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."
Of course, what is guaranteed to middle-class children is constant access to fast food, and fast-food commercials, which is an interesting topic to see documentaries about before you have kids, but another matter entirely once you have them. For instance, did you know that the current generation of children, of which Elijah Pollack is one, is forecast to be the first ever in America to have shorter life expectancies than their parents? If you see any kids on the street today, please know they're expected to live almost five years less than we will, due to childhood obesity and diabetes.
"You see these overweight kids, and it breaks my heart," Pollack told me. "They don't have control over what they eat, and our kids are being poisoned, much more than when we were kids. I think seeing Super Size Me really set something off in us, and now when I think about the Greatest Generation, why they're enduring for so long, they were the last generation to eat a healthy diet. One of the most important things to Regina and me is making sure that Elijah gets a healthy start, and whatever else, that kid loves his vegetables. He eats just pounds of green beans, he continually eats carrots, he will eat an entire bag of frozen organic broccoli—though he eats it frozen—and he's only been sick two days in his life. These kids who are raised on McDonald's, their bodies are going to start giving out, really just failing, in their early 30s. People will say we're food yuppies, which we are, and we spend proportionally more of our income on food [than prior generations], but we figure kids did not ask to be born, so it's our job to make sure that they're set up to deal with the horrible world they're inheriting, this horrible planet in decline. At least Elijah will be able to face the end of the world with strong bone structure. I want to have a kid who could possibly survive Thunderdome!"
If this sounds like the issues in your life, and you want to hear more, report to the Fitzgerald Friday night. "Just tell them there are two funny dudes, one of them [Hodgman] from The Daily Show, and that's probably all you need to tell them," Pollack said. "One of them is Mr. PC from the Apple computer ads, and the other is a sweaty, hairy, balding Jew from L.A. who's not Larry David. It will be a huge, huge draw if you say that about me."
Neal Pollack and John Hodgman will read as part of the Current Fakebook Series this Friday, October 6 at 8:00 p.m., tickets are $15; Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul; 651.290.1221; www.fitzgeraldtheater.org
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