Michael Mikulak’s The Politics of the Pantry: Stories, Food, and Social Change, is an introductory text to the study of food politics that is best suited for readers new to the genre. Mikulak is the founder of Common Ground teaching farm and post-doctoral fellow in Political Science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The book begins with a history of food and environmentalism during the past forty years, with an emphasis on ecological economics. The next section consists of a literary review of texts that critique the industrial food system. This segment surveys much of the popular literature within the field and exposes readers to the works of prominent food writers such as Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, and Barbara Kingsolver. Mikulak contextualizes these writings within a discussion of economics and sustainability. He ultimately argues that the “politics of the pantry offers a way of understanding how we can transform capitalism so that it does not consume the planet” (6). Mikulak concludes by relaying his own experiences of locavorism. Like prominent environmentalist Bill Mckibbon, Mikulak posits that the development of local and sustainable agriculture is essential for battling the mounting environmental crisis that the world now faces. Food is key to our future.
The book is not without problems, Chapter Three being one of them. The author’s respect for Michael Pollan is readily apparent as almost one-tenth of the book is spent recapping Pollan’s works. In fact, Mikulak appears to have modeled much of his text on Pollan’s style, spending the whole of Chapter Three writing his own “foodshed memoir” in which he relays his personal experience being a locavore for a year, with little critical analysis. Mikulak is aware that his experiment with the genre is not original, as he admits it has been done by Barbara Kingsolver, Jamie Oliver, and, of course, Michael Pollan. His section on Sauerkraut and Sourdough (159) reads like a condensed version of Pollan’s “Cooked.” Powerfully insightful, in his introduction, Mikulak comments that “no matter how privileged, contradictory, or classist consumer-based environmentalism may be, the surge of interest in storied food suggests that there is something powerful about the ability of these narratives to capture the collective imagination” (15). However, rather than create a new model, he ends the book with his own rendition of storied food, which re-inscribes the same class and race issues as the other texts he reviewed in Chapter Two. The book would have been significantly stronger had Mikulak omitted this chapter or if he had included more analysis. Mikulak’s major contribution with this section is his naming of the genre: “foodshed memoir.”
Many of the issues in Chapter Three represent the other downfalls of this text. This book suffers from its limited scope. Mikulak acknowledges that he has focused on a very white, elite discourse (152), yet he does little to rectify the problem. If the book’s stated goal had been to give a recap of some of the most popular literature of the genre and “disentangle... different arguments” (125) so that he could re-categorize them and offer some broad critiques, then this book would have been a success. However, Mikulak’s claim to speak to a politics of the pantry that would be useful for global sustainable practices means that he should have drawn on a greater variety discourses, going beyond a half sentence nod to Vandana Shiva (the Third-World food and environmentalist theorist and activist). Although Mikulak acknowledges his standpoint as a white male, he does not attempt to expand his analysis by referencing environmentalists and food activists of colour, nor writers outside of the United States and Britain.
Although the book is unbalanced, “Politics of the Pantry” is worth reading for Mikulak’s analysis of what he calls “storied food. ” His literature review of the narratives of the celebrity chefs and food gurus allows readers new to the genre to gain easy access to the field and for seasoned readers of food politics to compare and contrast some of the major works in one space. For the reader who is already well acquainted with the work of Pollan, Kingsolver, and Oliver, I recommend instead Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Environmental Conflicts and Valuation by Juan Martinez-Allier, which accomplishes Mikulak’s goal of integrating ecological economics and environmental valuation while actually drawing on the work of more than a few white, western, elites. If we are to really have a politics of the pantry that allows us to accomplish Mikulak’s goal of creating a sustainable society, we need more voices at the table.
Alex Ketchum is a doctoral candidate in History at McGill University, focusing on feminist restaurants in the USA and Canada from 1960s to the 1980s. Her work integrates food, environmental, and gender history. She is the English Content Editor and co-founder of the Historical Cooking Project (historicalcookingproject.com).
Candidate au doctorat en histoire à l’Université McGill, Alex Ketchum écrit présentement une thèse au sujet des restaurants féministes aux États-Unis et au Canada des années 1960 à 1980. Son travail intègre l’histoire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement, et du genre. Elle est rédactrice en chef du contenu anglais et cofondatrice du Projet de cuisine historique (historicalcookingproject.com).