The Problem With Pollan[ism]; Or, Why Simplistic Thinking Won’t Solve the “Food Crisis.” Part 1 of 5

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).

Part One — Part Two —- Part Three —- Part Four —- Part Five

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.

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.

7 thoughts on “The Problem With Pollan[ism]; Or, Why Simplistic Thinking Won’t Solve the “Food Crisis.” Part 1 of 5

  1. I’m supposed to be working on this book and so did not take time to read Pollan’s article. So I’m going on what’s in your post and that I know his work pretty well.I agree he is a wonderful writer, but it seems to me to effectively accomplish what he suggests we’d have to let much of the world population starve to death and start anew, with some really smart person like Peter Ueberroth designating where every single human would live and what would happen within their space.Thus, agreeing with you (I think) I would not be at all surprised to see the whole cooking and obesity argument being flawed. Too many other causes could be involved.But I am going to disagree if you are saying that a person (or family) can’t lead pretty decent life “living off the land.” I sure wouldn’t want to try it where I am – sand, seven inches of rain a year, neighbors who grow wine grapes! – but my father grew up on an Illinois farm and it was pretty self-contained, well into the ’50s when I was a lad. It wasn’t even the best of Illinois farmland, though better than the section where my great grandfather grew berries (and six kids).There’s a final dot to connect, but I’ve promised myself 200 more words today and Sierra we’d sit down then put that aside and watch The Simpsons (an hour from now). Hope it is a gardening episode.

  2. If the massive explosion in our water bill since my husband decided to start a garden at our Phoenix home is any indicator, I will happily endorse any rant about the folly of assuming home gardening is any environmental improvement on the grocery store.

  3. Agreed.

    In one (of no doubt many ways) Pollan is wrong. Cooking releases more calories. If he were concerned about obesity he would advocate raw food. Most food is pretty indigestible raw.

    Though our ancient ancestors didn’t know it, heating food changes the food’s molecular structure; cooking gelatinizes starch and denatures protein, making calories more accessible to the human body than raw food does. We developed smaller guts and larger brains apparently as a result of this advance.

    The reason women tend to do more cooking is due to the time it take to cook. The sexes appear to have made a bargain (seen in most hunter-gatherer cultures): women cook and gather starches; men hunt for meat (protein). Note: See Matt Ridley’s Notes and References for his book, The Rational Optimist, for more. (Let me know if you want me to send them to you.)

    • Ridley’s book is on my TBR list — this just pushes it further up the list. Thanks. And yes, I gather most anthropologists agree that the gender-based division of labor stemmed from very real practical issues like — well, cooking. It’s fascinating stuff. But also, I’d reiterate a point I make in one part of this series: historically, humans have handed over the cooking chores to others. It’s a LOT of work.

      There’s an interesting review of Pollan’s book in the most recent issue of the NYT Book Review. The reviewer got right to the heart of what’s SO wrong with P’s view.

      • Agreed. Verdade.

        Thanks for the tip. I’m planning to read the NYT book review on Pollan’s book. I’m also hopeful that Adam Merberg ( weighs in.

        Cooking is a HELL of a lot of work (that’s why our processed foods are incredible–they cut down on the time because someone has done the majority of cooking for us). My point was that it is our nature to trade and cooking for someone else is a trade. Trading is what make us unique. Often we hand over money for handing over the cooking chores. (“Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want…”). Or as Ridley puts it, Everybody is Working for Everybody Else.

        I have Ridley’s book in three forms: paper, audio, and ebook. I often put the audio on while driving and re-listen to it.

        I’ve not read the book, but in the past Pollan (and others, e.g. Alice Waters) has tended to imbue cooking in religious meaning. Cooking may be a lot of things but it ain’t magic.

  4. Cooking is magic — when it’s a necessity (will the gods give me fire? Will the gods send rain and ruin this grain?). I can well imagine that the ancients (back to when we were barely upright) routinely framed cooking in ritual, at least sometimes. But now? Man, it’s a fuck of a lot of work. As I noted in the series, one of the things that stands out from my childhood is realizing, after the fact, that every day, my mom got food on the table for six people, and did so three times a day. And yeah, she LOVED canned foods.


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