Michael Pollan and elitism

In the letter I sent to Michael Pollan a couple of months ago, I pointed out that for somebody who advocates for a diet of “mostly plants,” Pollan writes surprisingly little about the plant-based foods that he consumes. Indeed, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he didn’t mention a single thing he ate while a vegetarian, and the meals he ate over three days earlier this year as recorded on Grub Street New York were notably heavy on animal protein.

The pattern continues in a piece in last week’s The New York Times Magazine. The piece is titled “The 36-hour dinner party,” and it focuses on a gathering of friends (including a baker and multiple chefs) who come together to cook all of their meals for a period of a day and a half over a single fire. Aside from a basket of mushrooms, the only significant source of protein is a whole goat, which Pollan has personally selected from a local farm. This is the kind of gathering at which “breakfast cannot be entirely goat-free.”

To reconcile Pollan’s published accounts of his own diet with his advocacy for eating “mostly plants,” it is helpful to consider something he said in a CBC interview in June:

For better or worse, we’ve democratized meat-eating. Meat-eating is something that was a special occasion in most households for many years….The poor got very little animal protein. So one of the nice things about industrial meat production is it makes this human desire — because it is a widespread human desire — something that even the poor could satisfy, and if we eat meat more responsibly, you know, it is going to be less democratic.

Putting everything together, the underlying message seems to be something like this:

We need to move to a system of meat production that I consider acceptable. That’s going to make meat more expensive, so you are going to have to start eating mostly plants. I, on the other hand, have so much money that I don’t need to have even a single animal-free meal.

Happily, those of us who don’t make as much money as Pollan don’t have to miss out on the carnivory altogether, as Pollan has thoughtfully shared his account of  the dinner party in a prominent publication. Maybe we can’t afford to buy good meat, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have the privilege of reading about two accomplished chefs “giving the baron and the saddle a deep-tissue massage…and then wrapping them in a beautiful white lace of caul fat.”

This inconsistent message on meat-eating is hardly the only place where Pollan shows a remarkable inability to connect with those who are not as wealthy as he. In August, he told The Wall Street Journal, “Eight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous, but when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that’s $1.50. It’s really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives.” More recently, he tweeted approvingly a link to a column in which Joel Salatin countered charges of foodie elitism, saying “Don’t complain about being unable to afford high-quality local food when your grocery cart is full of beer, cigarettes, and People magazine.”

Michael Pollan has a six-figure academic salary, he commands a $20,000 fee to speak for a few hours, and he has sold millions of books. He is exactly the sort of person who can afford to “waste money” and still eat well. He’s telling people that they just need to stop wasting money so that they can afford to eat well.

One could probably argue that it does not constitute elitism for Pollan to speak so judgmentally of the way people spend their money when faced with tradeoffs that that he is unlikely to ever face. Certainly, though, it is not hard to see why people might find it objectionable. Indeed, Seattle Weekly Blogger Jason Sheehan, claiming to have once been “really, seriously, shoplifting-toothpaste-poor,” explained it well. In response to the Wall Street Journal interview, Sheehan wrote,

I still have difficulty swallowing the notion that some rich man in Berkeley gets to be the sole arbiter of what is right and what is morally reprehensible when it comes to my shopping and eating habits. It is my fear that this kind of thinking–this idea that price is inextricably linked to goodness and morality to the area code of your tomatoes–will create a wicked divide: a permanent culinary underclass full of fat, wheezing poor people working three jobs and still unable to pay $8 for a dozen eggs, lorded over by shining, happy foodies constantly telling them that if they just did all their shopping at the Monterey Market all their troubles would go away.

What I find most unfortunate about all this is that when Michael Pollan comes across as elitist, it reinforces impressions that eating well is just for the sort of people who have entire weekends to spend roasting goats with multiple accomplished chefs. There are, in fact, many activists and organizations working to help people eat better (Jamie Oliver, Bryant Terry, and People’s Grocery come to mind offhand). While some, such as Julie Guthman, point out that the food justice movement isn’t perfect, surely its various approaches are better than just telling people to stop wasting money and deal with higher food prices. It is unfortunate that the most prominent voice in the food movement has chosen this latter tactic.

If Michael Pollan is serious about shaking the elitist label, the next time the issue comes up in an interview, he should talk about some good, inexpensive meals that he’s eaten. (These meals would probably need to be “entirely goat-free,” so I might suggest a meal based on chickpeas, but there are many other good choices). That would directly contradict the premise that eating well is unaffordable, and it would do a lot more good than telling people to shut up and pay more.

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14 Comments »

  1. I remember reading in a book years ago, I think “Fat Land”, that animal products became ridiculously cheap during the Nixon administration via agriculture secrectary Earl Butz. It was the early 70s and people were complaining about hight food prices. Nixon heard and tasked Butz with getting the price of food, particularly animal products, down. Mission accomplished.

    True as it may be, I’m a bit hesitant to criticize Pollan for being elitist and possibly riling up people who are would-be Pollans except for the sake of money.

    I don’t want those people inadvertently getting the message that animal products are something good and something that should be fought for.

    If we want to advocate vegan diets, we should just come right out to tell people they can be organic, healthy and green much more cheaply with delicious plant based foods.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberation BC, Adam Merberg. Adam Merberg said: Michael Pollan and elitism: http://t.co/kzVvAJy [...]

  3. [...] This post was Twitted by brandybingham [...]

  4. Marla Rose said

    Thank you for this blog. I LOATHE the Pollan and his snobby slow foodie followers. I call what he does Pollanization, roughly the process through which self-described foodies willfully suspend all disbelief in order to justify their habits. The elephant in the room that neither Mr. Pollan nor anyone in the organic industry I’ve questioned about this is willing to admit to is that what they are proposing is a mathematical impossibility given consumption habits. The industry will never ask people to reduce consumption. The only way for people to “have their [organic] meat and eat it too” is through industrial agriculture. If they will not admit to this, then what they are proposing is an elitist product available to a “privileged” few. As with Mr. Pollan’s hypocrisies, I have noticed time and time again when I have dined out with outspoken “free-range/organic” supporters that they NEVER ask about the origins of what they are ordering. Never once, and, believe me, I listen for it. Last, his quote about “beer, cigarettes, and People magazine,” is HUGELY patronizing and insulting! Is that how he thinks anyone who cannot afford his level of privilege shops and consumes? I bet it is. He is the typical, self-righteous, smug Berkeley liberal foodie, and I hope he exposes himself as this more and more often.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Just to be clear, the quote about “beer, cigarettes, and People magazine” was Joel Salatin, though (as I mentioned) Pollan tweeted the column approvingly.

    • lance said

      I’m not sure where your mathematical impossibility comes from. A lower bound estimate for corn and soybean production for 2010 is 165 million acres. Efficient managed grazing can produce around 540 pounds of beef per acre in a year.

      (see the table with stocker calf-intensive at http://ohioline.osu.edu/gsg/gsg_2.html)

      US population is 300 million so if all corn soybean shifted to grazing we would have enough beef for every man woman and child in the US to consume 300 pounds of beef a year. And think, all of that would be pesticide, fertilizer, irritation and tractor free.

      • VeganFoodie said

        MOST of the Corn and Soybeans (well over 80%) goes to feeding animals that are raised for food and STILL you have to import beef from south america and turn their rainforest to grazing lands. There is not enough viable land in the US even if all is converted to grazing to support the meat consumption levels. The reason they feed grains is to fatten the cattle up quickly. To grow a calf to slaughter requires 14 months instead of 4 – 5 years if grass fed. With the voracious meat demand in north america, there is no way to feed them so much beef without resorting to feeding grains. Also, grazing requires MORE land not less than grain feeding which is very intesive with high yield varieties and high use of fertilizers. Do your math or hire a tutor.

  5. Marla Rose said

    Ah, I misread that. Thank you.

  6. Julian Elson said

    I think that it’s inevitable that rich people will be able to afford better things than the rest of us. In fact, I’d say that that’s what being rich means. IMHO, it makes a lot more sense to say “our society shouldn’t have such wide disparities of wealth” (and I do think that to some extent, ceteris paribus.) than to say “rich people should live more like the rest of us.” Some rich people might choose materially ascetic lives, out of religious piety, Scrooge-like miserliness, indifference with regard to consumer goods or services, or other personal reasons, but we can’t expect that to be the norm.

    However, Pollan is doing something different than just enjoying his wealth. He is making the classical mistake of confusing privilege and virtue. If shoppers were all just as thrifty and frugal as he is, he thinks, they’d be able to afford to live like him. (It’s a little like males who say “why doesn’t the battered wife just leave her abusive husband already?”)

  7. claire said

    I’ve been reading all the trackbacks from the Joel Salatin article and it never ceases to amaze me how much vitriol people spout over some perceived judgement regarding their own choices.

    Unless you are rich, and I’m not, there is only the will to make healthy choices. I personally struggle to keep a small business afloat and give local people jobs in my community. I have no health insurance. I rent. I’m a poster child for “too poor to afford organic”

    Well I may have made choices that limit my wealth, but I exercise my will by learning how to cook. My will is choosing to learn to preserve and not waste food. My will is learning how to grow food in a community garden. My will is to eat less but better meat. I want to feel good and eat good tasting stuff. I’m not waiting until I’m rich. I’m figuring out how to do it now. Judge that as elitist. The difference here is we can all choose to build our skill set in this area. If you choose not to find a way that is up to you. I’m not judging or patronizing anyone’s choices, however I should be able to make mine without the label.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for your insightful comment, Claire. It’s not clear to me whether you felt that I was among those people spouting vitriol, but I certainly did not intend to write anything vitriolic. Some of my commentary was supposed to hit hard, but I meant for it to be constructive.

      Your comment actually illustrates one of the central points of my post. For you to choose to eat the way you do is neither elitist nor judgmental. However, it is judgmental for somebody like Michael Pollan to declare that people who aren’t eating well should stop wasting money. I think it reflects badly on the eat-well movement when he does so, and it strikes me as one of the worst ways to counter charges that eating well is elitist. (I suspect that you, Claire, would do that much better, simply by talking about the way you eat with the people around you.)

  8. David Gomez said

    I think you are mistaken in your vilification of Pollan. Human nature has always dictated the mantra “Do as I say not as I do.” Very few people could actually say “Do I say, cause I’m doing it.” If Mr. Pollan chooses to be a hypocrite or enjoy the taste of contradiction from time to time that’s his business. His personal life shouldn’t be scrutinized by anyone. 

    The purpose of Omnivore’s Dilemma is to open your eyes to the problems associated with food production in this country, nothing more. He may have opinions on diet and how we should choose to consume edible goods, but it’s opinion not law. It’s the readers job to be enlightened, learn something new and verify it’s fact, not take it at face value or as a commandment. Rich people may have the ability to choose readily their food providers but let’s face it organic food producer (ranchers and farmers) charge more because it takes longer to naturally. More care and oversite is needed. They don’t use readily available fertilizers, chemicals, and cheap (overproduced corn/grains). So I usually agree with the higher prices.

    We should treat meat as a privilege, as our ancestors did. Meat had a face, it was hunted, killed, and prepared, it was a present from nature. Now it’s faceless commodity bought and sold at your supermarket. We should adopt better diets and stop eating mass produced foods, not because Michael tell us, but because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think the answer lies in pointed out the faults and expenditures taken by Mr Pollan. Poor people may have had choice cuts of meat on special occasions, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have meat products more often. Poor people made the best of what they had. They ate organ meats, undesirable cuts, it became cultural heritage. They ate what was available to them. Poor people in this country aren’t starving to death. Most are obese because of cheaply produced foods. So your arguments siding with poor or less fortunate citizens is wrong, and pointed out elitism equally so. Long story short, don’t look to call someone a hypocrite because his lifestyle isn’t always in line with his teaching. Thank you for your post your blog. Peace 

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for the comment, but I think you misunderstand my post, the point of which was not to vilify Pollan but to argue that his comments are, at times, counterproductive.

      First, I’m not scrutinizing Michael Pollan’s personal life. I don’t care what he eats. If I were to walk past the McDonald’s in downtown Berkeley and see Michael Pollan scarfing down a burger, I wouldn’t write about it. That’s his business, and his only. What he writes about in The New York Times Magazine is a different matter entirely. My intention in writing is not to simply point fingers and call Michael Pollan a hypocrite. However, I think that when the most prominent advocate for a diet of “mostly plants” never writes about a plant-based meal, it sends the message that plant-based food isn’t any good. I think that’s terribly damaging to the point that he’s trying to advocate.

      Also, I haven’t said that Michael Pollan is elitist or a hypocrite. I’m not terribly interested in whether or not he is. My point is simply that Pollan shows an inability to relate to those who are less well off financially and that this furthers perceptions of elitism. Those perceptions, whether valid or not, are damaging to the movement for better food. A rich guy telling people who aren’t rich to stop wasting money is not going to be received well. Even though I don’t understand why anybody would buy People magazine, I think he could do a much better job of framing the issue than to tell people that they’re wasting money.

  9. [...] outside of the meals he writes about, I’d continue to stand behind the criticism in my last post, that he “writes surprisingly little about the plant-based foods that he [...]

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