Response to Michael Pollan article

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

2009August02 4:32 PM

Today, the NYTimes ran an article in their magazine.

It is here, written by Michael Pollan, who has become a prominent crusader for matters culinary, gustatory, and nutritional, especially as they have an impact universally, well, in the United States and, by implication, for the rest of the world (because presumably when the U.S. eats too many hot dogs, the world has a bilious attack):

The denizens of the professional chefs’ listserv I have subscribed to for ten years have an avid interest in such things, even if they fall outside the topical purview of the list per se.

The article link was sent to the list and there were a few comments, the poster having already indicated that it was long (that is, it has a lot of words in it).

What follows is my reaction, having begun to read the article, and not finishing. I am known, I believe, on the list not particularly to be a fan of Mr. Pollan’s.

I needn’t belabor my antipathy for the work of Michael Pollan.

Two things I noted here and I didn’t have to get much further.

First. there’s the sentence early on:

“For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.”

Let’s deconstruct that for a minute or two, shall we?

I don’t know what “a figure of cultural consequence” (warning, I am being disingenuous) is.

I infer from his mention of the four, well, celebrities he’s mentioned in the same breath by way of exegesis, that he means a “celebrity” (like Michael Jackson, Lance Armstrong, and Jennifer Anniston).

And if so, without agreeing or disagreeing that Child was a celebrity, probably of greater recognizability than most of the on-air talent on public television, except for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy and Oscar the Grouch, had a certain circumscribed celebrity. As she was not a mass media, global star, like, say, Madonna, but a darling of what I will call, with a devilish smile, the privileged classes, and the trainees for the privileged classes.

Further if so, then I guess it makes sense for this fellow of interest to the public far in excess of his ability with the language (compare him to Adam Gopnick, or Louis Menand, and you will see what I mean–they are not only brilliant men, but they are literary stylists; Michael Pollan is a Grub Street hack, see below, in a designer suit) to say that Child’s being a figure of consequence is paradoxical (I take issue with the “cultural”… if anything, she was counter-culture, which makes the “paradoxically” obvious and redundant).

We are a culture, in terms of meeting our nutritional and gustatory needs (I refuse to call them culinary; only about ten thousand people have true culinary needs… ten thousand very rich people who can satisfy such needs at any time, anywhere, anyhow) that is defined by fast food access, dining-in, ordering-out, take-out, and prepared foods… So where’s the paradox?

And as for the “rise” of “home-meal replacements,” let’s just look at that phrase for a moment. HMR is industry jargon. It’s what I’d expect from Michael Pollan who is, after all, bound by his profession (which is reporting, or to make it high tone, a journalist–the other thing I noted is that Mr. Pollan is the Knight Chair in Journalism, not food mind you, or cultural studies, or history, or sociology, but journalism: in short, as I said, he’s a hack, in a long history of hacks, studded only with the rare exception of writers who made their living reporting on things, but managed to do it without compromising the notion of preserving the language and enriching it, as well as enriching the intellect and the lives of their readers; notwithstanding the Pulitzer Prize, which gets awarded every year, whether it should be or not, the list of these is very few). He is bound by his profession to enable the machinations of industry–and he’s latched onto a great meal ticket for himself, by choosing the food industry (tobacco’s been done, after all)–insofar as finding out all the nasty skullduggery that goes on with food keeps going on, despite the reporting, and will always go on, as long as Chicken Little, excuse me, I mean Michael Pollan, needs to make a living helping to sell newspapers and books about the shit the American people are shoving into themselves.

HMRs, which used to be called prepared foods, in various forms, or catering, or take-out (etc. ad nauseam…) is the final piece of the puzzle that was a puzzle only because it didn’t seem possible to make prepared foods that are as good, or better, than what the average home cook, and a significant percentage of the above-average ones as well, can cook. What idiot wouldn’t spend a nominal amount of money on food by weight or portion that was significantly better than he or she could prepare for him or herself? And without the further cost of time expended in making an inferior result? And with no other opportunity cost involved (although it’s conceivably more expensive buying the raw goods–unless you’re used to processing whole chickens for parts in bulk in quantities large enough to feed 25-50 people–you do get the benefit when you prepare your own food of the satisfaction of doing so and a whole myriad, I would suggest, of intangible benefits: being in contact with what the good earth gives up to us with some effort on our part, of creating some sense, not of culture, but of community, because even if you live alone you can cook for more than one and invite someone over… etc.), except the opportunity to nourish your soul, as well as your body, and so going the route Pollan is talking about as a done deal only carries with it the cost of killing part of your soul. Which Americans care about that any more?

In a strange way (yeah, well, look it’s me saying this; you expect it not to be strange?) I think Pollan is contributing to the problem by framing things as he does, and using the rhetoric he does (the rhetoric of the media industry reporting on its sister industries… Pollan, a viper in the breast of the body fiscal? Give me a break), and making this a phenomenon to be put between covers, and to help sell a dying newspaper.

It reminded me immediately of the report of the other end of the sociological phenomenon, which pertains to our culture only insofar as the extent to which you believe that food is part of the culture–and accepting that premise, answering the question HOW food is connected. For one, there’s the book, also just out (it’s the season after all, of books about titanic shifts, supposedly, in the gustatory lives of the top 10-15% socioeconomically advantaged people out of all the people on the planet–what’s important?) that we on the list all railed about for a bit, and made for a little lively discussion, essentially about the worth of anecdotal evidence from the field, concerning the LOSS of the French people of their patrimony: a sophisticated, elegant, patient, yet demanding, but always discriminatory, palate…

Can this be?

Are we being turned into automata by–well, who exactly?–somebody or other, and in the process our tongues, mouths, with appurtenant parts becoming dysfunctional, perhaps to atrophy in time?

The article I was reminded of came out in July 2002, in an issue of The New Yorker (maybe it’s because so much food gets consumed out of doors, we return to atavistic concerns about nourishment in a primitive, if not primordial, way and these articles and books are just an hors d’oeuvres for what’s to come in the Fall in the form of books to curl up with and comfort our sense of our lives being diminished, but we don’t know how, with a good scary read, while we scarf down some quesadillas we picked up from Qdoba on the way home from work.

It was about the advent of the foodie stove and its impact on American home life (in upscale homes) and, well, I guess we’d have to say the culture, if we’re going to follow Pollan’s lead. The ostensible subject, The Viking Stove Company (or whatever’s its corporate name), in the article by Molly O’Neill, entitled “The Viking Invasion,” was meant as a recognized icon for a larger industrial phenomenon, the manufacture and marketing of “commercial-grade” residential ranges, cooktops and ovens. Things have gotten even bigger since then, but with the collateral phenomenon, not of Viking “teaching people to cook.” They did no such thing (even though that was the avowed mission, stated by the company president). It was their intention to increase the value of homes people were constantly trading upward.

The fact is, aside from the value it adds, along with Sub-Zero iceboxes (excuse me, what are they called now?), and a few other ermine-collar brands, to a piece of real estate, a Viking stove if used, even with some regularity and frequency, and with minimal maintenance required, will work practically forever, helping turn out meals that potentially could compete with anything you wished for in a restaurant, except the ones offering molecular cuisine.

But as The New Yorker later reported, in addition to some other representative publications, was that realtors were noting that the luxury appliances people insisted on were never being used. One apartment, I remember reading about, a luxury apartment in New York, with a price into seven figures, changed titles through three or four owners, and when it went up for sale, the original installation and owner instruction materials that had been left in the oven by the original purchaser were intact, unused, and in the same location… inside the oven.

Where the paradox is, is that the people who want to emulate such excess in their own lives and who can’t afford the accouterments, but can afford General Electric, or Kenmore, or LG–the very people Julia Child was aiming at, because she wanted people to be able to “cook French” on American lowest common denominator appliances–don’t want to cook either. Of course, they also can’t afford to, and so the HMR is born.

The TV portion of this phenomenon is becoming a little suspect as a contributor. TV watching is down. People will watch anything. If some celebrity tie-in can be created: the dishes, the aprons, the cookware, all the better: the show is merchandising. Cooking shows are cheap to produce locally, and if there’s a local chef who can be boosted to national prominence (e.g., Todd English), a necessary part of the package is a TV show (Todd was an utter bust…), and what all this is about has nothing to do with food, but entertainment.

The same phenomena are at work here that have been at work since everyone calmed down after World War II, and came home, and settled down, and slowly, unremittingly, bought into the ethos of spending every waking minute concerned about making enough money to uphold the, what we call, “lifestyle” we’ve learned to emulate, and it’s engaged in our lifestyle (not living, but engaged in our lifestyle) that occupies the rest of our time, and there’s just no room for destemming snow peas or trimming artichokes in the time we’ve got.

We can’t afford to cook. It requires an act of will we are no longer capable of (I don’t mean you and me on this list; heaven forfend). I’m speaking of us as just some more Americans.

And we can thank Pollan for gving us the additional hysterical thrill of contemplating just how soul sucking and awful it all is.

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