Michael Pollan wants you back in the kitchen

The foodie author thinks we should all cook like Julia Child, minus the getting paid part

Topics: Broadsheet, Gender,

According to Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood, “Julie and Julia,” which opens next weekend, is “the one movie that women have been waiting for all summer.” Silverstein posits that Meryl Streep is the real draw, but for me, it’s the character she’s playing, Julia Child, whom I look forward to seeing — and at least around here, I’m not alone. Judy Berman also adores the late chef (and spy!), and Julie Powell’s blog, on which the movie is partially based, ran on Salon from 2002 to 2004.  Beyond the world of lady bloggers, another big fan is ethical food guru Michael Pollan, who’s written a paean to Child and the foodie values she stood for in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

“Julie Powell operates in a world that Julia Child helped to create,” Pollan writes, “one where food is taken seriously, where chefs have been welcomed into the repertory company of American celebrity and where cooking has become a broadly appealing mise-en-scène in which success stories can plausibly be set and played out.” But unfortunately, he says, 46 years after “The French Chef” debuted on PBS, televised cooking has become more of a spectator sport than an educational opportunity. The success of the Food Network demonstrates that Americans have an endless appetite (sorry) for watching people cook, yet most of us aren’t inspired, as Powell and an earlier generation of Child fans apparently were, to get off our butts and do it ourselves. “[T]he 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.”

Pollan takes pains to assure us that the large number of women now working outside the home is only partially responsible for this trend, and that he’s not calling for women to get back into the kitchen or anything. He’s calling for everybody to get back into the kitchen — or at least one cook in every household, and if that happens to be the woman, well, he didn’t make the rules! To be fair, Pollan would probably not be such a fierce advocate for home cooking if he didn’t enjoy it himself, but I still can’t help thinking his penis is showing when he describes Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” — which also debuted in 1963 — as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” Funny, I always thought Friedan became a feminist icon because she articulated what millions of women already felt, not because she brainwashed them into believing that repetitive, menial, unpaid labor might not be the best use of their talents.

Child, argues Pollan, demonstrated that “cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s, too.)” And even Simone de Beauvoir said whipping up pastries could involve “revelation and creation” — a statement Pollan characterizes as “a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.” Oh, those thoughtless feminists! I wasn’t around in the ’60s, but I’m guessing they made ridiculous, man-hating arguments like, “Dude, Julia Child gets paid to cook.”

Pollan goes on to say that numerous scholars and chowhounds over the years have identified cooking as the behavior that truly separates us from other animals because, among other reasons, it gives us the leisure time to think about stuff besides food: “Freed from the need to spend our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.” This, we can all agree, is a good thing. Pollan also notes elsewhere that it’s a relief for most Americans not to have to waste time killing and dressing our own meat anymore — who needs to do that? But when processed and fast food came along and freed American women from the need to spend their days making dinner from scratch, well, that was just one step too far. “The fact is that not cooking may well be deleterious to our health, and there is reason to believe that the outsourcing of food preparation to corporations and 16-year-olds has already taken a toll on our physical and psychological well-being.” Cue alarmism about obesity rates rising at the same time as processed food became more popular.

That’s a fashionable argument, but it conveniently ignores a point Megan McArdle makes today at the Atlantic: Back before we had a Twinkie in every pot, fresh produce was only available seasonally, and “Lean chicken was pricier than beef, but fatty pork was cheaper than either. Look in a cookbook from the thirties or fifties and you’ll find that recipes for some sort of mostly starch dish are at least 65% of the book. And those weren’t healthy whole grains, either. They were white flour, or rice, richly laced with fat and sugar.” The big difference back then wasn’t necessarily in the basic ingredients — newfangled chemical names notwithstanding — but in the time it took to prepare them. And in most homes, housewives weren’t mastering the sensual, meditative art of French cooking but making the same few starchy, fatty, labor-intensive dishes over and over for no pay, to the exclusion of being able to consider whether they might prefer some other form of fulfillment befitting an intelligent woman.

The fact that some people simply don’t enjoy cooking, much less find it fascinating, seems to completely escape Pollan. In 1960, before most Americans had heard of Julia Child or Betty Friedan, Peg Bracken published “The I Hate to Cook Book,” which included instructions like, “Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.” The New York Times said in her 2007 obituary, “Ms. Bracken’s cookbook … quickly became a staple of suburban homes. Published in various editions over the years, it sold more than three million copies. Every baby boomer’s mother, or so it seemed, had one on the kitchen shelf, its pages stained with the makings of Stayabed Stew, Sole Survivor and Spinach Surprise.” Not every baby boomer’s mother, apparently, since Michael Pollan’s mom was serving up Child’s boeuf bourguignon on weeknights, but enough to make Bracken a celebrity among women who hadn’t even been informed by Friedan yet that domestic duties can feel like drudgery.

The reality is, even those of us who agree with many of Pollan’s basic points about food — to wit, that it would be delightful and probably healthier to eat only lovingly prepared, fresh, local offerings — might not have the passion or talent for cooking that meeting that goal would require, let alone the time, energy or money. Sacrificing certain ideals to prioritize pursuits we find more rewarding — or more urgent — is part of being a grown-up. And for women, having the option of feeding ourselves and our families without working pro bono all day is part of what allows us to function as (mostly) equal citizens. Pollan may admire Julia Child for her devotion to the art of food, but that’s not why I’ll be in line for “Julie and Julia” on opening night. I love her in large part because she proved that a woman could follow her bliss to succeed wildly in a male-dominated profession (even if Tom Colicchio still wouldn’t call her a “chef”). I love Julia Child because her going into the kitchen helped a lot of women with different dreams and talents get out of it.

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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