March 24 is Ada Lovelace Day, one of my favorite holidays. It’s a day celebrating the achievements of women in science and technology, and people are asked to blog about their tech heroines. There are any number of people I could talk about, but I have decided to do something a little different. I’m not going to talk about the Open Source community, or the Dreamwidth developer community, or even the Organization for Transformative Works, close as they all are to my heart (I’m on the Board of Directors of OTW, full disclosure, and I love the org to death). I’m going to talk about Carol Blymire of the blog Alinea at Home.
I don’t know Carol. I’m not even sure I’ve ever commented on her blog. But I admire her a lot.
She is cooking her way through a pretty complex cookbook. She is using tools that are out-of-the-ordinary (dude, I don’t have a dehydrator in my kitchen. I definitely didn’t know that there was a special kind of ziplock bag for sous-vide cooking) and tools that are in every kitchen (a wee little blender!). She is learning things along the way. She is funny and profane and honest and doesn’t give a damn about the nonsense best summed up by the 2007 New York Times article “Kitchen Chemistry is Chic, but Is It a Woman’s Place?” That’s the article which contains the assertion you could “[r]ound up all the women entranced by high-tech cuisine in America, and they could easily fit into a Jacuzzi. Some of the most experienced female chefs are persuaded that the new cuisine will never attract many women. It’s just too … male. ”
I can hear the woman behind Alinea At Home rolling her eyes.
Food is awesome, playing with food is awesome, and playing with food because you have cool tools is just as awesome as the low-tech method; it always makes me smile when a new Alinea At Home post shows up in my RSS reader because I know that Carol’s sense of fun and play will come through, even if the attempt at a recipe didn’t work out as well as she would have liked. She’s always curious, and that is why I want to point to her as my tech heroine for Ada Lovelace Day this year.
Occasionally repetitive, occasionally meandering, Omnivore’s Dilemma handles a complex topic well, through a smart and yet not overly-clever lens. Pollan tracks four meals from origin to table — please note, this is not in the tradition of muckraking journalism, Pollan did not set out to, nor did he, write an exposé — with heavy reliance on evolutionary biology and some vivid evocations of Pollan’s experiences. I’m a little troubled by how few women there are in the book; the three major food-mentors Pollan has are men, and all in all, it was just strange, for Liz and Judith and the other women who make fleeting appearance to be so peripheral. At Polyface, only Joel and Daniel and Galen and Peter seem to work in the fields; Salatin’s wife is relegated to a few throwaway comments and making change when they sell chickens. Let me be clear: I don’t think this is intentional, and I doubt it was even conscious. I don’t think Pollan is trying to erase women in agriculture, much less gastronomy. I think he just didn’t notice when they weren’t as powerfully present as men.
There are many points in the book which are troubling because they’re meant to be, like the creepy idea that the industrial-organic niche is even more precarious in terms of bacteria and viruses than conventional produce, because it’s grown on the same scale as conventional agriculture, but without the safety net of antibiotics and the like; the labor practices used by those organic farms, which are as vile and dishonest as the ones at the mammoth industrial farms; the spectre of cannibal cows ankle-deep in manure; and Joel Salatin’s casual dismissal of New York City. (“Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” Because we no longer live in a Jeffersonian world, Mr. Salatin, if we ever did. I’m almost tempted to start talking about how I suspect Polyface is not as replicable as Salatin and Pollan imply, and how I am curious about the depth of Salatin’s engagement in the community and the amount of community and government support he enjoys; a single farm generally isn’t entirely-self-sustaining — no, seriously, Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were has some fascinating statistics on how farmers have depended on government subsidies since before the Constitution — but that is not, actually, the topic at hand.)
One of the most troubling things in the book, in 2009, is the thread that runs through the first section: Pollan isn’t allowed in to see corn being transformed into high fructose corn syrup, nor is he permitted to watch the slaughtering process in a conventional meat factory. It’s hard to avoid hearing the echo of the recent controversy over the release of photographs of military and quasi-military proceedings over the last few years; if the people who are affected by an action — eating hamburgers and drinking soda, going to malls and crossing state borders without going through metal detectors and checkpoints — can’t watch it being done on their behalf, what does that say about the process? (There are two things you never want to let people see how you make ‘em: laws and sausages.)
I’m glad I read this; it is, I think, a genuinely important book, and I like the approach Pollan takes, I like that he examines the practical application of ethics in an industrial and post-industrial society (because his discussion of how few people choose to go into agriculture skirts the issue of how unmechanized a culture we have become), and I really like that he can laugh at himself when he starts writing “hunter porn.”