Did Michael Pollan Stick His Foot In His Mouth?

I have been on a partial media blackout, in an effort to not stay glued to the Internet reading news articles that generally do nothing but upset or disgust me, so I missed Michael Pollan’s most recent New York Times Magazine article titled “Out of the Kitchen and Onto the Couch.”

It was pointed out to me by a regular reader who was so incensed by a statement that Pollan made in the course of his eight page article that she wrote a letter addressed both to the editor of the NY Times and to Pollan himself refuting his claim that “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.” She pointed out that making sweeping general statements about a group of people of which one is not a part is not only patently insulting, such reasoning is easily falsifiable.

Which she handily does, pointing out that she is a 40-something year old professional woman who works full time and sometimes more than that, but who still manages to take the time to cook completely from scratch, everything including Thai curry pastes and bread, all from whole foods purchased at local farmer’s markets.

So much for that “all American women” statement.

This statement comes after Pollan notes that most Americans no longer cook at home, and while he is careful to note that it wasn’t -just- the fact that most American women work outside the home that caused this decline in home cooking, the fact that Pollan makes this patently sexist statement negates any of his mentions of egalitarian domestic chore sharing before it.

My vigilant reader and I are not the only ones to pick up on the subtle sexist undercurrent of Pollan’s lament of the decline of American cookery; Kate Harding of Salon also noticed it and commented upon it in a blog post yesterday entitled “Michael Pollan Wants You Back in the Kitchen.”

In the course of her commentary, Harding rightly notes Pollan’s misreading of Betty Friedan’s classic work, The Feminine Mystique as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.”

Friedan’s book, which coincidentally, jumped into the American cultural consciousness at the same time as Julia Child did, did not -teach- American women to regard cooking and other housework as drudgery–it simply recorded and validated feelings that already existed among white, middle-class primarily suburban women regarding housework. Women were already dissatisfied with being housewives without the benefit of Friedan–it is just that she happened to ask them about it and then recorded what she found.

Pointing out pertinent facts such as the intellectual and spiritual malaise of intelligent, educated women who were essentially forced into the role of housewife back in the 1950′s and early 1960′s does not equate with making up these facts.

I find this subtle thread of woman-shaming on Pollan’s part to be disturbing and unfortunate, but what really irked me as I slogged through this eight-page article, was the fact that Pollan’s main source for information regarding how much time Americans, women and men (though, again, he harps on the women more than the men) in the kitchen cooking versus how much time they are spending on the couch watching people cook on cable television shows is that he quotes exactly one source of information on his the statistics that support his thesis.

Who is this source?

One Harry Balzer, a food marketing researcher for the National Eating Trends division of NPD Group. For the past thirty one years, Balzer has studied American eating and cooking habits–two years longer than the National Eating Trends division of NPD has existed.

I don’t really have a problem with Pollan asking Balzer about the cooking and eating habits of Americans–Balzer is indeed an expert. But, I find it rather odd that he would ask someone whose information is skewed in favor of large food corporations. I mean, really, Balzer -is- going to tell Pollan that Americans don’t cook anymore, because that is what he is paid by NPD to say to their food corporation clients. Does this make him a trustworthy, unbiased source of information?

No, not really. Not in my view anyway.

Balzer says that in the future, no one cook except the people in the supermarkets who will do all the cooking for us. No Americans will ever cook again in the next generation because no one is teaching the next generation how to cook anymore.

Pollan agrees, noting that if you look at the programs on The Food Network, very few of them really teach cooking technique like Julia Child did back in the day.

And, he is right. In the daytime, you have shows by Sandra Lee, Rachael Ray and Paula Deen, all three queens of the can-opener and convenience food aisles. And in the evening, the competitive cooking shows like Iron Chef, which make cooking a competition, and shows which feature macho male chefs creating amazing food that no one in their right minds would try to make at home. No effort is made to show basic cooking techniques–the days of Julia Child, Madeline Kamman, Martin Yan and heck, even The Two Fat Ladies are gone. Cooking is now entertainment, not something that one would want to learn. At least, not on TV.

But is television the only mass-media out there that consumers turn to? What about, oh, say, the Internet? You know, that thing you are reading this post on?

And what about food bloggers–you know, like yours truly, and many other amateurs out there in the world, who are cooking, photographing their efforts and writing about them? Some of us food bloggers specifically go out of our ways to teach cooking techniques, and so yeah, there -are- people out there teaching the next generation to cook, thank you very much.

What about the professional food bloggers like Mark Bittman? His blog, “Bitten” is all about teaching simple plain cookery that is accessible to everyone.

And then there is Michael Ruhlman who is, in addition to being a professional author, is also a passionate food blogger. In his response to Pollan’s gloomy article, he notes that there are plenty of bloggers teaching cookery to untold numbers of readers. He states:

Balzer is wrong, of course. Many, many people are cooking. Most of the people reading this, for instance, are committed cooks. As are the gazillions of readers clicking on Simply Recipes and 101Cookbooks looking for honest home cooking.

And both Bittman and Ruhlman have written books teaching the average American how to cook simple dinners using whole foods using techniques that anyone can learn. Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen and Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food are all excellent introductions to the art of cookery which anyone who has basic reading comprehension skills and some basic kitchen tools can use to learn to make healthful, delicious meals for themselves and their families.

So, yeah, I stand with Ruhlman and agree that there are plenty of cooks out here teaching other folks how to cook. I know for a fact that my blog has taught a great many readers how to cook, because I get email every week from people telling me so. And I know that there are plenty of other bloggers get the same sort of emails because I hear from them, too.

I mean, let’s think about this a little bit.

If there is no one in America cooking anymore, if there are fewer Americans cooking than ever, if we really have gone that far into the culinary gutter, then why have the number of farmer’s markets in the United States ballooned over the past twenty years? Where is all that food going? I mean, someone is buying it all–otherwise the farmers wouldn’t be making livings from it, right?

Why is Whole Foods such a big corporation? People don’t just buy their prepared foods–they buy the organic produce, the free range eggs and grassfed dairy, the seafood and free-range meat, too. If people weren’t buying these products, they would not be on the shelves.

If no one is cooking anymore, why was “Locavore” the 2007 Oxford word of the year? I mean, if no one was cooking and eating local food, it would not have been useful enough to catch the dictionary publisher’s attention.

And Michael Pollan knows about all of these facts.

So, why is he getting his information from a source who is going to spew the facts that the food corporations pay him to spew?

The only thing I can figure is that Pollan wanted to scare and shame people back into the kitchen. by presenting it as a hopeless situation. It is a sensationalist way to get readers’ attention–gloom and doom sell newspapers after all, but really, I don’t think he is going to get anyone to rush off to the kitchen and bustle among the pots and pans to rustle up dinner that way. No one likes to be shamed, blamed or guilted into doing anything.

I think that Ruhlman’s way, and Bittman’s way, and my letter-writing reader’s way, and heck my way, is going to produce more positive results. By leading by example, by writing about cooking in a positive way, by talking about farmers markets and local food and showing how easy making real food can be, I think that food bloggers and cookbook authors are getting more people into the kitchen than Harry Balzer wants to think about or even imagine.

So, do I think Michael Pollan stuck his foot in his mouth?

Maybe he did a little, though I think that he had the best of intentions in doing so, and I don’t think the condition of foot-in-mouthitis is a fatal case.

I think he believes he will inspire people to return to the kitchen by telling them all the bad things that will happen to America and Americans if we forget how to cook.

Either that, or he wanted to sell more papers for the New York Times by writing gloom and doom predictions.

Whatever Pollan’s reasons for writing his article, I know that I and plenty of other cooks will merrily keep on growing, buying, cooking and eating delicious whole foods, despite what market researchers would like Micheal Pollan and everyone else to believe.

13 Comments

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  1. Psst…I’m imagining this post will get wide circulation so you might want to change all those Micheals to Michaels.

    Comment by Alexis — August 3, 2009 #

  2. Thank you Alexis.

    I bloody well hate dyslexia.

    Comment by Barbara — August 3, 2009 #

  3. He sure got your panties in a bunch. Pollan is in the business of promoting Pollan and nothing else. He knows the more controversy he can stir up keeps his name in the game and sells more books.

    He’s about making a good living. Not in transforming the world since he knows that a bunch of nonsense.

    It’s all about creating buzz. You can call these people public trolls.

    Comment by johnmark — August 3, 2009 #

  4. John, he didn’t really get my panties in a bunch. He just got me to write a blog post.

    I have gotten my panties in a bunch over things I have posted about, but those things are most generally stuff like people who eat meat but don’t want it to look like animals, because it makes them think about animals dying so they can eat meat. You know–really hypocritical stuff.

    I think you are probably correct about his motivations–selling newspapers, selling books–keeping his name out there. I do think that the article seemed quite disingenuous, and your cynical view of it, I suspect, alas, is the correct one.

    Comment by Barbara — August 4, 2009 #

  5. Hmmm, wonder what he’d think of me. I work in excess of 60 hours a week (ah, the joys of helping your spouse run his own company) and cook almost entirely from scratch. I bake my own bread, make my own pasta – I’ve even begun making my own ice cream. I can’t remember the last time I bought a bottled sauce (aside from things like soy or Worcestershire sauce) or cake mix. The exceptions to this are rice noodles and curry paste for Thai dishes. *hangs head in shame* Yes, I know I should learn at least to make the curry pastes.

    Now, housework (i.e. dusting and vacuuming) is another matter entirely. Blech. And you’re correct – I certainly didn’t need any help forming that opinion.

    Comment by Jan — August 4, 2009 #

  6. Wow. Pollan just lost all cred with me, just as much as if he’d said Jim Crow wasn’t really that bad and exhorted African-Americans to get back to the ol’ plantation to grow that down-home local food again. Why is it that we supposedly know that racism is wrong, but misogyny is still okay? (Rhetorical question–I already know the answer, which is that the investment in misogyny crosses ethnic and racial borders.)

    Yeah, I’ll get hammered for saying this. People always do when they call someone on this stuff.

    Comment by Laughingrat — August 4, 2009 #

  7. Thanks for posting this, Barbara. I left a comment on the Pollan piece much to the same effect, but I doubt anyone reads through the 200-plus musings of random people. It bothers me that he talked to not one single home cook, nor did he consult any women for his astute analysis of gender politics and cooking, but he also fails to point out the obvious, which is, if so many women are working, why aren’t there partners sharing in the domestic work to make cooking from scratch more feasible? Men show up in his article only in parenthetical references, and that is inexcusable.

    And, of course, the focus on Julie and Julia, without a single mention of how many people *are* trying to revive home cooking (women and men!) by blogging about it is almost laughable. But typical of the mainstream media’s continued disdain for a medium they can’t control.

    It is disappointing, though; I know the commenter above is right, that Pollan is making a name for himself by creating buzz, but I’ve found his other contributions to an important debate pretty on-target.

    Comment by jennifer — August 4, 2009 #

  8. Everyone has their moments of stupidity. The reality is, he is a smart, interesting, insightful person who typically has a lot of intelligent things to say about food and the food industry.

    My sense is he is not all about self-promotion so much as he is all about food.

    And I will read any books or articles the man writes. Even if he is not perfect.

    Cheers!

    Comment by CookingSchoolConfidential.com — August 4, 2009 #

  9. Although my husband and I eat out fairly often, I also cook at home from scratch (using local ingredients as much as possible)pretty often. I also use the internet quite a lot for recipe ideas (there are thousands of “how-to” videos out there). Just last night, I had my 2 year old grandson up on the counter while I prepared our dinner. He tasted a sugar-snap pea (he dislikes green veggies, as many two year olds do – but at least he tasted it), and watched me prepare a beautiful chicken dish. He watched intently as I chopped fresh herbs from my garden, and he even could name most of them. I have fun showing him techniques and fresh ingredients, and he takes it all in. Hopefully, he will grow into a more than “meat and potatoes” guy!

    Comment by Grace — August 4, 2009 #

  10. Jan: I’m similar to you (a food from scratch gal), and I highly recommend tackling Thai curry pastes. Not only do they taste awesome – it’s totally fun and stress-relieving to pound away at them in a mortar & pestle. Now, that said, I save the serious paste-making for weekends or times when I have some time to devote to it!

    Yes, I was disappointed in the MP article. Very much so at the time of reading it, but now have calmed down as I know the reality to be so much otherwise than he paints it. One dyspeptic article doesn’t change all the good stuff happening out there.

    Comment by Diane — August 4, 2009 #

  11. Barbara,

    You make some very well supported points here.

    My 2 cents -

    The way I see is that these days cooking has been democratized so much! If I show a casual interest in cooking a dish and google it up, there are a variety of recipes that come up including videos and stuff. There are so many versions of the same dish from restaurant style to home or healthy style of cooking.

    In earlier generations, people with the recipe yielded much power in the house & social circles. You had to be lucky to have a mom/grandmom hand you down some solid recipes.

    I have learnt so much about other cultures & cooking – like baking my own pizza, breads and cooking pasta, that would’ve been impossible earlier.

    Comment by blinkandmiss — August 5, 2009 #

  12. While I do agree with you, Barbara, that a lot of the real, down and dirty (if you’ll pardon the expression) aspect of cooking has been lost from the main stream with shows like 30 minute meals and all of the convenience oriented programming, even Food Network has a few hangers on to the tune of Julia Child and the Two Fat Ladies. Good Eats with Alton Brown is what got me cooking again in college, after spending most of my teen years eating out of boxes and fast food.

    We would watch an episode of GE, break up the ingredient list for each dish, and go try to make it. Cooking together is one reason we had people over almost every day, eagerly waiting for the latest experiment to roll out of the kitchen. The mass marketing of cooking is something to look out for, but I don’t think that the joy of cooking is being lost by any means.

    Comment by Blue — December 27, 2009 #

  13. Thank you, thank you for this! I am a novice twenty-something home cook, and also an individual greatly interested in food politics.

    I so believe that more and more people ARE cooking at home (not the majority, I agree), and that there is great hope for the responsible food movement to inspire more local shopping and home cooking. I started my own food blog about home cooking just recently because I agree with you: it’s not hopeless! In fact, I am finding there are so many people who really WANT to cook healthy and prepare food at home, but (even as middle-aged adults) aren’t sure where to begin. I’m hoping to provide resources like food blogs and recipe sites, because I’ve found these incredibly inspiring in my own endeavors.

    Your post reminded me of my own recent blog-rant about this evangelical food movement sweeping up Ellen & Oprah’s followers alike: http://theadventuresofculinarylin.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/vegetable-myths/ .

    Again, thank you for this empowering “essay”. I’m doing a grad school project on the decline of home cooking (which is how I came across your posting) and am hoping to spread the message that home cooking can be do-able and accessible.

    I hope you don’t mind if I include a link to your blog from mine? I think it’s fantastic, and look forward to reading more!

    truly,
    Lindsey

    http://theadventuresofculinarylin.wordpress.com/

    Comment by Lindsey — April 2, 2010 #

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