What do we make of Michael Pollan’s seventh book, Cooked? Is it, as the subtitle suggests, a “natural history” which examines the science and paleoanthropology of cooking? Is it, as many of Pollan’s promotional interviews suggest, a polemic and a manual that tells us how and when to cook in order to repair the social fabric and national health of the United States? Is it a memoir of meals past, with ample nostalgia for a simpler time measured out with head shaking over the bustle of the modern world? Is it the foodie equivalent of a travelogue, tracing the author’s encounters with cooking techniques in such exotic locales as Korea, Portugal, and North Carolina? Is it an intellectual history of cookery, attempting to establish the cerebral value of the culinary arts through the theories of French anthropologists and philosophers? Or does this book and its promotional tie-ins comprise an elaborately executed piece of multimedia performance art, a parody of the foodie intellectual on the level of Joaquin Phoenix growing a beard and releasing a rap album?
- Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. 481 pages. The Penguin Press. $27.95.
I’m going to go with the poorly executed parody theory. Why else publish a book that attempts — with uneven levels of success — to encompass everything I described in the above paragraph? Why else bury the history and science reportage — which are Pollan’s strongest suits — in layers of stultifying narrative about his personal struggle to learn how to cook? Why else send a book to print when it is still peppered with un-fact-checked references (I’m not sure why he refers to The Feminine Mystique by name so frequently when it appears that he hasn’t read it) and contradictory aphorisms? In the introduction, he makes the extravagant and not very supportable claim that “specialization (i.e. outsourcing our baking and cooking to food professionals) breeds ignorance,” with no indication that he would later contradictorily conclude “specialization has much to recommend it.” Why else arrange a lunch date with Michael Moss (of Salt Sugar Fat) which, as told by Emily Weinstein of the New York Times, appeared to be a thinly-veiled contest to land sound bites from their respective books, with Moss broodily ruminating on the brutal market competition that lies behind the peacefully inert frozen goods and Pollan gleefully chopping onions to prove that it is not, in his words, soul-crushing drudgery. If this is not performance art, what purpose does it serve?
Michael Pollan has what must be the biggest platform of any food writer in the country. He earned it, making his name through the rigorous investigation historical and contemporary food politics and tapping into growing national concerns about what food is made of and how we obtain it. The mainstreaming of food politics and Michael Pollan’s celebrity status are intertwined: Collectively, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and the documentary Food, Inc. (for which he was a consultant) have profoundly shifted conversations about food in the country, bringing the discourse of food out of the province of counter-cultural activists and conspiracy theorists so that even the average overworked American might be equipped look at food labels in a more critical light.
And what he has decided to do with this broad and influential platform is to turn inward, describing his thought process as he labors over wood fires and onions or as he lobbies for the approval of his bread-baking mentor with a “crumb shot” of his homemade sourdough. Personal narrative can be a powerful and engaging tool, and one particularly suitable for food writing — taste and appetite are fundamentally individual and subjective faculties, yet also so deeply embedded in culture and geography that reading about food can play naturally into desirable readerly experiences of empathy and inference. But the ruminative and descriptive passages of Cooked reveal less about the cultural meanings of cooking and more about Michael Pollan’s own prejudices. Aside from the colorfully drawn master crafters who teach him to cook, and his own family, to whom some very sweet and almost redemptive passages are dedicated, most eaters and readers don’t get a lot of respect in Cooked. Pollan is dismissive of the theoretical writings of Bachelard, Freud, and others, usually noting the pointlessness or opacity of the theory even as he cites it to support some of his more ruminative claims about the place of cooking in the cultural imagination. This was a particular disappointment to me; having read a considerable amount of theory by Levi-Strauss, Barthes, and Bachelard, I picked up Cooked expressly for the rare opportunity to see their food concepts rendered accessible for a general audience. Pollan is dismissive of those who have criticized his past writing, neither paraphrasing their counterarguments nor adjusting nor defending his position in response. He is rather rude about the North Carolinian people who introduced him to their home — in “the sticks,” where he’s surprised that national food conversations have had an impact — and initiated him into their local barbecue rituals (during which he depicts them as a clamoring crowd shouting for the pork “skeen,” a regionalism that Pollan repeats many times as if to underline how different and strange they are to him). He ungenerously generalizes 20th-century women, whom he imagines as duped both by feminism and by industrial food marketing. He ungenerously generalizes Americans, whom he imagines as lazy, irresponsible, and uninformed about cooking — a peculiarly ironic claim, since he also positions himself as a relatively new cook, which makes me wonder who was preparing him the kinds of meals he told us to eat in Food Rules. And in all of this — the traveloguing, the monologuing, the ideologuing — the book barely keeps track of its purported premise, which is that cooking brings us back into contact with the reality of food.
I have to confess an affinity for that phrase, “the reality of food.” I can get behind that. As an average intellectual foodie — the sort who enjoys reading about nuns who think cheese should be part of the Eucharist and how white bread evolved (two of the better passages in this book) — the reality of food is what I’m looking for when I shop at the farmer’s market, cook meals from scratch for myself, and make my own pickles with a covey of likeminded women. The idea that there is a better, tastier, more humane reality of food hidden just behind the pink-slimy curtain of branding and industrialization is very compelling idea.
But “reality” is a slippery word, and the hands-on, DIY, Slow Food version of reality is sometimes indistinguishable from romance. It’s the romance of Cooked that has been garnering the most attention in interviews and reviews, both positive and negative, in the short period since its publication: the rosy picture of the family dining table as the “nursery of democracy,” the recasting of onion chopping as Buddhist meditation, the ersatz Proustian remembrance of his mother’s turquoise Le Creuset as a symbol of family unity (later disrupted by vegetarian sisters). For many detractors, the “reality of food” includes no such family harmony, and is disrupted by the less sitcom-friendly forces of overwork, economic instability, depression, and disability.
But trust me, would-be readers, neither the reality nor the romance occupies much space in Cooked. The majority of the book is about Michael Pollan’s career as an author and as a fledgling cook, and it will be as much of a turning point in the evolution of the food movement as Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was for the progress of the entertainment industry. • 16 May 2013