Posts Tagged ‘Michael Pollan’

Ah, food TV, where have you gone?

Oh, food TV, where have you gone?

Michael Pollan’s article Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch is the cover story of today’s New York Times Magazine. And it’s a long one.  But it basically says that cooking at home is actually good for you.  This is good to hear.  I like to cook at home.  He means to really cook at home, though, not just to reheat frozen things, or to assemble a sandwich (which apparently technically counts as cooking, according to the people that gather statistics on these things).  In short, by letting other people process and cook for you (by buying processed and pre-made foods), you’re giving up control of what goes into them.  Salt, sugar, and fat are cheap, so it’s no surprise that they end up as prominent ingredients in many ready-to-eat or reheat options at the grocery store.  This is one of the main premises of Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  The simple act of preparing your own food puts you way ahead.  But that’s not what the vast majority of Americans are doing.

People are certainly interested in food now. Watching cooking has gained tremendous popularity, as evidenced by the success of many shows on the Food Network and Bravo, but increases in ratings have coincided with a decrease in the number of people cooking at home (see article for stats and references).  It’d be great if Top Chef got more people cooking at home; maybe add a quickfire challenge to the sibling rivalry?  Apparently that’s not the case.  Pollan also notes a change in the type of shows that are broadcast.  There’s a shift from shows that used to show you how to cook (like Julia, back in the day; and Alton Brown, more recently) to more shows just about eating (Guy’s Big Bite, the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, etc).  I’m all for travel shows, and sure, I’d love to hear about a great diner, but this is a somewhat disturbing trend.  Get thee back to the kitchen!

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Update 8/4/09

Some other responses online to this article:

Ruhlman‘s post is right on target.  He asserts that more people are cooking; he is one of them.  As he states at the end of his article, “we have just begun to cook, and not a moment too soon.” He’s a champion of a new era of home cooking.  Making your own pie crust, pickles, curing bacon?  But it takes so much time, they whine.  Some people are cooking more, and the movement among locavores, foodies, and food bloggers is definitely growing.  But in America as a whole?  I think in that case, Harry Balzer is right.  I don’t want him to be right, and I don’t think he’ll win (see his points in the original Pollan article).  But he’s a cynic.  He’s a food-marketing researcher.  It’s his job to capitalize on the fact that Americans are lazy and cheap, and he’s going to provide plenty of options for them at the grocery store.

And an article from Barbara Fisher of Tigers & Strawberries, that discusses whether Pollan’s article was sexist in its assessment of women in the kitchen, specifically regarding some generalizations he makes about income and spending.  She points to this passage, “In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”

I agree that this statement doesn’t apply to all women, and that is the word Pollan uses.  But the trend is clear, that Americans in general “allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”  Ease, convenience, cost, time.  Look at the rise and popularity of processed and prepared foods!  Someone is buying them.  I also hear her point that Pollan’s article is depressing (especially if Balzer’s opinions are taken as fact), I think it’s probably a healthy — sorry, wrong word, accurate — assessment of what’s going on in America.  If you look at obesity rates, increases in TV viewership, and decreased time spent cooking in the kitchen (as Pollan does), those are objective pieces of data that highlight what’s going on.  The situation is depressing if we don’t do anything about it.  Barbara, you’re right that many people are cooking.  There is a movement here, and I agree wholeheartedly with Ruhlman’s take on it (which has a more positive spin on it), but in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we cook from scratch doesn’t mean that millions of Americans don’t.  I believe there is hope.  And Pollan’s article just points out pretty clearly why we need it.


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from the movie poster for the documentary “Food, Inc.” from director Robert Kenner. Image credit: Magnolia Pictures

from the movie poster for the documentary “Food, Inc.” from director Robert Kenner. Image credit: Magnolia Pictures

There has been a lot written about Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. already.  Not surprisingly, the food blogs were abuzz before it even came out.  It covers topics that I’ve been reading a lot about over the past two years: topics in books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, et al.  Sustainability of food, welfare of animals, agriculture in general, pesticides, health, fast food, small farms, etc.  We reference The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food fairly often in our house.  (And I’ve written already on this blog about reading Pollan.)  As a family, we consider the provenance of our food, discuss toxicology on a daily basis (the wife’s Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy comes in handy here), and we enjoy the farmer’s market, sourcing organic and local meats when we can.  We’re on board.  We get it.  So I’d like to see the movie, but I haven’t seen too many movies (other than rentals) in the last 10 months with an infant in the house.  It’s currently showing at the Bethel Cinemas, and I’m planning to go.  I have the general idea that most of the people that will go see Food Inc. are already on board, though, that for the most part the film will be preaching to the choir.  Plenty of silent “Amens” from the crowd?  The people who would most benefit from it probably won’t go see it.  That’s too bad, because the movie sounds enlightening and disturbing.  That’s exactly the point.  There are huge parts of the food industry that are disturbing.  But not everyone wants to be enlightened or disturbed about their food, and that’s a big part of the problem.

I won’t have anything to add to the movie buzz until I see it, so at this point I can only pass along what I’ve read.  Michael Ruhlman wrote a blog post about the documentary yesterday that I thought was heartfelt and persuasive.  He writes with clarity and emotion, and he was definitely moved by the film (moreso than he thought he would be).  Read his post here, go see the movie, and we’ll talk about it.

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I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’d really like to be a farmer.  Maybe “gardener of vegetables” would be more appropriate, but I’d like to keep the option of chickens and pigs on the table for some time in the future when we have more room, some land out back to speak of.  (Buying a farm in lower Fairfield County shouldn’t be too hard, right?  A few acres, a barn?  Would I technically be a gardener until I got some animals to raise?)  In that vein, I’ve been doing some reading on growing things.  Apparently there’s a lot of planning, planting, digging, reading, and work involved.  Choosing vegetable varieties, understanding water flow, root biology, pH, growing zones, botany.  But then you get all this free food!  I feel like several aspects of my life can all come together if I can just grow some vegetables, harvest some of my own crops and eat them.  There’s the biology of it that I’m interested in, photosynthesis actually being practical for me, beyond the details of NADPH and the Calvin Cycle (which are incredibly useful, of course*); the principle of it, being at least a little self-sufficient; and the culinary applications of cooking and eating something homegrown.  I should also mention here that I’m very interested in compost.  The idea of compost, I guess.  This is the science nerd part of me again, which I have a hard time getting away from.  It just makes so much sense: plants take nutrients from the soil as they grow, especially when they’re taking the time to dump resources into the production of fruit and seeds; return those nutrients to the soil so that future plants can grow.  Easy.  Let time, microbes, and the pull of entropy do the work so that I can get better tomatoes and carrots.

I should be more clear here, in what I mean by being a farmer.  It’s a romantic notion, I understand.  And it’s possible that I like the idea of being a farmer better than I will the reality of it.  I did mention work and digging earlier, which I’m okay with.  I like dirt.  But I’m not in for 12 hour days of plowing and picking and milking.  This is backyard farming we’re talking about, and I’m certainly keeping my day job.  Maybe I stick with “gardening,” despite the Smith & Hawken image that I’d like to separate myself from.  So for now the plan is to try it out, see how many different things I can grow in the back yard and learn from the experience.

Michael Pollan is to blame for all of this, by the way.  I just finished his Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991).  This book, along with The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Botany of Desire (2001) have gotten me to consider gardening, farming, composting, photosynthesis, entropy, and industrial food production in a different light, one more practical than academic.  I enjoyed this book (and his others), which I read on a recent vacation.

In Second Nature, Pollan describes his experience of starting (and developing) a garden at his home in Cornwall, CT.  He is a curious beginner, and he describes his successes and failures along the way.  As several reviewers on Amazon comment, this is not a “how to” book, but one more on the philosophy (and history even) of gardening.  Which makes it not for everyone.  It might not teach you as much as get you to think about gardening, and to get you to think about why you do it.  It might also get you to start.  Pollan is at all times thorough, academic, and entertaining.  And I’ve totally bought in.  I enjoy how he writes, certainly, but I also agree with him on his food politics.  That became clear for me while reading Omnivore a few years ago, when I found myself railing against Big Corn.  I had no idea what a big mess it was, or how many millions of dollars are spent in subsidies that would be better placed supporting organic farmers growing fruits and vegetables.  So you should read that if you haven’t yet.  But here, Pollan gets you to the point where you believe you should garden.  He talks about the relationship between the wilderness and civilization over the course of history.  People believe that those two concepts are diametrically opposed.  Maybe they’re more comfortable if they are; people do love a dichotomy.  But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: the deep dark woods or the all-American lawn.  Gardens represent a compromise, and Pollan also uses his garden as a metaphor for this middle-ground relationship between culture and nature.  Yes, humans like to (need to) carve out a place in the wilderness to make their own.  This process of development isn’t all bad.  Some is necessary.  But he makes the important point that environmental conservation today cannot revert to a completely hands-off approach.  This leads to situations like the Yellowstone Fires in the late 80’s.  In that case, managed fires and prescribed burns have become absolutely necessary after decades of fire suppression.  But I digress.  Back to gardens and planting: getting people to be involved in growing anything other than large sweeping swaths of Kentucky Bluegrass is a good thing.  It’s good for preserving the genetic diversity of plants (if done the right way), it’s good for sequestering carbon, and in the case of vegetables, it’s good for your nutrition (see In Defense of Food).

So I’ll continue planting things in the back yard, and I’ll keep you posted.

* After a discussion/lecture on photosynthesis and entropy a few years ago, I had a biology student say, “Man, plants are freaking important.”  Why, yes they are.  I think that was on an Enlightenment Friday.

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