Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Michael Pollan is Starting to Stink of Composted Berkeley Paternalism

I agree with many of the points in Michael Pollan's article in the July 29, 2009, New York Times Magazine. Julia Child was awesome. Americans are too fat. Americans eat too much processed food. Americans should cook more. Junky, high-fat foods that are hard to make are now easy to buy and hence, to their detriment, Americans eat them more often than they would otherwise. Americans are spending less time cooking and more time eating junky food. The Food Network is the root of all food evil. And so are canned tomatoes. What? Whoa Mikey! After a page or two, I started to envision myself cast on a Maury Povitch show as the fallen "Woman who Cooks with Frozen Vegetables."

The ideas in Pollan's books, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and The Omnivore's Dilemma really resonated with me (okay, the ones in the book reviews did). The Omnivore's Dilemma especially presented a fresh look at sustainable eating, farming, and food production; it gave structure and form to a lot of my thinking about food. For example, although I don't care to eat much beef, pork, poultry, or fish myself, I don't think that it's immoral for humans to do so, but I do think meat and fish eaters should do so responsibly and sustainably. Since I can't afford to fork over eight dollars for a can of eco-friendly tuna, I mostly eat vegetarian and so do my husband and our children. We also compost, cook, limit processed and prepared foods, shop at our local farmer's market, join CSA's, have vegetable and herb gardens of our own when possible, and in general try to spend our food dollars wisely and responsibly and to eat as healthfully as possible.

I agree with Pollan's recent tribute to Julia Child. She was an admirable woman who did great things for American cuisine, and apparently for Michael Pollan's diet, but didn't she also cook with a great deal of animal fats and beef? And I don't think she was purchasing them at the cruelty-free organic butchers, either. What was really off in the article, however, is how much Michael Pollan has it in for the Food Network for not filling the gap Julia Child left. But the problem isn't the Food Network. The problem is the quality of television in general and that Americans watch way too much of it (and it sounds like Pollan's son watches quite a bit himself--what is that family doing with cable anyway?) Most of the shows on television are crappy, sappy, predict-o-dramas or reality shows replete with gimmicks, stunts, and over-sized personalities. Does Pollan really expect the Food Network to be like P.B.S? And, not showing Martha Stewart sweat has more to do with American culture's perfection-fetish and discomfort with the human body than it does with a conspiracy by the Food Network to make us eat processed foods and keep us out of our kitchens. That's like blaming soap operas for a rise in divorce. If I want quality television, I don't seek it out on the Food Network.

Even so, there are some decent programs there. That's where seven years ago, Jamie Oliver inspired my husband and me to grow herbs at home and to shop at local farmer's markets. Okay, so he is really cute and has that charming British accent, but he isn't just some celebrity chef boy toy. And, I do watch, ahem, Iron Chef. And I do learn something from it. I use ingredients or kitchen tools I wouldn't have known to otherwise. Anyway, not all of us are looking for recipes a la Julia Child--some of us just want ideas and inspiration. I know plenty of people who organize cooking parties and gatherings around the main ingredient of that week's show. And yes, I am (Heavens to Betsey!) actually entertained by watching people armed with cool cooking toys scurry around, mince, baste, encrust, garnish, and create. Sue me!

The food industry certainly contributes to our not cooking and increasingly sells us deceptively unhealthy food, but in his article Pollan glorifies the era of Julia Child as some sort of golden age in cooking which a) it wasn't and b) even if it was, he fails to take into account major societal shifts: real wages have declined, benefit packages have shrunk, and it's become more difficult for families to have one parent stay at home. We do an abysmal job of supporting parents who stay home with their children. Most of those mothers and fathers are not abandoning their kitchens to sit on their butts and watch the Food Network-- they're working! Pollan dismisses this by saying that even parents who stay home don't cook as much, but I wonder if most of the parents that Pollan describes are more affluent and would outsource their cooking and household chores anyway.

I am a home cook and when I am not failing to make a living as a writer, I am mostly taking care of my children. I cook a lot. My mom cooked a lot. I grew up in a house where an all-natural fruit leather was a big treat. My parents shopped at the Eastern Market and New Morning Farm's farm truck. But my mom also used canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables and so do I. Besides jump-starting my home herb garden, Jamie Oliver sold me on the idea that it's okay to take some short cuts--use canned tomatoes or frozen pie crusts, for example. In his article, Michael Pollan makes no distinction between cooking with thse items and "cooking" microwave pizza. Does he really mean to equate using canned tomatoes in the winter to make my vegetarian chili to eating at McDonald's? The decline of home cooking is a serious problem, but does he really want me to stew my own tomatoes, bake my own graham crackers, and boil my own bagels? Is he anti-technology? Isn't there something to be said both in terms of the number of people that can be fed and being sustainable for capitalizing on the advantages of efficiencies of scale and technology? I don't want salmonella; I want someone with canning machinery who knows what they're doing to can and stew my tomatoes. Isn't it more energy efficient if some people do that on a mass scale rather than most of us on a small scale? If I buy some prepared foods in my neighborhood, say a quiche from Homemades by Suzannes or bread from MacShack Acres at the Ashland Farmers Market, is that really the same as "letting corporations do my cooking for me"? How about if I'm supporting small or local companies and restaurants that purchase locally and treat their employees responsibly and fairly? That cook healthfully and sustainable? Is that so wrong?

Ultimately, I felt that Michael Pollan was exhibiting ivory-tower paternalism at its worst. Yes, Americans need to exercise more, to eat healthier, more responsibly and sustainably, and that means cooking more. And we need to find more sustainable and efficient ways of producing food. But we're not going to encourage Americans to cook more if we skewer them for cooking with frozen vegetables (and tell them they're not really cooking when they do so) just like teaching teenagers that abstaining from sex until marriage, rather than teaching them to have sex responsibly, is a good way to ensure that they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Michael Pollan has done so much to start a conversation about food, health, and sustainability and to get people to think in different ways about all of the above. I would hate for snarkiness, arrogance, and reductive generalizing to destroy all of that. On that note I suppose I should get my ass out of my home office chair and into the kitchen. Sorry Michael Pollan, I have no more time to get offended--I have to cook.

For further exploration of some of the topics brought up in Pollan's article and books, please read:

1) The Omnivore's Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectual, by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, counters critics of industrial farming and shows that big-business industrial corporate farms are not necessarily thoughtless, inhumane, corporate, or non-family entities. The piece is well written, skillfully reasoned, and valid. Some of the language and information is a bit over my non-farmer's head and I'm a bit sheepish about advertising anything that comes out of the American Enterprise Institute, but I got the gist of what he was saying and I think this guy and the people he represents deserve to have their say in these matters. If we're going to consider the ideas of people like Michael Pollan, we should also consider what actual farmers have to say. The reality is that no matter how we do it, food and livestock production and consumption are eco-destructive processes.

2) In the March/April 2009 edition of Mother Jones, Paul Roberts describes the complexity and difficulties of doing sustainable farming on a large scale and shows why shopping at farmer's markets and buying locally aren't necessarily as eco-friendly as one might think. The article also explores some of the sustainable farming methods in the pipeline.

3) Michael Spector's article in the February 25, 2008 edition of The New Yorker is a bit longer but is also worth reading if you want to know more about the complexity of calculating your carbon footprint in terms of the food you eat, a.k.a., food miles.

4) Elizabeth Kolbert, my favorite environmental journalist, wrote a review of four books in the July 20, 2009, edition of The New Yorker about obesity in the United. The piece is well-balanced, well-written, reasonable, and mostly objective.

5) San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto Restaurant and his business partner, Mark Pastore, wrote Shock & Foie, a thoughtful, thorough, and rational response to well-intentioned but misguided anti-foie gras protesters.

6) This recent New York Times op-ed piece by restautant chef Dan Barber demonstrates the potential eco-disasters that may await us when we all start our own vegetable gardens.

Oh, bagel, why do you forsake me?

After graduating from college, I moved to New York City and was in bagel heaven. I made the pilgrimage to H and H Bagels on the Upper West Side, but I didn’t need to. There were bagel places on almost every block. By the time I moved back to D.C., Chesapeake Bagel Bakery had less of a presence in the area. I tried Einstein Bagels but was not impressed—too big and too greasy.

I’m not sure how to describe the qualities of a good bagel; I just know one when I taste it. As with a bottle of wine, I can tell when one is bad and I know what varieties I don’t like—banana nut and strawberry are not for me just as I rarely drink white zinfandel and chardonnay. Growing up with a Jewish father from Brooklyn and a Protestant mother from the mid-west with gourmet tastes, bagels were a regular part of my D.C. family’s food repertoire way before bagel mania swept the nation in the 1990’s. We didn’t have a lot (okay, any) of the foods teenagers crave, but my friends were always excited for our bagels.

My paternal grandparents, who retired to Hallandale, Florida, always had bagels on hand for our visits, usually from Pumpernicks or from Sage Deli. Otherwise, Lender’s frozen bagels, which helped to spread the bagel concept nationwide, were a fixture in our and my grandparents' freezers. For special occasions, my father would go to Posin’s on Georgia Avenue and get bagels with all of the fixings: lox, herring, and whitefish salad. We always had cream cheese, although in my father's family, lox was accompanied by butter, not cream cheese. Then Chesapeake Bagel Bakery came to the D.C. area and we replaced the Lender's with their day-old bagels. Once Posin’s closed, what was Toojay’s and then Krupin’s and then K’s New York Deli and now Morty’s, was our Jewish deli of destination, but I'm certain that if Posin’s were still around we'd still go there.

My father always purchased a variety of the traditional flavors—plain, sesame, poppy, onion, pumpernickel. The other kinds pretty much offended him, but gradually he accepted the cinnamon raisin ones and more recently, blueberry and will eat them when available, although he claims never to have purchased them. Chocolate chip remains an outrageous perversion of the bagel, although I don’t really understand the difference between chocolate chip and blueberry.

When I first got to college in the fall of 1991, I was shocked that although the school was supposed to be one-third Jewish, the bagels in the dining hall were terrible: bread in the shape of bagels. Enough people must have complained because sometime between the end of my frosh year (they don’t use the term “freshman” at Wesleyan and unless you don’t mind a righteous lecture, you’re better off not saying it either) and the beginning of my sophomore year, they got good bagels at MoCon, the main dining hall (which has since been torn down—R.I.P.) The best were the spinach ones, or maybe they were herb. Either way, MoCon was where I discovered bagels with cream cheese and tomatoes (thanks to one of my gentile hallmates), although my husband Cedar, another D.C. native and gentile, and his family used to get them at

So's Your Mom in Adams Morgan.

My junior year of college, which I spent in France, was bagel free although I was told I could find them in certain parts of Paris, but I was in Southern France, in Aix-en-Provence, for most of the year where my sister had also spent a year two years before me and I remembered her recounting the horror that the French people looked at her with when she explained what I bagel was. “Boiled bread? That's disgusting! And You miss this? How can this be?” So I didn't bother to explain the beauty of the bagel while I was there. The French, while followers of a delicious and healthy cuisine, can be very rigid about their food. I won’t get started on their reaction to the coffee my roommate and I offered at a dessert party we hosted in our little apartment.

After some years in D.C., I joined Cedar in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was doing his graduate studies. There is actually a fabulous bagel place there, with three branches (yes, Charlottesville aficionados, the Corner locale finally opened) called Bodo’s Bagels. Besides bagels, the menu features soups, salads, sandwiches, and frozen yogurt. The place is cheap, informal, and has very good bagels; it's a great place to go with kids. I heard that each of the stores is now independently owned—sold to managers by the owner--and I wonder if the quality and consistency of the food will change because of this. Though I didn’t notice a change when we were there recently for a visit.

When Cedar finished his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and got a job at Mills College in Oakland, I was expecting to be back in bagel heaven, or at least a satellite heaven. After all, the Bay Area and the East Bay in particular has a large Jewish population and is known for its high-quality food. The dining service at Mills, where we lived in faculty housing, while superior in many ways to most college dining food I’ve had, had the same bread-in-the-shape-of-bagels bagels I had in college. I incredulously asked around and was told that of course, there were good bagels in Oakland—hadn’t I been to Berkeley? Berkeley? That’s not Oakland. I live in a west coast city of 400,000 with at least three synagogues and I’m supposed to travel to a nearby city just to get a decent bagel? I tried Noah’s Bagels and I wasn’t impressed at first, but they grew on me.

Posh Bakery bagels on Piedmont Avenue are also alright. A Jewish bakery, the Grand Avenue Bakery, is one of my favorite food places in all of Oakland—even if the dead-head-meets-observant-Jew proprietor vacillated between hitting on me and growling at me (in his defense, I did ask him if he made a pumpkin challah for the fall, although if you ask me, he’s sitting on a gold mine)--but they don't make bagels. The GSB does make the best challah I have ever tasted (although I highly recommend heating at 200 degrees for fifteen minutes or so first before eating it), and sells an assortment of other baked goods, treats, and prepared foods. Another friend recommended the bagels at the Oakland Whole Foods, which she said were imported from you guessed it, Berkeley, but the idea of going specially to Whole Paycheck for my bagels didn’t seem right.

Now, we live in Ashland, Virginia. There are decent bagels in Ashland Coffee & Tea but it’s not like I can go in and get a dozen. At the Science Museum of Richmond’s CafĂ© Portico, where I recently spent a morning while my boys were in camp, I inquired hopefully “Hey, where do you get your bagels?” The sulky teenager behind the counter shrugged her shoulders and said “I don’t know. Maybe Cysco.” Ouch. It tasted like it, too.

So now I am on a mission for bagels in the Richmond metropolitan area. Some Northerners might wonder how I could find any decent bagels in the South, in the neighborhood of the former capital of the confederacy, but as my sixth grade Hebrew school teacher from Kentucky proved, there is a sizable and long-established Jewish population in the south, and Central Virginia is full of surprises, as Bodo's showed me. And I know bagels are not as popular as they were fifteen years ago due to carbo-phobia, but that's not enough to deter me--I don’t snack on them. As a fellow Jewish friend explained to a non-Jewish friend in high school, “You don’t understand, for a Jewish person, a bagel is like a meal.”

I hope I find my meal soon and having a bit of my father in me, I hope it's not oozing with Asiago cheese.