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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Silence Is The Enemy

There is a concerted effort in the blogosphere this month to draw attention to the mass rape of women and young girls, particularly in Liberia.  It is being organized by Sheril Kirshenbaum at The Intersection.  She will have updates throughout the month, and has a list of actions we can take to raise awareness.  This has to stop being the unspeakable crime, because if we can’t speak about it we can’t stop it.

She and a group of other bloggers will be donating all of their blog income this month to Doctors Without Borders, who treat many of the victims.  Income is determined by blog traffic, so you can contribute just by clicking through to the blogs. You can find a list of the blog coalition here.  If you follow any of these blogs in a reader, you need to click through to the blog itself to generate the increase it traffic that will increase contributions.

You can also increase the profile of this issue by blogging about it yourself, and linking to these blogs.

Update:  The bloggers who are donating their proceeds are:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/
http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/
http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/
http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/
http://scienceblogs.com/neurotopia/
http://scienceblogs.com/authority/
http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/
http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/

So Go Already!

A spoiled five-year-old gathers up teddy bear and blankie and goes to a parent, who is busy cleaning up the messes the child has made, and says, “If I can’t have all the cookies I want I’m going to run away!”

The parent looks up, says “Good-bye!” and goes back to work.

There is nothing left for the spoiled child but a temper tantrum, “I mean it!  I’m leaving!”

The Randians are engaging in temper tantrums all over the internet.  They have threatened to ‘go John Galt’ and to their great dismay are discovering that the grown-ups are too busy cleaning up their messes to pay attention to them.

Randian philosophy has always been essentially childish, rooted the the five-year-old’s wail of “Mine!” and unwilling to accept adult responsibilites.  It glorifies selfishness and narcisism, cooing “Greed is good,” only slightly less repulsively than Gordon Gecko.  They don’t want to share their toys.

So to all those ‘creative elites’ who are stamping their feet, holding their breaths until they turn blue, and yelling that they really mean it, they are going away, there can be only one response.

Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Sarah

Daily Kos had a post yesterday that, using Nixon as a model, suggested that Sarah Palin might not be headed into political oblivion, and laid out a program of education and rehabilitation that could make her a figure to be taken seriously.  If she were to undertake such a program of intensive reading, she could indeed remake herself into a serious figure, but that is a big if.

I don’t know how much of the Palin-bashing coming out of the McCain staff I believe, but I tend to credit the stories that she was unwilling to do the necessary homework for interviews.  I credit it chiefly because it seems to me to be the only reasonable explanation for her abysmal performance.  If she wouldn’t do the homework necessary to not look like an idiot on national television, why would she make the long term investment of serious study and effort required to actually become a serious candidate in the distant future?  Especially when she has a fawning fan base telling her she’s wonderful just as she is?

If she stays on the national scene, or comes back onto the national scene in two or four years, I doubt she will be much changed.  She apparently has the ability to learn, though the number of colleges she went through in getting her degree raises questions about that, but I don’t think she has any interest in learning, and that is a part of her appeal, to many of those who find her appealing.  She is anti-itellectualism personified.

Her constituency scorns expertise on the part of politicians.  They would not hire an unlicensed Joe the plumber, but a professional politician is anathema.   This is the attitude that makes the current Nextel ads possible – you know the ‘if roadies ran the airlines everything would be on time’ and even more insulting the ad with the firefighters running the legislature.  All the have to do to make everything wonderful is use push to talk to say, yes, we want clean water, and it’s done.

These people are not stupid.  They are just utterly uninterested in doing the work necessary to master any topic.  And all too often, along with this disinterest in learning, comes an arrogance of ignorance that says ‘My opinion, no matter how uninformed, is as good as anyone else’s.’  This is the attitude that feeds the anti-vaccine nonsense, and all manner of conspiracy theories.

This is the attitude I see in Sarah Palin.  So while she could do the work necessary to become a real expert on energy, or the economy, or foreign policy, I doubt she has the will to do so.

Irony

The most ironic thing about irony is how many people have no clue what it means.

In watching a program on forensic science (the real stuff, not the CSI franchise’s magic) the sister of the murder victim commented that it was ironic that her sister’s killer was found by science, since the victim was a biology major and interested in forensic science. That isn’t ironic. It is appropriate. It would have been ironic if the victim had been a science denier whose murder was solved by science.

In the continuing melodrama that is crackergate, and I don’t intend to comment extensively on what I consider to be essentially adolescent behavior by all parties (and stupidly adolescent behavior from Donohue et al), The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has observed that

The Chancellor of the University refused to reprimand or censure the teacher, who ironically is a Biology Professor.

What, exactly, was supposed to be ironic about it? Irony involves contradiction, a discord between words and meaning, or persona and action. As PZ Meyers, the biology professor under discussion, rightly notes in his own blog Pharyngula

There’s nothing ironic about the fact that I’m a biologist, nor did I claim my profession gave me special qualifications to see through the foolishness of faith.

If a Catholic theology professor had desecrated a host in the middle of a lecture on transubstantiation, that would have been ironic, but when an avowedly atheist biology professor does it, in his own home, with no connection to his role as professor, it is deeply offensive to some, and profoundly silly to others, but it is in no way ironic.

It is understandable that the sister of a murder victim, under the pressure of a TV interview, would misuse a word. It is far less unremarkable on the part of a group of supposedly educated men in a statement prepared for publication.

It makes me wonder about the much trumpeted superiority of Catholic education.

Oil prices…

…have been going down for the last few days, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I don’t say that because I have oil company stock.  I don’t.  I don’t say that because I have lots of money and don’t care about the price of gas.  I’m not rich, and I do care.  The rising gas prices have screwed up my personal finances just like everyone else.  But anyone who takes global warming seriously, and I do, has to realize that high gas prices are a good thing in the long run.

As H. Beam Piper noted in Space Viking, good things in the long run are often very unpleasant while they are happening.

Skyrocketing gas prices are finally getting people out of SUVs and into fuel efficient cars.  Four-day work weeks are suddenly seeming reasonable to a whole lot of people who sneered at them before.  Mass transit ridership is up, as is telecommuting and college classes over the internet.  All of these things have been advocated for years by people who are concerned about the environment, but it took high gas prices to get people to actually do them.

Will these trends continue if gas prices drop?  My experience says no.  We made some of the same changes during the last oil crisis, and abandoned them as soon as gas was cheap again.  Which is why I am not sure that falling oil prices are a good thing.  If I thought that this was the good scare we needed to break our addiction to oil, then I would be happy to get gas prices back down to where I’m not having to think about how much each trip is costing me in gas, but as a society we are more inclined to turn the oxygen off for a few minutes so we can smoke another cigarette than to actually break our addiction.

I’ve been thinking about this since the prices started going up, but a post by Mike the Mad Biologist brought it to a head.  The post points out that we have been subsidizing cars through road building and maintenance that is not covered by gas taxes, yet people complain about subsidizing mass transit.  We subsidize all transit systems, and it may be time to start looking at total cost in making decisions about what kind of transit gets priority in funding.

And so, my reluctant conclusion that high gas prices may be a good thing in the long run is not entirely based on the schadenfreude I experience watching someone fill the tank on their Hummer.

Elites

Most people are elitists. They don’t think people who can’t play football should be hired by the 49ers. They expect the winner of American Idol to be able to sing. They certainly think their brain surgeon should have natural dexterity and have spent years getting the education necessary to become an expert. They wouldn’t hire someone who knows nothing about mechanics to fix their car.

So why, when the field is intellectual endeavor, or science, or politics, do they suddenly decide that everybody’s opinion is equal? Why do we want an expert plumber, but a novice legislator? Why do we admire the athletically gifted, but resent the intellectually gifted?

While I am perfectly capable of understanding organic chemistry, or quantum mechanics, or  economics, I don’t have the time (or in the case of economics, the interest) for the study necessary to become an expert in any of those fields. Which means I have to respect the opinions of the people who have put in the time and study to become experts in those fields.

Personally, I want my president to be at least as smart as I am, preferably smarter, and I really don’t care if he, or she, is someone I want to have a beer with (although I have generally found smart people to be excellent drinking companions).

So I guess that makes me an elitist bastard, and it’s nice to have found a number of fellow travelers.

If you think smart shouldn’t be an insult, check out the Carnival of Elitist Bastards.