Back to Basics: Michael Pollan Needs a Wake Up Call

I sat on the train reading Michael Pollan's NYT article as a level of discontent slowly simmered. Every word, it seemed, struck me the wrong way. I'm a big fan of Pollan, and think An Omnivore's Dilemma should be required reading for every human being. Our relationship with food has become distorted, yes, but as Ed over at Cooking and Eating in Chicago points out, criticizing and talking down to the American public is not the catalyst for change. The reaction is likely to be akin to a teenager rolling their eyes at their parents. Our approach to food has evolved, for better and worse, but there is much hope on the horizon. It's happening here and on every other food blog as Michael Ruhlman noted this week. By letting the world into our home kitchens, we're inspiring others to do the same.

I do, though, agree with Pollan on one key point and that is feminism had a lot to do with the way our eating habits changed. Something had to give once both parents were away from the homefront, walking in exhausted from one job, only to start the night shift. But you know what? I get to say that because I'm a woman. I'm a product of that "you can have it all" myth we were sold growing up. In reality, the balance is more like walking a tightrope juggling flaming balls with a kid clinging to your leg. Sure it's difficult but why kick a woman when she's down? Besides, everyone is overworked these days. Most people I know, regardless of marriage status or if they have children, are under the same work-life balance and pressures.

"If you're going to have a sense of fear of failure, you're just never gonna learn how to cook."

-Julia Child, from The French Chef

Shed the fear of it not being a perfect meal everyday. Be realistic about the time you have, then plan your menu around that. I interviewed Julie Powell for Relish magazine and when asked how Mastering the Art of French Cooking affected her approach to cooking, she said "It made me appreciate what is truly essential. I still cook almost every day, but I cook much more simply and casually." Perhaps measuring time and numbers is useful in other areas, but when it comes to preparing a meal, it's about the quality of what you produce, not how many dishes are dirtied or beads of sweat are collected from your brow.

Michael Pollan's recent article sets people up for a sense of failure. It leaves readers feeling inadequate, especially female ones. It points fingers and scolds like a disappointed parent but offers no tangible solutions. So shed that sense of failure you felt after reading his article and hit the grocery store or farmer's market. Pick out a new ingredient or vegetable you've never had. Then go type the name of it into the Food Blog Search and in seconds, you'll find a friend to encourage you every step of the way. Here's a sampling of some of the women who inspire me every day.

Alice at Savory Sweet Life

Jen at My Kitchen Addiction

Tamar at Starving Off the Land

Elle at Elle's New England Kitchen

Dorie at On the Road and in the Kitchen with Dorie

Gina at Bowl Licker

Natasha at 5-Star Foodie

Ulla at Goldlilocks Finds Manhattan


  • Libby

    Do you hear that? That’s the sound of me applauding WILDLY! You go girl! (excuse the slip into excitable slang, but this post is GOOOOD) :0)

  • Libby

    I have to say too, that I’m incredibly jealous that I cannot write like this. I commented at Ruhlman’s blog and rambled on and on, knowing what I WANTED to say, just not sure how. Thanks for showing me 🙂 🙂

  • Adriana

    Well put! Being an oldest child it was easy for me to identify with Pollan’s scolding (shameful blush), but you’re right. It’s not an effective way to encourage people back into the kitchen, especially when Pollen throws in that “too cheap and lazy” gem. Ouch.
    I wish he had done a better job of addressing the thornier reasons why we don’t cook as much anymore: we work longer hours and cooking healthful food can seem more expensive.
    I think it’s so much more effective to say “cooking is simpler, easier than you think and you’ll enjoy the results.” So yeah, mixed greens and scrambled eggs for dinner? That’s cooking. A sandwich? If it’s got fresh fruits or vegetables in it, pat yourself on the back.

  • elizabeth

    Great assessment!
    What bugged me the most was the assertions from the NPD researcher–his claims felt dated, based on trends that were certainly happening, but have experienced a significant shift in a relatively short period of time. Cookbook sales went up 9% in 2008; Saveur dramatically increased its subscriber base during a time when everyone is calling for the death of print. People are enrolling in culinary school and local cooking classes, and new food blogs are popping up on a regular basis. So what if we all really like making sandwiches–there’s so much you can potentially learn as you try new things, such as sauteeing mushrooms in sherry, or roasting peppers, or even trying new cheeses.
    Balzer’s view is naturally skewed by watching so many new convenience foods pop up in the course of the 20 years he’s been tracking the industry, but it shows an intellectual laziness that, given the attention this article has received, does a disservice to all researchers who are paying attention to things like new media (and, you know, recent research!) in our quest for insights. Between Pollan’s finger-scolding and Balzer’s dated view, the NYM piece feels like a giant middle finger to all of us who are trying to be encouraging and inspiring to our readers, but it makes what we do that much more important.

  • Alta

    In some ways, I felt that Pollan was bringing to light some very accurate observations. I like the way he presented Julia Child, that she was not the “anti-feminist” icon, rather, she sought joy in the creation of food and cooking and reveled in the art itself, and showed many woment they could do the same and be proud.
    But at the same time, I consider my opening of a can of tomatoes, or using prepared mayonnaise, part of my cooking process. There are compromises every working woman must make. So yes, making a sandwich at home counts! It’s still better than KFC, healthier for you, for sure.
    But I agree with you about the scolding tone of his article. At first read, I see his point. But you’re correct…he leaves you hopeless for a cure for the issue. I know a lot of us as food bloggers hope to inspire those that don’t know how to cook, or are limited in their skills, to step outside of their box and try something new. Perhaps we can instill the change for the better? I know if I’ve improved one person’s life, then I’m feeling pretty darn accomplished!

  • Blake

    So funny how different people got a different “read” of Pollan’s article. For me, I didn’t feel scolded or shamed. I feel as motivated as ever to cook good food every night (whether that’s something simple or something more). My feeling about the “crusty” researcher in the article was that he (obviously) had an agenda, truth be damned. He wants people to give up on cooking. He wants you to believe that the future is grim. But we know it’s not. As long as we can continue motivating our readers, friends and family that it’s not too hard (that’s it’s pleasurable even) to cook, then we’re winning. The fact that Pollan got this guy to admit to the power of cooking in the last paragraph is key: food industry researchers know real cooks are out here leading a trend back to real food, but they’re using all their PR muscle to (try to) convince people otherwise.

  • Diane

    I hated his article. There was no place for me or my fellow cooks in his world view. Because we work, must be therefore be “cheap and lazy” and reliant on cans, afraid of the kitchen or disinterested? I thought the article was cynical, jaded, dyspeptic and mean-spirited. It relied too much on the POV one one corporate consultant, and not at all on the thousands of real women who cook whole foods every day and enjoy doing so. I generally support Mr. Pollan’s thought-provoking writings, but not on this one.

  • Jennifer Perillo

    I’m glad to see so many people out there going against Balzar’s statistics. Maybe the silver-lining to our economic situation is that more people will be joining our ranks in the kitchen.