I used to think it was impossible to agree with someone’s conclusion, but find their arguments for it repellent. Then I read Michael Pollan.
One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.
Before I say why I find this argument, this article, so infuriating, a caveat: I like Michael Pollan. He’s a great campaigner for food that doesn’t make us fat or sick, and the net impact of his work has been positive, especially in the early years when most people didn’t know about how poisoned the US food supply is. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and I hope he continues writing.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to continue reading. This entire article—and from the reviews I’ve read, this entire book—is some sort of ode to cooking, an aria to its sensory, health and spiritual pleasures.
Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.
Some of this sounds borderline convincing. I actually love cooking (though butchering a pig myself, less so), and I get a genuine sense of accomplishment when I serve my friends something I created from scratch. Pollan’s right, that’s a rare thing in this world, especially where most of us have jobs (‘solutions architect’, ‘strategic consultant’) that are boring to describe and impossible to show off.
But that’s really the problem with Pollan’s argument: He’s not making one. The only thing this piece (and, frankly, a lot of Pollan’s work) tells you is ‘I like cooking.’
I’m sure that’s great for Pollan’s health and pocketbook and carbon footprint, but it’s not clear that his preferences are scalable, or that they offer any solutions for the actual, real health problems facing America.
Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy — even these modest acts will constitute a kind of a vote. A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization — against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.
I hate to spray Roundup on Pollan’s parade, but cooking is not withdrawing from corporations, it is simply trading one set of them for another. Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, these companies control, directly or indirectly, vast swathes of the American landscape. Monsanto makes the pesticides farmers spray on their crops, Ford the trucks delivering them, Safeway the shelves stocking them.
And that’s not in itself a bad thing. Corporations provide the great majority of the things we buy. If Pollan is serious about withdrawing from corporate specialization, why not make his own clothes, his own car, his own toothpaste?
This, ultimately, is why my problem with Pollan goes so far beyond this excerpt. His signature phrase, ‘Vote With Your Fork’, isn’t an argument for a better food system, it’s an argument for two food systems.
A hundred years ago, when Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ described the sweatshop conditions of meatpacking workers in Chicago, the cries weren’t for consumers to choose ‘sweatshop-free’ products. Fifty years ago, when the modern highway gave rise to the modern head-on collision, the cries weren’t for consumers to pay extra for a seatbelt. In both cases, the government did its job and raised the minimum standard to stay in business, and in doing so kept consumers safe and healthy, regardless of their choices.
The United States doesn’t need a higher ceiling, it needs a higher floor. Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1960. Diabetes went from 5.5 million people to 20 million people in just 30 years.
Sending everyone to Whole Foods with an apron and a vegetable peeler isn’t going to fix this. As long as our food system continues to produce cheap, unhealthy, ready-made food, cooking from scratch won’t be a viable alternative.
Instead of telling people to leave the world of corporate food, I’d love to see Pollan help improve it. When the government gets serious about reducing obesity rates, it will stop subsidizing unhealthy food and start labeling it. It will restrict companies from advertising to kids and selling them junk in their schools. It will tax the obvious bad products like soda, and nudge us to consume less of the slightly-less-bad ones.
Should people cook more? Undoubtedly. But before we tell them to vote with their forks, we should tell them to vote with their votes.