Last night at Benaroya Hall, author Michael Pollan paced the stage and talked to an audience that seemed to adore him. He's tall, thin, and bald with wireframe glasses. He wore jeans and a navy-blue sport coat.
If he'd been wearing a turtleneck, Pollan could have been mistaken for Steve Jobs. Which is appropriate, because his critique of the food system is Jobsian—highly effective, technically on point, even cool. But snobbish and alienating.
The substance of Pollan's argument against the corporate food industry is solid. He began with an anecdote from early in his career that encapsulates it perfectly, when he visited an Idaho farm where potatoes have to off-gas the toxicity from pesticides for five days before they can be turned into McDonald's French fries.
So I was totally with him. But then Pollan received the biggest laughs and applause of the night when he called the microwave "the Ayn Rand of appliances." He recounted the experience of buying frozen meals from Safeway as if it was an adventure on an alien planet. Waiting for them to cook in the microwave was "soul-irradiating," he said. The food was gross.
Pollan juxtaposed this with his nostalgia for the family meal of yesteryear, when kids "learn to argue without screaming or fighting. They learn the art of conversation." Chicken kiev was his favorite dish made by mom each birthday. (Who eats chicken kiev on his birthday?)
For the affluent Benaroya audience, this seemed to be all well and good. Personally, my memories of the kitchen are less fond. In single-family households (mine was firmly middle class), kids take on a lot more cooking and cleaning duties. I remember being yelled at a lot. And I thought frozen King's Hawaiian Teriyaki Bowls and Marie Callender pot pies were absolutely delicious.
This is where we begin to see that Pollan is selling an image to the upper crust (pun intended, I guess). Others have already noted the way he glosses over class, race, and gender issues in his new book, Cooked. Farmworkers—the millions of poorly paid folks who pick most of the healthy fruits and vegetables Pollan promotes—didn't get a mention last night, until I asked him about it.
He shouted out the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is an amazing organization, but one based at the opposite end of the country, in Florida. When I tried to mention a similar group based in Bellingham that people might benefit from knowing about, Pollan cut me off and moved on. That brusqueness, too, reminds one of Jobs.
The last question of the night came from a young woman who talked about how much she looks up to him. "What can one person do to make a change?" she asked, almost pleading.
Pollan smiled and gestured with his long arms. "This is the challenge of all politics...I think we are making a change, and that change is coming out of a changes in behavior. I call it voting with your fork. This book is really about changing your identity as a consumer."
That's the essence of the Jobsian approach: purchase the absolute best products, and feel justifiably smug and enlightened about it. I actually think that's fine when it comes to technology—Apple devices tend to be objectively better than their competitors (the dark side being, of course, working conditions in China). It works less well as a political vision challenging the food industry, because it's not inclusive or about collective power.
I doubt the problems in the food industry will be solved by Pollan and his converts any more than global warming will be by people buying Priuses. I wish it was that easy.