Back at the beginning of August, I wrote a somewhat brief and (apparently) very angry post in response to a Wall Street Journal interview with best-selling author and foodie rabble-rouser Michael Pollan. My problem wasn't with the WSJ, but with Pollan himself. Mostly because he kept saying things like this:
Michael Pollan at Yale. He got extra credit for the T-shirt
"A consumer who is willing to pay more for better food. That's a matter of consciousness and a palate that has been educated by the chefs locally. Paying $3.90 for a Frog Hollow Peach, there are a lot of people here willing to do it. I don't know if you can find a more expensive peach in America. My little rule, "Pay more, eat less," is followed by a lot of people in the Bay area."
"If you're in the supermarket buying organic versus not buying organic, you are going to spend more. But buying food at the farmer's market, if you compare it to the prices at Safeway for stuff that's in season, it actually beats the prices in my experience. People shouldn't assume that they are going to go broke at the farmer's market."
I responded, in my traditionally calm and restrained manner, with this...
"[Those quotes] came from a Wall Street Journal interview published today in which [Pollan] held forth on things like the aforementioned peach, shopping at farmers markets, getting caught buying sugary cereals for his kids and why paying $8 for a dozen eggs is a good idea.
For a long time, I have had a love/hate relationship with Pollan. On the one hand, because I have been really, seriously, shoplifting-toothpaste-poor before (and, being an alternative newspaper journalist, remain just slightly less destitute today), I want to punch Pollan right in the face every time he says something like that. When you've been too broke to buy soup, some iconoclastic dickhead trying to tell you that paying $4 for a peach is a good idea because it is a really good peach can be the kind of thing that makes you want to buy a rifle and a map to the homes of famous food writers."
That's me. Always elevating the debate, trying to bring a dispassionate and intellectual tone to these little tiffs...
The original WSJ interview and the varied responses in the press ought to have been the end of it. But today, the argument over local, sustainable, expensive and fine versus cheap, shitty, manipulated and processed continued with an article written by history professor, author, food writer and professional troublemaker James McWilliams, who took on the sudden backlash against foodie elitism in an article posted on the website of the Atlantic magazine (formerly known as Atlantic Monthly).
Two reasons I like this piece and think everyone should read it. First, McWilliams (who I met last year during the Texas Book Festival where we shared a panel discussion about food politics, ethics and vegetarianism) is a good guy and a smart writer who doesn't just enjoy playing devil's advocate for the pure, sick thrill of it, but has made something of a career out of it--writing an excellent book called Just Food in which he argues (among other things) against locavores and in favor of big agribusiness as a way to save our planet and feed all the people on it. In this case, he (of course) takes up the cause of recently maligned foodie activists like Pollan and Alice Waters (who Anthony Bourdain lit into recently, in print and in his new book) and spells out exactly why they're right and jerks like me are wrong. He has facts, figures and research to back him up. I have threats and dirty words. Guess who comes off sounding better?
Second, Big Jimmy (I don't know if anyone actually calls McWilliams that, but I'm going to from now on) actually quoted me in the piece (the part about the rifles and food writers, of course) as one of those taking elitist foodies to task for their insensitivity and head-up-their-assedness. I'm proud of that partly because I'm proud of the original piece and glad that McWilliams found something of value in it--even if that value was primarily in arguing against me. But mostly I'm proud because it gave me the opportunity to call someone out in the national press who, in my opinion, has deserved it for a long time. So, thanks Big Jimmy!
In any event, now that the interview has been given (by Pollan) and commented on (by me), now that the comments have been commented on (by McWilliams) and the comment comments commented on (by me, again), I figure this thing has run its full and totally meta course. But in case any of you out there still feel like there might be something else worth saying, you can read the original WSJ interview here, my reasoned response over here, and McWilliams's analysis right here, then have your say, too.
Comment button is below. You know what to do.