kitchebWhere is everybody?Photo: Shindz, via FlickrWhen I think hard about what it would take to create a just and sustainable food system, two big obstacles spring immediately to mind: 1) we need more people growing food; and 2) we need more people cooking it, too.

In his latest blockbuster in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan takes on the second one. I can sum up his 9,000-word jeremiad in one: cook!

There’s a lot of wisdom in what he says. Pollan traces the evolution of cooking from quotidian ritual to spectator sport–complete with guys on TV huffing and puffing while a breathless announcer narrates the action for the audience at home (presumably munching on takeout pizza).

Clearly, if the erosion of the cooking habit documented by Pollan proceeds apace, the sustainable-food movement must at some point bang its head against hard limits, and accept its station as a stable niche amid an ever-congealing industrial-food model. Growth in the market for products like rainbow chard and pastured pork shoulder relies ulimately on people who know what to do with them (and have the time and desire to do it). If such people are only a small percentage of the population–and Pollan pretty much demonstrates that they (we) are–then the popularity of farmers markets, CSAs, food co-ops, etc., can only continue growing dramatically for so long.

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Pollan quotes a grizzled food-marketing researcher who essentially declares the death of cooking:

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A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.

For this guy, “cooking” in the postmodern world means popping a handful of, say, Tyson “honey battered breast tenders” onto a cookie sheet, to be served alongside some pre-chopped veggies from a bag, piping hot from the microwave. It’s hard to refute him.

Pollan does a better job than usual of avoiding nostalgia–the trap of appealing to an Edenic, pre-industrial-food past in which everyone tended a veggie patch, cooked like angels, and ate like Alice Waters. He acknowledges, for example, that men have always generally avoided the rigors of the kitchen. And he makes more or less clear that for economic reasons, a lot of people these days have little choice but to spend so much time earning a living that cooking has become something of a luxury.

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Yet he does manage this whopper:

Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air–1963–was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.

Wait a sec. I think Kate Harding on Salon’s “Broadsheet” blog gets it right when she says Pollan’s “penis is showing” here. “Funny,” writes Harding …:

I always thought Friedan became a feminist icon because she articulated what millions of women already felt, not because she brainwashed them into believing that repetitive, menial, unpaid labor might not be the best use of their talents.

That’s true. Cooking is drudgery; but it’s not just drudgery. For me, cooking is a soothing way to finish a long day of writing or working in the field: I like nothing more than to lay hands and transform the fruits of the garden. But if my day were devoted to conjuring up three square meals for a brood of kids and a grumpy husband and perhaps grandparents, I might sing a different tune.

Or consider the South. How many white families in the pre-industrial food era left the cooking duties to an African-American servant?

In addition to paying more heed to the complexities of our historic relationship to food, there’s another point Pollan could have made better: just at the point when the industrialization of our food was gaining critical momentum, at the precise point that he opens his essay, with middle class women rediscovering the pleasure of cooking under the tutelage of Julia Child, a renaissance was born: a kind of re-enchantment of food.

I made an attempt to write about it more than two years ago in a column called “Recipe for a Revolution: How a cookbook renaissance heated up the sustainable-food movement.” (Like Pollan, I even recounted a tale of being jolted out of a fixation on processed food by a mother who cooked guided by Julia Child on the weekends.) Confronted by the scorched-earth culinary landscape of Fast Food Nation, a small but significant portion of the last two or three generations has reacted by making a fetish of delicious food. For them–well, for us; I count among them–cooking is far from a marginal or dead activity; it lies at the center of life.

Pollan skillfully demonstrates that our culture is lurching toward a post- (or post-modern) cooking era: the age of “semi-homemade” has dawned. Yet there is this subculture of passionate home cooks. It is largely white and middle class, but not completely, as the success of projects likes Milwaukee/Chicago’s Growing Power, Brooklyn’s Added Value, Oakland’s People’s Grocery, and many others show.

It is in this context that we should consider the question on which Pollan ends his essay:

Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

This is a vexing and important question–and i don’t think we can reverse the food industry’s destruction of the earth’s resources and exploitation of people and animals without answering it. For if we don’t learn to cook again, the industry is only too happy to do it for us.

I think the answer lies in the old riddle of creating new economic models–ones that don’t require people to spend long hours in services or IT jobs before commuting home hungry and tired and ready for little else than pre-fab entertainment and food.