Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I don't need a food savior, thanks very much

I’ve been reading the advance reviews that have come out about Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, as I wait for my copy to show up at my door. I was curious to read a review that Pollan himself tweeted out on Tuesday, done by The Center for Consumer Freedom. Judging from a cursory glance through their website, they seem more like the Center to Advance the Interests of Industrial Agriculture, so I’m not surprised they are not fans of the work of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like. (I think I qualify as one of their “food radicals” though. You know, because I don’t like pesticides in my produce and antibiotics in my meat.)

I haven’t read the book yet (though I am hoping to start it this week). But I was struck by a few of the arguments (read: utter nonsense) that this group was making which are not dependent on me having read the book for analysis. Here are a few of their statements, and my take on them.

Like his previous efforts, the book calls hard-working Americans to more hard work in the kitchen, because Pollan believes that slaving over a cutting board is better for our souls or our health than allowing industry to help ease the load.
I would consider myself a hard-working American. I work 45 hours a week in corporate America and commute for an additional 12 or so. And I do think that it’s true that cooking and food preparation can sometimes be hard work. (A 12-hour day of tomato canning can be brutal on your feet, no doubt.) But I have yet to recall the last time I slaved over a cutting board. Unless you work in a kitchen for a living, I doubt that most Americans who cook would consider themselves to be slaving over their cutting boards. Cooking is time intensive, which I’ll discuss in a bit, but is it work that the average hard-working American can manage? Most assuredly, yes.

I haven’t read Pollan’s supposed argument for cooking being good for the soul yet, so I can’t say how much I agree or disagree. But I can tell you that I’ve never heard anyone claim that eating a bag of Doritos or heating up a frozen Lean Cuisine was good for their soul. (On the contrary, 10 years ago in my diet food days, frozen diet lasagna was pretty much the antithesis of being good for my soul.)

Pollan’s “solution” to the non-problem of people occasionally eating out is raising taxes on restaurant food, since in the Church of Foodieism not cooking is a sin.
Pollan was just interviewed in New York Magazine and mentions in the interview that he eats out several times a week. So I’m not sure where the idea of Pollan vilifying people for eating out comes from. Eating out can be a great joy. Our family loves to eat out when we can, particularly at local, non-chain restaurants that support our community’s economy and agriculture. But there’s a difference between eating out as a special meal to be enjoyed and eating all of your meals outside the home and on the go.

I’d venture to guess that what Pollan would say was not such a great thing is the eating-out habit of one of my regular customers when I worked at McDonalds in college – the one who complained that her son already had 4 of the same Happy Meal toy. (As the toys were cycled out on a weekly basis, that’s a few too many Happy Meals for your kid in a 7-day span, lady.) I don’t think the Center for Consumer Freedom is leaving any room for common sense here.

There’s nothing wrong with home cooking and quite a lot to be said for it, but ultimately it takes time and effort that some people simply don’t have or would rather spend on other things. Punishing restaurant eating would unfairly target low-income people who work physically demanding jobs over long hours.
The authors of this review argue that some people would like to spend their time on other things besides cooking. I understand that. I have a lot of friends who don’t share my love of cooking and think of it more as a chore than a joy. Those friends are also by and large clean eaters. They don’t resort to processed garbage foods, but they do have simplified diets. You can still eat healthy food in your home if you don’t like to cook. Also, cooking doesn’t have to be a grand production. And you don’t have to do it every single day. (Hello, Crock Pot. Nice to meet you.)

I have personally known people who truly work 80 hours per week to support their families and are juggling keeping a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies. These are the people who can truly say that they don’t have the time for cooking meals at home. But the majority of people who say they “don’t have time” to cook have a lot of other things going on in their lives that they could live without. You don’t have time to spend 25 minutes cooking a meal, but you have time to keep up with six TV shows per week? Or 3 hours a week to spend at the golf course? Don’t even get me started on how much time people waste on Facebook. The average “hard-working” American’s TV consumption alone makes this “people are just too busy” argument a complete fraud. We are too busy for the things we don’t prioritize.

I’ve been guilty myself of falling into the “I’m too busy” trap. But when I look back at my week, how did I spend my time? In five years, it won’t matter if I missed an episode of my favorite TV show to cook dinner. But the healthy lifestyle I prioritize now will pay off over five years. Less illness, better physical fitness, and let’s face it – a healthier family.

A close cousin of the “I’m too busy” trap is the “It’s too expensive” trap. It’s obvious that healthy food costs more in our society than unhealthy food. But Americans who do not go to bed hungry at night in general already eat too much food. And those who say they can’t afford organic produce or to buy from a farmer’s market? I’d be willing to bet at least a fair share have smart phones, data plans, cable or satellite TV service, laptops, SUVs or time shares. We pay for what we prioritize.

The authors cite low-income workers as being unfairly targeted, but the answer to low-income individuals getting healthy food is not processed corn by-products in shiny packages. It’s better wages and food prices that reflect the actual cost of production. In this country we think we’re lucky if we can get health benefits for our family for under $500 a month, but we balk at paying $1 extra per pound for produce that wasn’t sprayed with carcinogens. (Not to mention the fact that the worker who got sprayed with the same carcinogen probably has no health insurance, but that’s another essay entirely.)

I also felt like the tone of this essay was incredibly patronizing. As if they were trying to hold my hand and tell me that the quality of my life would be so much better if I’d just entrust my food to the industry’s hands – that they could lift a burden I begrudgingly carry around. Be my food savior, if you will.

I would say that anyone who has eaten a meal at the Next Gen House knows that we have no use for a food savior. We consider the time and effort we put into food preparation and cultivation in our house to be worth the other things we sacrifice. We don’t have cable, but we subscribe to a CSA. We can’t do everything we want to do in life, and that’s okay. We chose to spend last Saturday canning jelly instead of doing any number of things you could do with a free, beautiful weather Saturday. But cooking for our family and for others when they are guests in our home or need a meal is a priority, no matter how much time and effort it takes. If that makes me a food radical, get me a bumper sticker.

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