Archive for October, 2010

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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Fact-checking Michael Pollan in Fresh

I’m sitting now watching a screening of Fresh. Michael Pollan has come on screen with some of the same points I’ve already responded to. To name a few:

  • He says that monocultures are bad without mentioning the corn, soy, and oats that feed the chickens and pig on Polyface Farm, his model of polyculture (featured prominently in the film).
  • He repeats the myth that E. coli O157:H7 is a feedlot disease.
  • He correctly points out that feedlots have created waste removal and fertility problems, but then goes on to say that animals make nutrients for plants. As I have mentioned, the nutrients in animal manure come from their feed.

Incidentally, I’m working on a post related to Michael Pollan’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times. I hope to have that up in the next few days.

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