Is Michael Pollan the most notorious sexist in America? Or does he just need a dose of reality?
Pollan is everywhere in the media these days, with coverage of his new book
"Cooked" legitimately highlighting its author, but some headlines, like mine, surely trumpet his name just for marquee value. The UC Berkeley journalism professor and writer is so widely revered that his name alone can draw readers to a story they might otherwise overlook. That probably explains writer Emily Matchar's provocative title "Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?" on an essay
which is not primarily about Pollan.
This excerpt from Matchar's forthcoming book "Homeward Bound", appearing in Salon, explores the burgeoning foodie culture in America, especially among young mothers embracing the kind of from-scratch cooking which may have been scorned by their own mothers, and even their grandmothers. About Pollan, she says,
“[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”
...That’s Michael Pollan. Yes, that Michael Pollan, the demigod food writer and activist at whose feet so much of progressive America worships. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan’s pro-local, pro-organic manifesto, spent years on the New York Times bestseller list, and Pollan’s motto of “eat food/not too much/mostly plants” can be heard murmured like a mantra in the aisles of local grocery co-ops nationwide.
Yet there he is again, in the New York Times Magazine, dismissing “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.” In the same magazine story, Pollan scolds that “American women now allow corporations to cook for them” and rues the fact that women have lost the “moral obligation to cook” they felt during his 1960s childhood.
Comments like this make me—owner of not one but two copies of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”—want to smack Pollan and the rest upside the head with a spatula. Claiming that feminism killed home cooking is not just shaming, it’s wildly inaccurate from a historical standpoint.
I understand Matchar's point of view, but characterizing Pollan as a "sexist pig" feels inflammatory; maybe the guy is just clueless. Still, I agree with most of the rest of her essay, especially this:
The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove. Since scratch cooking today is largely a hobby or a personal choice of the middle class, many of us wish we could spend more time in the kitchen. But it’s important to remember that this was not always the case.
It’s easy to forget, in the face of today’s foodie culture, that cooking is not fun when it’s mandatory.
These words leapt off the screen at me because they echo almost verbatim the response I had to reading this excerpt
from Pollan's new book posted on NPR.
Even when "everyone" still cooked, there were plenty of us who mainly watched: men for the most part, and children. Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen, performing feats that sometimes looked very much like sorcery and typically resulted in something tasty to eat. In ancient Greece, the word for "cook," "butcher," and "priest" was the same—mageiros—and the word shares an etymological root with "magic." I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming something more than the sum of its ordinary parts.
The key to why I was annoyed by this sentimental, overly romanticized view of an activity in which I have engaged daily for nearly all of my adult life, lies in the first sentence. Until very recently, men for the most part "watched" as women cooked - or worse, they watched TV in the other room. All that magical transforming of eggs and butter and chicken into things of mystery and beauty gets old when you are the one performing the magic daily for 40 years.
Only someone as new to cooking
as Pollan, or the scratch-cooking young mothers of Matchar's essay, could possibly scoff at the idea that, over the long haul, cooking can become a form of mind numbing drudgery.
Yet that is exactly what Pollan does in a recent New York Times article
describing a lunch prepared by Pollan and NYT reporter Michael Moss (who also has a new book out called "Salt Sugar Fat".) The NYT Dining section charged Pollan and Moss with shopping for and cooking a healthy lunch made solely from items available at any typical grocery store, the kind patronized by the millions of Americans who don't shop at Whole Foods or farmers markets.
Pollan chose to make a soup from canned garbanzo beans.
He added some of the diced onions to a pot, and their sizzle and scent filled the kitchen. Two cans of chickpeas and a good amount of water went in soon after.
“By the way, what are we engaged in now?” Mr. Pollan deadpanned, as he tended to the pot. “This supposedly impossible drudgery that is just soul-crushing?”
Indeed, the experience as detailed in the NYT does seem to hold the possibility of soul nurturing - the thoughtful hunt through the market's cheese section for an acceptable piece of mozzarella, the intellectual discussion between colleagues of the virtues of "real milk", the camaraderie back in Moss's kitchen where Pollan chopped onions for both cooks (“I’ve passed through into this Zen place,” Mr. Pollan, 58, explained as he stood at the counter and slowly sliced three onions) and made soup, while Moss scratch cooked pizza using dough he had made earlier in the day.
Missing from the romanticized tableau was the reality of most family cooking - not the leisurely stroll though the market hunting for a hormone- and antibiotic free mozzarella, but the mad dash, with tired kids in tow, that too many parents must perform on their way home from work after picking up the kids at afterschool care. Not the Zen place one can achieve when able to focus on slicing onions to the exclusion of all else, but rather the fractured attention which is all many parents can muster for their dinner preparations when they have to simultaneously provide homework help, break up sibling battles, and deal with the cat puking up a hairball in the corner.
In other words, Pollan's experience is not real life. For the rest of us, meal preparation lacks the glamour of parading our knowledge and culinary skill before readers of the New York Times, which no doubt makes shopping and cooking more fun, not to mention satisfying.
What's more, Pollan and Moss took over an hour to prepare their meal, and that was with both of them cooking. Presumably a single cook would require closer to two hours to create this "beautiful, simple lunch."
Is it any wonder that many adults in the nearly 14 million
single parent households in the US don't feel the romance and magic of scratch cooking dinner each night, when even this simple meal would take several hours, in addition to the time spent shopping for ingredients? Even for those parents fortunate enough to have a spouse at home to help with the cooking and field interruptions from the kids, scratch cooking a nightly dinner amid the typical family chaos is still more often frazzling than soul restoring.
Pollan is fortunate to live in that minority of American families - the one with a mom, a dad and one child - where there are more adults than kids. He is lucky enough to have a house with a big kitchen able to accommodate an island where, as he described
it to an NPR interviewer, his son would keep him company while he cooked.
"[My teenage son] loved doing his homework at the island in the middle of the kitchen. And he would work while I was cooking, and he took in the smells, and he'd come over every now and then and taste what was in the pot and offer some unsolicited seasoning advice ... And the best time to connect with a teenager is when other things are going on, when you're not trying to have a face-to-face, when you're not making eye contact, basically. And so while he was doing homework and I was cooking, we had some of our sweetest times together. And then of course there was the meal."
That does sound lovely, and if only everyone else's life resembled Pollan's - big kitchen, one lone child, time and money to shop and cook at leisure, and let's not forget the book contract driving his latest work on the subject - maybe more of us would share his feelings. After cooking daily for 40 years, I usually do still enjoy it, but the Sisyphean never-ending-ness of it dispelled the romance long ago.
The women's movement was never about forcing women out of the kitchen; it is about providing choices, and empowering women to make the choices they feel comfortable with. While Pollan is correct that choosing to cook can be a political statement
, his contention that "to cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption" implies, perhaps unintentionally, that anyone giving in to the lure of a quick ready-to-eat meal is simply an unwitting pawn of evil corporate interests.
Framing cooking as an all or nothing choice between political freedom and slavery to Big Food
is the opposite of providing women, or anyone else, with the kind of choice that the women's movement seeks to guarantee.
Today I have a jam-packed day that began at 6am; I already know that when I get home at 6:30pm, the last thing I will want to do is devote an hour of my "leisure" to scratch cooking dinner. Instead, I will put some fish into a frying pan, and while that cooks, I'll steam some asparagus and put strawberries into a bowl. Dinner will be on the table in 15 minutes, which is all the time I have for scratch-cooking today, but that's my choice, and that's what the women's movement is really about. Too bad there won't be a reporter from the New York Times there to document it.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.