Book Review: Let Them Eat Whole Foods; Pollan Preaches to the Converted, But What About the Poor, and Non-Believers?
Michael Pollan is the author of the new book "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." (Courtesy photograph)
Michael Pollan hasn’t been the only writer to bring attention to the follies of industrial agriculture, an oxymoron if there ever were one, but he is arguably the most influential, much as Rachel Carson exemplified the ethos of the environmental movement when she wrote Silent Spring.
Cooked, Pollan’s latest exploration of the intersection between food, science and culture, shows him at his most engaging but also exhibits a tone-deafness that comes when the preacher is proselytizing those who are already converted.
The premise of Cooked is that there have been dire consequences from the post-war advent of so-called convenience foods. With an abundance of scientific evidence before us, most people agree that instant meals, fast food and the doubling and tripling of portion sizes have wreaked havoc on the national waistline and our overall health.
But what is the solution? Cooked posits that the answer can be found in the return of the home-cooked meal, which Pollan portrays as a nearly extinct species. (I’m not sure I agree with him that home cooking is as dead as the dodo, but more on that later.)
Pollan’s virtues are numerous. He’s curious, probing, funny and endowed with an ability to make the intuitive and intellectual leaps between subjects that don’t, at first glance, seem to bear much relation to each other.
So he can, in 20 or 30 pages, draw a line from the biological process of fermentation to the role of bacteria in maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal tract to the history of pasteurization, rot, decay, sex, mortality and cheese so rank that it would make even the dead stir in their graves.
I learned, for example, that during a person’s lifetime, 60 tons of food will pass through the gastrointestinal tract, which is an astonishing testament to the brilliant design and efficiency of the human body. I learned that in our compulsion to banish all germs, we have unwittingly done more damage to our health by keeping at bay the good bacteria that keep the bad bacteria in check. All this originating in a description of how to make sauerkraut! It’s terrifically absorbing and illuminating reading.
The book reads like a cross between notes from a science lab, which it is, in a sense, and an exhortation to restore cooking to its rightful place within the home. Cooking, Pollan rightly reminds us, is ultimately about love and respect; the ties that bind are made more lasting when we make a point of eating and drinking together, whether as family or as friends.
Pollan begins the book as an admitted non-cook, someone who lacks the patience for the labor and time that cooking requires. He divides the book into sections on cooking with fire (barbecue), water (braising), air (bread) and earth (fermentation).
So Pollan travels to North Carolina to unravel the mysteries of real barbecue with Ed Mitchell, one of the masters of cooking pig in a smoke pit. Then he studies how to braise meats and vegetables with Samin Nosrat, a cook in Berkeley, where Pollan lives. After that, he learns how to make sourdough bread from Chad Robertson, a kind of Zen master of bread. Finally, he meets up with Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and a proponent of fermenting all manner of foods for good health.
But there’s a lacuna here. Pollan can’t quite bridge the gap between what we actually do eat and how he thinks we should eat, a division that stems as much, I think, from issues of class as it does from a sensible and laudable desire to improve Americans’ health.
There are myriad reasons why obesity rates in the U.S. have risen; it can’t all be laid at the door of processed food, high-fructose corn syrup or the decrease in home cooking alone. The revolution in technology and the increasing sedentary nature of people’s work, the winnowing of industrial jobs, the rise of two-income families, diminishing leisure time, the shift of women (who have traditionally been the home cooks) into the job market have all contributed to a national health profile that is less than ideal.
I would call Pollan’s apparent blind spot the Alice Waters syndrome. She is the doyenne of the New American cuisine and the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, who, among other predilections, abhors bagged supermarket mesclun as vastly inferior to the French mix of wild grasses, flowers and savory greens that would be as happily nibbled by goats as by humans.
She may be right about the quality of the taste, but since few of us have access to Provencal wild greens and flowers, we’ll either have to grow our own mesclun, which not everyone can do, or rely on the pre-chopped mixes from Dole. And is that really so awful?
Waters reminds me of a culinary Marie Antoinette, who played shepherdess at her charming “farm” in the Petit Trianon while the poor scrabbled for bread in the streets. Waters set up in Berkeley and Oakland a program devoted to bringing fresh produce and French and Italian food to school kids, which sounds good in theory, but it also smacked of Lady Bountiful bringing buffalo mozzarella with extra virgin olive oil to the poor, and telling them it is in good taste.
In a similar vein, Pollan deplores, in no particular order, Marshmallow Fluff, high-fructose corn syrup, frozen foods, Wonder Bread, microwaving, vacuum sealing and powdered Jell-O. Not only does Pollan’s hit list consist of predictable targets, but the objects of his ire, I think it’s safe to say, aren’t usually associated with the upper middle-class and upper classes.
Alice Waters and celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Thomas Keller, and the people who know who they are and frequent their restaurants, don’t really need convincing, but that is effectively the audience for whom Pollan seems to be writing, particularly when the reader comes across odd sentences like this one: “No one has to chop onions anymore, not even the poor.”
I beg to differ. Most of us do still chop onions, including the poor, which after the recession now includes more of us than before. Unless you can persuade those of us most in need of an overhaul of our diet to fundamentally change what and how we eat, and give us concrete ideas on how to do it in a way that takes into account the enormous changes in society, then it’s hollow rhetoric.
Would a nutritionist recommend that a person subsist on a daily diet of Marshmallow Fluff and Jell-O? No, but is it possible to stuff the genie back in the bottle by discouraging frozen vegetables or vacuum sealing, and insisting only on fresh produce from the farmers’ market and locally raised meats? Sometimes it simply isn’t possible, either financially or in the time spent procuring and cooking them.
And while cooking at home does tend to result in meals that are more balanced and healthy, that’s not always the case. Neither is home cooking a miracle cure for what ails us. It will also take changes in family, food and education policy to bring about a reduction in the obesity rate. And no matter how lovingly Pollan labors over his sourdough bread or kimchi, that’s not quite enough to persuade Americans that they should, too.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org