Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Michael Pollan's Latest: Julia, Food Network, and Cooking in America

Pollan's Article:

With regard to the difference between Julia's shows and today's crop of Food Network shows, it's a much bigger issue than just cooking. It's a reflection of the times.

There is a difference between information and knowledge. While Wiki and the general growth of on-line sites may have increased our exposure to information, usable knowledge hasn't grown so much – we're not really a more intelligent or capable society, despite some true productivity gains. After all, you may gain new insight on a particular surgery by doing some research on line, but you would want your surgeon to actually have gone to medical school, and perhaps done a few of these procedures before cutting into you. No amount of detail in a Wiki article could make someone a surgeon, an engineer, a lawyer, a musician, or anything else, including a good cook.

For information to be usable knowledge, it has to be taught and learned and this is best done through a teacher who can put together a syllabus – an understanding of epistemology, of how concepts are broken down and a sequence of learning. There are plenty of self-teaching programs and packages out there, but they are generally put together by such a teacher. This understanding can be intuitive – not necessarily learned to the nth degree – but the subject matter must be well understood and the person teaching it must intuitively or by their own education, be able to transfer their own knowledge into others. Julia was prepared to do this after years spent assembling MTAFC1, and later 2.

Food Network is food information. It is not food knowledge. Even in the case of Alton Brown's Quick Eats, everything he presents is given with much more detail and in a teachable and learnable form in books like McGee's On Food and Cooking and Corriher's Cookwise.

Julia taught us – both in her books and on TV. Ina, Sandra, Rachel and Paula demonstrate – they provide information, but they do not teach.  Most of the shows are simply entertainment. These celebrities may have varying degrees of food knowledge, but what they present is in the form of information and entertainment. Food Network wasn't always like that. The original crew, including Rosengarten and Moulton imparted significant bits of usable information in a learnable manner. But as Howard/Scripps took over and entertainment and the lowest common denominator (i.e., largest audience) became important, teaching became less and less important.

Emeril got caught behind his own persona and engulfed by his studio show. A large staff and high entertainment production values brought him to being a demonstrator of all kinds of foods he had no experience in or special knowledge to impart. He is so much better now on his new Green Planet show, where he is a one-on-one teacher, and sticks to recipes and methods he really knows well. Based on what he's done in rebuilding New Orleans and his legacy of Julia's guidance and friendship, he certainly has the ability to be a good teacher.

A more important aspect of Pollan's article was the correlation of cooking to health (both individually and to society), and even further, between scratch cooking and our health. Based on his earlier work, it's clear that the increase of factory prepared foods in our diets is a significant part of our health problems, as well as our food related environmental issues.

And yet, there's a limit to the amount of scratch cooking we're all willing to do – to going back to the dark ages. There's a bell curve of people willing to accept modern conveniences. At one extreme, you have the hunters, chicken pluckers, coffee roasters, grain grinders. At the other, the nothing but chain eaters. And in the middle, most of us do what we can. We may open cans of tomatoes and make the gravy (sauce) from mostly scratch, rather than open the jar of Ragu.

The problem, in my mind, is that we're getting used to more and more factory prepared foods, and we're letting go of the scratch processes a little too eagerly. Many of us are not only happy, but proud to be doctoring up frozen burritos to serve to our guests. Rather than feeling shame or guilt when we use a shortcut our mothers would never have considered, we feel proud of the product we make from boxes and cans. Of course, big corporate food inc., is happy to have us feel that way. They aim their ads at just that feeling - to show pride in the accomplishment of opening a can and heating some soup - to have our kids love us for it.

What a rotten shame. Be proud of that scratch chicken soup. Your kids can tell how you feel about it without your even prompting them for a smile. They'll remember, and make some for their kids (because you'll have taught them how). If you open up a can of cream of mushroom for them, hey - that's the way it goes - we all get busy. But make sure they know that you're not actually really happy about serving them a bowlful of HFCS and sodium - it's just something you had to do at the time.  Apologize - and tell them you'll make something better, real soon.

Michel Ruhlman made some really great observations about Pollan's article in his blog:

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