Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dilemma of Choice: Challenging Habits & Behavior

"in order to change the way we eat, we've got to change the way we live"

The most influential food writer in America is not, in fact, a food writer. At first glance, the subject of Michael Pollan's newest book, like his last few, is the stuff we consume to sustain ourselves. This has placed him in a large but limited niche, that of the food writer, or, more specifically, of the “food reform advocate”.

Viewed strictly through this lens, one might be led to question the practicality of much of Cooked. Indeed, Bee Wilson, self-described “food writer”, award-winning Telegraph columnist and author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat takes exactly this position in her New York Times review:

“…you might expect that Cooked would examine how to get more people to change their habits. Now, Pollan notes, the typical American household devotes “a scant 27 minutes a day” to food preparation. Pollan rounds up the usual enemies of home cooking: “longer workdays and overscheduled children,” and, of course, convenience foods. But instead of considering ways to make cooking easier to fit into time-pressed lives, he sets off on a personal quest — albeit written with all his trademark lyricism — to master techniques that are perversely slow and difficult, from cheese making to kimchi fermentation. The big message of Cooked is: Cook more. But Pollan’s angle widens the gap between cooks and noncooks.”

The problem with this take is that it is the wrong lens through which to appreciate Cooked, and completely misapprehends the nature of facilitating change in habits. Michael Pollan is not, and never has been, a food writer. He writes a great deal about food, of course, starting with his book Second Nature, about his own experiences gardening, growing food on a small scale for his own consumption. He wrote in detail about apples and potatoes in The Botany of Desire, and in 2008 wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, a work that seemingly threw gasoline on the spark of a nascent and largely marginal food movement. Quickly he followed that up with In Defense of Food and Food Matters, from which came the now famous aphorism “Eat Food, Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

During this run of highly successful publications, he has become far and away the most prominent figure for the amorphous movement to change the way America eats and farms.

But, as Pollan clearly understands, in order to change the way we eat, we've got to change the way we live.

While it is not in any way an instruction manual, Cooked has all the necessary ingredients for fermenting change in behavior, to borrow a Pollan-esque expression. It does not give instructions, it tells a story. What is the story that he's telling? I think he is telling a story of self-sufficiency and interdependence in an age of dependence and connection that is increasingly virtual.

We live in an age of crises, or at least it seems that way. We have a health crisis, which is related to an obesity crisis and a diabetes crisis. We have a climate crisis, and other associated environmental crises. We are living through “the greatest economic crisis since the great depression”, which seems to be a result of a financial crisis and a housing crisis. We have a jobs crisis and a debt crisis. We have a crisis in food safety and in food security. There are numerous crises in the middle east, which threaten to re-ignite a “security crisis” on the homefront.

All of these crises can keep a fellow up at night. Anxiety seems like a national pasttime. Could it be that part of the reason for our collective unease is that we are so disconnected from the basic activities of life that sustain us?

We don't prepare, let alone grow, the food we depend on. Our water is processed by a plant and sent to our homes, without our labor or involvement. Many either rent their home or owe a great deal of maney on it, and health care is an unpredictable and often prodigious expense, at times even for those who have health insurance. We are not directly in control of or responsible for the very basic necessities of life. Instead, we rely on specialists who take care of these things for us. There are systems full of specialists to meet our every need, and our only job is to trust and pay them, with the money we earn as a speicialist in yet another area of endeavor.

Pollan talks about this in the language of “producer” and “consumer”. Our role in meeting our own basic material needs at this point is almost entirely passive: we consume things.

Cooked calls us away from passivity. To do this, Pollan tells a story of his own deep engagement with the elemental nature of the cooking enterprise, and generously shares his enjoyment and hard-won knowledge. One can sense the voracious curiousity that propels him more deeply into the history and nuance of cooking food, and it is easy to observe the delight in what he finds. Delight is an entirely appropriate word here, his writing is a pleasure, able to surprise and absorb one's attention. If reading is ever a multi-sensory activity, it is in Cooked.

Beneath the information and the sensory delight, the curiousity and the philosophical musings, though, you will find something else. What you will find at the heart of this book is a deep and abiding spirit of love. The frankly obsessive attention he devotes to the subject of preparing food can only be sustained by a genuine love for that with which he's engaged. You can see it as he describes brewing and baking with his teenaged son, and when he's visiting with craftsmen and women single-mindedly devoted to their craft. You can see it in the wonder with which he describes the microbial ecosystem in our guts and the mysterious effects of fermented grain on our consciousness.

I would argue that this is the real subject of Cooked, and the subject of most of his work. Pollan clearly understands, consiously or not, the way to nourish behavior change. How-to manuals have their place. For folks already resolved to change, they are just the thing. Polemical arguments also have a role to play, in winning converts to a cause. While Cooked is lightly seasoned with instruction and polemic, it is neither.His writing is little more than a loving appreciation of the interdependence of the living world, and an account of Pollan's own exploration of it. This is what embues his work with such power and resonance.

The truth of the matter is that change of the magnitude required to make a meaningful difference in our food system is daunting. To make our food systems healthier for people, the land and rural communities, people truly must begin to cook again, and to care about the histories of their ingredients. In his section on bread, Pollan noted at one point in frustration that to make a great loaf of high-quality whole grain bread, he was going to need “a different civilization”. The same could be said in the service of creating a healthful, ecologically stable and economically viable modern lifeway.

To move from passive consumer to active participant requires a re-ordering of priorities. This is not a small thing to ask. We ARE busy, and few people seem to have time for anything extra. We can't balance everything. Why throw something else in?

Cooking will only make inroads into the daily routine of living when it trancends the status of “consumer lifestyle choice”. For those of us who choose to cook, it isn't simply making one choice among many, it is an opportunity to engage in something meaningful. The time, for many of us is there, if we, for example, substitute cooking for a bit of our prodigious screen time. Making this shift isn't a matter of fitting in one more thing, it is a matter of prioritizing a productive and vital human endeavor over the alluring yet hollow promises of a toxic and destructive culture of convenience food and cotton-candy entertainment.

The argument for cooking is straightforward, and there are dozens of resources to help you learn the nuts and bolts of it. Cooked stands out because it demonstrates the essential nature of cooking, which is inextricably linked with the essential nature of man. In a world in which our roles our increasingly measured by units of production and consumption, cooking reminds us that our most satisfying role may be that of human being.