Initially, I was sucked in by the photo of what Julia Child’s famous cooking show, “The French Chef,” was like behind the scenes. I love how there are five professional-looking adults sitting on the floor around her, hiding behind the counter. I always thought Julia looked a little distracted from time to time, like something was going on off-camera, but she wasn’t supposed to say what. Now I know!
“I really should be writing something new for ‘Confessions’,” I thought. But the aformentioned photograph, plus my mounting excitement over the upcoming “Julie & Julia” movie, seduced me into “taking a quick peek” at Michael Pollan’s article about the rise of the cooking show.
It turns out that in Mr. Pollan’s hands, a story about Julia Child and the rising popularity of cooking shows becomes a cautionary tale about an industrialized culture of passive consumers who spend more time watching celebrity chefs on TV than actually cooking for themselves. As he observes,
“It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. 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.”
John Taylor Gatto predicted this in his 1991 essay, “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher.” I’m thinking of the fourth lesson this New York State Teacher of the Year taught his students: dependency. By being the voice of authority that decided where children must direct their attention and what tasks they should be performing at all times, he robbed them of a chance to learn self-directed thought and action. He taught them “that [good people] must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meaning of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.” He goes on to explain, “The food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them…We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know any other way.”
Michael Pollan has the research and the proof that corporations have a vested interest in cultivating the helplessness of American consumers:
“Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating…It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking.”
Around this era was when compulsory schooling really started to mold the next generation of Americans into consumers rather than citizens. Eventually, schools stopped requiring students to take Home Economics. Have you noticed that schools no longer teach any skills to prepare children to live independently? I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about college freshman hauling weeks’ worth of dirty clothing on visits home because they have no clue how to do their own laundry. Or the young adult in making his first home-cooked meal for his sweetheart (normally they’d just get take-out but he promised her something special for Valentine’s Day), and having his mother on the phone to walk him through the steps of preparing food. Not only do these kids not learn basic life skills in school, but homework and extracurricular activities (that they need so desperately to succeed in life—or at least to get in to a good college) keep them too busy to learn these things from their parents. And Schools are clamoring for still more hours of our children’s lives!
And since I’ve already quoted abundantly from the article, here’s one more passage for the road:
“The Food Network (blogger’s note: AND SCHOOL!) has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch. The formula is as circular and self-reinforcing as a TV dinner: a simulacrum of home cooking that is sold on TV and designed to be eaten in front of the TV. True, in the case of the Swanson rendition, at least you get something that will fill you up; by comparison, the Food Network leaves you hungry, a condition its advertisers must love. But in neither case is there much risk that you will get off the couch and actually cook a meal. Both kinds of TV dinner plant us exactly where television always wants us: in front of the set, watching.”