In the Kitchen, at the Sink: A Response to Michael Pollan

In the middle of reading Michael Pollan’s essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” published in the July 30 New York Times Magazine, I had to take a break to do some necessary chores, including washing the dishes. Like many New Yorkers, I do not have a dishwasher; unlike many New Yorkers — and according to Pollan, more and more Americans — I cook. It occurred to me, as I scrubbed away the remains of deviled eggs and rinsed off the soapsuds, that cooking and dishwashing are necessarily interrelated. You could even, I thought, make some of the same arguments for the glory of dishwashing that Pollan does for cooking: the beauty of the soap bubbles as they flush away the red and flaky lees from the wineglass; the satisfaction to be derived from seeing an orderly assortment of clean, gleaming, dripping dishes in the dish drainer, and an empty and scrubbed sink where 10 minutes before there was a heap of greasy leavings; the sheer importance of claiming ownership of the hygienic ritual rather than entrusting it to a machine that leaves dried egg and lipstick stains on your crockery.

But if I were to write such a defense, people would laugh. Or think I was out of my mind. They would not take the argument seriously, nor should they. There is precious little glory in dishwashing, which is why it’s the lowest form of scutwork in a kitchen, the task assigned for punishment, or apocryphally for the settlement of a restaurant tab by a penniless diner. Yet home cooking — the work whose decline Pollan laments, variously blaming TV and feminism — depends heavily on dishwashing. No serious cook would rely on paper plates and plastic cups for daily use; even in a fast-food restaurant, the fryer baskets and tongs and grills need to be cleaned for reuse. To study cooking without thinking about the web of tasks in which it exists is to focus too narrowly, even to the point of being ahistorical; and such a narrow focus makes it impossible to present a serious answer to Pollan’s question about why nobody cooks any more.

Pollan’s essay is important, and it deserves to be read carefully, but not to be taken for gospel. He presents some worrying facts: the number of people who cook is declining; within that, the number of people whose cooking involves tasks that can accurately be called cooking (that is, not just reheating a frozen entrée in the microwave) is small. Studies show that societies in which little time is spent cooking have higher rates of obesity, while those that cook more are leaner and healthier. And the food-focused shows that now dominate television, largely on Food Network but on other channels as well, present cooking as entertaining spectacle rather than a skill to be taught.

Pollan begins his essay with an examination of Julia Child and her pioneering cooking show, which really did teach cooking, and — importantly — taught viewers that mistakes were inevitable and could be recovered from. But to draw his contemporary contrast he turns, not to actual cooking-instruction shows such as “Simply Ming,” “America’s Test Kitchen” or even “Good Eats,” but to the prime-time spectacle and contest shows such as “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef America.” These are shows that focus on expert chefs’ fancy skills and use of unusual ingredients, under tremendous time pressure and with a competitive push. They are not cooking instruction but gladiator-style entertainment. The shows are well-rated; but why, he asks, if people are so interested in watching cooking, are fewer people actually doing it?

Surely he realizes that watching entertainment and learning to cook are not the same thing. One may as well ask, if the NFL is so popular, why don’t more people get out in public parks on the weekend and play spontaneous football games? Pollan quotes a friend who asks him, “How much do you learn about playing basketball by watching the N.B.A.?” This to me is the key question, but Pollan does not seem to really hear it.

I had a number of questions I would have asked Pollan. For starters, where did he learn to cook? He doesn’t say. He describes watching his mother cook, which he found fascinating, and watching Julia Child’s show with her; but he doesn’t explain when watching made the transition to learning. I have to assume he did not just learn the skill by watching television. As he notes, it doesn’t work that way. And today’s television programming reflects that. He quotes a Food Network executive: “People don’t watch television to learn things.” She is probably right. And here I want Pollan to ask, where are people learning things? Where do people in our current society learn to cook? If not from television — and why should they learn it from television? They didn’t before television existed — then where? From their mothers? From books? From classes? From high-school home ec? I want to know the answer to this because I suspect it matters.

A lot of the response to this article that’s already come out has focused on Pollan’s lazy conflation of the premiere of Julia Child’s TV show with the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” which he characterizes as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” This is so ridiculous a claim as to be impossible to take seriously as an argument. Betty Friedan did not teach anyone who enjoyed cooking to regard it as drudgery, but she certainly enabled a lot of women who already regarded it as drudgery to articulate their frustrations and desires. The fact is, cooking has been drudgery for centuries, for all but the most elite practitioners of the craft. Until the early 20th century, cooking was such a chore that all but the poorest members of society engaged servants to either help them with it or handle the work entirely. Cooking was a job, with rates of pay dependent on the rank of the household and the nature of the work performed. It’s only been in the past century that cooking has been presumed to be a task that American wives were expected to manage with no help at all, save that of labor-saving appliances. Feminism may have helped a lot of disgruntled women figure out what was making them so unhappy, but it didn’t kill cooking. Industrial food production did.

Pollan acknowledges this in his essay, as it happens. He quotes noted historian Laura Shapiro, who explains that “the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon.” Women resisted but were eventually persuaded by a massive marketing and advertising effort to accept processed foods as part of their lives; Pollan notes the well-known story of how cake mixes were made acceptable by being engineered so that consumers had to add eggs, and could thus regard the process as “real” cooking. And decades after the advertisers won their battle, Pollan is surprised that people still believe what they were told? It would be more surprising if we did not.

Yet there is a rising movement of people who do not believe that processed food and industrial systems are the right way to feed our society. Pollan does not acknowledge this, even though he is one of its champions. This may be because the movement is diverse and complex. The rise of community-supported agriculture, the potluck movement, the locavore movement, the advent of classes that help families learn how to pre-cook and freeze a month’s worth of homemade meals, and the rise of organic gardening, all point to a spreading awareness that real food matters and that the best way to ensure a supply of real food is to return to origins: learn to cook, meet your farmers, grow your own food.

Some efforts are still under the radar; others have gotten public attention, and inevitable ridicule as too impractical or elitist. (Remember the ridiculous uproar about the Obamas’ organic garden? It doesn’t seem to have doomed Washington-area supermarkets.) Pollan himself has been derided as an impractical elitist — unfairly, I’ve long thought, though I see some justice in the critique when I come across this comment in his Times essay, following a description of a contestant challenge on the Food Network contest show “Chopped”:

But you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when.

Right, never. Or possibly any time a working mother has to prepare a dinner that will satisfy the picky 7-year-old and still allow time to get the 12-year-old to soccer practice. “Sadistic” might be an extreme word for either child, but the demands and the challenges are not dissimilar.

It is this daily challenge that Pollan fails to address, and this is what undermines his entire argument. At the start of the essay, he recounts the achievement of Julia Child, and then segues into the empowerment that blogger Julie Powell found when she chose Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a challenge to lift her out of an existential crisis and find a task to satisfy her passion. Both women, he notes, found that “cooking … was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.” What he doesn’t point out is that both Julia Child and Julie Powell had supportive husbands, and no children, and thus did not have to negotiate the sharpest possible conflict between the desire to “please yourself” and the need to get food on the table for a family with unadventurous palates or limited leisure time.

As it happens, I’m in the same boat — supportive husband, no children, only the demands of a full-time job that is not about cooking and a range of creative pursuits that deserve my attention and enthusiasm. And yet I have days that throwing together leftovers or going to a neighborhood diner sounds a lot more appealing than cooking dinner from scratch. It is about the time we have in which to do the work; if we are constrained, our work is constrained, and so necessarily is our enjoyment of it. Pollan acknowledges, “Americans today spend more time working than people in any other industrialized nation — an extra two weeks or more a year. Not surprisingly, in those countries where people still take cooking seriously, they also have more time to devote to it.” Indeed; those of us who know we’ll have to wash the dishes when we’re done cooking are acutely aware of the limits of our time. This, I think, is the real problem. I wish he’d explored it more instead of throwing stones at Betty Friedan.

4 Responses to “In the Kitchen, at the Sink: A Response to Michael Pollan”

  1. Lisa says:

    Very thoughtful response, Amy. Thanks.

  2. Sallyacious says:

    So true. My cooking time disappeared every time the semester started up. Once I was teaching and rehearsing/performing, there was no time for anything else in my days, and I HAD a dishwasher.

  3. Shelby says:

    Great response. I love Pollan’s call-out of the dangers of letting corporations cook for us (paraphrased), but am disappointed in where he takes the rest of his discussion. You fill in some holes really well!

  4. Lucia says:

    Well said, Amy! You’re so money, and you don’t even know it! Miss you 🙂

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