Engaging with the physical world

My colleague Michael Pollan begins a reflection on not cooking from the appearance this week of a new movie about Julia Child and his recollection that her book and TV show gave his mother the courage to try real cooking. Pollan’s point, not surprisingly, is that we should cook more. Of that, more anon; Julia’s new transit across the media firmament reminds me of a humbling episode from my freshman year in college.

A roommate at the time, Ben Fairbank, happily announced one day that the family was very excited about the imminent publication of his aunt’s cookbook. Full of snotty youthful arrogance, I assumed on the spot that this had to do with some sort of church group or amateur collection of favorite recipes, condescendingly wished it well, and thought no more about it. A month or so later, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child and two coauthors, appeared and changed the world, a phrase I try to use stingily. [It certainly changed mine, because within a decade, I was able to easily eat real food in Boston (when I went there, breading on a piece of schrod counted as a recipe and Indian Pudding was a treat), and not just French food; since then I have worn out a whole physical copy and my new copies of volumes I and II are looking fairly beat-up and dribbled on.] I read a newspaper article about Child that included her maiden name: Fairbank without the usual s. “Ben,” I asked showing him the article, “is this your aunt?” Of course it was, his father’s sister. My personal contribution to the legends of Julia is that some months afterward, I had dinner at Ben’s parents’ house, and I remember it as featuring (i) my first encounter with Boeuf Bourguignon, (ii) an aesthetic experience that made my head spin – I’d literally never tasted anything as interesting or delicious in my life – and (iii) the revelation that the family generally ranked Ben Sr. as somewhat the better chef between the siblings.

Now, about this not-cooking issue of Pollan’s. First, relevant disclosure: I sort people from personal experience (no real research to demonstrate a trimodal distribution) into three competence groups in this area. Group I can look in the refrigerator and find an onion, leftover roast lamb from the weekend, two somewhat limp carrots, some sour cream, and the stale heel of a rye bread, and produce an ambrosial dish that was never served before and will never exist again. This group is small. I hope they drop a largish cast-iron skillet on their collective toe, but I also like it when one of them has me to dinner and I easily suppress my jealousy at such times. Group II can follow a recipe, even a complicated one, and have it come out well. This group is quite large, larger than it realized before the era of Julia. Group III is simply hopeless, and either chooses recipes from weird places that one can tell by reading them will taste boring or actually bad, or cannot execute cooking skills even from a good cookbook to get an edible result. I don’t know if they can’t taste properly or what; perhaps there’s a generalized disability of dyscuisinia. I am in Group II: I like to cook (and eat), but my cooking indicates no culinary creativity or special ability, and you can easily get a more delicious and original food experience at any of dozens of restaurants within five miles of my house than I can put before you. Most of my friends are in the same category, and yet I would rather dine at their tables than have them take me out to one of those restaurants.

Pollan’s discussion of the decline of actual cooking as a way Americans spend time, and the parallel rise of eating out and warming up prepared dishes (or fake cooking like pouring canned mushroom soup over something), is a special case of a much larger phenomenon, which is what I started out intending this post to be about. Once upon a time:

– American teenagers and young men made hotrods from old cars, in their driveways; now they watch American Chopper on TV, where really good mechanics build motorcycles in a workshop that not only has a nice lathe but an English wheel and for all I know a little foundry out back for castings. (The hotrods’ criterion of merit was fairly close to the functional spirit of an automobile, namely shorter times over a quarter mile from a standing start; what makes a “better chopper” as far as I can tell has nothing whatever to do with any transportation or movement competence of a motorcycle, but that’s probably a different issue.) I used to maintain my own cars, and I wasn’t the only one among my friends; now I have it done (and the cars need much less attention than my first ones did). I concede that the choppers this shop makes are better choppers than 999 out of a thousand amateur hotrods were as hotrods. And if tuning a carbureted engine with a coil and points is trouble, my recent cars are much more trouble-free than my 1968 Volvo.

– Americans used to fix, renovate, and often build their residences. Almost no-one I know now has any idea how to do anything as simple as install a water heater, much less lay out a rafter cheek cut, nor much interest in doing such a thing. (People I know are obviously a set determined by strong selection bias, because Home Depot is selling a lot of house parts to someone…). I concede that a full-time plumber is a better plumber than I am (actually plumbing has a sort of upper limit on result excellence, and mine is pro-grade, but they are faster).

– Every middle class home once had a piano in the living room and at least someone who could play it, and did. Teens still get together in garages with guitars and drums, I guess, but nearly all art engagement time in all media is now passive consumption of excellent work done by others. The movies teach us that if a band can’t get a record contract or win a competition, there’s not much reason for it to exist. Between listening to me, or anyone I know, play music and listening to Alfred Brendel there is no contest.

– My friends and I used to go out by ourselves in the afternoons and play one or another version of baseball, depending on whether we could get a piece of local park (softball, with adaptations to group size like imaginary men on base) or a street (stickball with a broom handle and a Spalding). I don’t know of any kids who do that, though some get organized into adult-run sports leagues and told what to do by professional or semi-pro coaches. Many of my friends and students get out hiking and camping, or play in a soccer league or hit a tennis ball, but a lot of people are watching a very few others doing these things on TV. Some of them go to a gym and get on a machine that does exercise to them; often they are taken to the gym by a car rather than walking on their feet. Even Julio Lugo has a better throw to first than any of us could dream of, and Steve Irwin was a better adventurer than anyone I know personally.

The pattern I’m trying to portray is a wholesale, large-scale, pervasive exchange of physical, personal engagement with the real world, in any form but especially in ways that change it from the way it was before you touched it, for watching someone who does that much better than you can, or having someone like a carpenter or gardener effect the change for you. I think we are making a bad bargain, partly under the malign influence of industries that can make more money if we just buy more stuff they sell (one of Pollan’s main hypotheses), partly because a lot of things with great value do not leave accounting tracks in the data from which we calculate consequential summary evaluations of welfare like GDP statistics, and partly because we are not thinking clearly about the kind of entity or phenomenon of which excellence is properly predicated. What I mean by this (for example) is that we think good attaches to food in a way that can be observed by tasting something on a plate.

Pollan’s point, that I generalize to motorcycles and music, is that food should be considered as an experience much larger than nerve stimulation in your mouth and nose. The right way to think about the experience of food begins with a frying pan and an onion (maybe with a trowel and a piece of your back yard) and includes social, intellectual, sensory and tactile experiences along a sequence ending with reflection on what you just finished eating, preferably with the people who shared it. Nearly all of those experiences, especially including the psychological realization that you can use your mind and your hands to make the world different in a way you can feel, smell, and touch, are missing from “food placed before you in a restaurant or thawed out from a freezer”. I believe they are important and considerable; indeed, though I am in no way a Luddite nut wanting everyone to have a bare-subsistence life in a shack with a garden, and a world without virtuosi performers for us to watch and listen to would be terrible, I think we commonly give those associated experiences and activities of doing stuff ourselves the wrong sign. Time spent picking out ingredients in the produce aisle, dicing an onion, watching chicken brown on its way to being Coq au Vin, and even washing the pan, are not just costs whose reduction makes dinner a more efficient accomplishment. Time spent playing scales is not just a cost of hearing Chopin, to be efficiently avoided by buying a CD. They are often (usually?) benefits. E.M. Forster understood this almost a century ago, and we need to do some serious thinking about the dystopia he foresaw and the passive lives we unreflectingly seek (and then wonder why there’s so much anomie and deracination about when we find it).


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.