6 May 2013

The problem, of course, with romanticizing history is that history is not very romantic. If your solution to the ills of the contemporary food system is to return to a golden age of sustainable agriculture, then you don’t have much of a solution at all. At times, Pollan seems to be willfully ignorant of the historical context of what he is writing about.

In an excerpt of his new book Cooked published in the Financial Times Pollan describes a visit to one of the most famous and historical barbeque joints in America, the Skylight Inn. The Skylight practices whole-hog pit roast methods that are dying out because of new health codes. Of his trip to Skylight Pollan says, “whole-hog barbecue over a wood fire represents the purest, most unreconstructed expression of that form. By learning what I could about how that work is performed, and how it fits into a community and a culture, I was hoping to learn something about the deeper meaning of this curious, uniquely human activity called cooking.”

In the description that follows, the reader learns some about how that work is performed, but little about how it fits into the community and culture. This is disappointing; especially because of the reputation Pollan has for promoting healthy and sustainable eating. Pork has a interesting history in the South, and Pollan largely ignores it. Luckily, Christine Baumgarthuber recently wrote a piece on pork culture in the South for her blog at the New Inquiry. Digging deep into primary sources, Baumgarthuber tries to give an honest appraisal of Southern eating habits. She cites international travelers in pre-bellum South who complain of unvaried and unhealthy meals consisting mainly of meat. The emphasis on growing cash crops (something Pollan abhors) left limited space for vegetables in Southern fields, and corn and pork were simple fillers for Southerners to get their calories from. A pork and corn based diet resulted in malnutrition, and to this day the South lacks nutritional diversity with corn and pork being replaced by soda and fast food.

By romanticizing the barbeque pits as something primal and eternal, Pollan allows his reader to forget about the complicated history behind pork culture in the South. It would be easy to dismiss Pollan as a hypocritical foodie elitist who wants to have his Berkeley farmers market with organic kale and barbecued pork with questionable health effects and sustainability. That probably would not be too bad. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too, and there is no reason that the occasional barbeque can’t be part of a healthy and sustainable diet.

No, more far more insidious is Pollan’s attitude towards industrialization. The Southern setting of this excerpt is especially telling. The South has a tricky relationship with agriculture. Before the Civil War, the Southern economy was based on cash-crop agriculture fueled by slave labor. After the Civil War, the future of the Southern economy was very much in question. New South boosters argued for increased industrialization that would give the South the economic engine that would allow it to expand and modernize. This New South boosterism was met with resistance from Southerners who bemoaned the loss of the Civil War as a terrible Lost Cause, and who saw industrialization as an unwanted imposition of Northern culture on the South. A group of writers and poets centered around Vanderbilt University called the Southern Agrarians wrote I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition in 1930. The essays in this book gave voice to nostalgia for a pre-industrial South.

Due in no small part to Pollan’s writing, anti-industrialization is a common part of the liberal mindset. One of Pollan’s greatest inspirations, Wendell Berry, was inspired by the Southern Agrarians. Placing Pollan’s trip to the Skylight Inn within historical context problematizes it a great deal. If Pollan truly cared about exploring the complex history of food, he might consider some of these issues.



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