food for thought

NB: This blog entry was redistributed with permission in the CoolCleveland eNewsletter, also available online.

Yesterday I attended Convocation, drawn by the promise of ritual and the prospect of hearing Michael Ruhlman, author of Case's Common Reading for this year, speak. He wrote The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection more than 5 years ago, and so I hoped that his speech would go beyond the book into more elaborated thinking about what it takes to become an expert in one's chosen field. He did not disappoint.

He addressed head-on a criticism he has probably heard many times about his writing on cooking: Isn't it frivolous to write about fancy food in a time when there is so much serious stuff happening in world politics? His answer started with this assertion:

"Great cooking, in the end, has such power because it allows us to connect with our past, our future, and all of humanity, if we let it. I believe that America's insatiable appetite for food and cooking know-how is really the beginning of a spiritual quest for the bigger things: a search for meaning, order and beauty in an apparently chaotic and alienating universe."

President Eastwood looked quite comfortable listening to Ruhlman's speech up until that point, but when Ruhlman made his next main point, suggesting that sharing what he learned about master chefs brought into relief how all of America has become a culture of mediocrity, the President started to look a little nervous...

... perhaps he worried that Ruhlman might suggest that Case has fallen prey to this same trap. (I would argue that we have not, but perhaps the President has been face-to-face with some blunt critics recently.) While no one will extol the virtues of undergraduate cafeteria food, that wasn't where Ruhlman was going. Instead, he referenced a book called The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and described the vicious cycle that has been created in our country by centralizing all our food production around corn.

I'll summarize the cycle: The beef we eat at fast-food places doesn't come from grass-fed cows; we feed those cows corn, which is filled with pesticides that allow the corn to grow in a monoculture (highly unnatural). Because cows aren't supposed to eat corn, they need all kinds of antibiotics to stay alive on this diet and in their near factory living conditions, too many cows in too little space with not enough attention to removing their waste products from their living environment. Because farmers need to pay for pesticides and antibiotics, the corn and the corn-fed beef isn't really cheap, but the government subsidizes corn growing, which keeps the manufacturers of pesticides and antibiotics in business. We think the beef we buy at fast-food places is cheap, but it's really got hidden costs -- even if we don't speculate about what ingesting all the pesticide and antibiotic traces in the beef we eat is doing to our own health. Plus, it doesn't taste as good as lovingly raised, grass-fed cows taste when we slaughter them and cook them with care. And yet, we keep eating corn-fed beef, because we have grown accustomed to mediocre food, and our insatiable demand for cheap food induces the government to continue subsidizing corn farmers.

Can you imagine why this environmentalist rant might make a university president nervous? It's a good thing that Ruhlman wasn't giving his speech at a land-grant university like, say, Iowa, or Illinois, or Kansas. (I think those are states that grow a lot of corn, aren't they?)

But Ruhlman did not go overboard. He did not preach veganism, he did not prescribe the magical solution to the dilemma. He simply encouraged students to find something they are passionate about learning to do well, and then pursue perfection, no matter how tough the path is that leads them toward meeting the highest possible standards in their chosen field.

It was an uplifting speech, taking us from the dour assertion at the beginning that "all humans have lazy tendencies" toward the hopeful conclusion that we also all share a desire for excellence. If we can keep the laziness at bay, and amplify our determination to practice and practice and practice some more, we can escape from the American tendency toward mediocrity, and find the deep joy of the soul that comes with the pursuit of perfection.

I walked away with a renewed commitment to the pursuit of excellence in my own work, and with a hope that I might find some downtime at some point to finish reading the Soul of a Chef, to pick up the Omnivore's Dilemma as recommended by Ruhlman, and to find Ruhlman's more recent works -- notably House: A Memoir and Walk on Water: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit.


Trackback URL for this entry is:


Well summarized! I have used Soul of a Chef two years in a row for my First seminar course hoping folks would say as you have "I walked away with a renewed commitment to the pursuit of excellence in my own work..."

I have heard Michael speak before, and this was the most passionate I have seen him.

For those of you who do not have time to read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (and have seen the movie The Matrix), spend 2 minutes and check out:

Posted by John Protasiewicz on September 1, 2006 07:28 AM

Hi Sandy! Cool blog. A friend just sent me the link. Like you, I felt uplifted by Ruhlman's talk and (more?) motivated to pursue excellence in my own work. For example, instead of cruising cool blogs, I should be working on the manuscript in front of my face . . . ;-) However, one theme from his talk bugged me a bit: the whole "work hard, and you will succeed" mantra presumes meritocracy. ANd really, driving 25 miles in a snowstorm to get to work isn't about determination and drive---it's that sort of hazing that different people have to go through to "prove" their worth to their superiors. Reminds me of the docs I study who have to be macho at all costs, even risking their personal sanity and health. Working hard is a necessary, but not sufficient prerequisite for success. And not at all costs---I think life and limb are pretty important, and how would my kids feel if got myself killed on a snowy highway so I could impress my boss? I guess my gravestone would read "She died in pursuit of excellence." One final thought: Napa Valley is lovely, and I'd love to eat at the French Laundry someday. But like many high end establishments, there is an seamy underbelly---a walk behind the vineyards reveals horrible living conditions for underpaid, overworked migrant workers. Makes it harder to enjoy the exquisite, near perfect wines.

Posted by Susan Hinze on September 1, 2006 05:12 PM

Comments from colleagues! How cool.

John, thanks for the link to the meatrix website. I hope we have a chance to meet someday -- I'd like to hear more about your experiences with SAGES seminars.

Sue -- great point about hazing, and about what our kids will say if we take stupid risks and come out on the losing end of the equation. One of my former doctoral students decided to leave the program when she had been saying to herself for months, "I'm going to finish this dissertation if it kills me", and was diagnosed with cancer. She chose life over work, and I'm tremendously grateful that she has beaten the cancer into remission.

I'd love to get together sometime and hear what you are working on these days! Perhaps we can help each other keep our manuscripts moving forward.

Posted by Sandy on September 2, 2006 06:07 AM

Post a comment