Sunday, 9 August 2009

Controversy Ahoy

I started this last week and kept not finishing it off to post properly. Sorry. I've got a lot of posts coming up this week to make up for it. It's a little controversial, so let's just bite the bullet and get those points out of the way first.

1. Organic food is not better for you.
2. Michael Pollan is a bit of a dickhead.

Wait, what? Well, these two topics have been floating round the intertoobz recently.

First, organic food. Ben Goldacre has a good article on the topic. Basically a couple of studies came out in the UK that showed no nutritional benefits to organic food. There is no measurable difference in chemical composition or in health benefits.

I'm actually not surprised by this one little bit. I've never been a fanatic about organic foods - I place fair trade, low food miles, and free range much higher in my priorities. I do buy organic quite often, though, and I'm not to going to stop. I'm pretty sure that a lot of the organic farming practices are better for the environment, and long term sustainability. I'm not convinced by all of the methods - old and traditional isn't automatically better. For example, what's with copper sulphate being considered organic? High school chemistry should tell you that it's an inorganic compound. It was my favourite in my chemistry set - such a pretty blue. I'm not saying it's actually bad or good; I am completely ignorant on this topic. It just makes me go "huh?"

I am also fairly sure that some of the "heritage" varieties of plants are better for you than the modern breeds - another question not addressed by these studies. We humans have been busily breeding our foods to be sweeter and fatter for millennia. We've changed that in the last century to selecting easier to transport and store, and lower in fat. But some of those bitter and sulphury compounds are the ones that are good for us; and the less intensively bred variants tend to be much higher in antioxidants and other nutrients. Australian bush foods are a prime example - super high in various nutrient levels, they are surely bound to one of the next faddy "superfoods". Oat bran, wild blueberries, wheatgrass, gojiberries, pomegranates... How about Kakadu plum, Davidson plum, akudjura or finger lime? Ooh, look, Kakadu Juice! Sounds good - get in early and beat the trendy price rises!

But these points are not at all what is addressed by the studies, and no amount of yelling "look, over there!" forms any kind of rebuttal. I really love how Goldacre phrased it; I could not imagine writing it better.
The emotive commentary in favour of organic farming bundles together diverse and legitimate concerns about unchecked capitalism in our food supply: battery farming, corruptible regulators, or reckless destruction of the environment, where the producer’s costs do not reflect the true full costs of their activities to society, to name just a few. Each of these problems deserve individual attention.

But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association.

So - what's up with Michael Pollan, our ethical foodie hero? Plain old unthinking sexism is what. His latest column on the merits of home cooking is mostly pretty good. But he blindly assumes that cooking is women's work, and blames feminism for its decline. Read the Salon commentary here. And Pollan's NYTimes article here. ORLY, Michael? What, you maybe think men do not need to eat? Or do you think all men should come equipped with a personal chef as a birthright?

To be fair, he does actually think that men should learn to cook. Where he goes off the rails is in ascribing the downfall of home cooking to, of all things, feminism. It's as if Betty Friedan all by herself persuaded 1950s middle class housewives that they were unhappy. Because every educated woman before Friedan just LOVED being forced to quit her job to cook, clean and care for children and wait on her husband. The intellectual joys of scrubbing the kitchen floor were unquestionable until Evil Betty hypnotised us all! And working class women are just dumb, and were totally taken in by this. Instead of spending hours making casseroles, they chose to go and work for the money to feed and clothe and house their families. Imagine! How silly! They ate macaroni cheese from a box instead of making a proper boeuf bourgignon, and baking apple pies. What could they possibly have been thinking?

Actually, my bloke does have a personal chef (hi there!), and he is very happy about it by all accounts. But that's us individually. He trades cleaning duties for the shopping and cooking. He seriously hates shopping. Cooking is OK, though he's out of practice. He used to be quite good at whipping up a pasta dinner, and unlike me he actually got the knack of steaming rice on the stovetop. He's crap at BBQs, though, which has got to be bad for his Bloke cred.

Cooking can indeed be creative and fun - obviously it's one of my own joys. And I quite agree that a certain level of it is an essential life skill for all of us. Nobody should have to depend on fast food and microwaved readimeals. But ALL of us should have the basics, independent of our plumbing. The complexities may safely be left to those of us who enjoy it - also independent of our plumbing.

By the way, one thing I'm very glad to learn from this is that there's a film of Julia Child's life, mashed up with the Julie/Julia project, coming out soon. VERY EXCITED OMG WHEN IS IT OPENING HERE?!!! *Ahem* Sorry, getting carried away. VERY EXCITED VERY EXCITED VERY EXCITED! Australian release date 08-Oct-09, US release date 07-Aug-09 WTF? DOWNLOAD DOWNLOAD DOWNLOAD. *oops, management does not endorse any naughty illegal stuff, treely ruly.*


Pumpkin-eater said...

Michael Pollan and his upper-middle class polemics have never really appealed to me, now he’s a woman hater too I’m even less interested in what he has to say. I much prefer Marion Nestle’s commentary on US food politics; Pollan borrowed much of her material for In Defence of Food anyway. Her blog Food Politics is worth a look.

Pollan, the organic food movement and others have a disturbing tendency to romanticise a food past that doesn’t really seem to have existed and are only preaching to the educated middle classes anyway (who, if they don’t have the time, have the cash to pay artisans to assuage the food guilt created by buying into Pollan’s ideal), they certainly aren’t going to do much to help the majority of people eat better.

infoaddict said...

I've just recently read Pollan's "In Defense of Food" and found it interesting and well-written. Nothing in there is necessarily new, but it's an interesting way of bringing together a wide range of concepts - organic growing, "food miles", the decline of interest in actual cooking (in America; he is writing from a US perspective and knows it, and frequently makes reference to those cultures where food is still important, such as Italy and France), the rise of marketing over information, the apparent gullibility of a TV-obsessed culture, climate change and the influence it's had on agricultural practices, and a swag of other influences.

All with real live proper references (a bibliography!! Amazing!), and the information in there does tee up with what mainstream agriculture is starting to work out - that it's the soil and interaction with the ecology around a plant that dictates what "stuff" the plant does or doesn't contain. I learnt about "no-till" agriculture purely from The Land, which is as conservative a publication as you're going to come across. When broadscale Australian farmers start discussing ways to stop digging up their paddocks and reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, you know it's not out of some ideal but because these new ways will save them money and improve their income - because the pesticides no longer work and the fertilisers take more than they put into the soil. They actually have something to hand on to their children, and that's important.

If the soil is merely enriched with commercial fertilisers (egsuperphosphate), then that's all the nutrients the plant can take up. If the soil is made up of a complex mix of broken-down organic materials, then the plant has a wider variety of nutrients to take up - ones that we didn't even know it wanted to take up, sometimes - and this will affect flavour and "nutritional" content.

Same with pest control. If you mollycoddle a plant with insecticides, it doesn't produce its natural defences against being eaten and research is apparently showing that these defences are what makes the food "good for one". So organic agriculture, with its emphasis on "natural" controls, attempts to force the plant into producing its own controls and thus affecting its flavour and content.

However, I do also agree with Pollan on "just eat food". Don't count nutritional content or "good" oils vs "bad" oils or whatever, and don't panic about what enriched food might be better for you than another. Just eat a lot of foods!

infoaddict said...

[my comments got long and needed some splitting up ... sorry CC!)

Now, on the feminism thing. I've just skim-read the whole article and I didn't get any sense of "blame" on "feminism" ("women entering the workforce") for the drop in "real cooking". He says it himself:

"It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs." (p5 of the NYT article).

Yes, his article is significantly about home-cooking and therefore about the women who did that cooking. We KNOW that women did most of the cooking in most of European history. That's _why_ we got feminism (well, one reason among many). Both men and women cook but only a few actually really love it. The difference between men and women was that all women were expected to cook, whether they liked it or not (and all men were expected to head into the workforce, whether they liked it or not), and so home-cooking was centred around the cooking women.

We've changed that. Both men and women can cook if they want; can work if they want. We've re-defined "paid work" as something that both men and women can do.

But for some reason, we haven't managed to re-define "home cooking" as something both men and women can do; it might be the fact that "home cooking" is still tainted by that "it's WOMEN'S work and therefore inferior" concept that that feminism is still fighting against (same happens in various workplace industries, such as libraries or nursing). Any hint that home cooking should remain in the female realm brings should be squashed viciously and instantly, just as any hint that "chefs" - ie, people who cook for money (which is therefore men's work and therefore it's not demeaning, ARGH) - should remain in the male realm. That's where _I'd_ be directing energy ...

So yes. Women entering the workforce and having less time than before would have had _some_ impact on home cooking, because men have been harder to persuade that it's something they ought to do occasionally. Not even a cause; but how could it not have an impact, when only women had been indoctrinated into the "you woman, you cook" mindset? Women hit the workforce, they get tired, they stop cooking; but men aren't going to cook to take up the slack, are they? Their indoctrination was "you man, you get paid for work", and most of them wouldn't know what to do with a saucepan if you hit them with it.

infoaddict said...

I don't see that Pollan "blames" women for this decline. His target is the post-industrial marketing machine:

"Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. "(p5)

"Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. "(p6)

I don't see that as blame, and I don't get a sense of blame from the article. It's just a statement of fact; that cooking takes time and when there isn't time, we don't cook; we buy something quicker and more convenient. He'd like to see a return to "real" cooking but, unless I skim-read something important, doesn't even hint that women need to lead the way to bringing it back.

Mind you, I don't actually see any recommendation on HOW to bring it back.

"Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?"

His response - "Let's hope so" - isn't actually useful.

These are the bits I'd prefer to argue with, on the last page:

"“Not going to happen,” [Balzer] told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.

“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.”"

The final suggestion of "cook it yourself" isn't, I might suggest, awfully useful. All such admonishing does is make those who are _trying_ to cook feel guilty, and those who don't care don't notice.

What we really need is to go back to his early points and ask "how do we make un-marginalise cooking?". Scary as it is, apparently shows like MasterChef are doing it (Pollan doesn't like them!). The competition got the reality TV buffs in, but the masterclasses (which I never saw) were what seeped into the consciousness. My 3-y-o nephew is apparently watching my mother cook with intense interesting and _judging_ her food (oopsie ... ).

It's a bit sad when TV has to take the place of the community elders to pass on traditions, but in the absence of any respect for one's elders, maybe that's the best we can do for the moment ...

Cath said...

I wouldn't say he's a woman hater as such, more just totally thoughtless on the topic.

Fi: this.
"Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression."

See? Evil Betty dunnit. Housework was perfectly fine, involving absolutely no drudgery or oppression whatsoever... until Evil Betty hypnotised us.

I know Pollan has a lot of good stuff to say, but that particular bit was egregiously stupid.

Pumpkin-eater said...

How is tearing down the US food industry (which is what Pollan basically proposes) going to make people make better choices about their food? Really it would just make fewer more expensive choices.

All Americans (except a tiny percentage of foodies and survivalists), rely on cheap mass produced calories and even then ~11% of Americans are in a position of food insecurity. The problem isn’t that those calories exist, that they come from corn, or that some evil corporation created them, it’s that people don’t understand how to eat sensibly (it doesn’t even really matter that they don’t cook, many cultures including the much touted food loving French and Italians eat out a lot, as do most people in SE Asia) and I don’t think Pollan is doing much to address that by harkening back to the days where there was no processed food and telling us to head back to our kitchens.

infoaddict said...

"Fi: this.
"Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.""

Ah. That's what you get for skim-reading :)

Good point. It would be better written as:

Fi: this.
"Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, **in the same way men regarded it**: as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression, **rather than the sole and rightful vocation for all women**."

Add in those bits between the stars and I reckon it's much more accurate :)

Sometimes this bit does my head in because I wonder: would we be better off trying to re-define housework as just "work", attempting to remove the stigma of "women's work", or should we be trying to remove the apparent stigma of "women's work" being "lesser work", and permit such "women's work" to be as important as "men's work".

The issue I have with the latter is that frankly, NO-ONE likes housework and wants to do it - at least, not solely on their own - so I'm not so sure that I, as a woman, wish to stand up and proudly proclaim "It's women's work and I'm proud of it!".

I'd rather fight for having library work taken as seriously and given as much funding and money as IT. Traditionally libraries are the realm of women and therefore of lesser pay and conditions than equivalent work in the "men's" industry of IT - the difference is about $10 - $15k, which is why I tend to reluctantly hang around the IT industry, using the same skills and wishing I were in a library. Mind you, the maternity management systems are extremely good, for some reason :)

All of which is a tad off-topic.

Pumpkin-eater, I think what Pollan would really like is a bit more cynicism applied to the average American's diet. People do display a regrettable tendency to fall for the latest Big Sign on the front of a foodstuff and trust in the faceless corporations behind the scenes to be Doing The Right Thing By The People, when of course they're only interested in how much they can sell with the minimal possible expenditure on their part. Food is an easy marketing target because everyone eats, and so people are persuaded to spend money on and then ingest all kinds of bizarrities.

French and Italians are bombarded by the same marketing, and yet they manage to remember that corn sugar and soymeal isn't actually a complete meal, regardless of what the cardboard packet says. It is an interesting conundrum - why has this situation occurred?

I think, btw, that a lot of his article actually comes directly from his book, so it might be that I'm remembering bits of the book that aren't in the article, and so am getting something different from it.