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.

1 comment:

Carter's Daddy said...

This is great. It also makes me feel guilty about our own family's short cuts - we're way worse than you guys, so Pollan would have us first against the wall.

It's probably too late to send a short version of this to the magazine's letters page, but you should post something similar or a link on the Times website.