May 6 2013
National Review Online
One of the world’s most notable food malcontents, Mark Bittman, just reviewed a book by one of the world’s most self-righteous food nannies, Michael Pollen. I’ll save you the time and bottom line it for you: The food malcontent liked the book written by the food nanny.
Bittman describes Pollen’s new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, as an exploration on how food is transformed by cooking. Predictably sycophantic, Bittman begins by instructing the reader on why Pollan deserves our respect, saying that Pollen is responsible for the seven “most famous words in the movement for good food,” which are “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Most Famous? Sorry Julia, Alice, and Mr. Beard.
Of course, Bittman is correct in characterizing Pollen as a high priest to those who follow and feel a part of the foodie movement, those unquestioning masses who burst into tears at the site of organic kale, “happy” chickens, raw milk, and poor children weeding inner-city-school garden plots. To them, Pollan is the Dear Leader of the modern foodie culture.
Bittman doesn’t try to hide his glowing approbation for the man who has, more than any other food writer, made hating conventional and reasonably priced food hip and cool. Pollan gets a gold star for urging shoppers to “shop on the perimeter of the store” and to “stay out of the middle of the supermarket” where a lot of perfectly healthy — and more important, more affordable — food is stocked. Pollen’s vilification of food found in the middle aisles coupled with his constant drumbeat that people must eat “fresh and local” food in order to stay healthy is probably one of the reasons that 98 percent of frozen food products are experiencing flat or declining sales in this country.
According to new research, frozen food’s declining sales are also partly due to consumers’ concerns about the nutrition and quality of the product. In other words, people don’t think frozen food is healthy. Such an unfortunate misunderstanding of frozen food’s good qualities is particularly distressing considering the work being done (with your tax dollars) to encourage Americans to eat healthier. While fresh vegetables are, of course, a fine option, frozen food, in many instances, is more nutritious than fresh food because produce destined to be frozen is picked at its peak — unlike food meant for the produce aisle which must be picked earlier for shipping. Food picked at its peak and then frozen locks in the nutrients. This is why frozen food is a healthy, convenient, and cost effective means of getting good food.
The other benefit of frozen food is that it’s already washed. I’m not about to suggest that washing produce is an impossible task, but I will say that it’s nice to open and microwave a bag of frozen peas some nights. Busy moms and dads understand that short cuts like this are always helpful. Yet, Pollan sees convenience as a slippery slope to a frozen-pizza lifestyle — where people rely entirely on prepackaged convenience meals provided by big bad business. In fact, Pollan all but blames rising obesity rates on big business, telling Bittman:
We know why people don’t cook: because the marketers of prepared food have taken over our kitchens. . . .
Big Food has convinced most of us: “No one has to cook! We’ve got it covered.” This began 100 years ago, but it picked up steam in the ’70s, when Big Food made it seem progressive, even “feminist,” not to cook.
But was it really “Big Food” that made us less interested in cooking, or was it the fact that women — the primary cooks in the average household up until the 1970s — started leaving the home to go to work? For Pollan, however, this isn’t a chicken and egg question. He knows which came first — big business and its discouraging impact on American home cooks.
This absurd conclusion misses the reality that the food industry simply reacted to the demands of the growing number of working women who no longer had time to cook for their families. Hence convenience foods — frozen lasagnas, pizzas, and all sorts of things that made it easier for moms to hold down a job and put dinner on the table, too.
Naturally, Pollan’s solutions involve big government. While he does encourage the first lady to “use her bully pulpit to promote home cooking” — something I agree she should do — Pollan ultimately sees encouraging people to cook as a government responsibility. He says:
First, we need to bring back home ec, but a gender-neutral home ec. We need public health ad campaigns promoting home cooking as the single best thing you can do for your family’s health and well-being. A tax on prepared food, but not on raw ingredients, is another good idea.
I have a better solution: Michael Pollan should stop denouncing whole sections of the grocery store. He should spend a little more time perched up on his bully pulpit encouraging busy parents to purchase healthy, moderately priced items that are stocked in the middle of the store. Canned and frozen food is a good solution for many families struggling to provide their children healthy food at a good price.
Pollan will always have his followers and his fawning fans (like Bittman) but the real advice we need to give parents is to cook for your family. Do the best you can using a combination of fresh, frozen, canned, convenience, raw, and whole ingredients. What matters is making the effort to provide your child a homemade (or half-homemade) meal. After all, no one’s perfect . . . except Pollan in Bittman’s eyes.