Pollan on Fresh AirPosted: October 23, 2008
Monday’s episode of NPR’s Fresh Air featured an interview with Michael Pollan (author of high-profile books and articles on the social, political, and economic impact of food, such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma). In the interview, Pollan discusses the open letter he recently wrote to the next president regarding the state of the American food system at large. The letter is quite long (par for the course with Pollan) and touches on a wide variety of food issues, from farm subsidies, to fossil fuels to food education for kids. There is one point he makes in the Fresh Air interview, however, that I think is particularly relevant for this site, focused as we are on eating healthy and on the cheap:
He points out a bizarre circumstance in this country wherein “food” with little to no nutritional value that is produced in a factory, probably from ingredients shipped from overseas, then reassembled and reheated in smaller factory-restaurants has come to be considered populist; “folksy” somehow. Conversely, food that is grown locally and naturally by farmers who are knowledgable about the land, which is nutritious, and which one often cooks in the home, is now considered elitist (arugula being the ultimate in effette liberal greenery).
The explanation for this nonsense is of course that fresh vegetables can be quite expensive and fast food is famously cheap. And why is this? It’s because agricultural subsidies encourage farmers to produce corn, soy, and wheat, the raw materials of industrial food and livestock feed, and discourage them from growing vegetables for people to eat. In other words, our government’s ill-thought-out agricultural policies (in combination with the advertising industry that encourages us to want fast junk rather than fresh vegetables, etc.) has created a situation wherein the populism of traditional kitchen knowledge has been excised. For example, Pollan cites knowing how to use a whole chicken to make several meals rather than buying pre-cut chicken breasts to make a single meal. Home cooking with fresh local ingredients is better for both your wallet and your health than hitting up a fast food joint, yet it has become a luxury activity.
How to change this? For one, Pollan points to the need for policy change in order to create a major shift in the currently screwed-up economics of healthy eating. For another, I think, is to actively reinvigorate the populism of home cooking. I guess it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how to go about this, but in general I think that the communities developing around certain food blogs are a step in the right direction. I don’t so much mean the facination with pretty pictures of fancy food, but rather the not uncommon focus on kitchen knowledge and eating economically and locally. For example, check out Not Eating Out in New York, The Green Kitchen, or Homegrown Evolution (which also deals with lots of super-cool sustainability projects beyond food), and also the Edible Communities magazines – for us, Edible Brooklyn. Mark Bittman also comes to mind, as his posts on Bitten or his articles as The Minimalist so often focus on getting people familiar with basic kitchen skills and demonstrating that cooking fresh food is not difficult or mysterious. And that’s the point, right? Kitchen skills, while certainly cool and increasingly hip, are not an elitist pasttime. They don’t even require a ton of fancy equipment, even though the best of us may get starry-eyed over a kitchen gadget from time to time. Rather, cooking healthy, local, real food for ourselves, our friends, and our family is something for everybody to do. It creates and relies upon a body of knowledge passed through communities and generation – populist to the core.
So even when I’m feeling jaded about the blogosphere (often), sites like these keep me excited about the potential for sites like these (and maybe even ours) to be part of a really important movement back towards these healthy, economical, environmentally-conscious, community- and family-based, and yes, traditional relationships with food and cooking.
Listen to the interview here, and of course feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.