Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Me to Michael Pollan; "You're an Elitist Gas-Bag"

Yep, that's right. The ethical-eating authority, best-selling author, and Food, Inc. star muffed one. And I'm calling him on it. I'm no authority on anything (except maybe Italian Beef sandwiches), but there it is.

I'm actually a big fan of Pollan and his writing. I loved The Omnivore's Dilemma, recently saw Food, Inc., and have kept current by following articles he publishes every now and then. The guy's really well-informed and has a lot of worthwhile stuff to say about how we eat and how we should change our approach to food.

But in his most recent article, published last week in the New York Times, Pollan screws the pooch. Big time. Not only is he just flat-out factually wrong in about six different places, but in his attempt to find a scapegoat for the current sad state of affairs in how Americans eat, he targets feminism. Specifically, Betty Friedan.

(Not that feminism, broadly, or Friedan, specifically, is above criticism. They're not. But neither are they guilty of what Pollan tries to pin on them. More to follow.)

That's not all, though. In his (mostly justified) rants about The Food Network (Lord knows I've made my feelings about the network known), he gets enough details about the shows wrong to allow careful readers to realize he doesn't actually know what the fuck he's talking about. It seems like he had a research assistant watch a few episodes and report back or something, so he wouldn't have to lower himself to actually watching "low culture" like Iron Chef or Triple D. Who knows... maybe he switched the network on and left it running in the background while he flipped through the recent issue of The New Yorker.

And, really, that's where Pollan's article rubbed me the wrong way. The whole thing has this condescending, scolding, elitist tone that really muddies the message. The article is hung on the framework of discussing the recent film Julie and Julia, but he uses the film's subject matter as a jumping-off point to continue the national discussion of our broken, dysfunctional relationship with food and eating that he's been prodding us to have for years. Most of what Pollan's got to say is right on the mark. All his major points are true and, yes, need to be written about, discussed, and changed.

But having a Long Island born-and-bred, Northern California-dwelling Berkeley-tenured ivy tower male like Pollan lecture middle America about why they're morons for watching The Food Network isn't a great way to move that discussion forward or get people to listen. And blaming Friedan's Feminine Mystique for re-framing our approach to cooking causing generations of women to view it as "drudgery" isn't a great way to get feminists, stay-at-home-moms, or working women to take what you're saying to heart.

I'm going to quote liberally from the article and simply respond, since this is what I found myself doing as I sat in front of my computer screen reading it. Overall, it's a thought-provoking piece containing lots of valid points and valuable insights. But in the name of a good rant, I'm going to focus just on the parts that really got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, starting with the one that's drawing so much ire all around the net:
Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.
This is the quote that's gotten Pollan into trouble with the feminists and has bloggers and twitterers of all stripes buzzing. I don't take issue with the sentiment behind it--neither Friedan nor feminism is anything approaching a sacred cow with me--but it's just flat-out factually incorrect. Dead wrong. Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing, Mike, you can pick up your parting gifts on the way out.

Saying that Friedan's book "taught millions of women to regard housework...as drudgery" is just drastically, laughably, misleading. The post-war years prior to 1963 saw women emerging as a huge sector of the workforce and factories that had been geared up for the war effort re-tooling as production facilities for all manner of convenience food products. The booming advertising industry was quick to jump in and assist in the food industry's effort to convince women that food preparation was drudgery to be avoided at all costs, and did so with incredible effectiveness. All of this was well-underway by the time The FM was released in 1963. There are entire books dedicated to documenting this phenomenon and what gets me is that I'm confident Pollan is not only aware of them, but has read them.

Which means that his scapegoating of Friedan and feminism is lazy at best. Perhaps he didn't want to stretch an already-very-long article to more fully flesh out the various parties who really were responsible for this negative re-frame of cooking. A less charitable read, though, could view Pollan's choice as a cynical attempt to co-opt negative sentiment towards feminism to bolster his cause, or maybe just as a way to drum up some controversy and get people talking.

Regardless of which explanation is accurate, it's some weak-ass shit from a guy I expect far better from. Incredibly enough, a few short paragraphs later, he says:
Many of these convenience foods have been sold to women as tools of liberation; the rhetoric of kitchen oppression has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers and the cooking shows they sponsor to sell more stuff.
So Pollan acknowledges here that other forces were working to portray food prep as "drudgery", not very long after trying to blame the whole thing on Friedan. But who had more influence in the early 60's? A feminist writer or "food marketers"? Which enjoyed more circulation--The Feminine Mystique or magazines like Women's Day and Family Circle?


I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.”
Another cheap shot in an attempt to make a valid larger point. I admit to having more limited knowledge than this Balzer guy, but I've never heard anyone refer to microwaving a frozen pizza as 'cooking'. It just seems like Pollan is taking the easy way out to make his point.


...you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when. The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth.
This comment misses the mark for me on two levels. First, the shows he's discussing--Iron Chef America, Chopped, and Top Chef--do not claim to be instructional cooking shows. They're billed as entertainment. Although the recipes are often made available online after the show airs.

And second, the ability to improvise and construct a dish or meal from random ingredients *constantly* comes in handy in real life. I do it ALL THE TIME. It's a great skill to have and shows that give contestants a basket of unlikely ingredients and challenge them to compose a tasty dish with them can, yes, be instructional, but--and this is even more important--they can be inspirational, especially to home cooks who find themselves fishing around the bottom of the freezer with a hungry family due to arrive home any minute.

I guess a guy like Pollan, who probably only shops at organic-humane-eco-friendly-localvore farmer's markets hasn't ever found himself in that situation. Must be nice.


We learn things watching these cooking competitions, but they’re not things about how to cook. There are no recipes to follow;
Arrgh! HUGE pet peeve! Learning how to cook isn't about following recipes! Are you KIDDING me, Michael? This statement actually makes me wonder if *you* really know how to cook.


Or as a chef friend put it when I asked him if he thought I could learn anything about cooking by watching the Food Network, “How much do you learn about playing basketball by watching the N.B.A.?”

Um....tons? But besides all that's learned by watching, the more important point is that watching often inspires people to get out there and PLAY. What a dumb, dumb comment.


What we mainly learn about on the Food Network in prime time is culinary fashion, which is no small thing: if Julia took the fear out of cooking, these shows take the fear — the social anxiety — out of ordering in restaurants. (Hey, now I know what a shiso leaf is and what “crudo” means!) Then, at the judges’ table, we learn how to taste and how to talk about food. For viewers, these shows have become less about the production of high-end food than about its consumption — including its conspicuous consumption. (I think I’ll start with the sawfish crudo wrapped in shiso leaves. . . .)
And the hits keep on comin'. It was at about this point in the article that I became really aware of Pollan's insulated bi-coastal sensibility. I'm not saying that he comes off as a totally out-of-touch, holier-than-thou elitist, but...um...yeah...actually, that IS what I'm saying.

Listen, I've barely ever even seen crudo or shiso leaves on menus and I've been a chef for 15 years. I had to go look up sawfish to find out what the hell it is and the first thing I find out is that it's critically endangered and is completely banned from international trade. Where the hell is this Pollan guy eating? What's next? Is he going to drop a reference to the last ortolan feast he went to?

His point here his valid, but it gets completely lost in the underlying messages he's cluelessly broadcasting about himself and the perspective from which he approaches his work.


Sure, Guy Fieri, the tattooed and spiky-coiffed chowhound who hosts “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” ducks into the kitchen whenever he visits one of these roadside joints to do a little speed-bonding with the startled short-order cooks in back, but most of the time he’s wrapping his mouth around their supersize creations
Again, Pollan doesn't allow reality to stand in the way of his scapegoating. I happen to watch D,D&D almost religiously and I can attest to the fact that Fieri almost always speaks with the owner or chef, that he's sincerely respectful of their success and their "creations" and that he possesses a solid enough kitchen background to know exactly what the folks he's interviewing are talking about--something that probably couldn't be said of Pollan. Fieri doesn't usually interview "short order cooks" and his characterization of the restaurant staff as "startled" reveals Pollan's ignorance of how the show is filmed (restaurants featured on the show close down on the day they do the "kitchen shoot" so no one is being caught unaware).




“I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow.

Ok, I haven't seen the movie and I assume Pollan has, but I'm not sure how he gets souffle from egg yolks, chocolate, sugar and milk. Maybe that's what Julie Powell was talking about, but soufflés, which do usually contain some egg yolks, are more characterized by the presence of egg whites, which are whipped stiff and then folded into the mixture to give the soufflé its essential poofy rise. I've also never seen a soufflé recipe containing milk. When I hear a recipe described as "yolks, chocolate, sugar, and milk getting thick", I think chocolate mousse, not chocolate soufflé.

I'm telling you, I think this Pollan guy DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO COOK!


Since 1967, we’ve added 167 hours — the equivalent of a month’s full-time labor — to the total amount of time we spend at work each year, and in households where both parents work, the figure is more like 400 hours. Americans today spend more time working than people in any other industrialized nation — an extra two weeks or more a year. Not surprisingly, in those countries where people still take cooking seriously, they also have more time to devote to it.
Oh, but it's all Betty Friedan's fault that women view cooking as drudgery and reach for Rice-a-Roni or canned soup. Gimme a freakin' break!


Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care.
Gosh, I just can't imagine why feminists like Friedan would portray this sort of mindset as a form of oppression. Uh....maybe because it IS one? Sheesh, Pollan, can you contradict yourself MORE?


Chunks of animal flesh seared over an open fire: grilling is cooking at its most fundamental and explicit, the transformation of the raw into the cooked right before our eyes. It makes a certain sense that the grill would be gaining adherents at the very moment when cooking meals and eating them together is fading from the culture. (While men have hardly become equal partners in the kitchen, they are cooking more today than ever before: about 13 percent of all meals, many of them on the grill.)

Yet we don’t crank up the barbecue every day; grilling for most people is more ceremony than routine.
Ugh. The dreaded use of "barbecue" as a synonym for "grill". A bigger pet peeve doesn't exist in my world. More evidence the guy's not a cook. Attention, fancy, multi-degreed writer guy; "grilling" is cooking food quickly directly over live flames. "Barbecuing" is cooking food slowly with low, indirect heat. They aren't the same. You grill a burger. You barbecue a pork shoulder. Look it up.


Rant over. I'm done here. Read the article and lemme know what you think. My take on it is that Pollan didn't do his normal standard of due dilligence. Maybe the grad students that usually do his research for him are all on summer break.

Either that, or he's trolling.

21 comments:

Alice Q. Foodie said...

I TOTALLY agree. I normally really like Michael Pollan and his writing a lot, but I think this one is a mess. It's sloppy, bloated and really kind of pointless when you get down to it. Thank you for taking the time to articulate what I couldn't quite put my finger on!

kitchenmage said...

Bravo! Like you, I generally like Pollan's writing, but was bothered by aspects of the article. I particularly dislike the repeated framing that some force had to teach women that mandatory cooking and housework was drudgery (and concomitant blaming of those darned feminists). Every person I know who does housework knows that it is drudgery, at least some of the time. Duh. That's why they call it chores. grin

Amy Sherman said...

Wow. I knew there was something I didn't like about that piece. Thanks for dissecting it. You are right on.

Carrie Oliver said...

I couldn't get past page two (or maybe even one) of that article. Seems that's not such a bad thing after all.

The overall point that packaged goods companies repositioned cooking as drudgery is a good one.

Hank said...

Nice job Ed. I only skimmed the article whereas I normally would've studied a Pollan article, so obviously it annoyed me, but I couldn't put my finger on why. He's coming off lazy/overpaid and you called him out. He did not come off this way in OD or In Defense of Food (which was based on a really good NYT Mag article he wrote).

Maybe he should stick to food science/policy and avoid half-baked gender-war/pop-culture musings.

Kristin said...

I so thoroughly and completely agree -- the piece was not only bad writing, it was blatantly, as you say, elitist. As a mother, I make three meals a day, plus snacks, in the middle of working, caring for/playing with children, cleaning house, etc. I get meals (mostly organic, veggie, homemade) on the table any way I can.

Ironically, the way that Pollan mandates that we cook will eventually turn people like me OFF from cooking even more. If I have to make every pot of sauce from scratch, craft every noodle/loaf of bread from my own dough, and spend hours on my own soup stock, I might decide that the Thai delivery guy is my new best friend. Instead, there are some great products (and not, gasp, just from the farmers market) I can buy and supplement, creatively, in my own way to make great, nutritious food.

Pollan should really back off...climb down from his horse...

Derrick said...

Good points, overall. A minor nit about not every seeing a souffle recipe that uses milk: I've never seen one that doesn't, in the form of bechamel sauce.

Jennifer said...

I wanted to jump out of my skin reading his article. You hit the nail on the head with so many points. It almost felt like he was trying to be controversial.

Scott said...

Wow. Great analysis. I got turned off when he said "Martha Stewart would sooner commit seppuku than let such an outtake ever see the light of day." Patently untrue. Martha has a blooper reel that she runs on her show. One show late in last season had two bloopers in two different segments. It aired. Youtube has the blooper reel here: Martha Bloopers

Tana Butler said...

Any idea how rare it is for me to click a link to a long(ish) blog post and read every word, and re-read entire paragraphs?

This is an extremely well-written piece, and I hate that it results in a little loss of respect for Michael Pollan. Perhaps that is only temporary: maybe he'll respond thoughtfully.

It's possible that Pollan's risen so far into the stratosphere of fame that, as Joe David Brown wrote in Addie Pray (the original name of Paper Moon), "He acts like he don't need to spread lime when he goes to the outhouse."

Like you, I do love getting worked up for a good rant. You've done an excellent job making your points, and I'll return. Thanks for taking the time to write so thoughtfully and well.

Mojohito said...

Hrm, The Pollan article was haughty, but also reveals absurdity of consumer capitalism. Your rant, on the other hand, comes of as arrogant, argumentative, and mean. I'll continue to read Pollan, but you're getting written off as a loudmouth blame-artist.
Sorry.
P.S. I have heard people refer to heating up a frozen pizza as "cooking", and it's a troubling realization that they do.

Dianne Jacob said...

It takes courage to take on MP. So few people do. As a feminist, I appreciate many of your points.

Michael Ruhlman also criticized the piece, pointing out that thousands of food bloggers love to cook, and encourage their readers to do so. See
http://blog.ruhlman.com/

Maureen Ogle said...

I'm SO glad I'm not the only one...

Joan Brett said...

I agree with most of what you said, but he did have some legitimate concerns about folks getting away from cooking. He left out some key indicators - 4x as many farmer's markets over the last 15 years, and the fact that so many people are doing veggie gardens. I own a culinary school in Colorado, and see nothing but rising interest in learning to cook, especially among teenagers.

RMK said...

Really good job. Your comments were much more interesting than his 9 page rant on how Feminists have ruined America. I stopped after page 2 because it just became too long.

Your post was very well written.

Drew said...

You seem to be trying way too hard to get worked up about Pollan overstating things, when it seems more that you're over-interpreting them. His lack of cheffy detail you've got him pegged on.

But I don't see how he contradicts himself at all in regards to talking about feminism and mass market media BOTH changing attitudes towards cooking. You basically quote him offhand talking about the influence of one and scream that he's neglecting the other, then quote him talking about the other and say he's contradicting himself. But the only person contradicting themselves is you, who attacks him for acknowledging that Friedan played a role in re-characterizing how we all see cooking, and then acknowledging it yourself.

Also, saying that he blames, as in judges as objectively wrong, feminism for demanding that women be freed from social obligations to do housework is just over the top and wrong. He's speaking as a intellectual historian talking about social change, not saying that there weren't plenty of concerns far more important than cooking at play, or that being forced into such a position isn't oppressive.

He's just saying that cooking is itself valuable: and science seems to imply that it's a valuable exercise for everyone in the household to being doing (i.e. that we learned the wrong lesson: its not that women should be freed from cooking-as-drudgery, but that everyone in the household should want share in it, because it's an important social and dietary function).

Jennifer said...

I really enjoyed your well written article. I agree and can't help but feel a bit dejected that in some regard he's cashing in. How can one talk food ethics when they don't respect the craft of preparing it? Thanks for the insight.

MK said...

Argh. This article drove me nuts. In addition to your points, he also sneers at using frozen vegetables! Because apparently we should just eat parsnips and kale all winter.

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Anonymous said...

I have an honest question for you: Is this a joke?

I think you're really overanalyzing and nit-picking. I don't even know how you could possess the brainpower to focus on such obscure details, but yet lack the intelligence to realize how hypocritical you're being. You talk about how he comes off as elitist and must shop only at certain food markets when you spend your time putting down his knowledge about anything nutrition/agriculture/cultural because his souffle recipe doesn't match yours?? And you do so in a more demeaning, self-praising tone than I've ever heard from anyone... let alone Pollan.

I'm convinced you wrote this article to brag to your readers about how much you know about cooking. God forbid someone use the slang word "barbeque" for a grill, you came off as literally nauseated at this. Get a life and move on. This whole thing reeks of your obvious sense of insecurity in terms of your culinary skills which you seem to feel the need to constantly, obnoxiously shove down the throats of your readers. WE GET IT, YOU WORK IN A KITCHEN.

Your argument would have been equally to more compelling had you spent your time criticizing his article's choice of font.

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