According to his newly released book Cooked, Michael Pollan wants us back in the kitchen. I’ve yet to read the book but when I do (probably this summer) I’ll give it a proper review. For now, though, based on the book’s highly publicized premise (and some reviews and an interview), I’d like to note that, as with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s most loyal but ignored friend, given the argument he makes, once again appears to be veganism. Indeed, every cultural and culinary shift he seeks to achieve is epitomized by the simplicity of a plant-based diet. But Pollan, for whatever reason, seems inclined to complicate that friendship.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is in many ways a brilliant book that exposed a dilemma we didn’t even know we had: our addiction to industrial corn. Pollan, with his signature combination of hortatory populism and seductive prose, encouraged consumers to resist Big Agriculture by sourcing food from small farms, culinary artisans, and farmers’ markets. Although he stressed that the ideal diet consisted of “mostly plants,” he took a slaverously self-indulgent approach to eating animals, going to far as to hunt down and slay his own pig like a crazed backwoodsman prowling the frontier. It all made for good copy but, at the end of the day the meat message contradicted his rousing plea to oppose industrial agriculture. Pollan’s blind spot became the blind spot of the movement he spawned: when you eat animals—be they ones you raised, hunted, or scraped off the highway—you do more for the cause of Big Agriculture than any other single consumer action.
This passive-aggressive pattern seems to be repeating itself in Cooked. Pollan wants us to reclaim the power of cooking. To this I raise my fist skyward. However, the strategy of re-engagement that Pollan advocates yet again grates against the popular gist of his hortation. He says “cook, people!” and then, in a way that only Pollan can, he situates the act out of reach, typically into some agrarian fantasyland populated with edgy Bobos in overalls. Never would Pollan suggest that we source our ingredients from—gasp!—a grocery store. No, that’s far too pedestrian, commonplace, easy, and normal. It’s at the door of the grocery story where Pollan’s populism slips into farmer-chic elitism and his fetish for the farmers’ market is duly exposed. Look, folks. I’ve got no problem with farmers’ markets. It’s just that the food is more expensive, the availability is spotty, and I still have to go to the grocery store for utilitarian items, like canned beans. Cooking takes time. When the ingredients have to be preciously sourced, it takes more time.
What I’m saying here is that, once again, Pollan’s best friend—really, his role model for the food-system-snubbing self-sufficient home cook—is The Vegan. Vegans typically make their way around a kitchen with rare aplomb because most of us, in our allegiance to plants, have already dropped out of the food system that Pollan so despises. We have done this because we have done the most important and effective and rebellious thing that can be done to undermine Big Ag: we’ve quit eating animals. Instead of retreating to some epicurean idyll, however, we’ve simply stuck to the veggie section while ducking periodically into the canned food aisle, bulk food section, and wherever it is you can get some whole wheat tortillas, quinoa, and almond milk. And we take these ingredients home. To the kitchen.
And we cook.