Off the Couch, Onto the Computer

There’s good news for all you Michael Pollan fans out there: he has a new book coming out. How do I know? Not by reading his publisher’s calendar or the trade press. Rather, by reading the portents. Every time the New York Times Magazine gives him 8,000 words of space, you can bet a full-length something-or-other is in the works. In the same way his article Discover How Your Beef is Really Raised led to Ominvore’s Dilemma, and Unhappy Meals begat In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan’s latest maxi-essay, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, is an indicator of an imminent release.

What’s it all about? Judging purely from the content of Out of the Kitchen, his next book will be a critique of food on television. However knowing the author my guess is the book will range far more broadly than that, probably into the psychological drivers of what Pollan sees as an American cultural pathology: the way we relate to and consume food. Of course that’s only speculation.

What surprised me most about Out of the Kitchen is how much I enjoyed reading it. At least the first half or so, which is devoted mostly to reminiscences about Julia Child and ruminations on the meaning of the Food Network. That part, I confess, I really liked, for at his best Michael Pollan is a phenomenally talented prose writer and diligent researcher. That he’s largely given that up to become a professional scribbler of breathless political screeds is one of my chief complaints about him.

So it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t take Pollan very long to produce his famous shame stick and begin applying it liberally to our collective backside. We don’t cook enough. We watch too much TV. We’re fat. All that’s true, but of course very well-trodden territory among the scolds of the world. Pollan’s special spin is his examination of why so many of us find time to watch others cook, but less and less to actually cook.

It’s an interesting question, but again, it’s nothing new. Those who follow such things have long known of the Food Network’s claim to have discovered, if not an unknown human need, at least a predilection, for watching other people prepare food. The fact that it took them a decade (plus probably hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of market research and focus-grouping) takes nothing away from the achievement. For it turns out many of us really do like to watch food being made, whether we care to learn more about the craft or not. Hence the Food Network’s continuing de-emphasis on instructive so-called “dump and stir” shows and more on voyeuristic food entertainment programming (and pretty hosts).

People like myself look at that and say: too bad, but I guess that’s where the money is…you can’t really blame them. Pollan seems to find the transformation deeply depressing at best, a moral outrage at worst. Tantamount to a cable channel devoted to sex education giving itself over to a solid lineup of skin flicks. Which I suppose makes Pollan a sort of food moralist, heir to the likes of Reverend Sylvester Graham and Mary Hunt.

So shame on us for preparing food less and watching food preparation more, and by extension purchasing more pre-made meals. But wait a second — read on and we learn that none of that’s our fault (which was a great relief since I was starting to feel responsible for my own lifestyle choices). Turns out we’re being all but forced out of the kitchen. By who? Of course, by Pollan’s usual lineup of conspirators: farmers, packaged food makers, television programming directors and marketers (add in an evil politician — preferably from the Nixon administration — and we’d have the complete set).

Do I think it’s a good thing that we watch more cooking than we undertake at home? Of course not. It’s just that I know where Mr. Pollan is going with all this. Getting to know the man through his writing is like sitting down next to a random passenger on a Greyhound bus, one who starts the conversation by saying some pretty intelligent things about urban sprawl. As time passes, however, you realize that his idea of a solution is to raze every city of over fifty thousand people to the ground so city planners can start over with street grids that make sense. Crap! I’m stuck with this loon all the way to Fargo! Pollan wants to do roughly the same to the world’s safest, cheapest and most abundant food production system. (Ours).

The fact is that each day millions of Americans perform the same mental calculus as they sit on the interstate at 6:18. Maybe they’re coming from work, running errands or picking up the kids from practice. They run a quick cost/benefit analysis on the evening in front of them, wondering how much time they have to put into dinner before seven thirty arrives, when the children should be either doing homework or getting bathed and ready for bed. If, most of the time, they come to the conclusion that everyone will be better served by a carryout meal, how surprising is that? And if they happen to find food an interesting subject, is it any more surprising that they might unwind before bed with a little Iron Chef?

It’s this fundamental lack of empathy for the constraints of ordinary people’s lives that betrays Pollan’s elitism, even more than his fondness for local, organically raised greens. Is the impetus to save time and money really so hard for him to understand? Apparently so, but then what do the daily choices of individual people matter when you’re trying to change the world?

In a very revealing moment at the very end of the Out of the Kitchen, Pollan reprises an interview with one of the food industry’s leading researchers. He laments that this man — fiendishly — “insists on dealing with the world, and human nature, as it really is.” It must be quite a letdown. For truly Pollan inhabits a universe populated by very few “is”’s and “are”’s relative to the “should”‘s and “ought-to”’s.

Is there a large and efficient food system in America? Then it ought to be wholly turned over to producing the kinds of foods I like. Is there a privately owned cable television network devoted entirely to food shows? It ought to be airing programming in line with my own philosophy of how/how often people should cook. Is there a normal human urge toward convenience? It ought to be toward spending more time and money on the kinds of activities I approve of. This error in reasoning — call it what you will, the is-ought problem, Hume’s guillotine, the naturalistic fallacy — is one of the most basic mistakes one can make in the sphere of formal logic. Too bad so much of Pollan’s work these days is based on it.

6 thoughts on “Off the Couch, Onto the Computer”

  1. What I found interesting about “Out of the Kitchen” is that Pollan dedicates quite a bit of time theorizing that the introduction of cooking is what made man “human”; because cooking allowed humans to spend time doing things other than gathering and eating all day long. It’s particularly ironic then that his main complaint in this article is that people are spending less time gathering and preparing foods and more time doing other things.

    1. Mr. Pollan certainly has a knack for being on all sides of the same issue. That’s a terrific observation, Georgia.

  2. I’m coming late to the game and I guess show my insulated world that I had no idea who you were talking about the first few blogs. This guy sounds like a real character and like you said his charisma is what keeps him able to spout things that someone less able would not be able to do.

    I really liked this part because it’s exactly how I felt about Food Network when they changed all their programming:

    “Hence the Food Network’s continuing de-emphasis on instructive so-called “dump and stir” shows and more on voyeuristic food entertainment programming (and pretty hosts).”

    I will confess to being one of the watchers and not one of the doers when it came to cooking though I did a lot on the baking side. But the instructional shows did more to get me up and get me interested in the kitchen than the useless shows they show now. I’m sure you are right–it is the way public opinion has moved it (all we have to do is look at the even worse crap on network TV to show what public opinion is worth). Fascinating reading and like you said a little scary that someone can get so much attention and sway so many people to the point of near cultish levels. Thanks for some great reading at a moment I needed in my day. I can’t say I’m one of the ones who have such time constraints that kept me out of the kitchen but more the lazy side. I’ve been mending my ways on the cooking side and enjoying the top dip. I may never be close to a serious cook but I am eating better, spending less, getting more nutrition from my meals and that makes me want to do it even more. Thanks again for more great reading on your site.

    1. Hey Linda! I’m sure glad you found something worth reading here on the site. Those posts are old, but they’re about to become new again because Michael Pollan is coming out with a new book in March. So there’ll be plenty of action on this subject in 6-8 weeks!

      But thanks for your very thoughtful comment. It is indeed a pity that the Food Network has gone over to the reality type shows, I still mourn the loss of such a great cooking/baking resource. I’m trying to do my bit to take up the slack! 😉

      Thanks so much for spending some time with the earlier me. I’ll do my best to earn your future visits!

      – Joe

  3. Back when I was still working 2 jobs I enjoyed watching the “dump and stir” shows, and filing away bits of information for when I had the time to, you know, actually COOK. By the time I had retired, alas, the Food Network had turned into pretty much “All Guy Fieri Or His Clones All The Time.” If I wanted to watch commercials for restaurants I’d love it, but not so much…

    Which is, ultimately, why I’m here. Late to the party, but soaking up wonderful information, recipes, and techniques. Thanks, Joe!

    (For what it’s worth, if I had my way Michael Pollan would have to live on minimum wage in a blue collar town and try to feed himself for a year…)

    1. Ha! Amen, Marion. I guess now that he’s learned how to cook — that’s what his most recent book is about — his odds of survival will be a bit better.

      Thanks for the comment and your readership, Marion!

      – Joe

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