My Love/Hate Relationship with Michael Pollan

While love and hate may be too strong of words to describe my reaction to Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, I figured it might grab your attention. But in reading his latest contribution to the ever changing dialogue of the place of food in American culture, at times he was speaking directly to my heart about the importance of a shared meal, but at other times, I could barely continue reading as I was frustrated and jealous of how he went about the business of learning to cook.

I have enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s books over the past few years, starting with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then In Defense of Food, and now Cooked. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to state that Michael Pollan may be the most influential food writer in America. Through his three books, he has done more to change the food culture in America from exposing the awfulness of modern agriculture practices to the dangers of our over reliance on corn and to the weird science of nutritionism.

I was excited as I began reading Cooked as right off the bat he states that lately he came to the realization that while he had written a lot about food, he knew very little about how to cook. Not only did he not know much about cooking, but he “made the unexpected but happy discovery that the answer to several of the questions that most occupied me was in fact one and the same. Cook” (1). He laments the lack of cooking being done in America today, which is odd as Americans are watching and talking about food more than ever.

His premise in the book is that cooking “is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do” (11). And after his education in the kitchen he writes, “the most important thing I learned by doing this work is how cooking implicates us in a whole web of social ecological relationships: with plants and animals, with the soil, with farmers, with the microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Above all else, what I found in the kitchen is that cooking connects” (18, emphasis mine).

He also praises the importance of the shared meal. He writes, “It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending” (8).

Everything he has said, I reply with a heartily “Amen!” If you know me, these ideas are what makes my heart come alive. I first borrowed the book from our local public library, but after reading the introduction, I told Claire that I wanted to buy the book, to which her response was, “You want to underline and write in the book.” And she was absolutely correct. I wanted the ability to have this book on my shelf so I could quote from it without having to look too far.

Michael Pollan divides his book into four sections based on the primordial elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth, with each section evidencing a greater degree of civilization. In Fire, he learns the techniques of authentic barbeque from pitmasters in South Carolina. In Water, he learns all about the technique of braising from a local cook who had worked at Chez Panisse and spent two years in Tuscany learning how to cook. In Air he discusses the wonder of the wild yeast found all around us that has made bread baking possible, spending time talking and learning with Chad Robertson, the fame baker at Tartine Bakery. And finally in Earth, he learns the science about fermentation, from pickles to cheese to beer, again learning from experts along the way.

And this is where my frustration (and if I am honest, my jealousy) with the book started to mount. Here was a great writer and thinker discovering what I and many others have known for a while, namely the pleasures of cooking and sharing a meal with others, but he was learning from some of the best in the business, a privilege few people are able to enjoy. He travels not only the states, but the world, to talk to people who have been practicing their specific craft for years. He is able to spend a devoted length of time to learning how to bake a loaf of bread based on Chad Robertson’s recipe from Tartine Bakery, a recipe that requires at least 6 hours of time, turning the loaf every 45 minutes or so. I would wager that anyone could find the same success in cooking as Michael Pollan did if given the opportunities he had.

But the problem is, not many of us will ever be able to simply call up Chad Robertson with a question about our bread starter and be able to hang out with him learning. Chances are if you want to learn to cook, we will have to teach ourselves. And this is exactly how I have learned. Yes I have been to culinary school, but I am still paying off that debt. Yes I work in a restaurant, where I have also learned quite a bit. But by and large, my culinary education has been self-taught. I have taught myself a lot about sous-vide cooking. I have taken the time to bake bread and cultivate a sourdough starter. And I know many others who have taken a similar approach.

And herein lays the small danger of Michael Pollan’s book: unknowingly or unwittingly he espouses the belief that in order to cook successfully, one has to learn from professionals. He laments the outsourcing of a lot of our cooking in modern life, but when he seeks to learn how to cook himself, he relies on the professionals. He might argue that this is no different than reading and copying recipes from cookbooks, but I don’t think it is the same.

When I was starting to explore cooking more and more, I learned from recipes and books, but when and if something fails, I do not have the luxury of having the author right there to answer my question. Instead I am left to figure it out myself and try again. My worry is that others will read this book and instead of feeling inspired to cook might feel discouraged and deflated.

But just as I was ready to give up on the book, I skipped ahead to the conclusion where Michael Pollan returns to the beauty and heart of cooking and sharing meals, where “the world becomes literally more wonderful (and wonderfully more literal) as soon as we are reminded of these relationships” (408). As we cook we are reminded of the beautiful relationships that exist. Our relationship to this earth, that we depend on the earth to feed us. Our relationship to farmers who grow the food we eat. And most importantly our relationship with one another, the community we experience around food that is unlikely to be experienced in any other avenue of human activity.

At the table we experience love, community and interdependency like no other place. Through cooking we remember that we are all humans on the same journey. And I love that Michael Pollan has written about this, but please know that you do not need the best cooks to teach you how to cook. You can start by choosing a recipe that you feel comfortable with and trying it and inviting a few friends over to share it with you.

If it fails, order pizza and laugh with your friends, as the point is not the food, but rather the people we share the food with.

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The Family Meal & Vespers

Growing up, dinnertime was a non-negotiable, sacred time. Everyone was expected to be there, period. No excuses. No phone calls. And definitely no television. Except on the super-rare occasion when my parents would wheel the TV in front of the dinner table and we would watch a movie together, thereby making the table the central focus and not the TV. Even when Dad would have to work late, which was somewhat common in the early days of the business he and Grandpa started, he would still come home for dinner and then return to work. (Thankfully, the office was and still is only a mile and a half away from my parents’ home.)

As a family, we were not much of talkers, at least I don’t remember having many deep conversations at the table. But the table was still a secure place and a sacred space. If I had to characterize our family, we were the family that always had breakfast and dinner together. So, even though I cannot recall conversations around the table, the dinners engrained within me a deep sense of belonging, security and most of all love.

I have recently been reading For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox scholar and priest. After his discussion on the sacrament of the Eucharist, he discusses the sacrament of time: our fundamental reality by which we experience the wonder of both life and death. Within his discussion of time, he writes about the daily offices, the seven set periods of time throughout the day in which Christians, most often monks and priests, have traditionally prayed.

Schmemann begins by discussing Vespers, which are evening prayers, which may at first seem odd since Vespers occur at what we consider the end of the day. But for Schmemann, Vespers signal the beginning, “and this means in the ‘rediscovery,’ in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation” (pp. 73-74). His understanding of Vespers is grounded in the Creation account of Genesis 1 in which each day is marked off, “And there was evening, and there was morning” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). He writes:

“The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called by God to life, opened his eyes and saw what God in his love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself” (p. 74, emphasis original).

Therefore, one of the purposes of Vesper prayers is to reorient ourselves to the inherent goodness and beauty of creation. To simply stand in awe of the gift of creation.

As I read Schmemann’s discussion of Vespers, I began to wonder if a connection could be made between Vespers and the Family Meal.

The connection begins and is most easily seen when we open the meal with prayer, commonly known as giving thanks. In one of his other books, The Eucharist, Schmemann writes, “Thanksgiving is the power that transforms desire and satisfaction, love and possession, into life, that fulfils everything in the world, given to us by God, into knowledge of God and communion with him” (The Eucharist, pp. 188-189). Beginning each family dinner with prayer orients us to a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude towards God for all that he has given us. Or as Norman Wirzba writes,

“When eating is enfolded within the language and grammar of grace, and when food itself is experienced as the delectable manifestation of God’s abounding and incomprehensible love, then the opportunity exists for people to dine with God as ‘the fountain of true delight’” (Food & Faith, p. 180).

Giving thanks for the food reminds us that we are dependent on God for what is before us. While much human skill and ingenuity went in to putting the food before us, God was and is ultimately responsible. I am sometimes in awe of the variety of delectable food God has given purely for our enjoyment. Why do we need so many varieties of apples, tomatoes, potatoes? Did God give us red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers simply so that our food could be more colorful and to remind us of his extravagant love towards us?

Infusing the Family Meal with a Vesper like atmosphere would not stop with the giving of thanks. If the first great theme of Vespers is the reorienting of ourselves to the beauty and grandeur of creation, then the second theme, according to Schmemann, is the darkness and sin of this world. The family meal accordingly should be a place where the hurts, pains, and ugliness of creation are acknowledged. Even though the Family Meal should be a time of celebration and goodness, we cannot also hide from the fact that we are still in exile from Paradise, that all is not right with the world. Starting with the husband and wife, and extending to the children, there must be the freedom to acknowledge the hurts and sins of the day in openness and without shame. It is not easy to cultivate this kind of culture within the Family Meal, but I believe that eating together has the power to create a space where members of a family can feel open to share. As we eat the same food, we realize the level of the playing field – that at the core, we are all the same, humans created in the incredible image of God but who constantly sin and are in need of redemption.

Redemption is the third great theme of Vespers according to Schmemann. He writes, “The world is at its evening because the One bringing the final meaning to the world has come; in the darkness of this world, the light of Christ reveals again the true nature of things” (p. 75). As the darkness of sin is acknowledged, we move to remind ourselves that sin is not the final answer, but that through Christ’s death, death and darkness have been robbed of their power over us.

I don’t think these themes have to be acknowledged in a formal way every dinner, for part of the beauty of the Table is the spontaneity that occurs when people gather. Especially with children, I want to allow space for them to be kids and not impose a rigid structure when what they might want is to be slightly goofy.

I am not familiar with the history and liturgy of Vespers, which is why I plan on doing some more reading about its historical and theological development. Some friends have already suggested some books that I have requested from the library.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you been able to incorporate an attitude of prayer and worship within your Family Meal? What practices have worked? What ideas have not worked so well?