In Defense of Michael Pollan (Or, How Sexism Allegations Boost Web Traffic)

Author Michael Pollan attends a special screening of 'Food, Inc.' at the Angelika Film Center on June 9, 2009 in New York Cit
Author Michael Pollan attends a special screening of 'Food, Inc.' at the Angelika Film Center on June 9, 2009 in New York City. *** Local Caption ***

Life rarely grants us the opportunity to work alongside our heroes. Maybe it's the residual hippie dippy vibes permeating Berkeley's atmosphere, but thanks to some cosmic turn of events, I lived out the ultimate pipe dream this year. I got to work with Michael Pollan.

If you're a human who eats food, chances are you're remotely familiar with Pollan's work. Before enrolling in UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where Pollan is a professor, I joined trillions of other food-eating readers and tore through his best-selling, award-winning manifesto, The Omnivore's Dilemma. I think I was worried about bumping into him in the halls and having nothing to say. Studying up on his work armed me with conversation fodder for hypothetical hallway run-ins. But it also completely overturned my admittedly limited understanding of agriculture, consumerism, and of course, food -- no small feat considering I was emerging from a decade of diets and disordered eating.

Omnivore's Dilemma was of course the gateway drug that led me down a path of drinking Pollan's (organic, sustainably-farmed, corn-syrup-free) Kool-Aid. I became a firm believer in his oft-quoted doctrine to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" (this was a significant transition from my own long-standing mantra of "Eat half a Luna Bar. Not much else"). So when the opportunity presented itself to work as Pollan's teaching assistant this year, I aggressively leaped at the chance (apologies to classmates who took an elbow to the face in my haste to apply).

At the risk of sounding like a star-struck Pollan minion, I feel obliged to tell anyone who'll listen that the guy not only lives up to his own hype, but he's alarmingly nice too. So nice that he thanked me in the acknowledgements of his new book, Cooked, and not only spelled my name correctly, but didn't even tell me he did it. Beyond being uncommonly courteous, Pollan is unbelievably supportive of budding journalists. He never failed to tell our (entirely-female) Food Writing class how impressed he was with our work, and he wholeheartedly encouraged me to pursue a long-form master's project on eating disorders, even though I later discovered he'd read more than his share of anorexia-themed theses at the J-School.

So imagine my dismay when two of my favorite online outlets ran take-down posts this week declaring Pollan an anti-feminist "sexist pig." Salon went so far as to insert the insulting allegation in its headline, while Jezebel merely twisted the already-twisted words of the former piece and confusingly described Pollan as a "DIY messiah" (move over, Martha Stewart!). While I could just use my positive personal experience with Pollan to explain why all of these claims are completely unfounded traffic-boosting shock tactics and not thoughtful critiques, I have actual evidence to back me up instead.

First thing's first. The Salon article, which is actually an excerpt from Emily Matchar's book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, doesn't even get into its anti-Pollan sentiments until halfway through the 4,000-word piece, though his name is touted in the title. But that's the least offensive misrepresentation in the article. What follows the sub-head, "The way food used to be: The myths of foodie nostalgia (Or is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?)," is a misinterpretation and blatant misuse of quotes from a 2009 New York Times Pollan piece. While a variation of the Times article appears in Cooked, no mention of Pollan's new book is ever made in the Salon piece, though it seems curiously convenient that a take-down piece was timed to coincide with the recent release of the already popular title. Instant traffic boost from would-be readers Googling the search term, "Pollan"? Genius.

Were the Salon article an analytic interpretation of Pollan's work in either the (nearly four-year-old) Times piece or in Cooked, it would be a fair fight. But Matchar's claims are groundless, given that the quotes she references are taken entirely out of context. Matchar hypes the following quote as proof of Pollan's anti-woman rhetoric: "[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen." Admittedly, it seems like damning evidence. Except that's not exactly what Pollan said, and performing the arduous task of actually reading the entire paragraph in which the quote is embedded clarifies that.

In the original Times piece, and in Cooked, Pollan asserts that while Betty Friedan did depict housework as a form of oppression (which is not sexist defamation, by the way -- it's just true), many women didn't necessarily see cooking that way. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in Second Sex that time in the kitchen could be oppressive but 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." Pollan then writes that de Beauvoir's quote can be read as a special exemption for the culinary arts or "as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen." So backing up and reading the quote in context reveals Pollan is commenting on the ways in which a famous feminist's quote could be (and are) interpreted, but it doesn't exactly implicate him as America's anti-feminist foodie extraordinaire.

But nitpicky line-by-line dissection aside, the biggest gripe I have with the Salon piece is that it does a disservice not only to Pollan's work, but to readers actually invested in the food movement. The piece makes a villain out of Pollan and diverts our attention from the actual worthy target of all this hostility: the food industry.

Taking a closer look at Cooked (specifically pages 183-189 for anyone eager for more than standalone quotes), exposes the real anti-hero in the anti-woman dialogue, and it certainly isn't Pollan. The food industry has fought long and hard to convince women that we needn't waste time preparing meals for our families because the industry can do it for us. These attempts to lure females out of the kitchen didn't start with the feminist movement. The post-World War II wonders of freeze-dried food were intended to persuade families that cooking was obsolete. Any guess as to why?

"Processing food is extremely profitable -- much more so than growing it or selling it whole," Pollan writes in Cooked. "So it became the strategy of food corporations to move into our kitchen long before many women had begun to move out." Meaning Pollan's not really blaming those thoughtless feminists he supposedly held accountable for the lost nostalgia of home cooking. He's rightfully condemning an industry that has not only misleadingly appropriated feminist rhetoric (Kentucky Fried Chicken of all places promised "women's liberation" from cooking), but used it to conceal decidedly anti-feminist ideals.

By advertising packaged foods almost exclusively to women, the food industry did a great job reinforcing the notion that moms alone should be responsible for feeding the family while letting dads and sons 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 by the food industry: No one! Let us do it all!" Pollan writes. Weird, that almost sounds like a positive endorsement for Friedan's brand of feminism and a condemnation of the industry that effectively squashed it.

And yet, Matchar blames Pollan for an attack he never made. "Claiming that feminism killed home cooking is not just shaming, it's wildly inaccurate from a historical standpoint," she writes. And she's right. But she's arguing a point Pollan isn't contesting in the first place.

Besides re-routing the anger we all should feel toward the food industry, not the man illuminating its wrongdoing, Matchar completely disregards the fact that Pollan knows he's stepping on treacherous territory with this subject matter -- and he doesn't do so without confronting the inevitable criticism over his authority. "Whenever anyone -- but especially a man --express dismay at the decline of home cooking, a couple of unspoken assumptions begin to condense over the conversation like offending clouds," he writes, "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." So not only has Pollan anticipated Matchar's admonition, but he's revealed a flaw in the criticism -- expressing disdain over his desire to reinstate home cooking insinuates women have always been and should always be the ones doing it. "But by now it should be possible to make a case for the importance of cooking without defending the traditional division of domestic labor," he writes. "Indeed, that argument will probably get nowhere unless it challenges the traditional arrangement of domesticity -- and assumes a prominent role for men in the kitchen as well as children." Michael Pollan, feminist hero?

Maybe that's a stretch, but regardless of the negative press the Salon and Jezebel pieces stirred up, I'm less worried about anyone assuming Pollan is some testosterone-fueled chauvinist than I am about people who've never read his work discounting it based on an inaccurate, attention-seeking web post.

"Really? That seriously sucks," a commenter posted in response to Jezebel's piece. "I've had Omnivore's Dilemma on my bookshelf for a few years now, and I keep meaning to read it. I'm sad to hear it sounds like it puts the burden of cooking on women." And just like that, someone who may have greatly benefited from Pollan's meticulous, enlightening reporting disregards him based on an erroneous interpretation of his work. All I can do is defend the intent beyond the butchered excerpts and encourage everyone to think critically instead of automatically siding with the cool, controversial side of a non-existent argument.

And check out Cooked in its entirety -- it's in stores now (this shameless endorsement not encouraged or approved of by the book's author).