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David A. Goldfarb

Michael Pollan on TV Food shows and Home Cooking

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A long and searching article by Michael Pollan on the growth of TV food shows and the decline of home cooking in the US--

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine...&pagewanted=all

This is stuff a lot of people here know, but it's well written and well argued.

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Seems to me that it's not really about Food TV at all but is rather Pollan's morning-after note to the farm-to-table crowd, locavores, natural/organic foodies, et al, saying, "You're not losing. It was game, set, & match a long time ago."


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I've read the article once, and intend to read it one or two more times before settling in on the best bits to take away from it.

It is a lot to absorb, but my initial takeaway was the juxtaposition of the feminist movement, cooking, and cooking as spectator sport and athletic spectacle. I've had the privilege to meet some ladies who were real athletes, at the top of their game.

Nothing's over, until it's over! :biggrin:

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The quote I like:

But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

I know this is true statistically, and also not true in the sense that people I know who like to cook seem to watch a lot of this stuff. They're statistically insignificant, I'm sure, but it's an epiphenomenon of some sort.

I don't have cable, so I don't watch the Food Network at home, but I did grow up watching Julia Child, and mainly learning to cook from my father, who learned to cook from his mother. My father has some undiagnosable degenerative neuromuscular condition that's made it impossible for him to cook anymore, and it has even become dangerous for him to eat, because he can't entirely rely upon his swallowing reflex, but he still has often had the Food Network running in his hospital room when I've traveled to visit him in recent months. Ironically, we were watching Ina Garten making lasagna when one of his doctors came in to discuss the possibility of installing a feeding tube, which is now connected to his stomach. So there was something strangely resonant in this speculation from Pollan's article--

I suspect we’re drawn to the textures and rhythms of kitchen work, too, which seem so much more direct and satisfying than the more abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs nowadays. The chefs on TV get to put their hands on real stuff, not keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi; they get to work with fire and ice and perform feats of alchemy.

Edited by David A. Goldfarb (log)

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My father has some undiagnosable degenerative neuromuscular condition that's made it impossible for him to cook anymore, and it has even become dangerous for him to eat, because he can't entirely control his swallowing reflex, but he still often has the Food Network running in his hospital room when I've traveled to visit him in recent months.  Ironically, we were watching Ina Garten making lasagna when one of his doctors came in to discuss the possibility of installing a feeding tube, which is now connected to his stomach.  So there was something strangely resonant in this speculation from Pollan's article--
I suspect we’re drawn to the textures and rhythms of kitchen work, too, which seem so much more direct and satisfying than the more abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs nowadays. The chefs on TV get to put their hands on real stuff, not keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi; they get to work with fire and ice and perform feats of alchemy.

Cooking vicariously.

There is nothing more heart wrenching than a great cook who cannot eat.

Ina Garten kicks butt. Not too keen on her personally or her personality, but she can cook.

I'm not sure that Julia Child should be put in the same classification as Waters, Lagesse, Stewart, Batali, etc. Two decades (at least) and different means and motives. I'm still trying to understand how Pollan sees them all as the same sort of creature. In fact, of the four he compartmentalizes with Child, I can see at least three schools of thought.

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But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

Actually, when I read this quote, that's about when I decided not to continue reading. What he's describing is actually quite simple: we aren't a homogeneous society. There are some who eat fast food and others who watch cooking on TV and cook from scratch (and every shade in between). His statement implies that these are the same people - they are not.

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Yeah, Pollan's article is dispiriting. Pollan in a nutshell. Almost discouraging what he strives to accomplish.

Social distinctions and judgment. Another interesting read.

Yep, cooking made us smarter.

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I didn't find Pollan's NYT article to be one of his best pieces. Although it included many points re: time constraints, cost, prepared foods, and obesity, they are hardly original to this piece. But mostly I thought his efforts to lay responsibility on TV media were a stretch, and unsuccessful.

What I found really odd was his simplistic portayal of the media and our relationship to it. Julia Child vs. the Food Network. Are those the choices that define us? Maybe. But now that Julia's show is not regularly broadcast, does that mean that the FN has won?

Well, no. For many of us, we've gravitated towards the Web. Odd that Pollan didn't bring it up, considering his Julie/Julia context. Who can keep track of all the cooking sites that are out there? Not all are great but if you want high-quality content, it's there. I wonder how many people have switched their allegiance from TV cooking shows to the Web. How many of us on eG have gained the confidence to try something completely new, much the way an earlier generation did watching Julia?

Or are we reading and not cooking, and Pollan is right, regardless of one's preferred media-based food porn?

David, thanks for the link to Rulhman's piece. This part choked me up:

What’s the reason for this astonishing coverage of a story about two women cooking?

I think it's because we miss Julia, a force of nature...

Yes, I still miss Julia.



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David, thanks for the link. It is Pollan at his best and the argument resonated with me. Linda, I think you have a good point about the internet connection. I am one of those who used to watch the Food Network when it spoke to people like me who wanted to learn cooking skills, but who now turn to sources such as this site to satisfy that need.

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Oh the other hand, I think it's Pollan at his worst.

I thought The Ominvore's Dilemma was engaging, well structured and beautifully written. I thought In Defense of Food was a good enough article, but a disappointingly weak book. This article, though, was just bad. The story of The Food Network was written years ago, and much better, by Bill Buford. Pollan's article meandered from topic to topic before he got to his point, which --when he finally got there -- was not well argued. I guess he's made his points so often now about the evils of processed food that he can't come up with anything new, which is a shame.

If it had been half the length, I would have been bored. As it is, I was annoyed with him and with myself for having wasted my time. And that makes me sad.

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I also found it disappointing, especially coming on the heels of the bloated In Defense of Food.

I wonder how much televised food he actually watched.

  • Emeril has only the sensible Essence of Emeril and Mario (except for the occasional Iron Chef America appearance) isn't on the Food Network anymore.
  • He makes a categorical error by tossing Rachael Ray into the same boat as Sandra Lee.
  • Shows like Good Eats, America's Test Kitchen, reruns of Jacques and Julia, that Steve Raichlen grill show (whatever it's called) and yes, even 30 Minute Meals are good examples of people who love to cook earnestly teaching other people how to do it. I feel pretty safe in saying that's as much, if not more "instructional" food television as has ever been on, and the audience watching it is probably as big, if not bigger. Food entertainment didn't replace tutorial as Pollan suggests. It's additional.

Besides, correlation isn't causation. Pollan never makes a solid case that people are trading in kitchen time for time in front of the TV watching people cook and eat.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Seemed to me to be just another in the almost daily stream of articles the NY Times is publishing over the past week or so to promote the Julia and Julia movie.


Edited by rickster (log)

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If one accepts the problem as it's framed in Pollan's article (and I'm not sure I do), I think the answer is in teaching people to cook.

I grew up in Western Kansas, where vegetables were canned, meat was cooked to death, and we had the same handful of dishes over and over, in a sort of informal rotation. I developed an interest in cooking early; not sure if it's because my brain was wired that way, or because dinner bored the s--t out of me and I knew something had to be done. My mother, by the way, was known as an extraordinarily good cook.

Watching the Food Network can give a potential cook a little courage and a little information about food, but it doesn't teach anybody to cook.

I've been trying to figure out how, in the last few years, I made the transition from someone who had an interest in cooking, to someone who does cook, and does so pretty decently. I think the answer is eGullet. I've taken some cooking classes, and that's been helpful, to be sure. At the risk of sinking into syrupy sentimentality (which goes well with bacon, I hear), I've received an enormous amount of information from my fellow eG'ers, and I have the confidence to try things because I know that if they bomb, I can do a search or even start a thread, and find out why. There is no other reference in the world like this one, unless it's the brain of someone's mom, grandmother, or aunt. This is where I find my bridges -- those incidental pieces of information that help me make the transition from not wanting to cook anything for another month because of last night's failure, to someone who's willing to get back into the kitchen tonight because little by little, I've gained enough experience to have the confidence to do it.

Our local extension offices are full of home economists who, for the most part, can't cook but are a wealth of mostly useless information about food. My home economics teachers (you knew who they were by their little pearl earrings and scarves around their necks) taught us things we didn't need to know, such as how to make nearly anything with powdered eggs. Not one single egg in its shell ever graced our home ec lab. We didn't learn how to cook eggs, which in my mind is an extremely basic skill that nearly everyone could benefit from learning. They looked down on the fact that I made pie crust without measuring, and insisted that we follow their recipe exactly, no matter what kind of flour we were using or what the humidity was, and they certainly didn't take into consideration the amount of water in the fat they were using. I could go on and on; I'd say ". . .but don't get me started", but clearly I've already gotten started. No one could take the Joy right out of Cooking like my home ec teachers. Our muffins had no tunnels, by God, but they also had no flavor. Long story short, if we rely on home economists to teach our communities how to cook, we're doomed.

So who will? And how do we convince people to become interested?

One of my barriers was that while many dishes looked interesting, I had no idea what they were supposed to taste like. Cooking classes took care of that, but it wouldn't have happened had I not been interested enough in the first place to come up with the money for them.

We have a long way to go. One of my best friends has never had escalloped potatoes that didn't come out of a box, and she has no interest in learning to make her own. She tasted a canned mushroom 30 years ago, found it slimy, and now won't eat mushrooms. We can't trade recipes because mine are too much trouble for her, and because I don't use the canned soup that is in nearly every one of hers.

People see cooking "from scratch" as way too much trouble, and they don't know that it can become a highly rewarding activity after they've learned enough to make something really tasty. They don't know what I learned: it's a lot of trouble to make a new recipe the first three times. By the fourth time, you no longer have to check every step multiple times before you do it, and you know what you have to have ready to use, and when. You know which pot it will fit in. You know how much time it actually takes.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Like Michael Ruhlman, I haven't lost hope altogether. Reforming school lunches, as Jaime Oliver says, is one place to start. eG member Torakris (who lives in Japan) tells me that her kids come home from school requesting that she make some of the dishes they've enjoyed at lunch. People like us who share our passion for cooking with our friends, are another start. I think, though, that this needs to be viewed as a public health issue, and an economic issue, and that nothing will change until our nation realizes that our lives really do depend on it.

Jenny (relinquishing soapbox now)

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Several people are missing the larger theme of the article. It's not claiming that cooking is going away, it's that it's turning into a hobby rather than an essential life skill. One of the hallmarks of a hobby is that the people who participate in it become more extreme, not less. So the thriving internet food culture and people who cook obsessively are perfectly compatible with his piece.

That food is becoming a hobby akin to sewing or handmaking furniture is something that's been discussed many times before, including by myself on egullet several years ago. What Pollan really wants to look at is why, unlike other hobbies, people who are not participants in it still enjoy watching other people perform it.


PS: I am a guy.

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Also, I found Pollan's cook-it-yourself diet remarkably facile and, to me, that was the most irritating part of the piece.


PS: I am a guy.

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Also, I found Pollan's cook-it-yourself diet remarkably facile and, to me, that was the most irritating part of the piece.

That is exactly how I lost 55 lbs and have kept it off for 15 years. I don't find it irritating at all

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The story of The Food Network was written years ago, and much better, by Bill Buford. Pollan's article meandered from topic to topic before he got to his point, which --when he finally got there -- was not well argued. I guess he's made his points so often now about the evils of processed food that he can't come up with anything new, which is a shame.
Thanks for mentioning Buford's writing--I haven't read him but will now.
...correlation isn't causation. Pollan never makes a solid case that people are trading in kitchen time for time in front of the TV watching people cook and eat.
Yes, I wish I'd said this!
Seemed to me to be just another in the almost daily stream of articles the NY Times is publishing over the past week or so to promote the Julia and Julia movie.

So true. But I'll still go see the movie.


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