is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?

An article on Salon.com is apparently triggering debate around the web. I haven’t seen the original article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times and I don’t want to over-generalize from the quotes in the Salon.com article – but there are some things that make me want to talk about my own experience. [Read the comments, the quotes in the Salon.com article were, in my opinion, taken badly out of context.]

in the New York Times Magazine, dismissing “The Feminine Mystique” as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” In the same magazine story, Pollan scolds that “American women now allow corporations to cook for them” and rues the fact that women have lost the “moral obligation to cook” they felt during his 1960s childhood.

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As Emily Matcher points out, selling convenience foods to women as a means of getting out of the “drudgery” of cooking started in the overly romanticized 1940s and 50s, long before the Feminine Mystique. Remember World War II when a lot of women went to work and discovered that staying at home being responsible for home and cooking was not the only option. And some women decided that they didn’t want to return to being unpaid domestics. Not all, and though we did indeed go through a period where there were negative judgments heaped on women who chose to be stay at home moms, I hope that we’re past that and support the idea that women can do what they want — and that either way, men have some responsibility for hearth and home.

The most interesting part to me is our over-idealization of the days before women went to work outside the home. We should return to the farm, where our food was all from scratch, healthy, locally sourced, and, um, artisan. Before I get into what that means from personal experience, I’ll also quietly applaud the many things that have made our food safer so that very few of us in this country die from food borne diseases.

And while there are genuine problems with today’s industrialized food system, the idea that food was purer and more wholesome in the past is also pure fiction.

“The media has done a good job of convincing people that their food isn’t safe, when almost certainly the opposite is true,” says Rachel Laudan, a food historian. Laudan points out that eating has always been an inherently dangerous enterprise, but one that has gotten progressively safer over the years with the rise of better sanitation and government standards.

Prepasteurization, children frequently died from cholera, listeria, or bovine tuberculosis after drinking tainted milk. Butter was often rancid or adulterated with anything from gypsum to gelatin fat to mashed potatoes. Until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, penny candy might be colored with lead or arsenic, pickles with copper compounds. Malnutrition was endemic well into the twentieth century, especially in the parts of rural America we like to imagine as pastoral paradises.

Of course, as is repeatedly pointed out, industrialization has clearly caused some negative effects on our diet. I just don’t want to blame that on women working.

But all of this is build up – and an attempt to step out of some of the controversies – to talking about what farm cooking really was like in the early 20th century. My mom grew up on a farm, her mom was a farm woman. Grandma was uneducated, she wanted more for my mom. And Grandma was responsible for not only feeding her family, but feeding the farm workers. It was a job, unpaid and expected because she was a farm wife. It’s what she did.

It was a valuable job. Grandma fed, as I said, not only her family but the other people who worked on the farm. And the farm wife enabled the production of food that fed many other people. But what about that romantic vision of healthy farm food?

Mom turned her back on her mother’s cooking, which she always said was difficult for her to eat, and taught herself to cook from cookbooks when she moved out on her own. Why would she turn her back on all that healthy straight from the farm food?

Grandma cooked large cuts of beef in vats of lard. She deep friend chicken in vats of lard. Vegetables and potatoes and eggs were all made with huge amounts of lard. That’s what farm cooking was. Meals were made up of mostly meat – because they had cows and raising cows for their own family food was relatively cheap. She cooked it in lard which they also had in abundance and those farm fresh vegetables like potatoes and beans were also cooked in or served with a lot of fat. Apples and berries were right there on the farm and were made into pies. Pies, made with lard, of course, were a part of most meals. Breakfasts were hearty with farm fresh eggs, cooked in bacon fat or lard.

My grandma was obese. My mom fought her weight all her life. She was overweight as a child and learned to cook far more healthy once she got out on her own. She cooked mostly from scratch during my childhood and turned away from all that farm fresh fat – during the period of the Feminine Mystique. She worked prior to marrying my dad and always talked about going back to work, but never felt she could because taking care of her home and family came first. That was a full time job and my dad never did a damn thing to help with that job. He was, however, responsible for outside and for taking care of repairs and things like that. That was pretty typical for a family in the 60s. Mom did use some convenience foods – frozen vegetables for example. But remember we also had lots of homemade jello salads and baked goods mostly made with trans-fats such as vegetable shortening and margarine. That was normal, too.

Perhaps that’s the time some want to return to, rather than the early part of the century on the farm. My other grandma, by the way, was a city cook. Her cooking was, based on my experiences, even worse than my farm grandma. Long, long boiled canned vegetables. Stacks of sliced white bread fresh out of the plastic bag. Meat cooked until it was dead. Dad remembers her as being a good cook but also reminisces about the food that she bought from the local delis. Baked treats didn’t come from home, they came from the deli or the bakery up the street. Again, this is pre-war America, that idealized period where our food was locally sourced and made from scratch by loving home cooks.

The point is, that while I’m in favor of many of the ideals of our newer food movements – cooking more locally, farmers markets, using less pre-packaged foods, etc., the romantic view of what food was like before feminism is just silly. The idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to be the one that makes that happen for us is just stupid. We are at a different place in our development. Some women want to stay home, some women want to – or have to – work. Men are, and should be, more involved in caring for home and family. Many men even enjoy cooking and are just as concerned about improving the family’s diet. Why would we want to go backwards? The way we cook foods, the desire to include fresh fruits and vegetables are far healthier than what my family experienced in the pre-WWII world. It’s evolution forward, not a return to anything that was real in our past.

I haven’t seen the whole New York Times Magazine article and don’t want to judge Michael Pollan on the excerpts included in the Salon.com article – but I admit those excerpts are triggers to thoughts about how he should know better. And that’s unfair.

I’m trying to find the article online – it was unfortunately not linked in the Salon.com article – but I found this one from April 18, 2013.

“If we’re going to rebuild a culture of cooking,” Pollan says, “it can’t mean returning women to the kitchen. We all need to go back to the kitchen.” He continues:

“First, we need to bring back home ec, but a gender-neutral home ec. We need public health ad campaigns promoting home cooking as the single best thing you can do for your family’s health and well-being.”

So, if he also made some poorly thought out comments about the Feminine Mystique, he clearly isn’t the villain he’s been painted as. And I wrote this post, not to attack Michael Pollan, but to look at that romantic pre-feminism ideal that many seem to be advocating.

Is Pollan guilty of that idealized view? Not always.

Often I would have toaster waffles for breakfast growing up. Or Pop-Tarts. All that crap. My mother was, and is, a very good cook, but she was not a monastic eater and we had our share of junky products. I would come home from school and polish off a box of Yodels. Remember Yodels? Foiled-wrapped cylinders of chocolate cake and cream. They were excellent. I don’t know if they’re around anymore.

Source

And remember, he’s nearly a decade older than me.

I want to read the Salon.com referenced article for myself. I suspect it’s one of those things that don’t get posted online for a week or something and I’m curious to see whether the excerpted comments really reflect Pollan’s statements. Whether or not they do, the ideas in the Salon.com article are worth talking about.

Let me repeat my point, so that it’s clear. In my opinion, the current food movement for more fresh, locally sourced, when possible, food (homemade or not) is evolution forward, not a return to the past. It isn’t the sole responsibility of the woman and shouldn’t be.

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11 thoughts on “is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?”

  1. I’ve missed this controversy. I know almost nothing about Micheal Pollan, so I couldn’t say whether he’s a sexist pig or not. All I know is that fresh food tastes better to me than mass-produced, frozen dinners. However, time doesn’t always allow for us to prepare fresh meals, so we do our best when choosing the rest. I have no doubt that my late grandmothers would approve of this approach, and not get their knickers in a knot about who made it– woman, man or Stouffers.

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    1. You don’t hang out with foodies enough. 🙂

      I don’t think he’s a sexist pig, based on what I’ve found. I suspected from the whole controversy thing that the things he said were taken out of context. We’ll see if I ever find the actual article.

      I agree with your time and trying to make the best choices you can approach. I do too, though I will admit my energy and motivation to actually cook is inconsistent. What did Mario Batali recently say on the Chew? My favorite food is food I don’t have to cook? Something like that. I’d eat fresher if someone else made it for me.

      One of my bigger issues here is trying to get good fresh, local produce. You’d think we’d have great farmer’s markets out here in rural middle America but we don’t. The big cities do, but not where I live. I do the best I can, buy organic when I can and when I can afford it.

      I’m not sure, however, that either of my grandmothers would understand the current food movements. Dad’s mom probably killed my grandfather, who had a bad heart, by making him drink a glass of heavy cream every day because she thought it was healthy for him.

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      1. A friend of mine always says that anything anyone else makes tastes better than what she’d make– even if it is from her recipe. There’s a truth there.

        Farmer’s markets are rather hit-or-miss around here. Sometimes produce is good, but many times it is small/wilted/overpriced. I think that there’s a status thing associated with shopping at them, which is why they flourish in cities.

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        1. The farmer’s market in Kansas City was great when I was a kid – of course, it was mob owned so maybe that made a difference. I used to shop there…. omg far too many years ago and it was still good. I’ve a friend who shops there now who I would suspect of your status thing. Still, she claims it’s a great place. I have heard that many have the same produce that is sold under-ripe and over-processed as the grocery store.

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  2. I don’t think he’s a sexist pig either and our food is much safer now, as well as more available. Nutritious fruits and veggies are around all year long instead of just in season. (I know, my bad for not shopping locally) I would be eating apples at every meal!

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    1. Agreed Margaret – while we have an abundance of overly processed less than healthy foods, we’ve never had so many healthy foods easily available. As for local – I lived in Wyoming for years. If you’re going to eat locally there, all you’re gonna eat is cow. And fish or game if you fish and hunt. I don’t think they grow anything, at least in the areas I lived. Get some darn fine musk melons from South Dakota once a year.

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    1. No, I think the one that sparked the “Sexist Pig” debate was just published last weekend. But the one you linked and others like it are why I feel the apparent anti-feminism quotes were taken out of context.

      I only named the post this, btw, because that’s what the Salon.com article was named. My interest was more about are we returning to a “better” time or moving forward? I vote for forward but that’s just me. Returning cooking to the home may be somewhat retro but the way we’re cooking is very different from our grandparents and parents.

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  3. Just to update, I finally found the article that sparked the Salon.com article – published in 2009..

    As suspected, the quotes were taken badly out of context. For example, the quote about the Feminine Mystique being “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.”

    Read the whole paragraph.

    Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia never referred to her viewers as “housewives” — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “The Second Sex” that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts (féminisme, c’est bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.

    It seems to me to be a much more balanced exploration of an idea, not a diatribe against feminism in general.

    As for the assertion that “Pollan scolds that ‘American women now allow corporations to cook for them” and rues the fact that women have lost the “moral obligation to cook’ they felt during his 1960s childhood.” Once again, read it in context.

    It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.) 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.

    Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. […]

    I still think the article had some interesting ideas to play around with and I still have a problem with the idealized vision of what returning to the farm means – but I am sad that the author chose to misrepresent what Pollan had written.

    Interestingly, Pollan’s article ends with a quote from Harry Balzer (an apparently “crusty” individual whom Pollan spoke with about the decline of cooking.

    “Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

    And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now.

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    1. It’s amazing how differently this stuff reads when in the proper context, the one in which it was written. I have no problem with any of it, and I LOVE the final quote. What a good one to live by. I cook from scratch every evening and we do, on the whole, eat a healthy diet generally, but I’m as guilty as everyone else about having a pastry or whatever with my coffee while I’m out. If I had to make all my cakes and pastries myself, I’m sure I’d eat less of it. Great food for thought, all round. Thanks for the update.

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      1. I’m all about reasonable steps to change – so I’m not going to be making my own cheese anytime soon, but I may take a stab at pasta again. I found the pasta maker, just have to be able to get to it, and I’d like to find the ice cream maker. I like the idea of controlling what goes into my food and I will eat something less often if I have to make it. Like ravioli. I might even try making my own ricotta. Also, real food is more filling as well as healthier. Still cheetos are going to get the occasional free ride.

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