Michael Pollan’s view of cooking in the past

MIchael Pollan wrote an article
in last Sunday’s times which makes a number of points about
“convenience” foods and current cooking shows on television.

I enjoyed the article, but found myself being increasingly
irritated by his overgeneralizations when he was being interview
on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday.

I agree with his general points:

  • A lot of the Food Network
    shows aren’t anything like as good as Julia Child was at
    motivating people to go into the kitchen and cook something different.
  • Cooking is a basic part of human nature, and that
    accounts for some of why we like watching cooking shows, even
    when they have nothing to do with the way we actually cook and eat.

But when he holds up my parents’ and grandparents’
generations as examples of a golden age of cooking before
corporate America invented convenience food and convinced people
it was better and/or easier than what they could cook themselves,
I think he’s missing some points:

  • “People” in general didn’t cook then. Most families had one
    or two people who cooked for the family, and the others may have
    helped with cleanup, but didn’t actually transform raw
    ingredients into food. My grandfather didn’t even boil water —
    when he needed hot water to warm up his milk truck on cold
    mornings, my grandmother got up and heated it for him. My
    father was actually capable of cooking, but certainly didn’t do it
    when my mother was in the house. If you go farther back when
    people didn’t live in nuclear families, but were typically in
    some larger setting like an estate or house with many
    generations, or masters and servants, it was probably an even
    smaller portion of the population that actually cooked.
  • “Convenience” foods aren’t really a modern invention.
    Sausages probably go back several millennia. They’re a way to
    pay someone else to add flavor to your meat, so that you can
    just throw them in the pot or on the frying pan.

I once worked on a project where a lot of the workers were
imported from offices in other states, and were living in hotels
on expense accounts. The manager of the project had convinced
his management that they’d save money if they paid the cafeteria
to cook dinner for everyone who wanted to work late, instead of
paying for all the poeple staying in hotels to go out to eat in
restaurants. So for those few months, I generally had both
lunch and dinner in the company cafeteria. I enjoy cooking, but
I also found it quite liberating not to have to spend the time
shopping and cleaning, and was able to work longer hours than
usual much more easily because of this.

My mother had lived at home for college, so her first
experience of dormitory life was when she was about 50 and went
on a summer course. She also really liked not having to do the
cooking and cleaning and shopping.

So while I agree with Michael Pollan that cooking is an
important human activity, I think he should think a little
harder about how many human activities any one person can do in
any one week, and acknowledge that it isn’t either a new or an evil
phenomenon that some people at any given point in their lives
will be doing very little cooking.

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