» April 25th, 2013

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.


8 Responses to Cooked

  1. Lori P says:

    Nice! I totally agree with you, James.

  2. Bea Elliott says:

    Whenever I think of the simplicity of cooking vegan meals I can’t help but remember the complications I once had in trying to keep every animal-based pathogen away from my other (real) foods. Two separate areas in my shopping buggy, bags and in my fridge. I had two cutting boards, two working spaces and lots of antibacterial sprays to keep a splash of “meat juice” from contaminating my kitchen. Just yesterday The Center for Science in the Public Interest released this 12 year “Risky Foods” study:

    No thanks. I’ll pass.

    Instead I’ll chop a few pounds of vegetables in about a half hour and that sets me fine for most of the week. With some canned goods and a few other staples – I’m a master chef! Overall there’s just way too much worry and work in consuming what the meat-eating foodies advocate. Cooking should be trouble-free fun. I don’t know how regret over death could ever be a part of that recipe.

    I’m with you James that we should celebrate the kitchen – In a healthy, happy vegan way! ;)

  3. 1848 says:

    He’s neither here nor there. I just can’t transfer temporary authority to someone so wavering and unsure about the simplest concept. Two steps forward, some weird jig backwards. If one is writing a book, shouldn’t one speak with assertiveness? What is your point, Pollan? If you haven’t come to one that you can stand by, get back to writing. Forget fashion.

    His passive-aggressiveness, his redundancy (you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all), all seem to indicate that he’s publishing marginal stuff, the in-between stages. And people are paying for it, knocking him up the bestseller list. I suppose it could be argued that Pollan reflects his audience’s own concerns and questions.

    And that’s the thing with Pollan that keeps me away. He’s not writing for himself. He’s catering to an audience he knows too well to forget; an audience that would totally drown him out if he stated, plain as day: All roads lead to veganism, which hurts no one, so let’s do it already.

    Until he forgets his audience, he’ll never find his own voice.

  4. Katrina says:

    What a satisfying post to read!

    • Boe says:

      Dear Professor McWilliams,

      I totally agree. Thanks for saying it.

      I would lump the author of this book in a group of people who just want to write books and have a broad(er) audience. And which author doesn’t? He does that by teasing the vegans in the audience by dropping words that would give the allusion that the book is truly educational and possibly vegan-friendly. Of course it is not.

      Any person who has had access to slaughterhouses or the views of any animal slaughter and still advocates meat is just plain hungry for something other than writing up good recipes.

  5. Lori says:

    Today I received a response from Julie Cummins of San Francisco’s CUESA (Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture) who also happen to run the SF Ferry Famers’ Market. It made me think of Pollan who is a regular guest speaker there. I had written to CUESA complaining about their goat festival and the promotion of so-called sustainable animal products. Here is a portion of the email she sent me:

    “We don’t plan to stop allowing the sale of meat or other animal products, or stop offering education about them. In our mission to connect people with where their food comes from and how it’s produced, we promote the whole range of sustainable farm products. CUESA believes that, for people who do eat meat, it is important to make sustainable and humane options available from small, local ranches run by people who care about animals. I understand your perspective that there’s no such thing as humane animal agriculture, but we disagree on that point.”

    I’ve mentioned veganics to these people and others who claim to advocate “sustainable,” but they are not interested.(What, I ask you, is more sustainable than veganic farming?) I’ve tried to work within the framework of the local, sustainable movement as a vegan, and now find that it may not be possible. Especially as long as Pollan is out there still eating and “cooking” meat. But, we vegans need to continue to push our environmental message and “win over” those who would be earth friendly and compassionate!

    • Lori says:

      P.S. I wonder if there are any animal product free farmers’ markets and especially ones that advertise as such. Anyone heard of such a thing?

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