Alternadad, Alternafood

Gen-X babydaddies can't live on snark alone—they also require vegetables

Little Elijah Pollack, who is only three years old, recently discovered the joys of anchovies. I know, because I read about it on his dad's blog, www.nealpollack.com. In fact, Elijah had one of the more intelligent things to say about anchovies that I've ever heard, pronouncing them not just good, but "a little black and a little red. With spines." This discovery of anchovies is in addition to young Elijah's well-established love of head-on shrimp, capers, and kalamata olives (but not canned black olives).

Do I bring this up because I want you to start feeding anchovies to your three-year-olds? Well, of course I do, but I have other reasons, namely: Neal Pollack is going to be in St. Paul this Friday night, reading at the Fitzgerald Theater with fellow Gen-X humorist John Hodgman, spookily funny writer of The Areas of My Expertise and frequent guest on The Daily Show. And I really, really want people to go to this event, because I fear deep in my bones that the only people who pay 15 dollars to hear people read books out loud are elderly or blind, and that what MPR will learn from booking Gen-X humorists is that that's the kind of thing that loses them a lot of money. Also, I got a copy of Pollack's forthcoming book, Alternadad (due out in early January, evidently because the publisher calculated the one day that was as far as possible from the main dad-gift-giving holidays of Christmas and Father's Day), and after reading it I am newly convinced that food is not just this Gen-X food critic's preoccupation: In fact, this deep interest in what we eat might well be the defining characteristic of our generation. Well, that and the internet. Skipping the internet thing, though, I thought the occasion of Pollack's reading might be a good time to do some thinking and writing about a generation and its food culture.

Now, Alternadad isn't about food, per se. It's a memoir, like everything is now—a memoir of being a fairly typical, rock- and writing-obsessed Gen-X guy, and then adding being a dad to that, and the occasionally painful process of how the parent part of one's identity comes to supersede other, heretofore prominent, parts. The "alterna" in Alternadad refers, I think, to Pollack being the kind of dad who still curses and likes the Ramones after having literally cut the cord. Does that sound very alternative to you? To me, it sounds like most of the dads I know, and seems to prove only that male adulthood in the non-alternative sense now evidently has room for nothing but earning money, driving cars, shaving, supporting professional sports franchises, and, depending on age, interest in the Palestinian conflict or strip clubs. But I digress.

I called up Pollack to see what he had to say about Gen-X food culture, parenting, and everything. "With this book, I wrote a very personal story," he told me. "I tried not to make any generational pronouncements, but it was only after the book was done that I realized that the details are very similar in a lot of other houses, especially the health insurance, the money, the food. I guess those were just the cards our generation was dealt." Cards such as being called away from the room where your wife is laboring to push out your first child to discuss health insurance forms with a hospital bureaucrat. Cards such as the following anecdote, taken from Alternadad, which might as well be carved in granite as the most typical domestic conversation had by well-read, middle-class families in the year 2005: "One day, I returned [from the grocery store] with a bunch of bananas. 'I told you to get organic bananas!' she said. 'No way. I'm not paying 99 cents a pound for bananas.' Her body tensed with excited fear. She looked concerned for her child, but in the way Naomi Watts was concerned for her child in The Ring. 'Neal?' 'What?' 'Do you want him to get cancer?' 'Yes, Regina. I want him to get cancer.'" Bigger issues than bananas are tackled in the book, too. Alternadad is also about having to sell your house to cover the loss of income when one parent gives up a job to take care of a child, while bills, like the $600 fee for "surgery" to remove a rock from up a toddler's nose, stack up.

"When you're about to have a kid," Pollack told me, "You get diet and discipline advice, the usual advice, but what you're not told is: Get ready to palpably experience the decline of the middle class. The parenting infrastructure is gone. Families are not looked at at all, we're all out here floating in a void, with no safety net, no social support—it's bad; all we've got are 'Mommy and Me' music classes and a nightmare health bureaucracy. I've talked to my mother about this, and she recognizes that the situation is very different than when she was raising us: She and my dad certainly had their financial troubles, but they never had to wonder if their kids would have good public schools, good health care, and good dentistry. These things are no longer guaranteed to middle-class children."

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