Michael Pollan and the Luxury of Time

The culinary crusader and journalist wants Americans to devote more time to cooking. Is he fighting a losing battle?

Michael Pollan in the kitchen (Netflix)

If there’s one overarching lament on Cooked, the four-part Netflix series hosted by the journalist and culinary redeemer Michael Pollan, it’s that Americans are transfixed with the culture of food, but not with the actual cooking of food. Americans, as it turns out, are cooking less and even the food they do consume at home is increasingly being prepared somewhere else.

While Cooked, which debuted to acclaim this spring, is based on Pollan’s 2013 book of the same name, the sifting of Americans from their kitchens has been his cri de coeur for much longer, particularly as food-themed television became mainstream.

“It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television—or educational television, as it used to be called,” Pollan wrote back in 2009. “On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else.”

He’s not imagining things. Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department released data showing that, for the first ever on record, consumers spent more money at restaurants and bars than at grocery stores. And, of all developed countries, Americans cook the least and eat the fastest. All of these are issues that boil down in large part to the availability of time, and the concept of convenience.

“Time is the big impediment to most people,” Pollan told me last month in New York. “There are several impediments. One is the loss of skills and confidence. People have less time and even people who have the same amount of time feel like they have less time. We work long hours, some of us work two jobs, and we have longer commute times.”

In renewing his plea for a return to the kitchen, Pollan works against even less favorable conditions than he did just a few years ago. According to Pew, nearly half of American households have two full-time working parents now, up 15 points from 1970. The number of single-parent households—also a demographic not known for being particularly rich in leisure time—is at its highest point as well, at nearly a third of American households.

It’s not just about having time to cook—there’s also the time required to plan out meals, shop for ingredients, and wash dishes. As my colleague Derek Thompson noted in 2014, even if the phenomenon of many Americans working more than ever is a myth, the sense that we have less time is very real.

“If you look at it … we have found time for some new activities,” Pollan argues. “Being online outside of work about two hours in the last 15 years, we’ve found that time somewhere. We’ve taken it from other things, we took it from television. We probably took some of it from cooking, maybe we’re sleeping a little less.”

What separates Americans from their culinarily prolific European counterparts, in Pollan’s view, is a combination of cultural and political considerations.

“Europeans fought for shorter workdays, more vacation time, family leave, and all these kinds of things,” he said. “Those haven’t been priorities in America, it’s been about money. You see in the countries that fought for time, they cook more often, they have less obesity. There are real benefits to having time. There’s often a trade-off between time and money.”

Of course, the lavender is always purpler in Provence. And while Pollan isn’t advocating a wholesale adoption of the European work model, our conversation came as Europe projects a feeble economic outlook and eurozone countries battle double-digit unemployment.

Even France, the origin point of culinary elitism, is reconsidering its famously misunderstood 35-hour workweek. Spain is exploring the end of its two-hour daily siesta regimen. To some, these corrections might represent Old World manifestations of a nanny state; governments essentially telling their citizens to be more industrious (or perhaps even more American).

Given that Pollan and I were having a luxurious breakfast in Manhattan, the financial capital of the United States and the center of a city that had thrown an interborough temper-tantrum when its previous mayor had sought to ban the availability of sugary drinks, I wondered if the accusatory specter of paternalism had influenced the way he approached his efforts to get Americans to cook more and eat better.

“Look, food culture is emotionally very fraught,” he said. “People have very strong feelings and they don’t want to be told by anybody how to eat. You have to be very careful how you have this conversation.”

Pollan mentioned the case of the British parents who slipped their children fatty snacks through the gates of their schools to protest Jamie Oliver’s efforts to change school foods.

“People objected that he was implicitly criticizing parents for what they were sending to school and they went to the school gate and threw crisps over the fence,” he explained. “Although it’s worth pointing out that we tolerate social engineering from corporations about our eating in a way we won’t tolerate it from our elected representatives. So you take something like Bloomberg’s efforts  ... there was outrage. Essentially, he was asking people to pause and reflect before you go from 16 to 32 ounces of soda.”

In acknowledging Bloomberg’s tactical missteps in trying to wrest Big Gulps from New Yorkers, Pollan also may have inadvertently signaled one potential criticism of his nudge to get Americans back into their kitchens to cook, a pastime he characterizes as a “political act.”

“What I’m hoping to do with this project is to get people to cook a little bit more than they do,” he said. “It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. If people add one meal a week to the food they cook at home, there are strategies that can help you navigate that. But you’re only going to do that if you find it pleasurable, so what I’m proposing is that this process we’re being told is pure drudgery is actually interesting and gratifying and satisfying. I’m just trying to propose an alternative narrative to the one that says, ‘This isn’t fun, you don’t have time, you don’t know what you’re doing’ and that’s all I can hope to do.