In my travels this summer, I read these two books, and meant to write about them much earlier. Then Sibyl Vane over at BitchPhD wrote this excellent post, and I meant to link and write about it. And now there’s a NY Times article on the joys and health benefits of home-cooked food.

So I’ve gotten around to… well, this isn’t a review of the books. Nor is it really a criticism, for I don’t disagree with most of what the books have to say.

It’s a criticism about the scope of the books, which consider the problems of modern American eating from the monoculture of industrial agriculture to the medicalization of nutrition, from processed foods to our puritanical culture of eating for health at the expense of pleasure.

Some rambling, long-winded thoughts after the jump:

Pollan (and the article) make suggestions on how to change one’s eating habits: buy locally, cook more, and he offers some genuinely useful hints. He says little that I would point out as wrong, and I normally dislike criticisms that say, “The author should have written a different book.” But Pollan in part presents himself as offering solutions to American eating-related health ills: obesity, diabetes, diseases, etc. And many of these health ills are correlated strongly with poverty.

And all of his suggestions are targeted at the middle class. (Buy a second freezer. Then purchase part of a grassfed cow.) And this should sit uneasily; if one could afford to make all of the lifestyle changes Pollan proposes, one would likely be of a socioeconomic class that was already thinner and healthier. The general effect is rather like beginning a book on financial planning by assuming a trust fund. And this bias runs through both books, and most articles I’ve seen on this.

To be more precise, to the extent that this is influenced by class, it doesn’t track income as much as it tracks a combination of time, money, and knowledge. Off the cuff, if you have two of the three, you can fudge the third.

Let’s start with time. Pollan adopts a folksy turn of phrase that does not actually reflect upon his politics, but irks. Traditional food culture, he says, was passed down through ‘mom’, and traditional food culture is good for you, so we need to return to what ‘mom’ (or ‘grandma’, or ‘great-great-grandma’) did. And it is a little weird that activities like pickling and preserving foods have recently become hobbies for most people, instead of merely what people do just to get through the winter, or that so many of our calories come from things grandma wouldn’t recognize as edible.

There’s a couple things wrong with this, though, aside from coming close to sounding like women’s working destroyed the family meal. One, it enshrines cuisines and ways of cooking that might not really have been all that healthy or delicious; the joke among my friends of Irish-American descent is that their ancestors’ traditional recipes started by boiling the hell out of any vegetables that wandered nearby.

And so we should be wary of postulating a golden age of tasty cuisine, lovingly prepared, or assuming that the meals were all great feasts like the one at the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In my ancestry, there’s a lot of boiled cabbage. It wasn’t because my grandma liked boiled cabbage; it’s because it was a cheap way to get nutrients into her and her sisters in the 1930s.

Two, we should be mindful that cooking in the ways Pollan envisions required someone in the household dedicated to cooking. Historically, maybe the wife cooks full-time; maybe one of the older daughters does; maybe they share in between jobs. Maybe the family employs a cook. There’s a reason prepackaged foods sold! It’s that cooking from scratch is a lot of work! And suggesting a return to this model for the modern American family requires that someone stays at home, or that someone has a flexible job with a lot of time.

Moving onto money: as Pollan points out, American don’t spend nearly as much of their income on food as we used to, or compared with some European countries with better food cultures. We have room in the budget, he says, to cut out things like cable in favor of better quality produce. And here I think he’s badly missing the point. I’ll grant him, overly generously, that we all could spend more on food; what he fails to recognize is that food is often the only regular expense in a monthly budget where there is any wiggle room. If I were to fall $20 short on my rent or phone bill or loan payments, I would have problems. Processed food is cheaper by the calorie; I can spend $20 less and still eat and pay my bills.

It also requires often-daunting initial expenses if one wishes to make food taste good. I have refused to try a number of tempting recipes because buying the spices required at my local grocery store (i.e., cheap spices) would cost more than I could justify. There is a similar initial outlay for other cooking projects: yeasts, cream, equipment, etc. It pays off in the long run. So does buying the second fridge and part of a cow; it’s fitting that into a budget that’s hard.

And in the meantime, there’s a lot of prepackaged food and convenience food that is cheaper and often tastes good. And we shouldn’t ignore what is often available in grocery stores that serve poor areas. If all you could buy was some mealy tomatoes and wilty lettuce, you’d probably buy something prepackaged, too.

But the real problem here, I think, is knowledge. Learning to cook isn’t hard, but it takes time, and it takes a willingness to experiment, and it takes the luxury to get things wrong. One can cook and eat inexpensively, but one has to know, e.g., what to do with cheaper cuts of meat and less than perfect vegetables, or what one can substitute.

The hardest part for me about learning to become a better cook in graduate school, while cash-poor, was developing the will to risk the food budget on trying something new, or the willingness to risk having to eat what I prepared. (Let me tell you of the week of an awful curried pumpkin soup…) It was harder for friends (mostly guys) who didn’t have any basic kitchen skills down at all.

And we’re all people who are doing relatively okay on a modest income, who have the time to learn. None of us have any kids that would have to eat what we messed up.

I don’t have any real suggestions for fixing all of this; like I said, it’s not so much a criticism of Pollan as it is a wish for a different book. Our local farmer’s market accepts WIC and EBT, which has been a great success. But beyond that I’m kind into magical thinking territory: I wish everyone had a friend to teach them to cook, and a slow cooker to make it easier to cook while working. I wish I could smack executives who thought it okay to put crappy produce in the low-income grocery store and charge more for it than for the nice vegetables in the grocery store up the road in the middle-class town.

So this is mostly a plea: the next food writer who goes to write a book about discovering the joys of a home-cooked meal? Do it on a budget, with the food and seasonings you can find in a common chain grocery store. Do not assume a house, a second freezer, a large kitchen, or the ability to cook. You may have a frying pan, some pots, some measuring implements, and some non-electric stirring implements; assume an oven and a stove. (Even though the latter aren’t always present.)

And let us know how it turns out.

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