I can’t remember exactly when I first read Julie Guthman’s article “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” (Cheetos are my all-time favorite snack, so I couldn't help but fall for the title). I was relieved and excited to hear that someone else felt uneasy with the “food revolution” Pollan seemed to be spreading. Let me be clear, it really wasn’t Pollan,the man, that was bothering me. He was a stand in for my concern with food revolution rhetoric as a whole. So what, you ask, is my problem? It is true, I do have a contrarian impulse that makes me push against anything that becomes a “thing,” a thing that everyone preaches and follows without much reflection. But more thoughtfully, I sensed that what Pollan proposed as the answer to America’s “food problems”--that is local, organic consumerism, provisioned by small farmers like Omnivore’s Dilemma’s heroes, Joel Salatin and George Naylor—was generally only available to Americans in his social/economic class. His answer resonated with the well-off who longed for a certain type of consumer experience and a certain kind of moral/environmental life. But I never heard him honestly grapple with the class and racial exclusiveness of this solution that he pitched as universally correct.
And every time I read one of his new articles on food, he pushed another one of my buttons. This was the case when I fell on his 2009 NY Times piece Out of the Kitchen and on to the Couch.
The premise of this article is that Americans are watching cooking on TV more than they are actually cooking, and that this is bad for us. While this conjecture in and of itself is debatable and depends on a narrow definition of what constitutes “cooking,” his comparison of Julia Child and Betty Friedan made me see red. Basically, he claimed that Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique made women hate cooking. Julia Child, on other the other hand, approached cooking with pleasure and creativity. She, not Friedan, should have been the model for women in the 1960s. Boom, there it was. Feminism, bad; Gourmet cooking, good! Feminism killed the family dinner; French gastronomy could save it. Yes, I know that is an over-drawn simplification of his argument, but I don’t think it is entirely off base.
I wrote an article in Ms. Magazine, titled Back to the Kitchen, about the back-handed anti-feminism I saw in this article. To summarize, I argued that working women have never had much time to express their cooking creativity. They have pieced together dinner from take-out, deli goods, and left-over breakfast, since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Betty Friedan and second wave feminism had nothing to do with those pragmatic decisions. Also many women didn’t need the Feminist Mystique to learn to hate cooking. They hated it well before Sixties feminists began to point out the gender politics of household labor. In general, my article questioned the idealized farming and family past to which many food revolutionaries want us to return.
Julie Guthman’s Cheetos article opened space up in the public forum for this critical engagement. I’m sure she will take us in new and provocative directions when she speaks at our Food in the Public Square Community Conversation on May 20th. Please check the website's events tab for more on this day’s schedule.