Three Reasons I Really Did Not Like Michael Pollan’s Newest, “Cooked”

1. The premise feels phony and staged:

Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.

This same odd forgetfulness characterizes Pollan’s new book, in which he describes himself as a person who “seldom made time for cooking or gave it much consideration,” a puzzling confession coming from the man who told us boldly in 2008 to “cook, and if you can, plant a garden.” Instead of the competent cook whose culinary plans for his wild boar involved braises and reductions, brining and crushed peppercorns, and roasting over olive wood, in Cooked, Pollan casts himself as bumbling in the kitchen, a novice whose “most successful dishes leaned heavily on the cooking of others.” One could argue that Pollan came to understand himself as a culinary ingénue simply by immersing himself in the wealth of all there is to know about traditional Southern barbecue, the history of pot-cooked dishes, and the science of bread baking, cheesemaking, and fermentation (all prominent in Cooked)—that he came, as diligent students do, to realize how very little he really did know about cooking. But that’s not how he tells the story. No, we are to somehow conjure a Michael Pollan who in spite of his prior evangelizing on the importance of home cooking, never gave much thought or attention to what went on in the kitchen of his own house, and has only recently learned the words to describe what he loves most about bread:

“I especially love the contrast between a rugged crust and a moist, tender, alveolate interior—the ‘crumb,’ as I’ve learned to call it, now that I’ve been hanging around bakers.”

However, Pollan doubts the possibility that he will ever become one of their magical kind; he notes that “in ancient Greece, the word for ‘cook,’ ‘butcher,’ and ‘priest was the same—magieros,” and that it “shares an etymological root with ‘magic.’ ”

“I had little reason,” he writes, “to believe I’d be, or ever become, any good at [baking bread.] To the contrary. I had baked one or two loaves years before with only middling results, and had concluded baking was probably not for me.”

At which point I scratched my head and turned back to The Omnivore’s Dilemma (page 408) and found that not only had Pollan’s bread garnered praise from a culinary professional, he’d also known to refer to the “alveolate interior” of bread as “the ‘crumb’ ” long before he began “hanging around bakers”:

“Angelo reserved his most enthusiastic praise for my bread, which I’ll admit did have a perfect crust, an airy crumb, and a very distinctive (though not at all sour) flavor.”

2. He makes it seem like home cooking and baking is something almost no one can really do:

The Michael Pollan of In Defense of Food (2008) was happy enough to let us simply play around in the kitchen to the betterment of our bodies and souls (cf. Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 1966), the Michael Pollan of 2013 seems to be engaging in a literary form of the extreme Food Network performances he writes of with faint disdain. Is Pollan’s goal for us all to feel as if we’re rushing things if we sauté the onions for ten minutes instead of a “half hour at least” or if we bake homemade bread with (gasp) commercial yeast instead of a natural levain? While he intends his extreme Slow Food project to lodge a protest against “the total rationalization of life,” he (perhaps unwittingly) makes the whole endeavor of cooking seem a lot more esoteric and difficult than it is. It’s not hard to imagine that many people will put down Cooked believing themselves incapable of making a good meal, simply because they can’t, like Pollan, devote several years to casual apprenticeships with expert brewers, bakers, pit-masters, and chefs.

3. He is way, way too enamored of microbes, and way too nostalgic in general.

It sure is easy to bewail things being too clean and free of friendly microbes when you live in Berkeley, California and have the resources to seek help should your fermented cabbage wreak (ormore accurately, reek) havoc on your body, and to rhapsodize about all the benefits of friendly bacteria from fermented foods that “our ancestors” ate, but, come on now. We may be living in a more “toxic” (or toxically sterile) environment than ever, but we in the developed world at least are living longer and longer and longer.

Overall, Cooked is a well-written account of a decent cook becoming a better cook–and a guy who doesn’t seem to get out of Berkeley enough, or to read enough about the history of epidemic disease.

{Read my full review at Books & Culture}

Four Reviews of “Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food”

I don’t mean to be so book-promo-oriented, but it really makes my dad happy to read positive reviews of my new book and I like to make my dad happy. Because why wouldn’t I want to make him happy? Just look at the stuff he creates and sends to my kids? (This is only the cover!)

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First, here’s a post from my friend Michelle Van Loon. I like how she started out by explaining how mealtime wasn’t much of a joy in her growing-up years:

My mom was a diet afficionado. It seemed that she tried on for size every fad diet that came during my childhood. The Cottage Cheese Diet. The Grapefruit Diet. A few rounds of Weight Watchers. A leaning tower of Lean Cuisines stashed in the freezer. An always-uneasy relationship with “starch”, or as we like to call it/them today, carbs.

She also disliked cooking. The standard fare at our dinner table was broiled steak, defrosted Green Giant frozen vegetables and an iceberg lettuce salad. Or else takeout Chinese, pizza, or KFC. The combination of her yo-yo dieting and her allergy to the kitchen meant that mealtime was rarely much of a delight. (Continued)

Next, the Stadtmensch blog had some good things to say in a post titled “Joy. It’s What’s for Dinner.”:

Rachel Marie Stone’s book, Eat With Joy by InterVarsity Press, is a feast for those who care about issues pertaining to how society views food and the complicated area of food ethics.  For those of you who know me as a guy who tends to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants and somehow never manages to gain weight (or mass as the science textbook will state), you might be wondering why I decided to write a review of this book, much less bother to even read it.  After all, my story is very different from Stone’s who, in the introduction, describes her own conflicted feelings with food as she was growing up.  Generally speaking, I have not felt any such anxiety about eating food throughout my life and do not suffer from either anorexia or obesity.  Indeed, I can pack away the food so well that it even led one coworker of mine to remark in a teasing way, “He’s very serious about his food.”  That comment is more accurate than that coworker realized for I believe that eating well ought to play an important part in the life of a Christ follower.  Therefore, Eat With Joy is a book that is very relevant to the conerns of this blog: those of calling, community, and culture. (Continued)

Then, Donald McKenzie of Dining With Donald had these very kind words:

If you have never give much thought to what you eat, how it’s produced, and what it means to eat together, this book is a very accessible primer on those subjects.  This is not a scolding book, you will not be made to feel guilty about your actions or inaction in how you relate to any of the topics, particularly those relating to issues of food justice.

At its heart, what makes this book such a great new contribution is how it views eating as an extension of the grace that is offered to us in the Eucharistic meal where we feed on and are sustained by Christ. (Continued)

Finally, Alissa Wilkinson reviewed the book at Books and Culture:

Eat with Joy is a primer on eating for those exhausted by trying to do it perfectly. In each chapter, Stone tells stories from her own experience and presents a well-researched examination of an issue that faces us today—obesity, eating disorders, family meals, food justice. Then she holds it up against the Bible to help the reader understand how God’s gift of food is just that: a gift. We must cultivate and tend it—and, above all, we should be grateful for it. 
 
(Continued)
 
There you go, Dad! (And thanks to those who took the time to read the book and write about it.)

 

 

 

The Jesus Diet: What Jesus Actually Ate

I have a review in the current issue of Books and Culture that’s also available to read online. The book is the excellent Food and Feasts of Jesus by Douglas A. Neel and Joel A. Pugh.

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Here’s just a tiny sample of the review:

A richer understanding of food in the ancient Middle East can help us understand the Scriptures better; for example, the Gospels, especially Luke, are full of meals redolent with symbolic importance. To understand even a bit more about the food culture in which Jesus broke bread is to understand Jesus himself just a bit more, beginning with that strange claim we Christians remember each time we celebrate the Eucharist: I am the bread of life. When these words conjure a white Wonder-branded loaf or a crisp Parisian baguette or the thought of too many carbohydrates, we misunderstand: “For rich and poor alike, bread was the heart of the first-century Mediterranean diet. It was made every day. It was eaten at every meal …. Bread was what people ate to live …. When the bread was gone, everything was gone.”

The authors’ invitation to “join the feast” is a nuanced and thoughtful one, aimed at separating the reader from “our fast-food culture” and rediscovering the pleasure of creating entire delicious meals from scratch, inviting others to share, remembering those who do not have enough, and, in every bite, relishing the goodness and generosity of God, without whose sustaining hand there is no bread, no nsima, no life.

Share Food; Share God’s Love

Over a year ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Norman Wirzba for Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog written by (but not exclusively for!) women, and of reviewing one of his recent books, Food and Faith, for Books & Culture. We exchanged emails about food and faith, and, at some point, Dr. Wirzba agreed to write the Foreword for my book, for which I’m very grateful.

Here’s some of what he wrote:

“It is hard to imagine an important human event that does not involve eating. Birthdays, weddings, major accomplishments and funerals require eating because the sharing of food is thesharing of life with each other. Today’s industrial culture tempts us to think that food is simply fuel or a commodity we need to keep us going through our schedules.

But our own experience and desire teach us that is not right. Deep down we know that food is fellowship. When we eat together we share so much more than calories or grams of fat. We share in each other’s joy, pain, struggle and hope. Sharing food we share ourselves. We show ourselves willing to be companions in life’s journey, people who by sharing bread (panis) also share love.

It is no accident, then, that Scripture has food and eating constantly in view. God creates life by creating food. Indeed, among God’s most primordial blessings is the grace of food and the promise that agricultural cycles will yield their fruit in due season. God then invites the whole of humanity to participate in the just and generous sharing of food, making hospitality to others a basic witness to faithfulness. God wants us to share food with each other because in doing that we share God’s love.”

God’s Love Made Delectable

For Norman Wirzba–whose previous books include The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age and Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight as well as a collection of Wendell Berry’s agricultural essays–food is “God’s love made delectable.” He says:

“Every time we eat we are making a choice that is personal, but it is also social, ecological, agricultural and spiritual.”

Choosing food that has been raised in ways that honor the animals, people, and land is honoring to God, too. (Not to mention tasty!)

{that hammock alone is enough to convince me to observe the sabbath.}

I’d like to invite you to wander over to join me at her.meneutics and Books and Culture today, where my interview with Norman Wirzba and my review of his new book, Food and Faith appear, respectively.

{You can also watch a video interview with Wirzba here.}