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What's Eating Michael Pollan?

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Reading Michael Pollan can be as intimidating as it is informative. He’d like you to stop eating so much meat and corn and eat more fruits and vegetables. No, not processed ones, fresh ones. No, not those fresh ones, the locally grown ones, over there. You know, actually, it’d be even better if you grew them yourself. Oh, also, why don’t you cook more? You really should cook more. From scratch. 

That said, I usually find a lot worth reading in Pollan’s work about food and food culture. So I was especially interested in his lengthy New York Times Magazine story this week on why Americans cook less than they used to—and what the popular food shows on TV have to do with it. 

Pollan traces the evolution of food TV from Julia Child, who instilled the confidence in viewers that they could prepare French dishes for themselves, to Top Chef, which is about watching professionals prepare food you might order in a restaurant. This has coincided, he points out, with a decline in Americans’ home cooking, and our increasingly elastic definition of what “cooking” even is.

To my eye, Pollan gives too short shrift to the social and economic factors driving Americans to stop cooking: time deficits, two-income households, a corporate culture that sells convenience and defines cooking as a chore to be escaped. And sometimes he exaggerates the reach and influence of food TV for effect. For instance,

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.

That’s a valid comparison—if you assume that most Americans are watching these cable cooking shows, and further, watching them every day (Top Chef is a weekly show), which they’re not. (And if you assume that these food-show viewers cook no more than other Americans, which may be true but isn’t supported here one way or another.) Pollan makes a strong case for today’s food TV as an indicator of our attitudes toward food, but less strong a case that they’re the cause of that attitude.

But that’s an organic-chicken-vs.-the-free-range-egg argument. The larger trend that Pollan examines—that we’ve largely moved from shows about cooking to shows about eating, from a focus on creation to one about consumption. Myself, I still like a show like America’s Test Kitchen, but I like to cook more than average, and there’s no denying that the eating shows—about finding food in restaurants or watching chefs and cake-makers compete—get pride of place nowadays. It’s something worth chewing over.