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Why Does Michael Pollan Think Cooking Is an Escape From Corporations?

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In the intro to his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes cooking as an act of rebellion:

Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy -- even these modest acts will constitute a kind of a vote.

A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization -- against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.

I am exactly the target audience for this kind of argument. The only thing I like more than cooking is disliking corporations. I cook from scratch at least five nights a week, and yes, peeling a carrot or chopping a turnip does feel like I'm creating rather than consuming. Pollan's right, that's a rare thing in this world, especially when most of us have jobs ("solutions architect," "strategic consultant") that are boring to describe and impossible to show off.

But just because something feels true doesn't mean it is. As much as I hate to spray Roundup on Pollan's parade, cooking is not withdrawing from corporations. It is simply trading one set of them for another.

In the United States, it's nearly impossible to buy food that wasn't grown from corporate seeds, sprayed with corporate pesticides, plucked from a corporate megafarm. According to a 2007 GAO report, 50 percent of produce sales come from just two percent of U.S. farms. More than 50 percent of the beef, pork and turkey markets are concentrated in just four companies. In pesticides, six companies control 80 percent of the market.

The USDA tracks similar consolidations in seeds, chemicals, farm machinery, crop patents, you name it. If you eat corn or soybeans (that means tofu, foodies), there's a 80 and 93 percent chance, respectively, that the seeds came from Monsanto.

And that's not even the end of it. Food is processed by corporations (Kraft, Nestle), delivered by corporations (C.H. Robinson, Maersk) and retailed by corporations (what, you thought Whole Foods was a non-profit?). That carrot is just as much of an industrial product as the knife I'm peeling it with.

All of which makes food basically the same as the rest of my life. Corporations make my cellphone, my bike, my sneakers, my shampoo. I can't avoid 'specialization' when I get dressed in the morning, commute to work, plan a vacation or -- sorry -- cook dinner, even if it's from scratch.

But none of this means Pollan's advice to cook more is wrong. Cooking is super fun! Knowing just two or three knockout recipes is one of the most cost-effective ways to impress friends and dates, and leftovers are a powerful amulet against greasy workday lunches.

So if you want to save money, eat healthier and maybe lose a few pounds, cook from scratch. And if you want to stick it to corporations, don't vote with your fork, vote with your vote.

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