Food programs are as popular as ever, perhaps even more popular than they were not so long ago. Julia Child helped transform the American relationship with food and cooking. And the Food Network thrives on cable television. But in a New York Times Magazine article, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivores Dilemma and In Defense of Food) notes that two curious things accompany this popularity. First, Americans continue to spend less and less time cooking (and the definition of “cooking” seems to have expanded tremendously so that what one online Scottish friend calls “prick and ping” becomes “cooking” to many Americans). Second, unlike the shows that Julia Child presided over, the cooking shows we watch now are more about food and eating, and watching other people cook, than about helping people cook for themselves. Pollan’s very interesting article explores these observations, looking at our lives, corporate marketing, and what it is that television wants from viewers.
Pollan spends considerable time talking about Food Network and its prime time programming. Now, when I watch television, it tends to be Food Network, PBS, or the Smithsonian Channel, and I enjoy many of the prime time offerings on the Food Network. But, apart from Good Eats (which Pollan curiously does not even mention), I’ve long wished they’d put on more classic cooking shows. (Maybe even getting rights to show some of Julia Child’s old shows.) Pollan’s analysis of the prime time programs, and the fact that they don’t so much teach cooking, makes sense. But the curious thing, he also notes, is that there are lots of other things we don’t do much, yet they don’t fill the cable television programing like food shows do. There are few if any programs about changing one’s own oil, for example. Some PBS stations might show Sewing with Nancy sometime during the day, how many programs about sewing are there? Not many. So why do we watch cooking and food television when so many don’t cook in their own homes?
Consider for a moment the proposition that as a human activity, cooking is far more important—to our happiness and to our health—than its current role in our lives, not to mention its depiction on TV, might lead you to believe.
With this, Pollan introduces a discussion of the importance of cooking in our humanity, and the suggestion that many anthropologists and philosophers have made that it is one of the characteristics that distinguishes us as human beings. Here, I think, Pollan’s essay points to the heart of the matter. This is why Julia Child was so successful with her own show and why she helped to spark the transformation of American food culture that followed. (There is a reason Julia’s kitchen ended up in the Smithsonian’s collection, and it’s not just that she was a pop culture icon. She had an important role in and impact on American cultural history.) It’s why, for all the aisles and aisles of processed foods that one finds in our modern supermarkets, the produce section has also grown in the breadth and variety of the fruits and vegetables available to many of us. Michael Pollan also suggests that this is why we watch so much food and cooking programing, even if we don’t do much cooking for ourselves. He suggests that our failure to cook can have significant effects on our culture, just as it is showing significant effects on our health.
At this point, I’m reminded of the film Babette’s Feast. There are so many wonderful themes explored by that story, including the role of art and beauty in our lives. But one of the points that has so struck me is the role of the titular feast, which marks the centenary of a pastor who formed an austere religious community in the remote village in which the story is set. Quarreling had arisen among his surviving followers. And the great elegance of the feast that Babette was preparing was in great contrast to the austerity and reticence about earthly pleasures of the group’s doctrine and life. Yet the delicious food, the pleasure of eating it, and the social (and spiritual) experience of a shared meal brings them together again as a community and as friends. (Oh, the wine probably helped too, but not just the alcohol content.) The effects of the meal in Babette’s Feast are both gentle and dramatic. A shared meal isn’t a panacea, but there is an important social and spiritual significance to eating together. It is no accident that so many religious observances either are accompanied by, or even are in the form of, a meal. It strikes me that by making it more and more infrequent that we cook our own meals and share them with others, we lose something important. The importance of this is not merely about our physical health.
To put it in a more theological vein, we can all too easily loose track of the near sacramental nature of world God created. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote in the early 1960s: “Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence . A meal is still a rite—the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking.” To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that “something more” is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, SVS Press, page 16) Over the last few decades, it seems to me, food corporations and diet fads and other factors have pushed a great deal toward making eating strictly utilitarian. Yet there is also significant resistance to that. Perhaps the interest in food television is part of that resistance. Pollan would seem to be suggesting that it is, although from a secular perspective quite distinct from that offered here by Schmemann. But, which ever perspective one favors (or even both), more attention should be paid to the “something more” involved in eating and drinking, and that means also the “something more” involved in cooking and sharing food.
Back to Pollan. He finishes off the article with a call, or perhaps a statement of wish, to find a way to recover cooking in our every day lives. It won’t be easy, since we’ve lost the habit and there are so many reasons we’ve picked up the convenience foods, the take-out, and the sugar, fat, and salt laden processed foods (for both cultural and biological reasons, one should note). And, regardless of how much one agrees with Pollan on the details of his position, I think the general idea that we really must cook more for ourselves is one we need to embrace out of necessity, for the sake of ourselves, our health, our culture, and even our humanity.
The article is well worth reading and pondering. You’ll find it at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html