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A Response to Michael Pollan: It's Cool in the Kitchen Now

This past Sunday, Michael Pollan contributed a fascinating article to the New York Times Magazine called "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch" in which he tied together the rise of cooking shows on television and decline of cooking as an everyday part of life.  The basic facts on which he bases his conclusions are that the amount of time that Americans spend in food preparation has dropped about 40% in the last four decades, and that the number of takeout meals has nearly doubled in the last 25 years, while television shows about cooking and eating have proliferated enormously, particularly since the foundation of the Food Network in 1993.

Pollan regards this as (yet another) sign that we are losing the battle with the food processing industry and builds a case that this loss of cooking skill can has contributed to all manner of unhealthy behavior by encouraging unhealthy eating, overconsumption of high-fat dishes, loss of family cohesion and the family meal, and the triumph of the food processing business.

What he does not address in this article is the promising trends that are developing simultaneously, in many cases in response to the same stimuli that he proposes.  I would submit that you can make a different argument that casts the changes in America's relationship with food and cooking over the last half-century (well, three decades; I agree with him that much was lost and not much gained in the 50's and 60's) in a much more positive light.

Note that while I disagree with many of the contentions of this article, I tend to agree wholeheartedly with his aims.  I thought that his open letter to the next "Farmer in Chief" from last October was one of the most compelling arguments I've ever read for a comprehensive revision of America's food policy.  But in this Sunday's article, I think he wandered off course.

For all human history, until fifty or so years ago, every family had to process its raw foodstuffs before they would be edible, unless they had the means to hire or compel someone else to do so.  But just because cooking was time-consuming did not inherently make it valuable or valued.  In my parents' generation -- though thankfully my parents were exceptions, both excellent cooks, and my mom, particularly, an avid cook and gardener who loved to share her own love of food -- cooking was generally considered drudge work.  (I'm thinking of the 1960's and 1970's, which Pollan offers as a contrast to today.)  Yes, most households had someone, usually a woman, who cooked every day, but American culture showed comparatively little excitement about food.  Lots of my friends grew up in families where they ate the traditional "a meat, a potato, and a vegetable" for each dinner, but the menu was relatively unvaried and preparation never done as a family.  Now, at least in the experience of my circle of friends, cooking, even if done less than every night, is celebrated... often undertaken together as a couple or with and for friends, and the range of foods that are prepared is exponentially greater than a generation ago.  Perhaps having been freed from having to cook every night has reinvigorated (many) Americans' joy of cooking.

Another positive trend is the rise of farmer's markets.  There are now, according to the USDA, nearly 4900 farmer's markets in the United States, up 71% from the year 2000.  The customers who patronize these markets are not doing so because they are more convenient or less expensive than their local supermarkets; farmer's markets have become both a social opportunity for community members and a chance to support local, particularly organic, agriculture.  This support helps shape the new food system for which Pollan is the country's most eloquent spokesperson, and would be impossible without the community of food-lovers in whose ranks I have found cooking shows' most avid audience.

In large part due to the increased societal focus on eating locally-grown produce, our supermarkets have made real strides toward bringing in more food that is locally produced and more appealing options.  When I was growing up, supermarkets had two types of apples: green and red.  The greens were probably Granny Smith, and the reds perhaps Macintosh, but in general you didn't know.  Now, in the fall, our local Albertson's has a dozen different varieties of apples, and publicizes where each was grown.  Same thing with tomatoes.  The idea that a supermarket should have heirloom tomatoes in addition to the pale red ones with the texture (and taste) of styrofoam is a relatively new, and promising, development.  Plus, I've noticed that just in the last year, both our major national supermarket chains (Albertson's and VONS) have started putting little "local" tags up next to produce that is grown within a few hours of here.  It's entirely possible that this produce that was grown in the Salinas Valley was shipped to Boise (where Albertson's is headquartered) and back, eliminating the environmental and freshness benefits of eating locally and making the note purely marketing, but that they feel it is important to put it up at all is to my mind a positive development.

Cooking (and food) is much more multicultural than it has ever been before.  It is striking how quickly this change has happened.  I have a book of recipes that my mom produced for me when I first moved into my own apartment.  It contained a few dozen family favorites, including some recipes from Craig Claiborne's wonderful The Chinese Cookbook (published in 1976).  In these recipes, ingredients like ginger, soy sauce, and bamboo shoots are marked with an asterisk that notes that they are "available in Chinese markets and by mail order".  That these relatively commonplace items would be so rare as to require a footnote underlines how much more diverse American food is than it was just one generation ago.  Paso Robles, a town of 30,000 people with little non-Hispanic ethnic population, has four Japanese restaurants, a Thai restaurant and three Chinese restaurants.  We had an Indian restaurant until it closed a few years ago.  These restaurants are patronized by local residents.  The increased accessibility of food from an ever-wider collection of non-native cultures has dramatically changed American tastes.  No home chef could be expected to learn food preparations from dozens of different cultures in order to be able to enjoy the culture's food.  I'm not convinced this is a negative.

There is a greater focus than ever on food quality, at least at the high end.  Zagat's, Michelin, and a host of newer online services provide increased information on restaurants' quality, and patrons of these restaurants have very high standards.  It's only logical that as consumers develop higher standards, they will begin to apply these home standards to their home dining.  Pollan acknowledges that American culture has begun to celebrate food, but he calls this phenomenon the "fetishization" of food and lays much of the blame at the feet of unrealistic food preparation dramas like Iron Chef.  I don't see it as pernicious.  First, I don't see the rise of the foodie culture as a result of television cooking shows, but rather the interest in cooking shows as a natural outgrowth of our increased interest in and knowledge about food, combined with a peculiarly American fascination with competition.  And, even if they can somehow be correlated, I don't think that it's possible to convincingly argue a causal link between increased watching of cooking shows and the decline of cooking.

Pollan mentions in passing gender roles in food preparation (mostly with respect to the differences in average food preparation time between families with two working parents and those with a stay-at-home mom) but does not address the positive aspects of the changes in cooking's gender roles over the last few decades.  In my circle of friends, it's as likely that the husband/boyfriend will be the primary cook as the wife/girlfriend.  The ability to cook is seen as a point of pride for men.  The relative leveling of societal expectations about gender and food preparation ability has opened up another half of the population to the skills and wonders of cooking.  Even if these men don't choose to cook every day, their added enthusiasm for and understanding of what it takes to make good food has played an important role in elevating cooking from chore to shared pleasure.

How does this tie into wine?  Wine is a beverage that is generally enjoyed with food and with other people... and generally not with fast food or on-the-go.  Cultures that drink wine tend to be healthier and live longer than those who drink beer or liquor.  And, over the period that Pollan discusses, wine has become a much more integral part of the American lifestyle.  Since 1960, American wine consumption has increased from 163 million gallons per year (less than one gallon per person) to 753 million gallons per year (about 2.5 gallons per person).  And consumption in the United States is continuing to grow, projected to rise 20% in the next five years, which will make us the largest consuming nation of wine in the world.  At the same time, beer sales have stagnated or declined slightly in recent years.  I wrote a blog post last fall on American wine consumption and production trends in which I asserted that consumption trends all pointed to wine becoming a greater and greater part of American culture.  I think that these trends are being reinforced by the proliferation of wineries all over the country and the increased proximity that most of the American populace has to wine-producing regions.  Increased wine consumption should continue to play a role in the promotion of a healthy relationship with food and eating.

I am not arguing that all the developments are positive.  I think that it is incontrovertible that there are portions of the American populace, particularly at the lowest income levels, who are very poorly served by the current food distribution system.  The ubiquity of fast food has negative consequences for our waistlines and our food system.  It is a travesty that in many inner-city neighborhoods, supermarkets will not open, leaving residents with only convenience stores and fast food outlets for their daily food.  And the shift of the American population from essentially rural to essentially urban and suburban in the last hundred years has dramatically cut people's understanding of where food comes from and how it is grown.

I'm also not sure the extent to which the changes that I see have pentrated outside of my own demographic (essentially college-educated, liberal, generation X and Y).  I'm sure that it also varies by ethnic group and income level.  But, whether they have migrated throughout the culture yet or not (I suspect not) movements have to start somewhere.

In conclusion, I feel that Pollan paints only half a picture.  If we're cooking less often (but enjoying it more), eating more diverse foods (some of which we'll eventually attempt to make) and focusing increasingly on from where our food comes and how it has been processed (whether we're cooking it or not) we are contributing to a better agricultural system and more diverse and interesting society.  This society will be, if it is not already, more aware of the links between food and health, and of the impacts of our food policies on our food systems.  And if cooking is becoming cool and chefs are becoming celebrities at the same time?  Every movement needs its mascots.