Cooking as Spectator Sport

To borrow a culinary metaphor from my father, Michael Pollan makes too much stew from one oyster, which Matt Yglesias points out far more succinctly that I am about to do. He questions whether the Food Network is as influential as Pollan assumes, while I have some arguments with his basic premise.

First, as someone who does watch the Food Network, when I’m not watching news or politics, and while reading science and political blogs, it strikes me that Pollan wrote the article without actually spending much time actually watching the Food Network, he speaks far more knowledgeably about Top Chef, which is not a Food Network program. He accurately divides the programming into the very different categories of daytime and nighttime, the daytime being mostly traditional cooking shows, and the nighttime being food shows, but not necessarily cooking, but he then proceeds to misrepresent each category.

His discussion of the daytime shows serves primarily to explain why none of them can stand up to the shows of his childhood produced by the sainted Julia Child. He selects 3 shows to focus on, Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee, and Paula Dean, and assumes that they are representative of the networks daytime programming. He chose the only 2 shows that routinely rely on pre-prepared, pre-packaged ingredients to a large degree (Ray and Lee) and uses them to maintain that “These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience”. This ignores the majority of the shows, that may not tell you how to kill your own chicken, but do tell you how to break down a whole chicken instead of buying it already cut up. All of the shows will rely on packaged chicken stock, or canned tomato sauce from time to time;these are things that would have had to be made ahead and canned or frozen for later use anyway, and nobody but a pastry chef makes their own puff pastry, but I don’t think teaching me to make my own Beef (or Pork, thanks Alton) Wellington using frozen puff pastry is any less bringing high quality food to the family table than anything Child did. Without Alton Brown’s discussion of standing rib roast, I might never have attempted one, but I am now quite willing to cook one, on the grill outdoors, or in the oven, whenever I find it priced attractively.

The evening shows are not, for the most part, traditional cooking shows, though Alton Brown’s Good Eats has always been an evening presence, and Emeril Live was indeed a cooking show — fitted out with a live audience and a band, but that does not mean that they are not educational, informative, or about cooking. Pollan quotes a chef friend who compares trying to learn about cooking by watching the food channel to trying to learn basketball by watching the NBA, implying it is a silly expectation. And yet I know any number of young basketball players who do watch the NBA avidly expecting to learn how to improve their game. I may never have a whole wheel of parmesano regiano to turn into a soup tureen, as Mario Batali did in one Iron Chef competition, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get ideas that apply to my daily cooking by watching what they create. Similarly, the competitive aspect of Chopped is the least interesting part; the fun part, for anyone who has ever been stuck playing pantry roulette (you must make dinner for whatever reason, from what is available in the house and you haven’t been shopping in a while), is trying to figure out what you would do with the same ingredients — would your dish work better? could you do it in time?

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is arguably more about eating than cooking, but Pollan unfairly minimizes the time spent in the kitchen, talking about why this particular dish is worthy of attention, and many of the recipes for dishes prepared on 3D are available on the Food Network’s website — that’s where I got my vanilla gelato recipe.

He does this cherry picking in order to set up the idea that we are becoming disconnected from food preparation, and that this disconnect is the source of our less than healthy diet, and ultimately the obesity epidemic. He ends with the suggestion that the ultimate solution is to cook. His logic is flawed in a number of ways, and his solution simplistic.

He shifts from a praising Julia and dissing Emeril, to noting that we spend less time in food preparation, on average, today than we did 40 years ago, and concludes that this is because we are now microwaving pizza instead of making homemade soup. He fails to make any real connection between this and the Food Network, however. He presents no evidence that those who are watching the Food Network are the ones microwaving pizza instead of cooking. I have no evidence to the contrary either, but anecdotally, those friends of mine who watch the Food Network also cook. We may still spend less time in food prep than 40 years ago, having pre-chopped onions, celery, and peppers is a time saver that does not reduce the nutritional value of what I cook.

But this is a relatively minor flaw in his argument. The biggest problem in a correlation/causation fallacy that rests at the heart of his analysis. He notes that as the “time-cost” of food goes down, calorie consumption goes up, and that nations that have higher food prep times have lower obesity rates, and concludes that there is a cause and effect relationship and that cooking will solve our problems. This is a classic error, and ignores conflating factors. Less food prep time may correlate with may things, including greater food availability, and as long as that greater availability remains, cooking our own food will not change anything.

This, again, is anecdotal, but on a personal level I find his thesis questionable. I was raised by a mother who cooked, and I cook. I bake most of our bread, and pizza is fast food chiefly because there is a ball of dough in the refrigerator, and toppings can be made from a variety of left overs. We eat out, on average, 2-3 times a week, and the rest the meals are prepared at home, usually from scratch. That has not kept me, and all my family from being fat.

His final recommendation(quoting Harry Balzer):

“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

This would, in my house, be a diet full of pizza, gelato, chocolate cake, and oatmeal cashew chocolate chip cookies. No, I can’t eat whatever I want as long as I cook it myself.

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