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.
Q: You’ve divided your book into a look at cooking through the lens of the four classic elements: fire, water, air, earth. What lesson were you trying to convey for each element?
A: This book is not a collection of 20-minute recipes. Even though I’m trying to win people back for home cooking, what I was trying to do was dig down and find the first principles of cooking, the foundations of cooking, the four essential transformations. Almost all cooking around the world can be reduced to these common denominators. And they have a historical relationship to one another.
The first is cooking with fire. This is ancient cooking. This is what we’ve been doing for more than 1 million years as a species and possibly 2 million years. And for that, I was looking for the most unreconstructed cooking we have in America, which is, to my mind, whole-hog barbecue as practiced in eastern North Carolina, where it’s not barbecue unless it’s a whole animal cooked over a wood fire very slowly. This is what our species has been doing with one animal or another for up to 2 million years. That it has survived is kind of interesting, and that allowed me to look at the whole tradition of barbecue/ritual sacrifice, which has remarkable continuity.
It’s been a long time that we’ve had these self-dramatizing men out there with their animals, making it all look a lot more complicated than it really is. It’s happening in North Carolina; it’s happening in back yards across America, and it was happening in ancient Greece with Homer’s heroes and in the Old Testament with priests performing sacrifices, with lots of rules, lots of ceremony, and with wonderful traditions of sharing. They were democratic events. But they are full of rules, which I thought was curious. I concluded barbecue was kosher rules for non-Jews, or “kashrut for goys,” as I put it in Jewish vernacular.
The next big invention in cooking doesn’t happen till 10,000 years ago. It was a big leap forward in history, when we learned how to make fired clay, ceramics that we could boil in. That allowed us to cook a whole new set of things that are very hard to cook over fire. For example, you could now soften grain and get all the nutrients in seeds, and make porridges and gruels and things like that. You could also combine many different plants and get the kind of flavors that come when you combine spices and aromatic plants.
And you also had the incredible efficiency of preserving all the nutrients in whatever you were cooking because they end up in the sauce. They don’t fall into the fire. You also can achieve an incredible palette of flavors, which really allows you to make your food culturally distinct. Grilled meat is much the same in any culture; it’s going to taste much the same; maybe the wood makes a little difference. But once you’re cooking in pots you have the difference between a sofrito and a mirepoix and an Asian mirepoix, and you let those flavor principles go to work.
Another important thing that we don’t think of is that when you cook in pots you can make very soft, mushy food. Before that, if you were really old or really young, you couldn’t eat solid food. So cooking in pots allows us to keep old people alive and it also allows us to wean our kids earlier. That was a huge change in human society when that happened.
The third great invention — I call it ‘air’ – is the aeration of those porridges and turning them into bread. When we add air to food, amazing things happen, particularly in the case of bread. Bread was invented about 6,000 years ago. It represents a quantum improvement in the processing of grass seeds, which is what a lot of our food is and has been since the birth of agriculture. Bread is this technology for making grass seed very, very nutritious, because you can cook it at a higher temperature even than boiling since you are, in effect, steaming it. The loaf of bread itself is a pressure cooker. It holds the steam from escaping and builds up pressure and heat and allows you to cook the grain very thoroughly. And the sourdough fermentation allows you to access the minerals and break down the starches and proteins.
As a scientist told me at UC-Davis [University of California], he said you could not survive on a diet of flour, not even on flour and water. But you could survive on a diet of bread. It’s that much more nutritious than the flour from which it’s made. which is kind of amazing when you consider that microbes allow you to do that, and heat. It’s such a simple food — three ingredients, not counting the microbes.
And then the last is earth, which is where I talk about cooking without the use of heat at all, which is to say microbial fermentation – pickling, cheesemaking, alcohol. And these are, to my mind, some of the most exciting transformations that humans have figured out. Think of it: Slice up some cabbage, add some salt, bruise it with your hands, and that draws out the liquid and begins a process by which that cabbage will be transformed into sauerkraut or kimchee and be imbued with a whole new range of flavors. It’s far more nutritious, and it will last forever. Most of the ferments were designed to preserve things.
Cheese, too. You take milk, which is a perishable food and make it something that can last for years, under proper circumstances. So mastering microbial fermentation was a critical thing for humankind. Since we have refrigeration, we are less dependent on it. But in fact the absence of live-culture food from our diets is probably a serious loss and a detriment to our health.
So that’s the basic structure. And in each one, I found a master or a couple of masters to teach me how to master these transformations.
Q: I love the definition of cooking from the young woman who shows you how to cook in a pot. She points out that cooking is “patience, presence and practice.” That totally sums it up.
A: I thought that was great. I really needed to hear that. I have always cooked, it’s not like I just learned how to cook, but I’ve always approached it with a great deal of impatience, and always kind of fought against it. Learning to be in the kitchen and not try to be multitasking, aside from conversation or listening to the radio, has been a great gift. I mean I approach it with a very different spirit. One of the most important life lessons of this book is “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” And that’s hard to do. But when you can do that, you’ve passed over into another state of higher consciousness.
Q: That’s a variation of the notion of being mindful, about what you’re eating or whatever else you’re doing.
A: Yes, you’ll slow down and you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll squeeze more out of the experience. That was an important lesson for me. Next week: More from Michael Pollan in the second part of the interview.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste