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}

No Bitterness Or Guilt-Tripping (A Review of Eat With Joy + a Reading List)

I’d like to point you to this lovely review of my book, Eat With Joy, by blogger Cara Strickland.

Here’s a taste:

“This book is layered and diverse […] and the scope was part of why I was so excited to read it. But Rachel is more than her topics, and she approaches all of them with care. She writes about eating disorders with grace and compassion (convincing me that we all have them in one way or another). She writes about sustainable and examined eating with no bitterness or guilt-tripping. She writes about eating with friends, family, and the Body of Christ with such fluid, passionate words, that I couldn’t help thinking about the countless hours of true communion I’ve experienced while breaking bread with people I love, and people I grew to love as a result.”

and another:

“She made me think about my busy, single life which doesn’t have much real food in it. Certainly not much cooking. She made me think that cooking is a form of rebellion because I am refusing to buy into the culture that tells me that real food and real connections are not worth as much as convenience and speed. Even if I’m not cooking every day, even if my starts are shaky, and my food doesn’t turn out, it is still meaningful to spend time putting real food together, to share.”

{You can read it all here, and do check out the rest of her blog, too.}

Also, I’m thankful that Eat with Joy was included on Today’s Christian Woman‘s summer reading list, which you can find here.

And here is an awesome drawing by one of my sons, just for fun. (It’s the Water Witch from Beowulf)

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 8.41.03 AM

Better a Bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese Where Love Is…

A few days ago, I came across this great post at The Power of Moms: it’s about how your children want and need you–not Pinterest-perfect meals, home decor, and crafts:

“Can we remind each other that it is our uniqueness and love that our children long for? It is our voices. Our smiles. Our jiggly tummies. Of course we want to learn, improve, exercise, cook better, make our homes lovelier, and provide beautiful experiences for our children, but at the end of the day, our children don’t want a discouraged, stressed-out mom who is wishing she were someone else.”

Or, I would add, snapping at her husband and/or kids because of her stressed-out perfectionism, which happens around here more often than I would like to admit.

I want to be the mom who makes perfectly nourishing chicken soup when my kids are sick:

and perfectly cozy, adorable blankets with their names on them:

and tasty, diverse foods:

veggie sushi with yummy plum powder from Japan (thanks, Susan!)

But more than anything, I want to be the mom who is close to her kids, who lets them know in thousands of ways that they are loved and they are safe in the world, that they are beautiful and so, so precious.

The other day when I was making the empty tomb cake, I found myself ready to snap at the children for (understandably) swiping bits of frosting and hovering around me as I assembled and decorated the cake. I had, in my mind, a Pinterest-perfect picture of how I wanted it to look. And so when I pulled out the bag of candy rocks, I wanted to be the one to put each one perfectly in place.

Okay, guys, you can each put on five rocks. And then I want you to let me do the rest.

But then I started to feel as if I’d eaten too many candy rocks and they were gathering in my stomach. And so I had a little talk with myself–what is this all about, anyway?–and handed them the bag.

Go wild, guys. Just decorate it up.

Anne Lamott, who’s one of my very favorite writers, has this great piece up at the O magazine. She talks about how her parents read Julia Child and served up world-class cassoulet, chutneys, and mole poblano, but hated each other with a silent, stuffed-down anger. On the other hand, her friends’ families served up “aggressively modest” food like English muffin pizza and tuna noodle casserole, which was delicious to her because of the spiritual food–the love–that went with it.

She writes:

the steamed persimmon pudding was easy on the taste buds but hard to swallow, because it came at such a cost: a lump in the throat, anxiety in our bellies.”

Proverbs 15:17 sums this bit of insight well:

A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (NLT)

or, if you like:

Better a bread crust shared in love than a slab of prime rib served in hate. (MSG–other translations here.)

And so while I value good, wholesome food that’s been raised responsibly and prepared well–and while I think that this can be a tangible (edible?) way of loving other people, especially my family–why, I still think the essential ingredient is love.
And, of course, joy.
The other day I was rolling fresh pasta and started to get really ticked at the boys because they were doing all sorts of normal and age-appropriate things like sticking their fingers in the gears and generally getting in the way, and I thought:
Better I should buy some Ronzoni than snap at my kids because I’m stressed about fresh pasta.
Better a bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese where love is, than a Gratin Dauphinois with grumbling.
Better to order in a pizza than spend all your time hand-stretching foccacia and having no time to play Candy Land.
What other “better a _____ than ______?” would you add?
(tech stuff: C77ZZVJT65E5)

Eating Well as a College Student (for example)

A reader named Chelsea wrote:

“I would love to live a more sustainable lifestyle and to eat healthier but I don’t know where to start. I feel I eat semi-healthy but now that I moved out and live on my own, I tend to gravitate towards the ultra-high processed foods. I convince myself it’s easier and portable to take to my night classes. So I was wondering if you had any suggestions for living healthy on a college budget, living in a small apartment.”

Great question, Chelsea!

Mark Bittman, a cookbook author and food writer for the New York Times, whose work I really respect, wrote an opinion piece last week in which he took on the notion that junk food is cheaper. Now, I think there were some problems with his piece, namely, that those who are very, very poor frequently lack basic cooking equipment (and sometimes even a kitchen) but there was one part of the article that I thought was very, very good:

“The alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.”

I think he has his finger right on a pattern of thinking and behavior that, to my mind, keeps many Americans following abysmal habits–namely this: all of us can make the perfectionist error of turning “the perfect” into the enemy of “the good.” It happens all the time. I have read so many extreme-“health” type diet books (like The Paleo Diet) that pit fast-food diets against whatever low-fat, raw, vegan, macrobiotic, whatever kind of program, and it’s just plain discouraging. I recently received a review copy of a book that looks at OLIVE OIL as a “bad food.” Olive oil, for cryin’ out loud!

The point is this: it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that goes something like this: “well, since I can’t afford to buy everything at Whole Foods, I’ll just go get something from Wendy’s.” That’s an extreme example, but what I’m trying to say is this: the most important thing, when you’re working with a small budget and in a small kitchen, is to take what steps you can take and not worry about the ones you can’t.

That said, learning to cook is probably the most important thing you can do to eat well on a budget. If you can bake whole-grain bread–even in a bread machine, since that’s fairly foolproof–prepare vegetables in a tasty way, make soups, oatmeal, pancakes, rice and beans, and stir fries–that is your best bet. Yes, there is an investment of time. Yes, there is a learning curve. And yes, Chelsea–you have a small kitchen!

You know what? Mark Bittman does too! (read this!)

“I once cooked for six months in what amounted to a basement with a hot plate, microwave and a refrigerator and sink. Not only did I cook for six months, but I wrote [my food column] for six months. It was funny. People like to cook when they’re camping and in other places where the situation is less than adequate. For some reason they think they have to have a great kitchen to cook at home, but it’s not true.”

I have to say, also, that college can be a hard time as far as eating well. But it’s also a very important time to eat well: you need brain food! Perhaps the most important thing, next to learning to cook, is creating a community for yourself around food. I realize it’s not always possible–roommates have different tastes, different schedules–but eating together is important. And this is where you non-student readers come in: you probably have people in your life who could use some company at mealtimes. Make that happen! It doesn’t have to be perfect. (See my piece last week on the Christianity Today women’s blog here.)

So, in a nutshell? Learning to cook. Eating together.

And, oh, yes. Eating with joy.

Happy Monday, readers! I’ll be away as of tomorrow, but in the magic of the internet, there should be no break in blog postings…so stay tuned.

Sunday Recipe–Eggplant Thai Curry

I made this week’s Sunday Recipe with eggplant, basil, green sweet pepper, green beans and cherry tomatoes from our family’s garden. It went over big with the family, though my 5 year old–who is in a picky stage–denounced it as ‘sour.’ One of the things I like about this dish is that it brings together the foods we have plenty of right now–local–fusing them with flavors and techniques that are, well, global. It’s a dish where meat is more of a flavoring than a center-of-the plate item, and it relies on rice to ‘stretch’ it. Eat it, and savor each bite, allowing its flavors to remind you of the bounty of God’s creation and of people whose lives are flavored differently than yours.

Here’s how to make your own!

First get some of this good stuff–

And set aside.

Process in food processor or blender until smooth:

  • One small onion
  • 3 tsp. Thai chili sauce
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 TB ketchup
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 TB fish sauce (or soy sauce)
  • 1.5 TB chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
Set aside.
Meanwhile, brown in large pot/pan:
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 3 cups eggplant, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 green pepper, diced

Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the meat is well-browned and the pepper is starting to caramelize. Then add the curry mixture and stir until very fragrant. Add:

  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 cup green beans, snipped into pea-sized bits
  • salt & freshly ground pepper (preferably white) to taste
Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
(This is a good time to start a pot of rice to go with it.)
Just before serving, stir in:
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, cut into slivers
{There’s no pic of the finished dish because I couldn’t seem to get a good one…maybe next time.}
UPDATE! My dearest friend/sister Sarah made this dish and sent me the picture:
Serve immediately with plain steamed rice.
Eat it with joy!