memory. There’s a real difference between memoir and biography. Biography is factual. Memoir is how you remember it. This is how I remembered it.

Zibby: Wow. You start by taking us through how you grew up and then into your marriage and your marriages. I’m divorced and remarried. I’m hoping this is my last husband, but we’ll see. You never know. No, I’m kidding, Kyle, if you’re listening. One of the things I was really struck by was your trying — I hate the word balance, but how you were trying to balance your drive and intellect and wanting to contribute and scientific interest and all of that with having small children and all of the constraints. You have a scene in the book where you pop into the lab on a Saturday morning. You find out that it was packed with people and that it was always packed with people on Saturdays. You physically could not do that with the kids and your husband working and whatever. Tell me about that time when you reflect back on the craziness of that moment and how you still managed to find your way through and all of that.

Marion: I grew up in the 1950s. The social environment for women, which is never easy and still is not easy, was very different then. Women were expected to get married and have children, preferably, as early as possible. I had my children at twenty-five. That was considered old at the time. I had interests and whatever, but there was no opportunity to do anything with them. I kind of stumbled my way through graduate school. The incident that you’re describing was on my first teaching job at Brandeis University. I call it the swimming pool epiphany. Any thought that I had of having a scientific career ended on that day. The incident was as you describe. My kids had swimming lessons on Saturday morning. I usually sat there with them while they were at their swimming lesson, but for some reason or other, there was a double lesson that day. I thought, oh, they’re going to be in the pool for two hours. Great, I’ll go to my lab. I’ll see if I can get some work done. There won’t be anybody else there to bother me. I can just go in and do what I need to do. I walked into the lab, and everybody was there. I mean everybody, including the lab technicians and the wife of the lab director and all of the other graduate students and all of the other postdoctoral fellows.

Everybody was in that lab except me. I didn’t even know that people were there on Saturday morning. I thought, no wonder people are treating me as if I’m not getting any work done. No wonder I’m not getting any work done. It was just this revelatory thing. I was there for an hour. Nobody said anything about it in particular, but I walked out of there and thought, this is the end of my scientific career. I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I had nobody to take care of my kids on Saturdays. My husband had his own career, and his career was much more important than mine. We both agreed on that. He was an assistant professor at Harvard at the medical school. Obviously, that was more important than being a female postdoc at a lab at Brandeis. I started looking for teaching jobs. There were women, I learned later, who were able to balance lab careers and children. I wasn’t one of them. I couldn’t do it. I met some of them later. They were wealthier than I was. They came from academic families. They knew how to get the kind of resources that they needed. Maybe they had more helpful husbands. That, I can’t say. I was not one of them. I couldn’t do it. I grit my teeth and took a teaching job.

Zibby: I feel like some people in that moment would be discouraged and then give up and say, okay, if I can’t do it at all… But you didn’t give up. You just pivoted into a different direction, sort of like a pinball. You just kept going and found your way to the end of it anyway.

Marion: I think it had to do with, they were my children in a second marriage, so I felt responsible for them. They were my absolute first priority. I was responsible for them. Then the question was, how was I going to take care of them in this situation and make sure that they were okay? I didn’t feel particularly sacrificial about it. It was, okay, this is the reality. I’ve got to face the reality. What do I do? That was what I did. I got a teaching job at Brandeis. That, of course, turned out to be life-changing as well because I was handed a nutrition course to teach as part of that. That opened up the whole career that I eventually had by somehow stumbling into this course and starting to teach it and never looking back. It was like falling in love. This was the field for me. It just worked out perfectly. I didn’t stay at Brandeis much longer after that because my husband got a job in San Francisco, and we moved. I got a job in San Francisco teaching nutrition to medical students. Then everything went on from there. It just took a long time. The title of the book is Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics. The Slow Cooked part was that it took me such a long time to figure out what I could do and how I could do it. Of course, none of that happened until after my kids were grown.

Zibby: It’s hard to do anything. It’s hard to get anything done.

Marion: We’ve got a lot of sympathy for that.

Zibby: Still, you realize, identified your interest in this. Then despite even more hurdles that kept coming in your way — you referenced your move to San Francisco. That was a whole nother set of obstacles. I actually found all the politics at the different medical schools and PhD programs — I am not from that world at all, and so I found that absolutely fascinating, kind of horrifying, but also fascinating. The things that went unsaid, like deanships and everything, you had to learn on the go how to navigate all of that in addition to everything else while still pursuing your love of the dietitian — not dietitian, but food stuff in general.

Marion: Things having to do with food and nutrition. People who come from academic families know how academics works. They don’t have to have it laid out for them. I really didn’t. I didn’t know how to read the tea leaves. I just wasn’t good enough at it. When I took the job at the University of California at San Francisco as my husband’s trailing spouse, I didn’t realize what a handicap that would be. I didn’t understand that. Nobody explained it. Actually, one person tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t know how to hear that. The dean of one of the other schools at UCSF said, “You’re in big trouble. You came here as your husband’s wife. You don’t have an independent identity here.” I remember thinking at the time, I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I’m going to do it as well as I possibly can and earn respect that way. It never occurred to me that that was impossible under the circumstances. It didn’t matter what I did. It didn’t matter how well I did it. I would always be my husband’s trailing spouse and would never get over that.

As soon as the marriage broke up, which happened at the same time as a new dean came in — I had a job with a very fancy title. I was associate dean in the School of Medicine, but without any real portfolio. That was another enormously complicated thing that I didn’t understand very well. As soon as all that fell apart, it fell apart instantly. It was another overnight thing. The dean said he was going to leave and take a higher-up job. He was not going to take me with him. Everything fell apart instantly. That was when I had to really sit down, go into therapy, and try to figure out how I had gotten myself in this position where I was about to be fifty years old, and I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a marriage. I didn’t have a future. What was I going to do? That was when, for the first time, I got really solid, blunt, and very good advice. That was my first experience with mentoring. I was fifty years old and was told, “You got to resign. Here’s how you do it,” which opened up everything. I went to public health school. On the basis of that, I got a job in Washington. On the basis of that, I got the job at NYU, which changed everything.

Zibby: For all the people out there who are fifty thinking that their life is set, you are a living, breathing example that that is completely not the case.

Marion: Just starting. It was just beginning. I was lucky enough to go to NYU with tenure, as a tenured full professor. That was an extraordinary gift. That opened up everything. I had a big job, but I was able to do that job by then.

Zibby: How do you feel being an expert on something?

Marion: It turns out I really am. One of the great things about being old is you’ve done a lot. A lot has happened. I really do know a lot about food and nutrition by now. I’ve been teaching it for fifty years. I should know a lot about it by now. I’ve written a lot of books. They cover a big territory. In the area that my books cover, I feel pretty confident about what I know.

Zibby: Yet things keep changing. Obviously, in all the areas. I just feel like every day, there’s new news about nutrition and what we should know and what we shouldn’t know. This is good for you. This is not good. You have to keep up with all that and really plow through the myths from what is actually science.

Marion: One of the things that I’ve done is, I write a daily blog. I’ve been doing it for almost fifteen years. That forces me to keep up. It’s not so much work. I post five times a week, Monday through Friday. Some of the things are frivolous. Some of them are fun. Some of them require a bit of work. It forces me to keep up with what’s happening in a very contemporary way. If there’s a big fuss about something going on, I’ll weigh in on it. For next week, I’m planning to do one on the full-page ad that Impossible Foods had in The New York Times, which there’s been an enormous fuss about because the ad is extremely dismissive of a very fine science writer who had written a big article about the processed nature of these artificial meats. The artificial meat companies didn’t like her article very much. There were things about her article that I didn’t like, but like everything. It was a very thoughtful and very well-researched article. That’s the big fuss now, so I’m going to weigh in on that. I’ve got a couple of other things that I’m going to weigh in on as they come out. There’s never a lack of things to write about.

Zibby: Yes. It’s the one thing — not the only, but one thing we all have to do every single day, make these decisions and eat. It’s actually quite smart. You’ll never be out of a job.

Marion: As one reporter once explained to me, “If you write about food and nutrition, you have a full-time career and total job security.” It’s never going to go away.

Zibby: How do you make your own decisions? What did you have for lunch today?

Marion: I haven’t had lunch yet because this has been a very heavy Zoom day. Yesterday in my office, there were small packs of lunches that were given out. I didn’t eat mine, so I brought it home. I’m going to have that today. It looks like it’s tomatoes and quinoa and avocado. I think maybe there’s an egg in there somewhere. I’m not sure. I eat according to my own principles. I would never advise anybody to follow a diet that I don’t follow. My principles are so easy to follow that Michael Pollan can do them in seven words. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That’s how I eat. That leaves plenty of room for deliciousness, plenty of room for junk food, plenty of room for eating what I like. I just try not to eat too much of it.

Zibby: Interesting. Obviously, no processed foods?

Marion: No, not no processed food. Just not very many. It’s not the processed, but ultra-processed, the category of processed foods that are really — they make you eat too much. I try to keep those to a minimum. If I have trouble with them, I keep them out of the house. I’m somebody who can’t keep barbequed potato chips around. I either buy barbequed potato chips in very small packages or I don’t buy them.

Zibby: I know. I try not to keep the stuff in the house. Then I’m like, well, maybe.

Marion: Sometimes you just want to have them.

Zibby: Sometimes I put stuff in the freezer. I’m like, okay, this will require me to have to defrost for a while and wait. That doesn’t work either.

Marion: You have to figure out how not to have so many ultra-processed foods around that you can’t stop eating them because there’s so much evidence now that they encourage people to eat too much, and without realizing it. You sit there with a bag of Oreos or a bag of chips. At least, I do. They don’t take up any room. They go down easy. It’s just really easy to overeat. Those are the things that it’s really important to watch out for. Sugar-sweetened beverages go right into that category. That includes juices as well as soft drinks, but particularly soft drinks because those are formulated and ultra-processed foods in general are formulated to be irresistible. You can’t eat just one. That’s what you want to be careful about. Eat your veggies. Don’t eat too much. You’re doing fine.

Zibby: On the book-writing process, something you enjoy doing, would never do again, loved it, want to do it again? Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Marion: The memoir is my fifteenth book. If I didn’t like doing it —

Zibby: — I mean writing about yourself.

Marion: Oh, writing about myself, that was difficult because I mostly write nonfiction. I write about politics. To write about my personal connection to those things took some cognitive restructuring. It wasn’t easy. What I tried to do was to be as straightforward and as honest and as candid as I could be within some restrictions. I have a living ex-husband with whom I’m on very, very good terms, and I want to keep it that way. I have two living children with whom I’m on very good terms and want to keep it that way. I didn’t want to air a lot of inappropriate dirty laundry about personal relationships. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to. As I said, memoirs are very different from biography. One of the rules about memoir writing is you’re not supposed to use them for revenge. Lots of people break those rules, but my editors would not let me break those rules. In the one or two instances where I just couldn’t resist revenge, they said, “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

Zibby: The other lesson is to have very wise editors.

Marion: I do my best. They’re really, really helpful. The book is a much stronger book because it’s not indulging in those kinds of things, I think. Certainly, the reaction to the book has been remarkably favorable. People are just enormously grateful for hearing the story because they’re stuck in their own lives and positions where they’re really worried about the future. They tell me that having read my story, they feel more confident about going forward. That’s wonderful.

Zibby: That is wonderful.

Marion: I didn’t expect that.

Zibby: That is very amazing.

Marion: I didn’t know it would have that kind of effect. That’s been very, very gratifying.

Zibby: I can see why. Thank you so much. Thanks for chatting about your book. I’m so glad I got a chance to read through it, to learn more about you. I do find it really inspiring. I really do. Thank you.

Marion: Thanks for talking to me about it. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: Go enjoy your lunch.

Marion: Okay. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Marion Nestle, SLOW COOKED: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics

SLOW COOKED: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics by Marion Nestle

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts