What with all the new traffic from the PBS mention there’s some renewed interest in my Michael Pollan posts from years gone by. Commentary has been both positive and negative, no surprises there. However a few readers have asked why I haven’t reviewed Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, since that would seem to be a natural addition to the series.

It’s a fair question and the answer is because Cooked isn’t a book about food politics, or at least not primarily, and it’s only when Michael Pollan heads off on one of his ideological benders that I have problem with him. Cooked is a collection of essays that recount Pollan’s own forays into cooking, baking, brewing beer and so on. Oh sure there’s some of the usual food-political blah-blah scattered in there, but most of Cooked is entertaining and informative. It reminds me of the Michael Pollan I liked, the skilled and witty fellow who wrote Botany of Desire, and, quite frankly, inspired me to start writing about food.

That said, I think “cooked” is an all-too appropriate term for the state of the ideological movement that one might call “pollanism”. Stick a fork in it — it’s done. It formally ended when Mr. Pollan declined to pursue the position of Secretary of Agriculture as his fans demanded after the ’08 election. Doing so would have continued a logical trajectory, from polemicist to a man of concrete action. Putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. When he flatly rejected the idea, it told you everything you needed to know about what Pollan thought of the viability of his own ideas.

So Cooked is a good move for Michael Pollan on a lot of levels. It’s a welcome turn away from the righteous cant he’s been trading in for over a decade now, back toward the lively expository writing that earned him so many early fans (like me). I certainly won’t knock it. Far be it from me to impugn the efforts of a guy who wants to learn to bake good bread at home! I’ll say I hope the trend continues, because even at the time of my harshest criticism I’ve remained an admirer.

10 thoughts on “Cooked”

  1. If it gets out of hand you can (I assume) close the comment section on old posts. Hopefully people can either let their disagreement with you go or move on & just hope you go away 😉

    1. Hehe…well said, Frankly. I think most of the people who fought me tooth and nail back then gave up and moved on. As it should be…the internet is a big place with plenty more opinions. No need to get hung up on me!

      Also I think the organic movement has mellowed somewhat. Many of the people who once swore by organic have come to see it’s not the easy fix-all that it was once claimed to be. Ze life, she iz complicated.

      – Joe

  2. I couldn’t get into ‘Cooked.’ I really enjoyed Botany of Desire (though I thought he had a tendency to fall wayyyy too in love with his metaphors and take them too far), and I liked ‘In Defense of Food.’

    Is it worth giving Cooked another go?

    1. Ann, I’m so glad you said that. The “desires” thing makes very little sense after a while. Do potatoes really represent “control”? At least any more than any other agricultural crop? That’s the only real problem I have with the book. Otherwise I loved it.

      He’s back to the same sort of thing with Cooked, though it’s not quite as strained. As far recommending it I guess I can’t, since it seems to me that he never really lets himself have fun like he did in Botany. He seems hyper-aware of what his movementarians expect from him, so he’s always inserting the obligatory jabs at food growers and makers. He’s a victim of his own success in that regard. To me those bits are grating distractions from otherwise solid writing.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  3. I thought all the facts were interesting, but the metaphors were weak and overblown. Like, trying to both explain the life of the real Johnny Appleseed, and use him as a Bacchanalian metaphor at the same time. John Chapman would have been horrified by the comparison!

    And I agree with you about the hyperawareness in Cooked. I get the impression that I was not the only one a bit put off by the whole implied suggestion that we needed to give up the internet and someone (cough, cough, women) should spend all day in the kitchen. He seemed to be trying to talk his way out of that in the introduction.

    Ehh, I think he’s thought provoking, and I’m more than willing to sort the wheat from the chaff on my own.

    1. Very astute criticism. And I feel very much the same way about his writing: take the good, leave the bad, make up my own mind.

      Nice having this discussion with you, Ann.

      – Joe

  4. I wasn’t a reader then and who knows how long it may take me to read backward but I just wanna say you are a NICE man, Joe Pastry! That is one of the nicest and most effective delineation of ideas and personalities I’ve ever seen.

    I admire you as well as your baking!

    1. Oh stop. 😉

      I haven’t always been terribly nice to Michael Pollan, but I hope I’ve at least been fair in the realm of argument. Then as now I felt someone needed to push back against ideas that were not only unrealistic but genuinely destructive. We all need to mount the barricades every so often. That was an intense period.

      But as always I thank you, Rainey. You’re too good to me!

      – Joe

  5. Can I still read the “Michael Pollan posts from years gone by?” I clicked on the link but it didn’t take me to them. Can you help me to find them? Thanks.

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