In Defense Of Food (Network)
Thank you, Jill Richardson! I thought I was the only one! For the past few days, I've been accumulating ideas to respond to Michael Pollan's characteristically brilliant article in the Times because I really had some problems with some of it. Of course, I share many of his attitudes: after all, we inhabit roughly the same cultural/intellectual milieu - in fact, a relative of my wife was married to one of his best friends, a famous food movement figure - but like Jill, I learned to cook, to the extent that I can, from Food Network, while recovering from a serious operation last year.
I'll go further. Two days ago, I was at a benefit for a group that encourages restaurants in upstate New York to obtain most of their ingredients from within the same county. I can honestly say that I would never have thought to attend had it not been for Food Network. Pollan, and the food movement, had nothing to do with it. By the time I read Pollan's wonderful "The Omnivore's Dilemma", I had already grasped the basic issues, simply from watching the FN shows, cooking my own food and thinking about it: The most delicious food, and the best, is the food you prepare yourself from the freshest, most basic ingredients. Furthermore, I grokked that cooking from scratch is a political, perhaps even radical, act in 21st Century America. Pollan's book simply filled in a lot of truly amazing details.
While Pollan is well aware that this country is food illiterate, and dangerously so, even he doesn't quite grasp exactly what that means. The way I see it, it means that nearly everyone, including the poor, the middle class, and even the most highly educated members of the upper classes, don't know squat about what they put in their mouths at least three times a day, let alone how to prepare any of it. Yes, indeed, even Ivy League graduates need to be taught how to hold a knife or how to boil an egg. Making delicious asparagus, as ridiculously simple as that is, came as a shocking revelation to me: So that's how it's done and that's how it's supposed to taste! As for dear Saint Julia, trust me, Michael: to you she demystified cooking, but she was incredibly daunting to this modern American kitchen illiterate, and in fact still is.
I echo Jill's appreciation of Alton Brown's science-spiced Good Eats (which also has the added advantage of thoroughly annoying my 13 year old whenever I watch it). But I want to defend Guy Fieri, of all people, who Pollan singles out as egregiously ludicrous. Pollan seems to be unaware that Fieri has a "how to" cooking show (in addition to Triple D, which, sorry Michael, I love) in which he takes Sports Bar food (apparently, Guy is a spokesperson for TGIF: hey, no one's perfect ) to a level of truly impressive complexity. I've made a few of his vegetarian dishes and they taste fantastic and are a blast to fix. But, of course, no one in their right mind should cook like that at home, at least not with any regularity. That's not the point. The real point is that Guy loves cooking food and eating food (he is far more articulate about food than Pollan realizes) and he imparts that love with unadulterated pleasure.
Enjoying the food we eat, really enjoying the food we eat and knowing what that means: Pollan has written eloquently about exactly that, that Americans are consumed with "nutritionism" and forget that eating should be pleasurable and celebratory. One would think he would be at least a partial Guy fan (hell, Fieri even promotes his local Sonoma County wines given half a chance). But no. And the reason why Pollan can't understand Guy well enough even to loathe him properly (his criticism of Triple D is so off-base as to make me seriously question whether he actually watched more than one episode) is quite simple: class. Michael's one classy guy; Guy, on the other hand, is ... a guy.
The food movement is, at present, an elitist movement. Nothing wrong with that, imo: abolition was an elitist movement in the early nineteenth century, as was women's suffrage, etc, etc. But if you are serious about helping Americans create a truly joyful relationship with real food (the starting point for any genuinely healthy cuisine), then understanding both the myriad problems with Food Network AND its strengths is vitally important. Of course, the commercials are disgraceful; of course, many of the recipes are preposterous (watching Ina Garten say to add a "quarter cup of whole milk" to a recipe when actually she dumps in, unmeasured, what surely is two cups of a suspiciously thick milk is rather... distressing), and the competitions (to me, I admit) profoundly stupid, but when you know absolutely nothing, and I really knew exactly that, Food Network is a place to start.
Can FN be better? Well, duh. But I'm not alone in finding it incredibly useful. Just ask Jill. And I suspect that there are so many of us who started cooking after watching FN that the larger cultural observations Michael makes in his piece really aren't terribly useful. I hasten to add that most of the time Pollan is spot on. I simply don't think he truly grasps how complex the cultural meaning of Food Network is. The way I see it, much as he would be horrified to think so, Pollan and FN are sometimes on the same side. Even Guy Fieri.