Last night, I was cooking dinner in the kitchen while the rest of the family was watching part of Michael Pollan’s Netflix series “Cooked!”, which produced the irony of me yelling out denunciations of Pollan while the rest of the family told me to shush and Pollan’s voiceover talked about how great it was that I (or anyone else) was cooking dinner.

Here’s Pollan’s description of the series:

Explored through the lenses of the four natural elements – fire, water, air and earth –Cooked is an enlightening and compelling look at the evolution of what food means to us through the history of food preparation and its universal ability to connect us. Highlighting our primal human need to cook, the series urges a return to the kitchen to reclaim our lost traditions and to forge a deeper, more meaningful connection to the ingredients and cooking techniques that we use to nourish ourselves.

This isn’t exactly right.  Instead, Pollan moves from the blabbity-blah quasi-spirituality implied by the description to a more straightforward argument that is familiar from anyone who has read his books or his seemingly endless articles in the New York Times and elsewhere: processed and pre-cooked food, abetted by a malevolent food industry, is the source not only of spiritual anomie but a generalized decline in public health, an injured natural environment, and dissolution of the family. Starting in the 1950s, Americans (and now impoverished people in the developing world) were subject to a relentless propagandistic assault by commercials and other underhanded tricks that fooled them into eating processed junk and fast food instead of healthy home-cooked meals.

Obviously, there’s some truth to this. I’m not someone who thinks the huge increase in obesity has had no ill effects, both possibly in terms of increased mortality in some groups and certainly in terms of increased chronic pain and reduced mobility.  There is at least some evidence that, not surprisingly, the easy availability of fast food may contribute to obesity. And it is a truth most would hold to be self evident that a home cooked meal can be a thing of beauty and love.

But the world did not begin in 1952. And here I’ll argue for a minute not just with Michael Pollan but with Mark Bittman and the other gazillion pundits and documentarians who seem to think that all our problems are the result of mechanized agriculture and food distribution.

The development of industrial food production is, quite simply, the greatest thing in the history of the world. People weren’t just freed from hunger and starvation by cheaper and more plentiful food. They were to a large degree freed from the infectious disease that was the chief source of mortality- simply because their immune systems became stronger as a result of improved nutrition. Richard Lewontin gets a lot of justifiable crap for peddling nonsense on the genetics of race and for his Marxist politics, but unlike Stephen Jay Gould, he really was a great scientist and this passage from The Triple Helix holds up well:

In the nineteenth century in Europe the chief “causes” of mortality were not cardiovascular disease or cancer, but infectious diseases. The mortality statistics show that the most important killers were diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and, in children, measles. At the time of the first systematic recording of these sources of mortality in the 1830’s, the death rates from all of these diseases were decreasing, and 90 percent of the decrease had already occurred by the time of the First World War. What was the reason for this dramatic change? It was not the discovery of the pathogens, because there was no observable effect on these death rates after the germ theory of disease was announced by Robert Koch in 1876. It was not the introduction of modern drug treatments, because from 90 to 95 percent of the reduction in death rates from these “causes” had already occurred when antibiotics were introduced after the Second World War. It was not improvements on sanitation, since all these principal killers were airborne, not waterborne, diseases. Nor could the change have been entirely caused by measures designed to prevent diseases from spreading. Measles was the principal fatal disease of children in the nineteenth century, but when I was a child no one died of measles, although every child contracted it.

The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived.

Yes, sanitation and antibiotics and vaccines and sterile medical care and better fuels that didn’t choke cities with smoke contributed a great deal, too. But let’s not sell improvements in agriculture or food distribution short. Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory has one passage that has always stuck out to me, where he celebrates that even though, thanks to the Russian Revolution, Nabokov had gone from a cossetted and immensely wealthy princeling of the Russian Empire to a relatively penniless exiled writer, the changes in food production meant that his son grew up better fed than him:

Throughout the years of our boy’s infancy, in Hitler’s Germany and Maginot’s France, we were more or less constantly hard up, but wonderful friends saw to his having the best things available… Then, too, the science of building up babies had made the same kind of phenomenal, streamlined progress that flying or tilling had—I, when nine months old, did not get a pound of strained spinach at one feeding or the juice of a dozen oranges per day.

Moreover, it seems absolutely bonkers to blame industrial food production for a worsening American diet, when it seems to me that the single greatest improvement in day-to-day life during my own lifetime (putting aside the Internet and things like that) is the easier availability of a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round and in pretty much any old grocery store than we could have dreamed of when I was a kid.

The standard riposte to this is that “oh sure, you can afford to eat healthy, but think of the poor! They can’t afford to buy fresh foods!” (Or as then-Senator Barack Obama said in 2007 while stumping in Iowa, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?”As I’ve said before, this really isn’t true for most poor Americans: food stamps really do provide enough money to buy healthy foods in most grocery stores (though maybe not Whole Paycheck!), given some selection and restraint. It also should be added that fresh fruits and vegetables do not have a monopoly on nutrients: frozen and canned vegetables, in contrast to what foodies like Pollan would imply, are generally just as nutritious as fresh, even if not as tasty- perhaps we should let poor families know that when we make shows about nutrition on TV?

For the developing world, Pollan’s deprecation of industrial food production seems much, much more bonkers. Pollan sets episodes of the show in India and somehow comes away with the idea that the biggest nutritional problem 1.25 billion people face is the introduction of KFC. Look, I’ve been to India, and you don’t have to go very far or look very hard to see that the problem most Indians face is not enough food, not too much junk food. Here’s Unicef on the issue:

In India, almost half (48 per cent) of children younger than five years of age are stunted, a manifestation of chronic undernutrition.  Stunting and other forms of under-nutrition are thought to be responsible for nearly half of all child deaths globally.

Some of this is probably due to the country’s horrible sanitation, that make it harder for kids to hold onto the nutrients that they do get. But whatever the solution to feeding poor countries, it’s going to involve a lot more evil industrial food companies and agricultural conglomerates than back-to-the-land traditionalism.
Pollan is also concerned with the decline in the home cooked meal and what it means for family life; he tells a story of American women torn between the new opportunities of the workplace and the demand to make a home-cooked meal, and choosing the workplace and prepared food. He says how “someone” needed to step up and add to cooking, presumably the women’s husbands, and how the failure to do so led to our current dependence on processed food.

Again, look: I like to cook, my dad did most of the cooking when I was growing up. Men should cook. But a large portion of women bringing up children in the country do not have a husband available to do any cooking. And there are costs and benefits to everything. Countries like Italy and Spain have not only held onto an admirable traditional food culture, they’ve combined a extremely low female labor participation rate with an extremely low fertility rate that together have meant serious problems for their economies. And when I hear my college classmates talk about their endless quests to make home-made polenta and self-grown garden vegetable-style school lunches for their kids, I’m not surprised the well-educated and well-acculturated often decide to stop after having just one.

Fertility Rateswomen

What’s the point of all this ranting?

Pollan seems to me a symptom of a larger intellectual issue: the confusion of our spiritual and emotional lives with our political lives, which interferes with our ability to analyze the world and its recent history. The communal home-cooked meal is, as pretty much everyone agrees, a center of emotional life, a gift of love and a source of memories and togetherness for most people. The backyard garden and the local farmer’s market can be illuminating and inspiring as well as tasty, making us slow down and appreciate food and where it comes from. But it seems key to me that intellectuals, at least, accept that our continued human existence means we must reconcile with the processes of industrial production and capitalist exchange that allow for that existence. Romanticizing the past, or pretending that our modern age was the result of corporate conspiracy rather than a largely successful accommodation to changing technology and growing population, is not only inaccurate but ultimately dangerous, in the kind of policy it produces.

P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit I have a family connection to the history of processed food and industrial food production: my great-great-grandfather opened a factory to produce canned ham. This was funny because he was an Orthodox Jew. Family legend tells that he went to the rabbi to receive permission, and was told “as long as it’s only for the goyim.” This is so much like the stories the alt-right likes to tell about Jews I’ll just leave it in.

Except I’ve been told the canned ham was really quite good.

4 thoughts on ““Cooked!”

  1. Lewontin isn’t too accurate in that quote. It’s basically an uninsightful rehash of McKeown, who wasn’t right. Repeating an essentially erroneous piece of work that would naturally appeal to a Commie. It is possible that some of the major causes of death (in England, in 1850) were made less serious by improved nutrition, more calories, but it’s far from obvious, and for many of them the cause is clearly improved public health measures.

    Smallpox: vaccination.

    typhoid and diarrheal diseases: improvement in water supplies, in the 1870s

    cholera: improved water supplies, Broad Street pump, etc.

    scarlet fever: the pathogen seems to have become milder. I had it when I was a kid, was no big deal. Back in 1850 it was far deadlier.

    TB: probably mostly less crowding, rather than nutrition

    Bronchitis mortality was going up during this period. Unclear why. Misclassification?

    You cannot believe any single thing that Lewontin says without extensive checking. He’s willing to lie about the time of day, if it advances his politics.


    1. Hmm; I’m not sure evolution of pathogens to become less virulent (as in TB and scarlet fever) is inconsistent with an immune system that is better at containing them, but thanks for the comment.
      What about 1900-1950 (pre-antibiotic) changes in mortality- you don’t think nutrition was important there?


      1. First scarlet got more virulent, then far less virulent. It may well be possible to figure out what pushed its evolution in those directions but at this point I don’t know.

        As for TB becoming less virulent – really? has it?

        One hint is places like India, with plenty of people still hungry, but low rates (compared to 1850) of all the important infectious diseases.

        Probably increases in food availability have been very important in avoiding starvation itself.

        Nutrition in 1900-1950 period, how important? “Life expectancy rose from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932,” Was that the result of ongoing progress, or was the Great Depression really good for your health?

        WWII rationing, in England, seems to have increased life expectancy. Of course it actually increased calories for the poorer classes.


  2. This is a wonderful post to push back against a lot of the uninformed dislike of industrial food production, development, etc. I have well-off friends (by which I mean anyone who isn’t poor in the US) who hold organic food in great regard, but also want to solve food insecurity in the developing world. It’s not quite as stark as ‘choose one or the other’, but it’s close. I worked at a Heifer International ranch for a week on a service trip in undergrad and I was always a bit split on it because I never did a ton of research on it.

    Is distributing animals to developing country farmers better than just pushing for industrial agriculture? Or is the former just a way to simultaneously feel like we’re solving hunger, inequality, and stopping the evil big farmer?

    Your post is very much in the spirit of Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which makes the good point that things have generally gotten better over time. Of course, he focused on violence, not food insecurity.


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