Not too long ago I blogged about Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you’ve read my review you know that in general I thought it was a very well written and argued book. Pollan has a new book out, called In Defense of Food, which was recently reviewed on Slate. I am a regular Slate reader, and since In Defense of Food is a book I am considering reading, I thought the review might be a good read.
Slate is a weird website. Some of the articles very well written pieces on politics and culture, mixing humor and insight in a way that makes me check the site daily. But, Slate also has a second type of article that appears all too often. The outline of the classic Slate complaint is this: Take something that everyone likes or is in general good, and with a whiny, self-important, high-schoolish rant explain why it is either bad, wrong, or both – written, of course, with a “I would have done it sooo much better” flavor usually reserved for indie music critics in novelty retro t-shirts (One of my favorites is a complaint of how a fictional character is a “fraud.”) One way this is done is by misrepresenting the original source. Which leads me to Laura Shapiro’s recent piece on In Defense of Food. Now, I haven’t read Pollan’s new book, but I cannot trust this review because of a glaring misrepresentation.
Pollan’s way of doing this is to stage a kind of faith-based dinner party he calls “The Perfect Meal”—perfect because everything on the table will be made from ingredients grown, shot, or gathered near his home in the San Francisco Bay area, from the wild-boar pâté to the cherry galette. By the time he heads out to collect local yeast spores for the bread dough, you feel as though you’re not even reading a book anymore but instead gazing stupefied at some sort of life-sized diorama in the Museum of Natural History (“Northern California, ca. A.D. 2000—Worshipping Plants and Animals”).
This has nothing to do with the content of the chapter, or what Pollan ends up calling “The Perfect Meal.” In addition, it pitches Pollan, and Dilemma, as an elitist and snobby book that provides no “real world” ideas or solutions. As I quoted in my review
Perhaps the perfect meal is one that’s been fully paid for, that leaves no debt outstanding. This is almost impossible ever to do, which is why I said there was nothing very realistic or applicable about this meal [emphasis added]. But as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true costs of the things we take for granted. The reason I didn’t open a can of stock was because stock doesn’t come from a can; it comes from the bones of animals. As the yeast that leavens our bread comes not from a packet but from the air we breathe. The meal was more ritual than realistic because it dwelled on such things, reminding us how very much nature offers to the omnivore, the forests as much as the fields, the oceans as the meadows. If I had to give this dinner a name, it would have to be the Omnivore’s Thanksgiving. (pp. 409-410)
Pollan fully admits that the meal foraged and hunted is impractical, he talks about that repeatedly in Dilemma. You might confuse the point if you only skimmed the book and chapter titles, perhaps. Unfortunately I see this as falling into the Slate whiny pattern I mentioned earlier; perhaps confusing the idea of critique with criticism Shapiro wants to find something to complain about in a well reviewed and popular book. That is one of the thing Slate does best, of course, point out why things we like are actually bad. I haven’t read Pollan’s new book, but I immediately can’t trust the rest of Shapiro’s review. The misrepresentation goes to the heart of what I consider to be one of the better points of Dilemma, and I can only guess that the trend of exaggeration and misrepresentation is not limited to the example I am using.
To be fair, not all of the review is this off, and I have liked many of Shapiro’s pieces in the past. But I am entirely disappointed with the tone of this one. Why misrepresent?