Saturday, August 1, 2009

Michael Pollan – In Defense Of Cooking

Michael Pollan wrote the wonderful cover story in the New York Times Magazine this week. He talked about some my favorite things: Julia Child, cooking from scratch and remembering the food from his mother’s hand. (I was remembering MY mother’s food, not his, but you know what I mean.)

He also introduced an interesting and fairly startling concept – that the explosion of food television has not only NOT resulted in MORE cooking, it’s actually resulted in LESS cooking, where the shows are more spectator sport than how-to’s of cooking.

He tells us that Julia’s early The French Chef shows materially changed the meals in the Pollan household. He mentions her Bœuf Bourguignon becoming part of the “food rotation” and stopping whatever he was doing to watch his mother make Julia’s Chicken Kiev.

My mother didn’t embrace Julia Child, but I did, but not so much through her television show as through her books. (More about that, after I see Julie and Julia).

But I think that food bloggers, and the people that read them, DO take what we see being presented on television by our favorite chefs, and RUN with it.

When the Food Network had the sense to feature Michael, Giada and Ina on Saturday mornings, without a lot of the clutter currently on (Tyler, Anne Burrell and Sunny are 3 notable exceptions) I often, if not just about always, used one of those 3 shows’ recipes for dinner that weekend. Many, many times, I would literally run from the television into the kitchen to recreate what I had just seen. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think so.

Pollan does draw a contrast between those “dump and stir” shows and the more event-oriented spectacles in prime time. NO ONE is going to watch Iron Chef and then gallop into the kitchen and sous vide everything in sight. Having said that, I will be posting a recipe (one of these days) inspired by the genius of Michael Chiarello on Top Chef Masters.

I do absolutely love Pollan’s point that "the skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth."

That is what makes so many of these shows so frustrating to watch...for a cook. Of course, as a spectator, ridiculous challenges and mean-spirited exchanges is the stuff of high ratings. But for someone on the quest of kitchen-related enlightenment, many times commercial food television falls short. That’s one reason that I like to highlight it when it doesn’t.

He reports a fascinating finding that "a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves." Again, I know THAT is simply not the case for myself and, I strenuously believe, for my blogging buddies and readers.

But, paradoxically, I think it is true that "The Food Network has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch." For me, it has become both - a true time-consumer (I don’t want to say waster), as well as an inspiration to action.

At the end of the day, 2 thoughts are clear: That we are better off eating as our great grandparents ate (Pollan’s conclusion in his latest book) and to quote the food marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, on whom he relies heavily for this article, "Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself."


Adam said...

Very interesting post, Sue. I think I agree with the statements he made, and rather than learn, we prefer to just sit in awe. Maybe it's a lazy thing, or not knowing where to start.

Glad you kept my boy Tyler as an exception (even though I'd wish he'd make healthier things) :)

One of my favorite bodybuiders is Justin Harris. He's a physics and nutrition PhD and he said it best...

"If you can't grow it, pick it, or kill it... don't eat it".

lk (Healthy Delicious) said...

I know I'm far from the norm, but I found Pollens article to be kind of offensive (still love him though!) I actually do use techniques and ideas from shows like iron chef and top chef all the time. And the dump-and-stir type programs (Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee, I'm looking at you!) to be boring, gross, and a waste of airspace.

meleyna said...

Very interesting post. I'm not going to make any generalizations, but I would like to say I don't think RR is horrible. Maybe her food isn't the best or most authentic or I could go on and on. But honestly, she's what got me in the kitchen making food. I started watching her show in probably '03, not long after my parents divorced and I was sort of forced to figure it out myself. And I'm not claiming to be any sort of gourmet chef these days, but I like to think I can hold my own.

elizabeth said...

It's a great article. At first I was ready to question his assertion that people aren't cooking (given that every other researcher will tell you otherwise), but he brings up a great point about what people are cooking or rather assembling, which is not what you or I would define as, well, cooking--lots of convenience products, sandwiches, etc. It could explain why so many hosts are using shortcuts these days...

And on that note: while I still love Alton and Ina (she has my favorite savory baking recipes) and will on occasion watch Tyler, none of the other hosts really do it for me anymore. Giada is bugging me with her endless parade of sandwiches and salads and store-bought raviolis, most of the new hosts are either dull, have dull food (or both), and all of the good shows like Chiarello's, Mario's and the like have been cancelled. Claire's is pretty decent because at least she uses fresh ingredients, but processed food is getting so flipping prevalent across the network. Everyone is focused on "super-super-simple" instead of doing what Child did so well--demystifying cooking, with the exception of Alton Brown.

Frankly, I think this is why it's great that so many food bloggers are out there--we're the ones who are encouraging people to cook, and the more of us who say so, the more others will want to try.

Tom said...

Interesting article. Pollan didn't mention is that, ironically, the marketplace is more geared toward cooking at home now than it was when Julia Child was first on TV. Back then, to make the Chicken Kiev, you would probably have had to bone the chicken breasts yourself, if not cut up an entire chicken or two to get them. Making that herbed butter would probably have been with dried herbs unless your supermarket happened to have fresh curly parsley. Now we can buy the boned chicken breasts (sometimes even in pre-sliced cutlet form), get the herbs for the butter, and get that dish together in record time. We even have a choice of breadcrumbs to use on the outside.

I've always attributed my love of cooking to my parents, who both cook and do it extremely well. I don't think Pollan made the point that if you grew up in a household where someone cooked you're more likely to do it yourself (although I would have to reread the article carefully to see if he did). If you didn't have that growing up, perhaps that makes FN shows a sort of surrogate.

Sue said...

Hey Adam,
Thanks. I guess the rule is that the more you cook, the more you cook. You're right, if you have no idea where to start, it's easy to look to at these shows purely as entertainment. But there are plenty of simple (too simple, if you ask me) recipes and ideas for even the most novice cook.

I like your quote from Justin Harris. Can I add a tiny little addendum? "If you can't grow it, pick it, kill it OR buy it from some one who has... don't eat it".

Hi LK,
Interesting. You, as a dedicated and proficient cook, are NOT the viewer of Iron Chef that Michael Pollan had in mind. Plus, you fall into the food blogger category that I don’t think his premise applies to. BTW, your last few recipes were awesome!

RR isn’t evil. She’s a great talk show host, but, I personally, just do not like her cooking…at all. BUT I have to say that she DOES mostly cook from scratch. And I suppose that anything that gets someone into the kitchen is a good thing. And I’m glad that you’re noticing her “shortcomings” as you get more experience.

The thing is all this chatter about whether the Food Network is worthy or not is kind of beside the point. If it inspires you, even a tiny bit, to actually step inside the kitchen and make food (from scratch) that you and other people are willing to eat, then you’re fighting the good fight.

Hi Elizabeth,
That’s a good point that I didn’t mention. Maybe people ARE “cooking”, but it’s not REAL cooking.

There has been a lot of shortcut-taking on different shows, which I always strenuously object to when I see it. I can find the other ways to use a corn muffin mix, for example, right off the back of the box (not that I have EVER bought one, I swear), so I don’t need to waste a half hour watching someone tart it up on food television.

And yes! Power To The Food Bloggers!

Hiya Tom,
That is such a good point. Maybe that’s why Pollan mentioned that for Julia so much of cooking seemed like get-your-hands-dirty, hard physical labor.

I take your point about parents who love to cook leads to kids who love to cook, except the reverse is also true. When you have a great cook in the family, THAT’S the person who cooks. I did learn a lot about food from my mother, but I can’t sew, knit or crochet worth a dime, because she was so superb at that. And furthermore, my own kids, unfortunately, are not interested in becoming great (or even good) cooks. They still have time, I suppose, but what they don’t have is the interest, and WHERE that comes from is anyone’s guess.

Mold Testing Prince George\'s County, MD said...

HA HA so funny what the 4 year old said!

Great post!

<3 Lindsay