Michael Pollan's latest piece in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine has once again proven to do what Pollan's work does best: incite furious discussion among food lovers, food writers and food professionals. Best known for his books The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, the journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley has also become famous for his pithy but deep mantra, discussed and dissected in the latter book: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Taking this dogma to the next logical level, his recent piece in the Times Magazine examines the ways in which modern society has removed itself from the actual cooking process and become increasingly reliant upon pre-fabricated and commercially designed packaged and processed foods. He waxes poetic about days spent underfoot in the kitchen, watching his mother recreate Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon while simultaneously gleaning much of his own cooking knowledge from the TV shows and cookbooks of the era, in stark contrast to the zero-attention-span, non-educational TV shows and instant-gratification cookbooks of today. Our society has become obsessed with food -- as entertainment. We seem to have lost a signficant connection with food as fuel for our bodies and meals as nourishment for our souls. And, as the title of the article states, "No one cooks...anymore."
At least one decisive statement strikes home for many a Houstonian: "The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower the rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female particpation in the labor force or income." As the city with one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the nation, as the city whose residents eat out more than any others', and as the city who has very publicly battled obesity for many years, could Houston epitomize Pollan's indictment of people who have lost touch with food?
On the surface, it would appear so. Setting aside the hard facts like "restaurants per capita" and looking instead at peoples' day-to-day activities, Houston would seem to be a perfect representation of Pollan's bête noire.
We employ a growing army of personal chefs to do our daily cooking for us, ensuring that the food will be cooked when we get home and all that's required of us is reheating. We rely heavily upon not only the freezers of our local grocery stores, but also the "prepared foods" sections where we can pick up ready-made meals on our way home. We eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Nearly 500 people have joined the Houston Chowhounds, a club whose main purpose is eating out and conducting gladiatorial-style throwdowns (one of Pollan's chief annoyances) among area chefs for the amusement of its members. Our two main newspapers feature reviews of food entertainment shows in their dining sections/food blogs. Local charity Recipe For Success is focused primarily on attempting to teach a "lost" generation how to cook and shop for groceries. And one of the latest things to set the entire city afire with discussion was Guy Fieri's rather obnoxious Food Network TV show -- Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives -- bumbling its way through the city.
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But does any of this mean that Houstonians aren't still cooking? Weekends at packed farmers' markets, long lines at the grocery stores and sold-out cooking classes across the city would suggest otherwise. Although, as Pollan points out, our definition of "cooking" has changed as drastically over the years as our cooking shows have. Is cooking simply assembling ingredients? Does creating a pizza from pre-made pizza dough and jarred tomato sauce, pre-shredded cheese and pre-sliced mushrooms count as cooking? Or must all those things be made from scratch to be considered "real" cooking?
Houston's incredibly high rate of obesity coupled with its predilection for restaurant meals and ready-made food makes it an easy target for such attacks. However, as Robb Walsh pointed out as we were discussing the article this afternoon, it's too fucking hot in Houston to cook during the very long, very hot summers. The same reason that -- according to Robb -- everyone in Thailand eats street food and only has a hot plate at home applies here: No one wants to haul groceries to their car in the blazing sun, haul them (again) inside the house, unpack them all and then heat up the entire house by turning on the oven or even just one burner. And by that same token, no one wants to exercise or even take a walk in the summer, either. All of which combines to contribute to the idea that Houston epitomizes the horrid, non-cooking, soulless society Pollan eviscerates in his article.
So could it be, then, that Houston really is still a cooking city? Do we still care deeply about the food we put into our mouths -- but only in the winter months? Or is the sad fact that we've slid so far downhill that our city's greatest culinary accomplishment in recent memory is a smarmy TV show host horking down greasy pub food and tacos in front of bright lights and boom mikes?