NOTE: I wrote this series in 2009 in response to a New York Times essay written by Michael Pollan. Pollan has elaborated on the themes in that 2009 essay in his new book, COOKED (published in April 2013).
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.
Next: Cooking and a dose of historical reality
*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.