NOTE: I wrote this in 2009 in response to a New York Times essay written by Micåhael Pollan. Pollan has elaborated on the themes in that 2009 essay in his new book, COOKED (published in April 2013).
Michael Pollan has weighed in again on the “problems” of Americans and their food, this time with an essay about cooking. You can read his piece here.
And once again, I am frustrated by his simplistic assessment, and, frankly, by his elitism. (In the Age of Obama, the word “elitist” is on the verge of being over-worked, but sometimes it’s the right word to use.)
First let me say that I’ve never met Pollan. This is in no way a personal attack on him as a human being. Indeed, I admire his work, admire his style as a writer, and appreciate his efforts to engage Americans in a conversation about food. I think everyone should read his books.
But. There’s a fundamental, almost willful, illogic to his arguments. Not just this in this recent essay about cooking, but, for example, an earlier essay of his in which he argued that we all ought to be plant and harvest our own food. (*1)
Pollan argues that we’re wired to “cook” and to share food. When we don’t, he says, we lose part of who we are as human beings.
He laments the fact that nowadays, we Americans don’t cook and even when we do “cook” at home, we’re not really cooking. We’re heating up heavily processed foods and dumping them on a plate.
In the picture he paints, back in the good old day, someone --- typically the woman of the house --- cooked fresh food. Because it took time and labor to do so, people tended to eat more sparingly. He cites research that indicates that the decline in cooking at home is directly related to a rise in obesity.
According to one study, the more time a society spends cooking at home, “the lower its rate of obesity.” No doubt that research is accurate. No doubt, too, that there is a biological and evolutionary connection between “cooking” (using fire to transform food) and the development of homo sapiens. (*2)
The problem is that there's not much historical accuracy, and by ignoring the reality of history, Pollan and his followers (who are legion) are misrepresenting the "problems" of contemporary American food culture and, more worrisome, over-simplifying the solutions to those problems.
There are number of problems with Pollan’s argument that cooking is the road to nirvana, but I’m going to focus on one. Pollan never says this directly, but it’s implied in the entire piece: Cooking is a pleasure and one into which the “cook” enters voluntarily, in part because it’s “natural” human behavior to want to cook.
Indeed, he opens the essay waxing rhapsodic about watching his own mother learn to cook with Julia Child, whipping up a series of delicious (and no doubt complicated) dishes for the Pollan household to enjoy.
If only life were that simple. Michael Pollan’s mother may have enjoyed the pleasures of voluntary cooking --- as do I --- but millions upon millions of human beings for centuries on end have not.
Here’s a fact: There is nothing glamorous or pleasant about the task of fixing three meals a day for more than one or two people.
That’s why, historically, most people have chosen NOT to fix their own food. Instead, they hired someone to do it for them. And when they couldn’t afford to do so, well, they sure weren’t standing around waxing rhapsodic about the pleasures of cooking. (Because, ya know, they were too busy cooking to spare the time for philosophical rumination.)
Let’s engage in some time travel: Let’s visit, say, Toledo, Ohio, in, say, 1875. (Random choices on my part.) Let’s start with the side of town where the factories, tanneries, and workshops are located. There we’d likely find no one at home.
Everyone --- mom, dad, children --- would be out working twelve hours a day (because that was the standard workday at the time) for not much money. When they got home, they ate whatever was cheap, quick, and easy. And often that food was --- you guessed it --- purchased outside the home. (*3)
(If the household was lucky, there was a person to spare, perhaps an aging parent, who could stay home to fix the food. Or, the family took in boarders, and one or more of the household worked at home fixing food for the family and boarders. That was his or her “job.”)
Now let’s visit the other side of town. The side upwind of the factories, tanneries, and workshops. There we’d find plenty of people at home in the kitchen, but it’s unlikely any of those kitchen dwellers lived in the house.
The “mom” in this house would do little (or, more likely, none) of the cooking because she did what the monied have been doing for thousands of years: She hired someone to do the scut work that is the kitchen routine.
In between those two ends of the spectrum, are the neighborhoods where we find an oddly untypical scenario: Households where “mom” is at home preparing food, and spending much of the day doing so, and working alone because she can’t afford to hire anyone, but her spouse earns enough money so that she herself does not work outside the home. (Or, alternatively, as in the first example, the family may have rented a room to a boarder.)
I say this last scenario is atypical because it would have been rare to find a house where a wife could afford to stay home but did not have hired help.
But the notion that people were at home cooking three meals a day for a household and doing so voluntarily . . . well, Pollan is simply wrong about that. (He’s also wrong about other things --- processed foods and industrialized farming date back a century or more.)
Here’s more historical background: A century or so ago, middle class reformers --- well-educated upper and middle class reformers (people like Michael Pollan) --- offered a similar critique about the “problem” of the American diet.
In the 1890s and into the early 20th century, for example, reformers complained that “working class” Americans and recent immigrants (in other words, people not as affluent or educated as they were) ate the wrong kinds of foods, ate unhealthy foods, and, you guessed it, ate too much processed and “prepared” foods. (*4)
Never mind that people ate “bad” food because it was the most expedient thing for them to do. Many simply didn’t have a kitchen, or they lacked running water and other “tools” for cooking; or lacked the time to cook their own food. They were too busy trying to keep a roof over their heads.
Food preparation is hard work. It’s time-consuming, tiring, and many people don’t enjoy it. They don’t want to learn how to cook. I think one of the surest signs that we’ve changed our attitudes about women can be seen in this:
Nowadays, if a woman doesn’t want to learn how to cook, she feels no pressure to do so. Many of my women friends, for example, have no interest in cooking, no desire to emulate Julia Child, no interest in the kitchen, and are relieved that no one expects them to pretend otherwise. Moreover, they’re delighted that there are so many ways for them to get food on the table without having to cook it themselves.
Thirty years ago? Not so much. Young women were expected to learn how to cook and to do it whether they wanted to or not.
Let me personalize this for a moment by using two examples from my own life: myself and my mother. My parents married in the late 1940s. For twenty years, there were six people in my family: mom, dad, four kids.
Every day, my mother fixed three meals a day for six people, whether she wanted to or not. She didn’t particularly like cooking, but it never occurred to her not to do it. It never occurred to her that there was an alternative (and frankly, there wasn’t one, except for the miracles short-cuts offered by processed and prepared foods, such as, yes, the boxed cake mixes and canned vegetables).
We had a garden, in which we spent hours and hours weeding. And then my mother spent most of the months of August and September canning what we’d grown. Canning, in case you’ve never tried it, is physically demanding work. It’s also hot work (lots of boiling water). (And no, we didn’t have air conditioning.)
She did this because that’s what women in her situation did. (Meaning: there were four kids to take care of; we didn’t have much money, certainly not enough to pay for what is now called “child care,” or enough money to go out to eat every day.)
I doubt there was ever a day in my mother’s life that she gazed at her knives, pans, and sink with a sense of adventure and romance. Those were simply tools she used every day to accomplish one of the many tasks required to manage a household.
Fast forward twenty or so years, to the early 1970s. One of those four kids (me) was now in her twenties, and has no idea how to cook. (My mother didn’t have time to teach us such a complicated task. She was too busy teaching us how to wash and dry dishes, dust, run the vacuum and weed the garden so that we kids could alleviate some of her daily labor.)
I also had no money. I had two choices: I could either not eat much but eat food in restaurants. Or I could learn how to cook. I opted for the latter.
Turned out I enjoyed it. I still do. For me, cooking is a creative activity, one that I enjoy at the end of a long day spent slicing and dicing words.
But --- I have a CHOICE about when, how often, and how much I cook. My household consists of me and my husband. There aren’t four kids running around.
My husband fixes his own breakfast and lunch, and he’d fix dinner, too, if I wanted him to. (I think I’m a better cook, plus, as I say, I enjoy cooking.)
But I cook when I want to. I have complete control over my time spent in the kitchen. I don’t feel like cooking? I don’t.
As I noted at the outset, historically very few human beings have enjoyed that privilege. Every day, millions of adult Americans scramble to figure out how to get three meals on the table for their families. And I don’t mean they scramble to figure out how to pay for it (although many do).
I mean: they’ve got kids and spouses and need to figure out how to fill their stomachs. If the household’s adults both work and if neither of them enjoys cooking, yes: they’re going to eat in a restaurant, or grab food to go, or microwave processed foods. And they’re delighted that someone else can, as Pollan puts it, do the cooking for them. In their minds, that's not a problem; it's a solution to a daily problem.
Intentionally or otherwise, the dialogue about the “food problem” is being driven by people who are, if I may be blunt, a bit clueless.
If Michael Pollan actually tried to grow, process, and harvest his own food, he sure wouldn't have time to write books and essays that analyze the crisis of American food. (Of, he could do it for a year as an experiment and then write a book about it, except that Barbara Kingsolver already did that. Note that both she and Pollan are part of the monied leisure class and have the wherewithal to engage in such an experiment.)
And I don’t say that to be snarky. There’s simply no way can someone crank out a book AND practice self-sufficiency. Thoreau’s mother and sister brought food out to the pond and took his dirty laundry into town where, no doubt, a servant washed it.
So what’s my point? I appreciate Pollan’s efforts to draw attention to the “food problem” in the U.S. I appreciate and admire all the young people who are spending so much time touting “local” foods, farmers’ markets, locavorish behavior, etc.
But I think all of them, including Pollan, are oversimplifying both the problems and the solutions. Worse, I see in them a kind of class-blindness, or (and I hate to use this word) elitism, that will alienate large chunks of the population and/or cause many people to tune out those who are trying to articulate a substantive critique about the complex problems of growing, producing, and eating food in a post-industrial society.
The rest of us live out here in the real world, where fashionable food isn’t at the top of the list of our daily priorities.
Is there a problem in American eating culture? Yes. When people regard Twinkies as real food, there’s a problem. I’m not sure what will solve the problem --- but nattering at people about gardening and cooking ain’t gonna do it. Mind you, I certainly don’t have the “solution.”
Frankly, I’m not even sure what the problem is. Indeed, part of the problem is that the “problem” itself has been couched in absurdly simplistic terms --- “Industrial farming is evil!” “Fast food is evil!” “Processed foods are evil!” Simple black-white statements like that lead to simple solutions (“Everyone plant a garden!”) that aren’t solutions at all.
Result? The truly complex issues related to food are being obscured by knee-jerk simplistic thinking. And when adults reduce both problems and solutions to simplistic equations, people who might otherwise disagree in a civil manner become antagonistic. They tend to shout at each other rather than discuss; to talk past rather than to each other.
(A good example is the debate over abortion. Early on, both sides grossly simplified a complex issue, and that issue quickly became an emotional all-or-nothing free-for-all.)
So, again, I don’t have solutions. Haven’t articulated a coherent statement about the problem. But I know that we need fewer starry-eyed essays about cooking and gardening, less knee-jerking and daydreaming, and more substantive critical thinking. In between, of course, figuring out what’s for dinner tonight.
*1: He’s off-base on this in so many ways that I hardly know where to begin, and my response to it would be another blog rant entirely. For now let me just say that he’s obviously never had to rely on --- depend on --- homegrown food. If he had or did, he wouldn’t be praising the virtues of maintaining a garden.
*2: Pollan cites a new book which I have, but have not yet read: Catching Fire, by Richard Wrangham.
*3: For more information on this topic, see, for example, Katherine Leonard Turner, “Buying, Not Cooking,” Food, Culture and Society 9, no. 1 (2006): 13-39. Or, more generally, Donna Gabaccia’s We Are What We Eat, Hasia R. Diner’s Hungering for America, or Harvey Levenstein's Revolution At the Table.
*4: For more on this see Katherine Leonard Turner, “Buying, Not Cooking,” Food, Culture & Society 9, no. 1 (2006): 13-39, and Levenstein, Revolution At the Table.