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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.

                1. Caveat: I haven't read Pollan's book — only reviews. But I find Wilson's review completely fair. A critic has no obligation to worship at the feet of the latest celebrated author. A critic should provide some original insight into the work, and not just repeat what the author and his admirers are saying.

                  As for "transformation," I don't think she missed that all. In fact, she referred to it: "He wants us to understand that transforming food through fire or fermentation can also alter our own lives — a point well taken."

                  1. Fabulous responses. I love this community.

                    1. pollan is a good example of someone loving something to death. he loves the process of cooking so much that he writes as if cooking that doesn't involve process isn't worthy. the 3% of the population that belongs in his bubble loves this stuff, the rest of the world just shakes their head. BTW, Bee Wilson's book is quite wonderful.

                      1 Reply
                      1. I finished reading "Cooked" today. I've previously read only one other Pollan book -- The Omnivore's Dilemma -- and I found that one irritating... too much smug pontification for me. So I had some trepidation about this one. But I found it rewarding.

                        Wilson's review states "The big message of 'Cooked' is: Cook more." But that was not the big message for me. (In fact, I probably need to cook less, though my confessions in that regard would be better in a forum different from this one.) Indeed, I think the title "Cooked" is rather inappropriate... I'd say it's a stretch to consider the making of cheese or sauerkraut (or other products of fermentation with raw starting materials) to be "cooked", and these are discussed at some length in the book. The word "Transformation" used in the book's subtitle is more apt. But I can imagine Pollan's editor saying that "Transformation" is not a sufficiently snappy title.

                        In any case, I agree with HalliePM that the book is really about transformation. That was "big message" for me -- how food, people, culture, religion, spirituality have been mutually transformed and how those transformations have changed over the course of history (and prehistory). And how we have come to where we are today, at least in the USA, with our overly homogenized and sanitized food supply and lifestyles.

                        I wasn't irritated this time by smug pontification. In fact, I now feel the urge to do some pontification myself about Big Food aided and abetted by our Nanny State (my words, not his, and don't worry -- I shall refrain from further comment...)

                        1. I read this last week after seeing him speak about it in London. I found it rather inspiring actually. That I should learn to make bread, and pickle things.

                          I already do a lot of slow cooking so that doesn't really change things.

                          one of Pollan's major ideas is that we need to reclaim the act of production and appreciate producing things ourselves.

                          And I think it is relevant to ask why are you complaining so much that it takes 2 hours to cook something? Is it cutting into your TV time watching Law & Order... or internet shopping... we waste so much time anyway. why not waste it in the kitchen.

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: echoclerk

                            Many people, myself included, do not have 2 hours a day to put together a meal. I have that kind of time maybe once a week. And no, my time isn't wasted watching TV or Internet shopping. It's spent working a full time job and having a 2 hour commute. By the time i get home, do the usual evening chores (read the mail, water the plants, tend to the dog) i have about an hour to cook dinner, tops. By the time i cook/eat dinner, its usually after 9pm. I go to bed around 1030. If we have weekend plans away from home, i get to fit in my usual weekend chores like laundry and cleaning in on weeknights too. When I have kids I will have even less time to put together a meal.

                            So yeah, the 2 hour+ meal isn't possible for a lot of people, and it's not because we are "wasting time" doing frivolous things.

                            1. re: juliejulez

                              That 2-hour commute's a killer. I wonder how your dog manages with that schedule. Is not one else there? I'm not hectoring here, truly, just curious.

                              1. re: Bada Bing

                                My SO used to work from home when I moved out here and got the job, so it wasn't a big deal to have the commute... now SO has a travel job and is out of town most weekdays so it's gotten a bit harder on the pup. But, now that he's gotten used to it he does alright. He races for the door to go potty as soon as I get home but he's only gone in the house once. Thankfully, he's not a very active dog. He's a basset hound and 8 years old, so he just sleeps all the time, even when we're home. He doesn't eat if we aren't home either. I play with him for about 10 minutes after I get home but he's done after that LOL

                              2. re: juliejulez

                                Based on what he says in the book, Pollan himself is not taking two hours to prepare dinner every night. His experiments in braising are limited to Sunday afternoons. And then, he mentions that leftovers are consumed later in the week, saving some weeknight cooking. And that's Michael Pollan, for whom doing the cooking described in this book was part of his job (research for the book). I have a feeling that Mr. Pollan would be the last person to expect a person in your situation (a very common one, which I have shared) to spend two hours on weekday evenings cooking dinner. He only spent that time himself on weekends AND as part of research for a book.

                                1. re: MelMM

                                  I was mainly responding to echoclerk's comments that people who don't cook for 2 hours a day are just "wasting time" doing frivolous things like watching television.

                                  1. re: juliejulez

                                    I realize that, and you were right to respond that way. I just wanted to bring the discussion back to the book, and point out that Mr. Pollan was NOT saying what echoclerk said.

                                2. re: juliejulez

                                  I really don't think one persons excessive commute is a good rebuttal of my point. And I think 2 hours each way for a commute is INSANE! 4 hours a day commuting? Thats nuts

                                  I think a lot of people that complain about cooking times though are actually spending a lot of time watching tv and surfing the internet.

                              3. The review does seem to me to be rather snarky, random and aimless.

                                It blames Pollan for every systemic problem that he doesn't solve, and blames him for either not addressing the problem or addressing it and not solving it.