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Michael Pollan on the “Freefall” of Home Cooking

You may not think of Michael Pollan – the discerning critic of food politics and the author of titles like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – as a rookie in the kitchen. But that’s exactly how Pollan describes his past in his newest book, Cooked. The book narratives his personal transformation, from someone who considered store-bought ravioli a high-quality meal to someone who knows how to grill, cook, bake and ferment with ease.

On Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, Pollan calls for Americans to leave the packaged food aisle and beeline back to the kitchen.

“Homecooking is in freefall in the country,” he says. “I think it’s an enormous loss. Because the family meal is one of the great institutions of democracy, I believe.” He adds: “It’s the single most important thing you can do for your health: get off this industrial food train.”

Check out one of Michael Pollan’s favorite recipes:

Vinegar-Braised Chicken Recipe

Yield: Makes 6 servings, active preparation time 45 minutes, total time 2 hours 45 minutes.

For this recipe I was inspired by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s recipe for vinegar chicken. He suggests seasoning the chicken with salt a day in advance.

3 ¾ pounds bone-in chicken pieces, preferably dark meat
2 ½ tsp. kosher salt, divided
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 ½ Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup finely chopped shallots
1 ½ cups red wine vinegar
1 cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup canned whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained and quartered
6 cloves garlic
4 sprigs of thyme
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley

1. Preheat oven to 300°. Season chicken with 2 tsp. salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven or wide, ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Arrange half the chicken in pot in a single layer and cook, turning once, until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining chicken.

2. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar and cook until much of the acrid aroma has dissipated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add broth and ½ cup water, bring to a vigorous simmer, and cook until slightly reduced, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Whisk in tomato paste and remaining ½ tsp. salt. Add tomatoes, then arrange chicken in pot, skin side up, pouring over any accumulated juices from plate. Tuck garlic, thyme, and bay leaves in liquid. Cover pot snugly with foil, then lid, and transfer to oven. Cook 1 hour and 15 minutes, until chicken is very tender.

4. Let rest 30 minutes; discard thyme and bay leaves. Scatter parsley on top and serve.

In the following excerpt from Cooked, Pollan discusses feminism and cooking:

It’s generally thought that the entrance of women into the workforce is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but the story turns out to be a little more complicated, and fraught. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking—but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: In both cases, it has fallen about 40 percent since 1965.* In general, spending on restaurant and take-out food rises with income. Families where both partners work simply have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American families now allow corporations to cook for them when they can. There is an irony in the fact that many of the women who have traded time in the kitchen for time in the workplace are working in the food-service industry, helping to produce meals for other families who no longer have time to cook for themselves. These women are being paid for this cooking, true, yet a substantial part of their pay is going to other corporations to cook their families’ meals.

*Though for married women who don’t have jobs the amount of time spent cooking is greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.

Now, whenever anyone—but especially a man—expresses dismay at the decline of home cooking, a couple of unspoken assumptions begin to condense over the conversation like offending clouds. The first assumption is that you must be “blaming” women for the decline in cooking, since (and here is assumption number two) the meals no longer being cooked are women’s responsibility. It’s not hard to identify the basis for these assumptions: Women have traditionally done most of the household food work, so to defend cooking is automatically to defend those roles. But by now it should be possible to make a case for the importance of cooking without defending the traditional division of domestic labor. Indeed, that argument will probably get nowhere unless it challenges the traditional arrangements of domesticity—and assumes a prominent role for men in the kitchen, as well as children.

Even so, the decline of cooking remains a fraught subject, and there are many people who don’t think a man has a leg to stand on talking about it. But the very touchiness of the subject turns out to be an essential element of the story. When women left the house to go to work, there was a problem: Who would now do the housework? The women’s movement plopped that difficult question onto kitchen tables all over the world. How fair was it to expect women who now worked to continue taking care of the children, cleaning the house, and putting meals on the table? (In the 1980s, one sociologist calculated that, when you added up work at work and work at home, working women were putting in fifteen hours more work a week than men.*) The time had come, clearly, for a renegotiation of the division of labor in the family.

*Arlie Russell Hochschild, Second Shift (New York: Penguin Books, 1989)

This promised to be a very difficult and uncomfortable conversation.

No one was looking forward to it. And then we found a way to avoid having it. Several ways, actually. Couples who could afford to defused the conflict by paying other women to clean the house and take care of the children. And instead of arguing about who should get dinner on the table, or how that work might be equitably shared, the food industry stepped into the breach with an offer that proved irresistible to everyone, male or female, rich or poor: Why don’t you just let us cook for you?

Actually food manufacturers had been working to convince us they should do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the workforce. Beginning after World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell Americans—and American women in particular—on the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant and superconvenient everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in her social history, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, the food industry strove to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the workforce, or even from feminists eager to escape the drudgery of the kitchen, but was mainly a supply-driven phenomenon. Processing food is extremely profitable—much more so than growing it or selling it whole. So it became the strategy of food corporations to move into our kitchens long before many women had begun to move out.

Yet for years, American women, whether they worked or not, strenuously resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they viewed as a parental responsibility on par with, and part of, child care. And though second-wave feminist writers like Betty Friedan depicted all housework as a form of oppression, many women drew a distinction between cooking, which they regularly told food-industry researchers they enjoyed, and other domestic tasks. As author and nutritionist Joan Gussow has said, “There is absolutely no evidence that cooking is, or was, a hated chore from which the food processors—as they claim—liberated women.” But though it may not have been a hated chore, it was one of the easier chores to hand over to the market when time became short and the household workload too burdensome.

In fact, many second-wave feminists were ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that, though time spent in the kitchen could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” We can read this as either a special (very French) exemption for the culinary arts, or as a bit of genuine wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen. But this ambivalence about the value of cooking raises an interesting question. Has our culture devalued food work because it is unfulfilling by its very nature or because it has traditionally been women’s work?

Either way, it appears that the food industry—along with the falling wages of American families, which is what drew most women into the workforce beginning in the 1970s—probably had more to do with the decline of cooking than feminist rhetoric. Not that feminist rhetoric didn’t help. It did, especially when food marketers began deploying it themselves, as a clever way to align their products, and interests, with the rising feminist tide. Kentucky Fried Chicken was not the only convenience food that promised “women’s liberation” from cooking. The industry was only too happy to clothe itself in feminist ideology if that would help it insinuate itself into the kitchen and onto the dinner table.

Yet running just beneath the surface of food-industry feminism was an implicit antifeminist message. Then as now, ads for packaged foods were aimed almost exclusively at women, and so reinforced the retrograde idea that the responsibility for feeding the family fell to Mom. The slick new products would help her to do a job that was hers and hers alone. The ads have also helped manufacture a sense of panic about time, depicting families so rushed and harried in the morning that there is no time to make breakfast, not even to pour some milk over a bowl of cereal. No, the only hope is to munch on a cereal bar (iced with synthetic “milk” frosting) in the bus or car. (Tell me: Why can’t these hassled families set their alarm clocks, like, ten minutes earlier?!) Like so much of modern advertising, the commercials for convenience food simultaneously stoke an anxiety and promise to relieve it. The food industry’s marketing message has the added benefit of letting men completely off the hook. For the necessary and challenging questions about who should be in the kitchen, posed so sharply by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, ultimately got answered for us by the food industry: No one! Let us do it all! With that, we welcomed the food industry into our kitchens as a way to head off the conflict brewing between Mom and Dad.

Yet it took years of such clever, dedicated marketing to wear down the resistance of many women to the farming-out of food preparation to corporations. They first had to be persuaded that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. This took some doing. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers fi gured out that if they left something for the “baker” to do—specifically, crack open an actual egg—she could take ownership of the cake, feel as though she had discharged her moral obligation to cook. But in the years since, our resistance has crumbled as the food scientists have gotten better and better at simulating real food while making it look attractive and seemingly fresh. At the same time, the rapid penetration of microwave ovens—which went from being a fixture in 8 percent of American households in 1978 to 90 percent today—opened up a vast new field of home-meal replacements by slashing the time it takes to, um, “cook” them.

The idea of cooking as a solemn parental obligation has not been completely vanquished, but, as Harry Balzer’s research suggests, the corporate project of redefining what it means to cook and serve a meal to your family has succeeded beyond the industry’s wildest expectations. People think nothing of buying frozen peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children’s lunch boxes. The march of packaged foods into our pantries and freezers has also undermined our willingness to buy fresh ingredients, Balzer has found, since they oblige us to do something with them before they go bad—yet another pressure of time. A wilting head of broccoli in the fridge is “a guilt trip,” Balzer says, whereas a frozen entrée loyally stands by us indefinitely. “Fresh is a hassle.”

“We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods,” Balzer told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.” Already today, 80 percent of the cost of food eaten in the home goes to someone other than a farmer, which is to say, to industrial cooking and packaging and marketing. More than half the money we spend to eat goes to food prepared outside the home. Balzer himself is unsentimental about this development; in fact, he looks forward to the next frontier in the industrial revolution of dinner.

“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Take-out from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.” In the end, women did succeed in getting men into the kitchen, just not their husbands. No, they’ve ended up instead with the men who run General Mills and Kraft, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

Excerpted from Cooked by Michael Pollan. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Michael Pollan, 2013.

Watch as celebrated chefs Mario Batali and Alice Waters, along with food writer Samin Nosrat—who tutored Pollan in the art of pot cooking—discuss the book, Cooked: