Michael Pollan discusses the elements of cooking

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2013 - 8:23 AM

Author Michael Pollan

Photo: Virginia Mayo, Associated Press

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The simple, elegant words of Michael Pollan, that first appeared within “In Defense of Food,” have become a manifesto for many who are concerned about what appears on their dinner plates:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Now Pollan has another message, and it’s even more basic: Cook.

The bestselling author heads to the kitchen (and outdoors) for his new volume, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, $27.95), which uses the structure of the four classic elements of ancient Greece (that all matter is made up of either earth, water, air or fire) to make his point: that we’re all better off when we cook for ourselves.

The professor of science journalism uses each “element” to explore a type of cooking that has transformed human evolution. In doing so, the teacher becomes the student as he turns to experts who patiently show him the finer points of mastering these timeless culinary skills. Reclaim the cooking process, Pollan tells us, and make a difference in your life and in the world.

His exuberance for the subject of food is evident in this phone interview, the first of a two-part series.

Q: The premise of your new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, $27.95), is something near and dear to my heart, that cooking is one of the most important things we can do. Tell me more.

A: We have this perception that cooking is drudgery or it’s really hard or daunting, and that wasn’t my experience at all. One of the biggest surprises of this book was just how pleasurable these processes are once you have grappled with what’s going on, learning about the science and the history, as well as the technique. You discover that cooking is one of the most worthwhile and interesting ways to spend your time.

But we’ve been lulled into thinking that anything we can outsource we should outsource. If someone else can do it, why do it ourselves? I think that’s a huge mistake. I understand why it happened. The industry has a very strong interest in insinuating themselves into every nook and cranny of our lives. That’s how they create new markets.

But this book is trying to reclaim cooking as a pleasure. Cooking is no longer obligatory so we have to find a new basis on which to approach it. The fact that it’s no longer obligatory actually is liberating because we now don’t just do it, we choose to do it.

The book is an argument for making that choice on many different grounds, the grounds of health — because cooking is really the most important thing you can do for your diet, far more important than counting calories or learning about different nutrients, good or bad.

It’s a way to engage in nature, as these are obviously other species we cook, and we learn about them in the process. It’s a way to support the critical institution of the family meal, which I don’t think happens very well in the absence of home cooking. If you read the book, you know I did the experiment with the microwave meal [each family member chose a different meal]. I think when people eat different entrees, they are not on the same page psychologically. There’s something very special that happens when we eat from the same pot, which is, of course, something that all civilizations have understood for a very long time, but we seem to have forgotten.


Q:You talk in the book about how the notion of cooking has been redefined over the years.

A: It’s kind of been dumbed down. And look, I’m not a purist. I cook with canned tomatoes, and I cook with frozen spinach and canned chickpeas. And these kind of simple processed foods represent, I think, a real net gain for humanity. But if you ask a marketing analyst, they’ll tell you that the current operative definition of cooking is the assembly of ingredients, in other words, anything where you add one ingredient to another. But that could be bottled salad dressing and prewashed lettuce; that’s cooking by that definition. To my mind, if you’re using bottled salad dressing you are not yet cooking. You’re close. Homemade salad dressing isn’t that much harder than opening a bottle of salad dressing. And you could make your own salad dressing in 5 minutes to last you weeks.

Or making a sandwich is cooking by the current definition. So when you hear that 57 percent of meals are still cooked, you have to take that with a rather large grain of salt because I don’t think that’s a real definition of cooking.

Other evidence for that is the number that the industry uses for the amount of time Americans spend cooking: It’s 27 minutes a day with four minutes of cleanup. The four minutes of cleanup makes me really suspicious. I don’t think you can really clean up a cooked meal in four minutes. You can crumple some packages and maybe scrape a plate, but that 4 minutes says that those meals really aren’t being cooked. There were no pots involved there.


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