The Problem With Pollan[ism]; Or, Why Simplistic Thinking Won’t Solve the “Food Crisis,” Part 3 of 5

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

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. (*1)

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.

The fact is that preparing food is hard work. It’s time consuming, tiring, and many people simply 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 wnated 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 month 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.

Next: “Cooking” and cooking by choice.


*1: For more on this see Katherine Leonard Turner, “Buying, Not Cooking,” Food, Culture & Society 9, no. 1 (2006): 13-39, and Harvey Levenstein, Revolution At the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet.


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