"The illusion of cooking"

Food journalist Michael Pollan spoke of this, and more, at this month’s culinary conference at the University of Massachusetts.

By 
Paul King, Editor

Chefs who attended the 2014 Tastes of the World culinary conference at the University of Massachusetts earlier this month had the opportunity to gain insight from the mind of one of the world’s foremost food journalists, Michael Pollan. The 400-plus people in the audience—the presentation was open to the public—got a chance to hear a wide range of the author’s views on everything from cooking at home to our eating habits and the threat of GMOs.

The author of such books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” began by decrying Americans’ lack of cooking skills. “We are more obsessed with food than ever,” he noted, pointing out our fascination with cooking shows, “and yet we’re cooking less. People say the reason is that they have no time, but you find time for things you value. People are spending more time than ever surfing the web. The time is there; we just choose to spend it on other things.”

Pollan spoke of the “illusion of cooking,” where people are combining various convenience foods into meals, tracing it back to the 1950s.

“Boxed cake mixes, in which all you had to do was add water, were rejected by women because they felt they couldn’t take credit for something they hadn’t created,” he explained. “So the cake mix manufacturers removed the powdered eggs from the mix, so that you had to add an ingredient to the mix beside water, and that was enough. We have reached the point where cooking is combining any more than two ingredients. For the purposes of marketing, pouring salad dressing on a bag of mixed greens is considered ‘cooking.’”

In response to a question about whether the United States will ever be known for a type of cuisine, Pollan said no.

“We are a mongrel people,” he suggested, “and fusion in every way. Other societies eat the way their parents ate. We change the way we eat every generation. I don’t see us ever coalescing around a single cuisine.”

Surprisingly, during his presentation the man who has lambasted industrial farming and “big food” did not take an aggressive stance against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, although he suggested that GMOs are not at present the solution to the world’s food problems.

“We spend way too much time talking about GMOs,” Pollan said. “The research thus far has been disappointing. It certainly has helped Monsanto make a lot of money selling [herbicides]. Can GMO technology do any good in the future? Possibly, but we are applying it to stupid things. However, banning GMOs is not the answer. That could set us back to 1995 in terms of farming.”

He also spoke out against labeling laws, as they pertain to this technology.

“GMO-free labeling is hurting organics,” he said, “because it is easier to meet the requirements of that label than it is to meet organics. Most consumers, if they see a product labeled ‘GMO-free’ next to one labeled ‘organic,’ and the GMO-free product is cheaper, are going to take that every time.

“We will have labeling laws in a very few years,” he added. “It is tough to fight what more than 80% of consumers want. But that’s not a good place to be.”

The question that perhaps was most intriguing to the chefs in attendance was this: Imagine you are the foodservice director at Berkeley (where Pollan teaches journalism). What changes would you make?

“First, I would have a forager on my staff,” he opined. “Next, I would be teaching kids how to eat and what to eat, but also trying to get them into the kitchen. Kids who cook understand food better and eat better. Third, I would say that edible education should be part of the curriculum.”