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Apr 29, 2013 07:36 AM

NYT Review of Michael Pollan's "Cooked" Misses the Point

In her review of "Cooked," Bee Wilson writes that Pollan's lack of pragmatism "widens the gap between cooks and noncooks," thus defeating the premise of the book that cooking our own meals is essential to our health and the planet's health. Ms. Wilson's example: a time-consuming slow braise not practical for the typical rushed cook.

Ms. Wilson misses the point. "Cooked" is about transformation--the alchemy of cooking, the cook 's wonder at the process of cooking. Once our awareness is raised, there are many cooking primers available to teach us how to speed things up to fit our busy schedules. And maybe we can even slow down our busy lives just a little--stop and smell the rosemary.

What do you think?

Here's the review:

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  1. I am a Michael Pollan fan as well. I haven't read the book but it sounds like the reviewer doesn't want to like the book.

    Pollan often "preaches to the choir" and his fans are not reading him for all brand new concepts as much as giving voice to their existing beliefs or intuitions. I doubt he intends to turn everyone into a gourmet chef or suggest that they spend all day cooking instead of working.

    I can't see it "widening any gap between cooks and non cooks." I doubt many non cooks want to read about slow food and cooking anyway. Pollan fans are pretty privileged in general. they are interested in their health -they are already interested jn food. I don't think he should be judged on being able to reach out to people that are not interested in either. At this point in his career, he is writing for a pretty huge fan base. I think it is perfectly okay to encourage busy people to slow down and cook. Cook for the joy of it, for therapy, for entertainment.

    I agree that this reviewer is missing that point.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sedimental

      Sedimental, you omitted the further potential motivation of economy.

      Good friends of mine are serious cooks and students of food (he was the local professional newspaper restaurant critic for some years) and they used to eat out often. But they have turned away from it, after observing how much money they could save by cooking well at home.

      And while some particular "time-consuming slow braise" may be impractical, keep in mind that many slow braises constitute great folk comfort food traditions of Europe and Asia. They convert cheap ingredients to satisfying plentiful meals and often, most of the cooking time is passive (on yesterday's hearth, today's slow cooker or back burner).

      That's also closely connected to the historical evolution of recipes. Comment directly from the 1977 classic book by John and Karen Hess (who were the Michael Pollan of the 1970s-80s):

      "In fact, the history of cooking is largely the triumph of housewives making do with what the gentry wouldn't touch."

    2. Pollan is an advocate for home cooking, isn't he? I thought that was the point of his book, though I've only read reviews and not the book itself. If so, then Bee Wilson is right to criticize him for including a recipe that would discourage those whom he wants to encourage. Bad strategy.

      1. I am reading "COOKED" (or would be if I wasn't typing this response). Ms. Wilson does praise Pollan for his writing skills but seems to be looking for specific instances to denigrate his thoughts/conclusions. I completely disagree with her thought that Pollan "widen the gap between cooks and non-cooks". Instead, she picks at specific examples while missing what Peg Bracken called: "The tout ensemble of the whole". That Wilson currently has a book ("Consider the Fork") competing for the same audience could, perhaps, color her review. I fear there might be some sour grapes on her part; it is a shame that the NYT published this piece.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Sherri

          The Splendid Table has interviews with both Pollan and Wilson in the latest episode.

          Lynne's intro to Pollan is "he set out to cook .... it dawned on him that he really didn't cook, he more or less assembled, with good food, but he believed that isn't what cooking is really about..." This sounds a lot like the start of Wilson's review.

          I haven't read Pollan's book, but I get the same impression of it from his interview

          as from Wilson's review.

          Cooking for me, is not a political act.

          1. I'm not officially part of Pollan's club - but I am sympathetic to a lot his ideas related to food and cooking. However, this part of the review really stood out to me:

            “I can probably earn more in an hour of writing . . . than I could save in a whole week of cooking.” Cooking, he posits, is therefore “a kind of a vote” against “the total rationalization of life.” But the cooking Pollan describes reads less like a vote and more like a privilege."

            At this point in time Pollard is writing amongst a large sea of "food professionals" advocating for more cooking at home. And the more this happens, the more that this version of slow food reads as being more tied to class and privilege than a true choice for everyone. Sticking with the NYT, you have Mark Bittman just a few pages over starting his "Flexitarian" column and his books - and he is also advocating cooking more at home. But he is not as tied to the slow food movement.

            I find Pollard interesting as a philosophy, but not as a "how to".

            6 Replies
            1. re: cresyd

              Are you saying that you think cooking at home is a privilege reserved for the wealthy? I would think just the opposite.

              As to the NYT review that picked on a slow braise as not being possible for the "typical rushed cook" I say "nonsense". You can certainly do a lot of things while you have a dish cooking slowly in the oven.

              1. re: gourmanda

                No - I'm saying that the kind of slow cooking that Pollan and slow food movement advocate are often presented in a way that requires a huge number of hours a week devoted to cooking. The quote where Pollan says that an extra hour of writing a week would earn him more money than he saves by the hours he devotes to cooking/food is a choice that he has enough money to make. Personally, working less isn't a choice I can financially make.

                I think that there are other advocates for "cook more at home" who make that lifestyle feel far more accessible. I haven't read the book, but after reading the NYT review - I feel that the critique was that in this book, Pollan's approach felt more catered to someone who can financially afford to devote that much time on food.

                  1. re: cresyd

                    I think the point here is that at one time in our past, one partner stayed at home and took care of the chores there, including cooking. They may not have had much money or leisure time, but they could oversee a long, slow braise for several hours.

                    We deal with a different reality. Economics demand that most adults work outside the home so only the privileged few who can stay home and tend to such things. As a working (and sometimes single) mother in my day, I made sure that I cooked dinner for my family nearly every night. Mostly it was the fast and easy stuff: tacos, spaghetti, maybe broiled chicken.

                    Braised and stewed foods were not part of my day-to-day menus at that time. Slow cookers help, but with two small children to get to school before I left for work, it was not a frequent or easy option.

                    I haven't read Pollan's book, but it sounds like he is not taking that reality into account.

                    1. re: chicgail

                      I agree. I am a single person - so while I have no kids to care for, I do have to assume all household duties in edition to working full time. It also means for me that there is very high value and importance on making time to spend with friends/socialize. That being said - with the exception of when I have numerous dinner events for work - I make the vast majority of my dinners at home, make lunch to bring to work and don't use a lot of convenience foods beyond premade "basic" items such as cheese, yogurt, canned tomatoes/beans, etc.

                      Finding a way to do that for me has meant spending time figuring out what prevents me from cooking (fatigue on weekdays, not wanting to clean much up after cooking). Then how I can best remove those barriers (cook a lot of food on the weekends or one night a week that makes the rest of the week more about assembly and/or reheating than cooking from scratch). Also to incentivize cooking at home, I ususally treat myself to one "luxury" item to cook with a week that's exciting. And will also make me guarantee to not let it go to waste.

                      I'm sure there are many home cooks out there with similar stories of how they make sure they cook more at home. I also think there are a lot of food professionals who better encourage cooking more at home and with fewer convenience products. I just don't think that Pollan gets that the balance he's championing is largely inaccessible to most.

                      I never bake bread. When I buy bread it's from a local bakery as opposed to a grocery store. This is a decision I'm very ok with.

                      1. re: chicgail

                        I have read Pollan's new book, and the thing to take into account here is that this is NOT one of those "plea for home cooking" books. That is just not what it is about. It is an exploration of a few, broad, and historically very traditional methods of cooking. Both in a broad cultural context, and in a very personal context. But not a manifesto about what the home cook should be doing, at all.