Last week, after news of the Hostess bankruptcy broke, The Onion published a set of satirical reactions to the story in its “American Voices” feature. One of The Onion‘s fake real Americans responded with, “Are you happy now, Michael Pollan? Oh, that’s right, it’s corn you’re pissed off about.”
As it happens, Steve Ettlinger, author of the book Twinkie, Deconstructed, has talked to Michael Pollan about Twinkies, and it turns out that Pollan sees a bigger role for the pastry than I would have guessed. Ettlinger has a piece at The Daily Beast addressing the question, “Should Twinkies disappear?” As it happens, Hostess has assured customers that the Twinkie won’t be disappearing, and that’s just fine by Michael Pollan. “A world without Twinkies would be a lesser place—we need them, if only to calibrate our scale of badness in food,” he told Ettlinger.
Before I give my thoughts on this, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not writing to take a position on whether Twinkies are good or bad. As it happens, I’ve never eaten a Twinkie, and I hope to keep it that way. I’m not above admitting that they might taste good, but they’re loaded with things I’d rather not eat, like white flour, sugar, and beef tallow. On the other hand, I think that some of the criticisms that Pollan would probably raise against the Twinkie are silly. For instance, I think it’s silly to avoid foods based on the number of ingredients; I’m more interested in thinking about what the ingredients are. Moreover, I don’t have a problem with every ingredient with a chemical-sounding name. In the past I’ve pointed out that some of those are more familiar than one might think. But none of this is relevant to my main purpose in writing. The point of this post is to analyze the internal logic of Pollan’s statement. That is, assuming that Twinkies are very bad, does it make sense to keep them around to “calibrate our scale of badness”? Or, more precisely, what does it say about Michael Pollan’s food politics that he believes that it does?
Pollan’s position on Twinkies exemplifies a characteristic of Pollan’s work that was previously explained by commenter CAW:
There are two conversations that he is always having: (1) what is our relationship with food; and (2) what are the best food policies that we should adopt. Depending on how you conceptualize one or the other, they will at times clash. I think we should, of course, try to create a conception of both that are consistent and mutually reinforcing. But it seems to me that Pollan first asks what food is and then lets everything flow from that first question.
The idea that we should keep something around in order to “calibrate our scale of badness” seems to make sense only if we focus on our relationship with our food. As far as I understand it, Pollan’s point is that keeping some bad food around helps us to better appreciate the good stuff. From a strictly aesthetic (i.e. taste-centric) point of view, that seems plausible. But if our interest is in food politics, I think it ceases to make sense. If we’re concerned about, say, the environmental degradation that results from producing high-fructose corn syrup for Twinkies, the unhappy lives of the cows from which the Twinkies’ beef tallow was made, or the public health implications of Twinkie consumption, why is it better for Twinkies to exist? What’s the worst that would come from ceasing to produce Twinkies? We’d forget how bad they were and start making them again?