What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Organic food pioneer shares her life’s work, from farm to cafe table

From a farm in the Austrian Alps, to the first certified organic restaurant in the United States, chef and natural food advocate Nora Pouillon tells her life story in a new book, "My Organic Life." Jeffrey Brown offers a taste of Pouillon’s memoir and how she’s helped change food culture in America.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A pioneer of the food movement has long been stirring the pot to get quality organic integrated into America’s diet.

    Jeffrey Brown has the latest addition to our NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nora Pouillon’s day begins early, tending to the herb garden at her Washington, D.C., restaurant named Nora, and then working through the menu with her chefs.

    On this day, it featured gingery carrot soup with creme fraiche, grilled sustainable salmon with roasted parsnips, rapini, and minneola orange ginger vinaigrette, and bittersweet molten chocolate cake.

    It’s all part of running a restaurant, and a special one at that, the nation’s first certified organic restaurant.

  • NORA POUILLON, Author, “My Organic Life”:

    You have to learn about the season. You have to learn about agriculture. You have to learn about the chemistry of food. You have to learn to have a budget. You have to learn about food cost, about labor cost. And every day, it’s like, nearly showtime, will all the people show up?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Pouillon’s new book, “My Organic Life,” tells how she got there, growing up on a farm in the Austrian Alps and later Vienna, then moving in the 1960s with her then husband, a Frenchman, to the United States, where she was shocked by the highly processed, hormone-infused food she found.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    The produce department was the smallest department. Iceberg lettuce was everywhere, and oranges and apples and pears, and no fresh garlic, no fresh herbs, no bowl of lettuces, nice lettuces.

    In Europe, you go from little place to place, and you go from your butcher to your green grocer to the baker, and you have a — you have a discussion. The experience of going to a supermarket was different.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And also, as you write, Wonder Bread, right, the great staple.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    Rows and rows of Wonder Bread, rows and rows. And I remember when Pepperidge Farm came in or — it was like, wow, this is like a revelation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She started out cooking for friends, then became a cooking instructor, before opening Nora in 1979. It would become a great success, a destination for presidents.

    But, in the beginning, she remembers, healthy food was a tough sell. She first called it additive-free, but a friend convinced her that didn’t sound very tasty.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    You have to educate people of — that it’s important what they put in their bodies, very important, because that’s how they feel and that’s how they behave and that’s how they think.

    I mean, in this country, the health problems are enormous.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what about the cost of organic food? From 20 to 47 percent more, depending on the study. Pouillon insists that is the wrong way to look at the economics of food and the value of making organics available to all.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    It’s only more expensive because, in this country, the cost of food is not really the true cost, and so much of the food here is subsidized. And all the bad food is subsidized, unfortunately.

    So, I just feel my motto is always, I prefer to spend my money on food and not on the doctor.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Much has changed, of course, making organic foods more accessible and affordable. Pouillon helped found Washington, D.C.’s first producers-only farmers market, the kind of market now found in many cities around the country.

    She works with local growers to build a pipeline of seasonal organic food close to her restaurant.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    You cannot start out your day with bacon and eggs, and then have for lunch a big hamburger, and then have for dinner pork chops and then apple pie. I mean, that doesn’t work.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy eating.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    This restaurant, my point was to show people that, if you have wholesome, nutritious ingredients, then you can cook whatever you want. But you can have all these things, but not on the same day.

    And if the ingredients themselves are pure and wholesome, then I don’t see any point on keeping a special diet. Your diet is the way you eat, is just to use certified organic ingredients.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That certification comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    It means is that they have no pesticides, no antibiotics, no hormones, no — I mean, this is all vegetables. It wouldn’t have that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    They have no fungicides, no — basically no pesticides.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, cooking organically, having an organic kitchen means having to deal with — I mean, it makes it harder in some ways. Right?

  • NORA POUILLON:

    Yes. First of all, I deal with 35 different farmers, and — because one of them does for me only the chicken. The other one does only the beef. And the other one does only the pork.

    Everybody does something different. Somebody has only the eggs, and the milk, and the yogurt. Suddenly, he doesn’t have enough chickens because it was too cold and the chickens didn’t want to eat. And so the chicken doesn’t weigh 3.5 pounds, weighs only two pounds. So, I…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then for you, it’s uh-oh.

  • NORA POUILLON:

    For me, it’s, oh, I have no chickens.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    No chickens one day, so more creativity required in the kitchen.

    There seems to be more of that in American kitchens these days. There are now well over 100 certified organic restaurants in the U.S.

    Reading and hoping to eat, for the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.

     

Listen to this Segment

Latest News