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.