Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig? Uh, no.

IMG_1935Wow. What a question. But it’s been a Salon headline, thanks to an excerpt from a new book about Femivores, and as a result, has been re-blogged in several places. And now I’m asking too. Only I’m also going to answer the question.

NO.

I’m a feminist, I bake my own bread, and oh hey look, I dealt with all of this stuff in a post back in 2010.

To recap, what I said then is true now: yes, it’s sexist and inaccurate when food writers express nostalgia for a Good Old Days that never existed. As Emily Matchar makes clear in the excerpt of her book that Salon posted, and as is clear to anyone who watches Mad Men, it’s simply not true that our grandmothers ate better, more wholesome food than we did. My grandmother’s most famous recipe involves a jar of Cheese Wiz, for example. You’d have to go back to my great grandmother on the farm to get to something close to “slow food,” and then you’d also have to consider that she was living a life of drudgery during the Great Depression with many many mouths to feed. So yes, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of folks like Michael Pollan to ask that they please lay off the pre-feminist nostalgia.

It’s also one thing to note that feminism led many women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, and another to blame all our current food woes on that fact. Sometimes, it has seemed that Pollan has done this, but in a rather large body of writing I must charitably point out that overall, I do not get the feeling that he’s truly a sexist who thinks cooking is women’s work, as he himself is a man who cooks. Still, we need to consider that the lack of home cooking in this country might be precisely because FEMINISM ISN’T FINISHED YET, and true equality would have as many men getting into cooking as women getting out of it.

This brings me to my frustration with the “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig” chapter/article heading. It’s like Jay Smooth’s awesome video about racism: you need to keep the conversation about what the person said/did, rather than on who/what they are as a person. Absolutely Michael Pollan has written some sexist things. But calling him, as a person, a sexist pig, even in a semi-joking headline, really goes too far, especially when there are so many actual sexist pigs out there not doing good work and fighting the good fight, save for a few statements.

I guess, as a bread-baking, yogurt-making, pastured-egg eating, feminist, stay at home mom, I wonder what people think is exactly the problem in this movement, one in which people who have other options are choosing something based upon important values and beliefs. I don’t want to fall too far into the choice feminist camp, because I believe even feminists can make problematic choices, and that the personal is political, and the choices we make perpetuate a system larger than ourselves, etc. etc. etc. BUT. There are a lot of us, women and men, for whom food and other seemingly small choices are deeply important, even spiritual. We may find joy in a system of farming, cooking, and eating that is healthier for ourselves, for the workers who make/grow/produce our food, and for the planet.

Matchar writes, “As should be obvious to anyone who’s peeked at a cookbook from the late 1940s or early 1950s that promotes ingredients like sliced hot dogs and canned tomato soup, we’ve been eating processed crap since long before feminism. Yet the idea of the feminist abandoning her children to TV dinners while she rushes off to a consciousness-raising group is unshakable.”

But in a way, Matchar seems to echo this early criticism of feminists, and seems to think we’re choosing these domestic pursuits to the exclusion of other, worthier causes:

“Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops.”

But you know, we’re the people who have time to show up to the pro-choice rally with homemade muffins in tow. It’s like when you show interest in supporting a charity for say, animal welfare, and someone reminds you that there are starving people in the world who matter more. Well, it’s amazing how boundless my interests and passions can be. I can care deeply about the food I feed myself and my family and also about social justice and politics. And I can be part of a slow food movement while still recognizing that it has major problems with privilege, a lot of the time.

And you know, I have a feeling Matchar feels the same way, too. She mentions in her piece that she’s “been learning to can jam, bake bread from scratch in my Dutch oven (though my husband is better at it), and make my own tomato sauce from a bushel of ugly tomatoes I bought at the farmer’s market.” It’s entirely possible her book reflects my tone of largely admiration for the work of slow-foodies while also seeing a few shortcomings. It’s just unfortunate that she (or an editor?) are (even jokingly) calling one of the “good guys” a “sexist pig” in order to sell a few more copies.

moral foodieism

Anthony Bourdain: the face of immorality in America?

I’m a foodie. To ask B.R. Meyers of The Atlantic, this apparently makes me an immoral hedonist, whose insatiable appetite for food and pleasure and elitism will be the downfall of our civilization (seriously, he references the fall of the Roman empire and manages to blame it on food).

Meyers’ piece reads like a particularly strident sermon against what he sees as gluttony, and he lumps a wide variety of people together in order to make his case against the immorality of people who dare to enjoy their food. What do Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan have in common? I like both, and both think people should cook more and enjoy food more, but they have pretty different food philosophies. Bourdain probably does fall closest to Meyers’ hedonist vision of a foodie, being a big fan of pork products of all sorts, and unafraid to eat even the nastiest bits of an animal in his worldwide quest for good food on his Travel Channel show. He’s sort of like the Dr. House of food: abrasive, provocative, selfish–he’s doing it on purpose to get a rise out of people like Meyers. But as a longtime fan of Bourdain’s, I think he’s really a softie. He gets off on the kindness and similarities of people all over the world as much as he does a greasy pile of pork, and he’s so very genuinely warm with even the poorest folks who share meals with him on his travels. Sure, he’s known for his profanity-filled bestsellers about the food industry, but he’s a secret softie.

Pollan, on the other hand, comes at foodie-ism from an environmentalist point of view. His mantra, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is about a more sustainable way of eating, not dependent on industrial farming and emissions-causing shipping of food around the world. The “not too much” part flies directly in the face of Meyers’ anti-glutton arguments. Pollan does a lot of advocacy work for things like organic and small farms, and he’s educated a lot of people through his involvement with the movie “Food Inc.,” which personally changed my life and my relationship with food. I’d put him in a category with someone like Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer and author of some of my favorite cookbooks (the Food Matters Cookbook and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian), who advocates a “less meat-arian” diet that is better for our health and for the planet. I wouldn’t put either of them in a category with Anthony Bourdain.

Meyers also seems to think that people who really care about and enjoy their food are simply elitists pursuing physical pleasure rather than people trying to live out deeply held convictions in their daily lives. For one thing, I’m not so sure there’s anything wrong with flat out enjoying food. Being able to taste is a miracle and a gift. That we can take pleasure as we must take sustenance is a wonderful thing. Enjoying the blessings of food is a way of being thankful for it. I’m personally a “foodie” because I care deeply about my impact on the environment, the treatment of animals and workers, the way my eating affects global hunger, and the way my eating affects the health of my community’s economy and my own body. I try to eat less meat, more local organic produce, and to avoid all processed foods. And I love every bite.

Supposedly Meyers is a vegan and has a problem with meat eating in general, and that’s part of his issue with Bourdain. I can respect that. But while I may in fact be drawn toward vegetarianism myself, you aren’t going to win me, or many people, to veganism by suggesting that it’s immoral to really enjoy food. Come to our side! We don’t enjoy our food! Come not enjoy it with us! Why not illustrate that there is pleasure to be had in a deliciously prepared vegetarian dish? What would be wrong with enjoying a perfectly prepared piece of produce?

Are there foodie elitists? Sure. I’m not sure Bourdain is one of them– he’s as likely to eat at a street cart as he is at Le Bernadin. I’m not sure Pollan is either, since one of his major areas of activism is getting people access to fresh, healthy, whole food. And my food hero, Mark Bittman, points out that 90% of Americans own a car and spend an average of 30+ hours a week watching television, so acquiring healthy food and cooking it at home is actually achievable for a large chunk of us.

To me, food is sort of the opposite of elitism, because it’s about sharing. Meals bring people around a table together. They facilitate conversation and understanding and connection. People who are really excited about food want to share those experiences with others–to say “you have GOT to try this,” rather than keeping the experience locked away for only a privileged few. Real foodies have a curiosity about other food cultures, and an interest in reaching out and having new experiences, even if it’s just trying some new and weird looking vegetable that suddenly showed up in a CSA box.

Finally: who is the real elitist? Someone who cares passionately about food (much like others who care passionately about their hobbies and interests), or Meyers himself? Many times in the article, he suggests that people who care a lot about food don’t devote much time to what he believes are higher pursuits, for example:

Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts. When Marcel Proust’s name pops up, you know you’re just going to hear about that damned madeleine again.

I mean, the guy in the effing Atlantic quoting Roman historians and referencing Proust can hardly be calling OTHERS out on their elitism, for one thing. For another: you don’t have to choose between the stomach and the mind. Mr. Meyers: I’m a budding foodie and a home-cooking hobbyist. I’m also pursuing a graduate degree in English Literature and hope to be a professor one day. I’m just sayin’, one can love both food and the great thinkers and their great thoughts.

Ultimately, Meyers’ piece comes off as a particularly whiny rant about some people he seems to just not like. He seems particularly bothered by some of the foodies’ use of the f-word and likes to quote them using it, I guess in an attempt to point out that these hedonists use appallingly coarse language and further underline their supposed amorality. And yet, Meyers doesn’t offer an alternative. I can see how he might criticize Bourdain’s meat-fest gluttony, but I really don’t get what his issue with Pollan is. How DOES he think Americans should eat? What exactly is the problem with trying to eat in a way that corresponds to one’s values (Meyers seems to have no problem with people who keep kosher, for example) and enjoying it along the way? What’s so immoral about caring about how my chicken was raised, and how the farmer who raised it was compensated, and how the workers who slaughtered and packaged it were treated, and how much gas was used to get it to me?