Virtue is its Own Reward: Why Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” is a Religious Text

Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

New York: Penguin, 2013

US: $27.95, CA: $29.50

I have to confess that I committed an error of critical thinking in conceiving this review: I came up with my thesis before I read the book.

In my defense, I’ve read a fair chunk of the rest of Pollan’s ouvre, and I had read some other reviews of Cooked, so I had a fairly good idea of what to expect from it. But the thesis crystallized for me when my fiancée, Sarah, who had claimed dibs on reading it, mentioned Pollan’s discussion of Sylvester Graham:

[T]he American minister and nutritional reformer Sylvester Graham…blamed white flour for many [of] the ills of modern life [and] fervently extolled the virtues of coarse dark breads… To remove the precious health-giving fraction of bran from wheat was to “put asunder what God had joined together”—a fall from dietary grace for which modern man was paying with his troubled, sluggish digestion. (Cooked, 260)

Absent the overt references to God in that paragraph, Pollan may as well be describing his own project, raising the question: even if it’s not named as such, how far removed, really, are religious concerns from his work? Graham was part of a larger food and hygiene movement in the 19th century that explicitly linked a proper, wholesome diet with morally upright living and proper religious devotion. How one ate was a major part, both physically and spiritually, of disciplining oneself in order to cultivate correct habits and a correct worldview, which in turn involved recognizing that nature—and its foods in particular—had an intelligible, intrinsic, divinely appointed order.[1]

Despite being a liberal American Jew, Pollan’s underlying sensibilities are in many ways deeply Puritan. He is also deeply steeped in a particular sort of virtue ethic. His entire body of work—especially Cooked, in which Pollan apprentices himself to a series of culinary masters—can be read as a process of shaping an unreflective reader, mired in a miasma of modernity, into a deliberating thinker and moral actor. Pollan wants to cultivate his reader into a certain sort of person.

Even more deeply Puritan is an underlying anxiety in his work: the fear that the pleasure of a recreational pursuit itself is not enough to justify it. Fun for fun’s sake is suspect: there has to be a “serious” purpose to it for it to be truly worthwhile.

It’s true that Pollan explicitly declares himself roundly in favor of pleasure, decrying “nutritionism” and food science as more concerned with health than pleasure. But two factors complicate his superficially “pleasure-positive” stance. First, he seems less than open to what Alasdair MacIntyre refers to as the “polymorphous character” of pleasure. (After Virtue, 63) Consider, for example, his “Microwave Night” experiment, wherein each member of his family chooses a microwavable entrée in the frozen food case:

The dishes all tasted better on the first bite—when you might be tempted to think, Hey, not half bad!—than on the second or third, when those words would be unlikely to cross your mind. (198)

Foods that Pollan doesn’t find pleasurable are thus not truly or intrinsically pleasurable to anyone—much, indeed, as food that has been processed in ways of which Pollan disapproves is no longer “food” but rather an “edible foodlike substance.” (10) Experiencing something as pleasurable is not enough—a truly pleasurable food takes certain forms, is made in certain ways, and is consumed in certain ways.

Now, I have to admit that, were I to try “microwave night,” I would probably come to the same conclusions as Pollan does. I am, after all, a self-confessed food snob—but, unlike him, I know better than to universalize my tastes. Who’s to say that the immediate pleasures of microwaved food are less pleasurable, to someone who isn’t a food hobbyist, than foodie-approved acquired tastes like strong cheeses, preserved lemons, and hoppy craft beer?

The second factor that complicates Pollan’s stated pro-pleasure stance is that there always seems to be a correlation between that which is truly pleasurable and that which is practically or morally good. Consider the meal he places in direct contrast with Microwave Night:

I had braised [duck] with red wine and sweet spices in my new terra-cotta pot…By the time the sweet smells of allspice, juniper, and clove began to fill the house, Isaac and Judith had gravitated to the kitchen; I never had to call them to dinner. (200)

This is food porn, pure and simple—and I mean that as a compliment. For me, it’s nearly as pleasurable to read as the dish must have been to eat. But Pollan can’t leave it at that. There has to be a moral to the story:

For the first time all day, it felt like we were all on the same page, and though it would be overstating things to credit that feeling entirely to the delicious braise, it would also be wrong to think that eating from the same pot, this weeknight communion of the casserole, had nothing to do with it, either. (200-201)

Conversely, something which isn’t a true pleasure, on Pollan’s view, must also be practically or morally destructive in some way. So, for example, not only is microwaved food un-pleasurable—apparently, it’s destructive, as well, and not just nutritionally. The mechanism and form of the dinners themselves are divisive:

Very little about this meal was shared; the single serving portions served to disconnect us from one another, nearly as much as from the origins of this food, which, beyond the familiar logos, we could only guess at. Microwave Night was a notably individualistic experience, marked by centrifugal energies, a certain opaqueness, and, after it was all over, a remarkable quantity of trash. (200)[2]

The food activists of the 19th century also distinguished true and false pleasures. One of the main aims of proper diet was to encourage proper sexual behavior. As John Harvey Kellogg wrote in Plain Facts for Old and Young:

The science of physiology teaches that our very thoughts are born of what we eat. A man that lives on pork, fine-flour bread, rich pies and cakes, and condiments, drinks tea and coffee, and uses tobacco, might as well try to fly as to be chaste in thought. He will accomplish wonders if he remains physically chaste; but to be mentally virtuous would be impossible for him without a miracle of grace. (391, 1882 edition)

This quotation is part of a section on how to discourage masturbation. Here, too, an immediately apparent pleasure is contrasted with a greater, long-term, truer pleasure—that of right conduct and virtuous living. While the true pleasure is associated with social order and good health, the immediate, false pleasure is associated with catastrophic effects on physical health—Kellogg links masturbation to, among other things, impotence (363), consumption (365), and insanity (370).

Clearly, Pollan is more grounded in actual evidence than Kellogg was (though Kellogg’s ideas about masturbation were fairly widely accepted when he was writing.) But he betrays the same underlying belief that truly pleasurable things must also be healthy, and vice versa. This bespeaks certain assumptions about virtue, right conduct, and natural order—assumptions that are deeply rooted in religiosity, even if a particular religious tradition is not invoked.

Underlying all this is the assumption that a good person will come to realize that only those things that are salutary and wholesome are truly pleasurable. What’s more, as Emily Rapp notes on Role/Reboot, we as a society often associate being a truly good person with being healthy. But this doesn’t reflect how the world actually works. Many of us experience as genuinely pleasurable things that we know damn well aren’t good for us or for society, and we experience as genuinely unpleasant things that we know equally well are very good for us and for society. Furthermore, a great deal of the things we find pleasant or unpleasant turn out, practically speaking, to be neutral.

To be fair, in my critique, I appear to have fallen into something of the same trap that Pollan has. After perhaps my 20th snide comment about something in Cooked that annoyed me, Sarah asked if I would please shut up and allow her to enjoy her food porn.

This is an entirely reasonable request. I only wish Pollan would heed it.


[1] There are other, more concrete problems with Pollan’s pre-industrial pastoralist fantasy. Adam Merberg, at his (now defunct) blog Say What, Michael Pollan? has built up an impressive archive analyzing Pollan’s questionable scientific and nutritional claims (I also recommend his review of Cooked, here), and Emily Matchar, writing at Salon.com, offers a penetrating critique of the troubling gender implications of his fetishization of more labor intensive food-preparation methods. (There are similarly problematic implications in his work regarding race, class, and especially disability.)

[2] To which point, Bee Wilson, in her excellent book Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat (New York: Basic Books, 2012), supplies the following eloquent rebuttal:

The process of cooking has a power to draw people together even when it does not follow the conventional old patterns. Those who believe that a microwave cannot be a focus for a home like the old hearth have never seen a group of children, huddled together in silent wonder, waiting for a bag of microwave popcorn to finish popping, like hunter-gatherers around the flame. (Consider the Fork, 108)

The featured image, Abraham With the Three Angels, is attributed to Alonso del Arco (Spanish, 1635-1704). It was obtained from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

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