The one where I defend the Food Network

I believe it was the deep thinker Gene Simmons, bassist for the rock supergroup KISS, who had this to say about boy bands like The Backstreet Boys. “If you don’t like them, then guess what? They’re not for you. They’re not made for you, they’re not designed for you, and you aren’t supposed to like them.” (Whatever the quote is, this is a me paraphrasing him).

His sentiment is what came to mind as I read Michael Pollan’s recent piece in the NY Times Magazine (Login: Accidental PW: Hedonist). This piece has raised some hackles in the food blogging community for a variety of reasons, most of them covered here and here. But I’d like to add my own two cents.

I’m not going to support or disprove Mr. Pollan’s evidence for his thesis, because it pretty much does that on its own. However, let’s take a look at his thesis specifically, which does bear closer scrutiny.

…the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

Now, how he arrived at this conclusion is a messy mishmash of sexism and inappropriate word usage. But the core essence of his evidence is spot on – corporate food has made “convenience” one of the primary variables a consumer should take into account when making purchasing decisions. This idea of convenience has infiltrated itself so thoroughly into the kitchen that it has corrupted the definition of what it means “to cook”.

Years ago (food market researcher Harry) Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty

Here’s the thing – As Kevin Drum noted yesterday, cooking isn’t a binary operation. There are degrees of skills involved, and some people have more skills than others. Remember, at its core, the skill of cooking is a craft. To get good at a craft, one needs to be able to spend in the kitchen. But if the people are looking towards convenience in the grocery store, this runs directly contrary on what it takes to improve one’s skill.

Additionally, there are techniques associated with cooking, some of which are no longer needed due to the era in which we live. Cooks no longer need to know how to pluck a chicken, or how to mill grain, because we have found and discovered technologies which remove these chores from necessity. This is what human nature does – it picks and chooses processes that are burdensome and finds solutions to make them less burdensome.

Pollan later writes:

How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure?

Well, I do, as do a number of other home cooks. And if you remove the food centric adjectives of his sentence, writers do as well, as well as auto mechanics, gardeners, and a multitude of other do-it-yourself-ers. Every one of us engages in the material world to make something out of near nothing, and make it of use. The time we have available to do this, however, has diminished. We no longer have the luxury of time to both tend a garden AND cook on a regular basis. So we pick and choose and end up sacrificing time in the kitchen in order to spend more time with our kids, or fix the house, or entertain ourselves.

Let’s be honest here. For many people, making hot dinners for oneself and one’s family is a chore, not a joy. Others like cooking, but would rather not spend more than an hour in the kitchen. Still others love spending hours upon hours in the kitchen, every day, even after a full days of work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these positions. To follow this thought to its conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with eating out at the places highlighted in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, even if one is trying to either avoid cooking or simply enjoy a decent meal prepared by someone who has more skill than the customer.

For Pollan to lament the end of “scratch cooking”, he misses the basic point – No one knows what “scratch cooking” actually means. As society evolves, we develop and use conveniences that make life better for us. For those who have a passion for food, we add and remove these conveniences based off a balance of taste and time allotted to be in the kitchen. When I talked about human nature removing burdensome tasks up above, this process also comes with a cycle where we determine if the shortcuts and sacrifices we have are viable. In the past decade or so, we’re seeing an increase in the amount of people who have determined that taste, and to a lesser extent, nutrition and environmental impact, are sacrifices that we shouldn’t be making.

It’s easy to be all doom and gloom about food culture in America, especially when one uses the Food Network and a food researcher as a portal into the insight of said culture. But for every report showing a decrease in home cooking, there’s another that shows an increase in the number of farmers markets. For every report showing an increase in the sales of “middle aisle” products in the grocery store, there’s another showing the increase of consumers looking for either local or organic foods.

What this means, is not that we’re looking at the Food Network as a window onto how things once were, but rather a fair amount of the viewers can and do look at the shows for inspiration, even if only slightly. Sure, it’s rare that I hear of people looking to get into the kitchen to recreate an entire seven course meal that had been prepared Emeril the night before. But I know a large group of people who entered the kitchen in order to learn to cook because of watching Alton Brown, Mario Batali, or heck, even Iron Chef. What the Food Network does well (aside from entertaining) is show people who have little to no food knowledge just what fun they’re missing.

Additionally, wanting to go out to eat at a restaurant highlighted by Guy Fieri is not a bad thing. More importantly, being entertained by food is not a bad thing. It is possible to overindulge, but that falls into the area of personal responsibility and the ability to make smart choices. But that’s not the point of his thesis.

I personally don’t watch the Food Network much (typically it’s only when I travel), because, for the most part, the shows aren’t aimed at the type of person I am. They do, however, have an audience. If the ultimate desire of Michael Pollan is to get people back into the kitchen and re-discover the joys of cooking, well guess what? Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee do accomplish that to some degree. If the ultimate desire of his is to get people back into the kitchen and re-discover the joys of cooking well, then he’s missed the point of the Food Network. Knowing as much as he does about food, it’s fairly clear that the shows on the Food Network aren’t designed for him. For Mr. Pollan to come to the conclusion that the shows reflect something we’ve lost demonstrates more about where he’d culturally like us to be, rather than where we actually are.

I never thought I would find myself defending the likes of Sandra Lee or Rachel Ray, but there you have it.