Why Food Snobbery Is a Tough Sell

August 1, 2009

Writing for the Times,* Michael Pollan laments the (de-)evolution of televised cooking, and ends, as always, on a prescriptive note:

The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

According to Pollan, there once was a beastie that roamed this great land freely, showing up at American homes every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Its name was “Real Scratch Cooking,” and it brought joy to the heart of every man, woman, and child. Then, some evil corporations came along, and with a few engineering tricks and a little TV showmanship, convinced Americans to banish Real Scratch Cooking from their lives. And that, in a nutshell, is why Americans are so fat and unhappy nowadays.

Now, why would Pollan spin such a fanciful tale? First, I will delight you with an obscure and irrelevant literary reference:

It could be said that there was no one like Michael Pollan in the whole Republic. The Republic valued his services. He was of great use to it. But, for all that, he remained unknown, though he was just as skilled in his art as Chaliapin was in singing, Gorky in writing, Capablanca in chess, Melnikov in ice-skating, and that very large-nosed and brown Assyrian occupying the best place on the corner of Tverskaya and Kamerger streets was in cleaning black boots with brown polish.

Chaliapin sang. Gorky wrote great novels. Capablanca prepared for his match against Alekhine. Melnikov broke records. The Assyrian made citizens’ shoes shine like mirrors. Michael Pollan was a food snob.

See, Pollan has a vested interest getting us (back) into Real Scratch Cooking, because, as an inveterate food snob, he would love nothing more than to have his particular brand of snobbery validated by others. Oh, he may be a well-meaning snob, earnestly convinced that doing things his way (or, really, his and our ancestors’ way) is good and right for everyone. But the only thing that would explain his “my way or the highway” approach to Americans’ cooking eating habits is regular snobbery, not overwhelming concern for the public good.

An analogy to Pollan’s writing comes immediately to mind: he is to food as a less profane Mark Rippetoe would be to fitness**. Oh, the two might motivate beginners in their respective fields to dig deeper, and even rope in some gen-u-ine newbies (fresh meat?), but their simple, authoritarian pronouncements – “cook food from scratch” and “squats and milk,” respectively – adapt terribly to the education of the masses.

We can see proof of this in the comments section on the Pollan piece. There, some Times readers offer legitimate pushback:

Cooking, like everything else, requires practice and repetition. If you cook fairly elaborate meals regularly and don’t exercise like an Olympian there’s a good chance you’re going to get unhealthily fat. Some people also may not be as thrilled by the effort of cooking and clean up as seems to be assumed. There’s a world of difference between the lovely fantasy of the beautiful, trim, industrious woman removing the baking bread from the oven and serving it to her gorgeous, always-appreciative family and the reality.

Or,

I believe this article overlooks one factor that heavily affects the time people spend cooking, especially single young people: It’s often not economical to cook certain types of food if you work irregular hours and/or don’t have a family. Besides the time factor (which is significant), it’s sometimes hard to justify spending $50-100 on the ingredients for a meal that will only feed one person, when I can go to a restaurant and get the same meal for a fraction of the cost.

Or even,

I think the whole “foodie”/locavore/annoying Alice Waters” culture which shows disdain for the Food Network types contributes to the lack of cooking in this country. It’s great to know how to cook a “from scratch” meal and I enjoy doing it because I love cooking. However, some others who can cook well often seem to look down on those who assemble meals or buy takeout for whatever reason.

I’ve seen them in action. I’ve seen them get invited over to people’s houses and then sneer to me (because they know I can cook) about the green-bean casserole and the parmesan from the green can on the pasta and how the host served Trader Joe’s wine instead of the good wine they, the great cooks, brought as a gift.

I quote these comments at length not only because I agree with their arguments, but also because they come from (presumably) a variety of people, and not just one crotchety blogger. To intellectuals and foodies and intellectual foodies Pollan’s snobbery may hold truth and comfort, but below this rarefied realm, the fetishism of Real Scratch Cooking has only a shaky appeal.

Lest this post be elongated even further, here is a list of just a few reasons why exhorting the American people to return to Real Scratch Cooking may be a bad idea:

  • Cooking takes time. This is the stupidest possible objection to cooking from scratch, but it holds immense purchase on our habits. It is stupid because it is so obvious – of course doing something well takes time – but it is still a legitimate objection: many Americans are not willing or not able to sacrifice hours out of their day to cook from scratch what they could cook or obtain otherwise.
  • Cooking takes money. In theory, cooking can be cheaper than eating out or relying on prepackaged or “nearly-ready-to-eat” foods. In reality, cooking entails many hidden and not-so-hidden costs that can quickly outweigh the nominal savings. For example, a half-pound of roast beef from the deli might cost $5; an equivalent quantity of steak might cost only $3. But to realize this savings one must avoid the following expenditures: the cost of other ingredients (oils, marinades), the cost of tools (grills, skillets, roasting pans), and the cost of excess raw ingredients, should the steak not come in a handy .500 lb package.
  • Cooking takes skill. Sure, practice makes perfect, but going from zero to kitchen hero is a process that would entail a good deal of unsavory errors and frustrating pitfalls. Asking people who don’t know how to cook to learn Real Scratch Cooking is much like asking people who have never learned to walk to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
  • Cooking takes motivation. Let’s face it – not everyone fantasizes about spending precious leisure time in front of the stove, or, as the first comment above notes, picking and cleaning up after dinner. Some people just aren’t going to be interested in labor-intensive forms of cooking no matter how much Pollan and his disciples might browbeat them. There are compelling reasons why cooking from scratch might be enjoyable, but there are many equally compelling reasons why people might just not want to do it.

    These are but a few of the possible objections to Pollan’s adoration of Real Scratch Cooking. Others include, but are not limited to: the false equation of home cooking with healthy eating; the elitism of asking people to turn cooking and eating into a hobby; and the lack of any suggested alternatives for people who may not want or be able to pursue the foodie lifestyle as prescribed.

    If we shouldn’t lecture people to drop everything they’re doing and get started on their “Real Scratch Cooking” re-education, then what message should we be disseminating about cooking, food, and their intersection? I believe the answer lies somewhere short of all-out Pollan-esque snobbery, but far beyond the laissez-faire approach of, say, the Intuitive Eating folks. Particularly, to have mass appeal and mass applicability, food manifestos should strive to offer a good-better-best continuum of food practices. For example, starting the day off with cereal and milk instead of a box of donuts is good; frying a couple eggs to serve with toast is better; and cooking a delectable omelet is best – or some such progression. This principle can be applied to all aspects of eating and (maybe even) cooking: an easy option just about anyone can try; a superior option requiring just a bit more time, money, skill, and motivation; and a very good option that would also be most difficult to execute. The downfall of advice that has its roots in snobbery – as does Pollan’s advice to return to Real Scratch Cooking – is that is addresses only the last category, giving the majority of people, who are unwilling to go to those lengths, neither aid nor comfort.

    * Link via the U.S. of Jamerica.
    ** I owe the comparison to the Brass Tack.

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  • 4 Responses to “Why Food Snobbery Is a Tough Sell”

    1. Sarah Says:

      Goddamn it I love you.
      I’ve been looking for an English translation of the Twelve Chairs FOR EVER.

    2. grandmute Says:

      There are worse and better translations out there, I believe. What I have yet to find is a full quality translation of The Golden Calf.


    3. […] pens a piece in the Times Magazine on television’s role in the death of real home cooking. mute sees his latest pronouncement as snobby and ineffective; Amanda Marcotte calls him antifeminist. (I […]


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