Posted by: Erin | July 31, 2009

Thoughts on Michael Pollan’s “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”

Earlier today, I checked Facebook and saw that Smith College’s Alumnae group linked to a NY Times article written by Michael Pollan entitled “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” Someone commented on the link, sarcastically thanking Pollan for blaming the downfall of cooking on working women. I was curious to see if he actually did that, so I clicked. Generally, I don’t consider Facebook a timesuck, but I ended up writing a long piece while reading the article while trying to gather my thoughts. Since it got so long, instead of commenting on Facebook, I’m posting it here.

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What an interesting article. It starts out with reminiscences of watching Julia Child on TV as a kid, but evolves into a very insightful overview of food programming and advertising as we know it today, versus back when Julia was on the air. Pollan talks about how food programming now is largely about eating (and ordering food) rather than making it yourself. He discusses the competition-style shows, now so common on channels like the Food Network. (His remarks on how Erica Gruen shifted that channel’s focus in the 90’s to an audience who liked to eat rather than who liked to cook makes those shows make a lot of sense – the market of “those who liked to eat” includes a far greater number of men, which likely is why these competition shows have commentary to rival ESPN announcers.) He also talks about the advertising that is shown: during the shows for the “likes to eat” crowd, the ads are almost always for take out or other pre-made stuff. Compare that to the ads shown during shows like America’s Test Kitchen, which routinely shows ads for KitchenAid products, and in the show itself, promotes items and ingredients via its testing segments. But the items ATK promotes are to help the viewer make things themselves, not simply know how to order the item in a restaurant.

Pollan quotes Mario Batali about the Food Network:

The Food Network has figured out that we care much less about what’s cooking than who’s cooking. A few years ago, Mario Batali neatly summed up the network’s formula to a reporter: “Look, it’s TV! Everyone has to fall into a niche. I’m the Italian guy. Emeril’s the exuberant New Orleans guy with the big eyebrows who yells a lot. Bobby’s the grilling guy. Rachael Ray is the cheerleader-type girl who makes things at home the way a regular person would. Giada’s the beautiful girl with the nice rack who does simple Italian food. As silly as the whole Food Network is, it gives us all a soapbox to talk about the things we care about.” Not to mention a platform from which to sell all their stuff.

When put like that, it seems to me that the Food Network is, essentially, a glorified informercial channel. Yes, you can learn stuff from the shows if you choose, but as Pollan rightly says, the audience cares far more about WHO is cooking, rather than WHAT they are cooking. Nearly every major TV chef has their own product line, which many use on their shows and hawk whenever possible. I don’t watch the Food Network, but I do watch cooking shows on PBS’s Create channel, and I find myself falling into that mentality as well. While I’m sure Lidia Bastianich is a wonderful cook, I just don’t care to watch her show, whereas though Ming Tsai doesn’t often cook stuff I’d attempt to make (or necessarily want to eat), I find him engaging, funny, and enthusiastic, so I’ll watch if I happen to channel surf to Create when he’s on. I don’t own an industrial sized grill and have a few acres of land to put it on either, but I watch Steven Raichlen‘s Primal Grill for much the same reasons. I’ve picked up recipes from both, of course, because on any given show, you’re likely to come across SOMETHING you’d like and/or is easy enough to try at home, but the hook to get me to watch at all, is the person doing the cooking. And if they can sell you some products at the same time (like a Rachael Ray frying pan or an Emeril Lagasse marinade), so be it. It’s like the Magic Bullet infomercial (which I admit, fascinates me, no matter how many times I see it): under the premise of showing you how easy it is to make something (without giving you an actual recipe), they are trying to sell a product.

The contrasting of Julia Child’s show with Rachael Ray’s (and others of that variety) particularly struck me. I am certainly one of those people who gets a thrill out of really cooking (not just microwaving stuff), so I understand Pollan’s comments regarding how Julia viewed cooking: a challenge, taken on to please no one but yourself. There’s a great feeling of triumph in following a recipe and getting an edible result (especially if it turns out half as nice as the recipe’s accompanying picture!). That’s why I write my cooking and gardening blog – it’s not so much because I care how many people read it, but simply that I like having a record of my culinary successes, as well as a way to note an recognize failures, so as to fix them in the future.

And because of this, I take some issue with Erica Gruen’s comment about people not watching TV to learn things. I don’t think that’s an entirely true statement. I think what she probably meant was that the people who DO watch TV to learn things are a relatively small group, and thusly, far less profitable than what any given network would like. If people didn’t want to learn something from TV, we wouldn’t have a lot of the programming on PBS (I’m particularly thinking of Create TV here). And we certainly see plenty of TV shows and DVDs peddled to parents of young children as “educational,” so I can’t believe that no one thinks of TV as a learning tool. (How many “movie days” did you have back in grade school and high school?) I’m not saying TV can (or should) replace classrooms or actually attempting things yourself, but simply that it IS possible to learn from TV, if the show is smart, well-written, and engaging.

But Pollan’s main question here seems to be “Why are we fascinated by watching OTHER people cook?” We don’t get to taste their amazing dishes at the end. We don’t get the satisfaction of having prepared it ourselves.

To point out that television has succeeded in turning cooking into a spectator sport raises the question of why anyone would want to watch other people cook in the first place. There are plenty of things we’ve stopped doing for ourselves that we have no desire to watch other people do on TV: you don’t see shows about changing the oil in your car or ironing shirts or reading newspapers. So what is it about cooking, specifically, that makes it such good television just now?

I think the thing with watching cooking on TV is that it makes cooking seem easy and fun, something that most of us don’t consider cooking to be. Don’t get me wrong: I very much enjoy cooking. But at the end of a long day, when I get home late, cooking is a hassle. My mentality becomes “Need fuel NOW,” instead of thinking about what imaginative thing I can whip up. If I came home and all my ingredients were prepped in pristine little glass bowls, and I had all the pots and pans set up, and all dinner had to it was throwing the stuff together, popping it in the oven, and chilling out for a bit while it cooked, then yeah, I’d probably cook more during the week. But, like most of us with full time jobs and other obligations, I don’t have a team of culinary elves at home setting things up to be ready upon my return home every night. And as Pollan points out, there is something fascinating about watching a project come together, and cooking is just as much a project as building a spice rack or painting a seascape or organizing your closet. Some of those things sound more exciting than others, sure, but there is inherent fascination in seeing the end result, especially if it’s in an area that you yourself are not particularly skilled at.

I also think Pollan’s assessment of our fascination with textures of food is correct. So many of us, as he rightly states, sit in front of keyboards and monitors all day, sending impersonal emails, working on boring spreadsheets, sitting in on endless conference calls. And often, we’re in a position lacking actual power and authority, always having to acquiesce to someone above us in the corporate hierarchy. So watching people play with real things, and tell us about how they feel and how they smell, showing us what those things look like, and then telling us “I will do this, and that will happen,” and then demonstrating that, yes, that actually occurs, is a comforting feeling.

This is, I think, a large part of why I like to bake when I feel I’ve been particularly unproductive. Knowing that if I follow a set of instructions, I will end up with a specific item, and unless I do something pretty stupid, it will invariably come out to essentially the same item. And if I want to try something new (like, say, add coconut to Irish cream brownies), I can do it, and I don’t need anyone else’s approval to do so. There’s a sense of adventure in waiting to see what the result will be. If it works out, then I feel like a rock star. If it doesn’t, I still feel a sense of pride in taking a risk. And as Pollan says, regardless of what happens, there is a definitive outcome. If it works, I make a note on my blog, and tag it as such, so I know that I can do it again. If it doesn’t, I still make a note of it, knowing not to do it again, or, if it wasn’t a total failure, what I might do differently next time. It’s a sense of progress, and learning, and that breeds a feeling of success. I don’t know many people who can feel that certainty of what they do at work each day.

As a “working woman,” I do take slight offense to Pollan’s commentary about working women being part of why Americans no longer cook nearly as much as they did in Julia Child’s day. However, that offense is largely due to my belief that it shouldn’t solely be the woman’s job to cook for her household. But as that was mainly how families operated in the 1950’s, I can’t say that Pollan is wrong in including the working woman as part of the equation that lead to a decline in home cooking in America. The other part of the equation, which I’d never really thought about before, has to do with the food industry and the end of World War II. After the war ended, food companies tried to sell American consumers on the magic of processed food, which had been used to feed the troops. Combine a technology that helped create pre-made cooking “helpers,” as it were, with a generation of women who had spent more time in the factories and working because the men were off fighting a war, and it’s really not surprising that we’ve ended up to what Pollan dubs a more “industrialized” approach to food.

But just because our attitude towards cooking shifted, it’s funny that we didn’t seem to want to get rid of entirely. Pollan illustrates this point by telling us about the just-add-water instant cake mixes that stores used to stock. The food industry figured out if they left something for the person making the cake to do, no matter how small (like cracking an egg), it allowed that feeling of ownership, despite not really doing anything to contribute to the end result. We still craved that feeling of accomplishment, however undeserved, and the companies were smart enough to use that to their advantage. And specifically with regards to women, Pollan says this very interesting fact:

In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.

So if ALL American women are eating out or getting take-out, we can’t rightly blame the working woman for the entire collapse of American home cooking, though there are some who still cling to that notion.

And on the topic of working, Pollan also brings up an issue which I’ve been interested in for a long time: the concept of overwork. Something that is reaching epic proportions in America, much to the detriment of our workforce and companies (in my opinion), we now work nearly a full month more than we used to in the 1950’s. And that has a direct effect on our relationship with cooking (among other things). Pollan rightly comments that the cultures that still value food and cooking are ones that still have time for it. (I would imagine much of Europe falls into that category, as they still value vacation time. Americans work nearly 9 weeks longer per year than workers in Western Europe, and we get roughly only two weeks of vacation per year compared to Europe’s five to six weeks.) I would gladly cook more if I had the time, and I know I’m not the the only one. (Yes, there are other things I’d do, too, but lots of people enjoy cooking, just don’t have sufficient time for it.) I’m also of the belief that if we had more reasonable work expectations and schedules, we would eat healthier as a nation and exercise more. It wouldn’t fix everything, of course, but with more time, plenty of people would cook more, have time to go to farmers markets to get more natural, unprocessed ingredients, and have time to look for and try new recipes.

Another side effect of overwork is lack of time and energy to spend with family and friends. Cooking is, as Pollan says, an emotional experience. It is a social experience as well. I remember watching my mom cook when I was little, and baking Christmas cookies with her and my brother for years. I remember asking my grandparents about the treats they brought to our house at Christmas. My office has a propensity for potlucks, and there’s always a bit of excitement about what to make and seeing what everyone else will bring. And when I go to see my parents, I admit, I get a little excited when my mom asks what I’m going to cook for them. I certainly get a feeling of accomplishment from cooking at home, but I find it much more gratifying to share my results with other people. I bake cakes when I know I’m going to a larger gathering, because I know there will be people to eat it. I post about my culinary adventures on my blog, often with photos, to share with the few friends who read it, so they can see what I’m up to, and maybe try the recipe themselves.

I’m convinced that having more time to devote to food and cooking would create a much healthier nation on the whole. Aside from the time to try new recipes, cooking more would allow for more social opportunities. I often have daydreams of having fancy dinner parties with friends. While I never go to that extreme, I did try to get a group of friends together to start sort of a monthly cooking club, the idea being that we’d meet at someone’s house once a month, and each person would either cook the whole meal, or we would decide who was bringing what. (Or, if we could, decide on the meal ahead of time, decide who was bringing what ingredients, and then share the task of cooking all together.) The main reason it didn’t work? Time. (The second reason was transportation, since some peope rely on public transportation, and we didn’t all live close enough for this to be convenient.) But there was an interest in the idea. For those with kids, having more time could make cooking a family activity. There are plenty of simple tasks kids could do to help out, and more complicated things older ones could do on their own. (I think it would also give kids much more appreciation for their parents – whichever does the cooking – by helping out, and it could be a valuable way to teach them about nutrition before they get set in too many bad habits.)

This has turned out to be a far longer musing than I’d originally planned, which is why I’m posting it here, instead of simply commenting on Facebook as I’d intended. I realize I’ve summarized the article fairly well, probably because I’ve been noting my thoughts as I’ve gone through it. (It’s a long article, and I was afraid I’d lose the random thoughts I was having while reading, hence the notations.) But if you’ve made it this far, it’s still worth reading the whole NY Times article. Pollan’s points are interesting and valid, and I do appreciate that he bothers to go a little deeper than “Women! Women in the workplace! It’s all their fault we eat frozen meals!” So, nicely done, Pollan, nicely done.

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