And with this, (hat tip), my boundless enthusiasm for Michael Pollan’s body of work starts to subside. Where’s the Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who openly worried that there weren’t more sustainable food farms that also had feminist values? I guess he got eaten by a Pollan who knows that taking swipes at feminism gets you fat checks from the NY Times. For even as he praises Julia Childs as a feminist icon—a title she deserves, since she actively resist the sexism that makes women kitchen cooks, but turns men into chefs—he’s doing the “best feminists are the ones who get thee to the kitchen and pretend that it’s liberation” schtick. Because in his eyes, Childs isn’t a feminist hero because she made cooking a career for herself and didn’t apologize for that, it’s because she really liked cooking. And feminists who suggested that having your own income might be more useful to a woman’s quiver of survival skills than knowing how to fricassee were just meany-heads with no sense of beauty.
I say this as someone who likes to cook, and who actually tends to agree with Pollan that it’s an interesting enough way to spend your time, especially if you feel like you’ve got a lot of freedom to experiment and fuck up. More men should pick up the past time, which I know is something Pollan would eagerly endorse, if he wasn’t so busy blaming feminism to notice that it would be more interesting to beat up on men for a continued lack of interest and a steady rate of doing less housework than women than make already overworked women feel guilty. Even though he loves to cook, Pollan abdicates all male responsibility for the situation he finds so dire, which is that few Americans eat much home-cooked food, and instead frets about how jobs and gullibility to advertising claims have ruined women that should be in the kitchen right now doing something delightful, even if they’ll never get paid, called a “chef”, or probably even thanked by their families. Towards the very end, he tacks on a call for men to care, but it’s hard to swallow, after comments like this:
Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia never referred to her viewers as “housewives” — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “The Second Sex” that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts (féminisme, c’est bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.
It’s got that quality that I’ve come to know and love in those who want to be feminists and make excuses for unfeminist nonsense. He’s not leaning on “choice”—as in, if a woman isn’t being marched at gunpoint to a behavior, then it’s automatically “feminist” and shouldn’t be analyzed in any way—but this is very close. Simone de Beauvoir was certainly interested in how domestic tedium destroys women’s minds and souls, and so of course she was going to have interesting thoughts on cooking as respite from that. But the less exotic American second wave feminists like Betty Friedan that he’s picking on here were rejecting a culture where women’s creativity at home was being squashed in new and exciting canned food/perfect house ways. To boot, there is the more pragmatic arguments about the need for independence and your own income that Pollan’s ignoring completely. Many women who might enjoy cooking have never gotten around to it, because paying for the food on the table—and not allowing a man to dominate the finances and therefore deprive you of your freedom—are more pressing concerns.
And, as Kate Harding points out, some women just are never going to like cooking. Though I do agree with Pollan that a lot of people who don’t like cooking—and more men don’t like it than women, don’t forget!—think that it’s harder than it is, and have also been brought up in the unimaginative American kitchen. For instance, our “cooking” in home ec in high school centered around Jello molds and cans of spaghetti sauce, and becoming an adult who makes her own spaghetti sauce was a revelation for me that caused me to spend more time in the kitchen.
And needless to say, putting forward Childs and her French cooking as a cure for America’s rapidly expanding waistline strikes me as more than a little off. I don’t generally drink butter to lose weight, you know? Seriously, he says, “When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt”—interestingly, this is what you get when you let the French do the cooking. I think there’s a causation issue he’s missing in this paragraph:
Cutler and his colleagues also surveyed cooking patterns across several cultures and found that obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation. The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not.
(See? I told you that the “get in the kitchen, ladies” guilt trip is strong with this one.) It seems to me the thing that would make it easier to cook more—time—also makes it easier to move around more. The lifestyle that’s conducive to cooking is also one where you have more energy in general, and move around more, which decrease the appetite for comfort food and increases the number of calories burned. But Americans generally get up early, sit on their ass all day, and get home with enough stress on their brow that all they want to do is eat a burger and watch TV.
Not that Pollan ignores this concern, to be perfectly fair.
If cooking really offers all these satisfactions, then why don’t we do more of it? Well, ask Julie Powell: for most of us it doesn’t pay the rent, and very often our work doesn’t leave us the time; during the year of Julia, dinner at the Powell apartment seldom arrived at the table before 10 p.m. For many years now, Americans have been putting in longer hours at work and enjoying less time at home. Since 1967, we’ve added 167 hours — the equivalent of a month’s full-time labor — to the total amount of time we spend at work each year, and in households where both parents work, the figure is more like 400 hours. 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.
And that doesn’t take the daily commute into the equation. I blame the daily commute more than any other factor for why Americans will watch cooking shows, but won’t actually get up and cook very much. Americans spend an hour and a half a day driving. They drive 16 miles on average to and from work. Those are miles driven, for most commuters, in thick, snarled, energy-draining traffic. The last thing Americans want to do when they get home, after that, is cook. Most of them think of cooking as something you do starting with a recipe, which inevitably means that you don’t have all the ingredients, and that means adding more driving time going to the grocery store even more, and who wants that? Pollan wants to put about 90% of the blame on the nationwide embrace of food in freezers and cans and boxes or out of drive-thrus—which is why he’s interested in the fact that even housewives eat about the same as everyone else—but I’m not so sure. I think a culture of processed food took advantage of people’s limited mental space for cooking, and became the norm.
I think housewives appreciate processed food, because no one thanks women for cooking, but they are usually quick to complain. Frozen pizza has three advantages: You have more time to do other things, you don’t have to spend family time cleaning up while everyone else is in the living room watching the best prime time shows, and no one will complain. American culture in general tends to mediocrity, so why should food be any different? Our corporate radio stations, TV networks, movie theaters, even landscaping choices start to form around the principle of not being offensive, and that tendency has developed our palates, as well. I like to cook, but the easiest audience to cook for is one, because I’ll always say thank you, and if it sucks, I’ve only offended myself in my processing of learning.
If Pollan really wants people to cook more, he needs to preach more feminism, not bash feminism. Make women’s work important, not wallpaper. Get more men into the kitchen, and that will raise the esteem of cooking. Pollan’s hyper-focus on women as the primary source of food just contributes to the problem. If only women do it, no one appreciates it, and nobody is very understanding of imperfections or a learning curve. That’s why I think his criticism of competitive cooking shows is so misplaced. I think that they have the chance to encourage people to think of cooking as something you experiment with, and more importantly, by putting men in the kitchen in front of America, we’re giving our sexist brains an opportunity to think of cooking as something that is real (read: male performed) work, and worthy of being treated as such.
No, if you’ll pardon me, I have some eggplant to peel, cube, and salt, so that it can be even sweeter when I toss it in my tomato cream sauce that I’m making for dinner. Because one thing Pollan’s got right—the more you learn about cooking, the more fun it actually becomes.