How cooking makes a difference: More words of wisdom from the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in part two of our interview with Michael Pollan.
Michael Pollan, who has transformed how many Americans think about food, has a new message, which he offers in his new volume, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, $27.95). The professor of science journalism heads to the kitchen — and history — to make a case for cooking. In town last week for a talk at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, he offered these thoughts on food in an advance interview.
Q: You mention in the book that cooking was the single most important thing that an average person could do to make a difference.
A: Yes, on many levels. You can make a difference in your own life. I think cooking has a powerful influence on your own health. I really do think that. My last two books were on nutrition, and I studied nutrition science closely. One of the big take-aways for me is that obsessing about nutrients is not going to get you anywhere. And counting calories isn’t going to get you anywhere. There is something inherent in the process of cooking that will drive you toward using better ingredients — not using too much salt, fat and sugar.
But, also, you’re not going to make those labor-intensive special-occasion foods, like the cream-filled cake or the French fry, very often. Those are things that industry does very, very well and very, very cheaply. That’s how we’re getting into trouble with food, with the easy access to those things that used to be special-occasion. How often do you really want to make French fries, because it’s a lot of work and a big mess? So I think it has a bearing on that and a bearing on your family’s well-being.
But it also has a bearing on the world. The reason we’ve moved to this highly industrialized monoculture of plant and animal factories is because we’ve industrialized the way we eat. It really is the fast-food industry. Eric Schlosser demonstrated this beautifully in “Fast Food Nation.” When you’ve industrialized your eating, it follows that you will industrialize your agriculture.
And on the other side we have this remarkable renaissance of family farming, diversified agriculture, farmers market economy, CSAs [community-supported agriculture], and these really depend for their continued growth on people’s willingness to cook. I don’t think we can count on big corporations to support small farmers. They don’t know how to do that. They don’t want to do that. They want the cheapest possible commodities. Big buys from big. So if you really care about this renaissance in American agriculture, it behooves you to buy ingredients directly from farmers.
Q: How does it help the farmer?
A: The latest USDA numbers say that, of the average American food dollar, something like 92 cents goes to someone other than the farmer (the processor, the trucker, the packager, the advertising agency, the advertiser): everybody involved in taking that simple agricultural product and turning it into a very convenient, very highly processed food.
This is why farmers are in trouble. They are getting so little of our food dollar. But if you’re buying raw ingredients, and even better if you’re shopping at the farmers market, but even if you’re shopping at the grocery store, you are returning most of your food dollar to the farmer (90 percent or more at the farmers market, probably 40 to 50 percent at the supermarket).
So cooking is the best thing we can do if we care about agriculture in the country. We should be pressuring fast-food companies to support local agriculture. Chipotle is the exception that proves the rule that they’re trying to do it, and Whole Foods to some extent.
But it’s very hard for them to do. The transaction costs are just daunting for them. It’s much easier to buy all your carrots from one big company in California than from 50 companies around the country. One contract. One lawyer. One truck. I really do think that cooking is a political act in that sense. Or to paraphrase Wendell Berry, an agricultural act. It has a bearing on what happens down on the farm.
Q: You mentioned in the book that the food industry had a big influence in the decline of cooking.
A: It was driven by women going to work and changes in the home that flow from that. But if you look at the history, it was really a supply-driven phenomenon. The industry had been trying for more than a century to insinuate itself into our kitchens, because the big money is in processed food. For a very long time, people resisted it. Women didn’t like processed food. They told marketing experts that, of all the household chores, cooking was the one they liked best. It was an outlet for their creativity.
But the industry kept pushing. They found their big opening with the feminist revolution, the second wave of feminists in the ’60s and ’70s. At that point, we as a society entered into a very awkward, uncomfortable conversation about housework and who was going to do it, especially as women were going back to work. It was an equity issue of who was going to do the laundry, clean the house and cook. I know because I was party to some of those uncomfortable conversations. It was a very challenging moment and it continues to be in a lot of homes.
The industry saw an opportunity as they often do when there is a problem or a tension, and they said, “Don’t fight about this anymore. We’ve got you covered. We’ll do the cooking for you.” To me, the great metaphor for this is the Kentucky Fried Chicken billboard, as I mention in the book, which appeared across the country in the ’70s with a big bucket of fried chicken with two words over it: Women’s Liberation.