To a man with an icing spatula, everything looks like buttercream. Actually the idiom has to do with hammers and nails, but the principle is the same: whatever you carry around with you tends to color the way you look at the world. That’s as true of us “foodie” types as it is anybody else. Because the quality and authenticity of the food we eat is so important to us, we assume the integrity of cuisine is everybody’s number one concern. The responsibility we have, therefore, is to keep a sense of perspective about our passion, since it can — and frequently does — come into dreadful collisions with reality.
I was thinking this very thing while reading the New York Times dining section over the holidays, specifically the article Is a New Food Policy on His List?, an essay by Kim Severson which explored the hopes and expectations food activists have placed upon the incoming Obama administration. As someone who considers himself something of a realist where food policy is concerned, I was amused by the laundry list of demands, from insistences that a new White House chef be installed to demands that convicts be fed less soy.
It was all pretty funny, at least until I got to the section about the new Secretary of Agriculture, at which point I nearly spit my morning tea all over my laptop. Apparently, as soon as it became clear that Senator Obama was a real contender in last year’s presidential election, various food “activists” began compiling a short list of people they’d most like to see as the new Secretary of Agriculture. Atop that list was none other than your good friend and mine, Michael Pollan. I hadn’t even eaten my rich Christmas dinner yet and already I was about to have a coronary.
Fortunately, it appears that no serious person — and by that I mean people who truly grasp what our food system is and what it does — ever, for even a moment, considered Pollan for the job. Rather it seems his candidacy was only a fleeting delusion of the blabbering elites of food. Tom Vilsack, the former Governor of the State of Iowa and a man who clearly understands the macroeconomics of food in a nation our size, was sensibly appointed without much ado. Ruth Reichl, who edits Gourmet magazine and does all her food shopping at Upper East Side specialty shops, pronounced herself outraged. Notably absent in their condemnation of Mr. Vilsack (at least in the Times article) were experienced policy makers. Little if anything was heard from Michael Pollan, who much to his credit was busy trying to dissuade his own supporters from talking him up any more.
All of which goes to show — at least to me — the total, echoing emptiness of what food “activists” consider their arguments for destroying and remaking what is by any measure the world’s most abundant, safest and least expensive food system. Not even the de-facto leader of this group, Mr. Pollan, considers himself remotely qualified to take on the task of running it. Pollan is a journalist and a reasonably good one at that, yet a man who is far more adept at lodging grievances (most of which I believe are illusory) than proposing concrete solutions. Just read In Defense of Food, you’ll see. He has passion but virtually no constructive ideas, and that makes him an agitator, not a policy man. My sense of him, having read him, seen him lecture and even shaken his hand is that he understands the role he has created for himself and embraces it (that and the checks for his best-selling books, which ain’t chicken feed, friends). So why mess up a good thing by having to actually deliver real-world solutions?
Which brings me back, in classic essay style, to where I started. With all the hot air currently being expended on the topic of food on bookshelves, in food sections and on blogs, a lot of us tend to forget that there’s an actual world out there. In that world are all sorts of people doing many more important things than worrying about the number of grams of corn syrup they’re consuming. A lot of them are just trying to procure, or help other people procure, food. Other people are devoting their lives and careers to growing that food in as great a quantity and at as high a quality as they can. Connecting those people with one another in the most expeditious way possible is the job of the Secretary of Agriculture. A lot of people who read and lionize Michael Pollan have forgotten that (though ironically, Michael Pollan hasn’t). So thank you, Mr. President Elect, for appointing a man who actually knows how to do a very, very important job.