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.
By doing it, they essentially redefined not cooking as a very progressive thing to do. And to a large extent it worked, and it worked for all women, not just women who were working. Cooking rates have fallen by half even among women who don’t work. It’s become acceptable to let others cook for us. It is absolutely true that we’re very busy and it can be challenging when both partners are working.
But I think we need to go back and finish that uncomfortable conversation and get the rest of the family back in the kitchen, and by that I mean the kids, as well. I’m convinced that the most important thing you can do if you’re concerned about your kid’s health — after the vaccinations — is teach them how to cook. It’s a lifelong skill that will do more to assure their long-term health and happiness than just about anything else you can give them. Too many people aren’t learning how to cook from their parents today. That chain of cultural transmission is broken.
Q: What set you on the path of writing about food?
A: It really goes back to my writing about gardening. I always liked to grow food. I first had a vegetable garden at age 10. I had a farmstand then and would sell whatever grew to my mother. That was my passion. In my first book, “Second Nature,” I wrote a lot about how gardening puts you in this very complicated relationship with the rest of the natural world, it’s not all sweetness and light. You have a quarrel with weeds and a quarrel with pests, and you have to figure out a way to navigate that.
And that, of course, is the problem of agriculture. And so it wasn’t a big leap to go from writing about what was happening in my garden to becoming interested in how farmers are dealing with pests and the challenges of growing food.
Q: What was your early writing about?
A: My first piece about agriculture was about marijuana growing, which is not exactly about food. But then I wrote about genetically modified crops and that happened in ’98, I wrote a piece just when they had been introduced. I got these genetically modified potatoes and I planted them in my garden. Then I went to visit potato farmers in Idaho and went to Monsanto’s headquarters and laboratories.
And I started learning about how we grow food. Frankly, I was more shocked by what conventional farmers were doing. I stood in fields so large and so soaked in pesticides that farmers would stay out of them for five days after they sprayed. They would grow organic potatoes by their houses because they knew how many systematic chemicals were in the potatoes they were growing in the fields. And the potatoes had to be stored for six weeks, I think it was, because they had to off-gas all the chemicals before they sold them — like a new carpet.
On that trip I began to see how we grew food. I was an Easterner so I hadn’t seen big farms. Farming in New England is still pretty picket-fency. You never see a farm that’s more than a couple hundred acres. To see these 35,000-acre farms and then the feedlots, I began to see that there was a story to be told on where food came from, which became “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“Omnivore’s Dilemma” couldn’t have been written 70 years ago because everyone knew everything in it. They knew how food was produced. They knew farmers. They had been on farms. They bought their food from farmers or were farmers. But we had gotten so far from the farm and so disconnected from our food that there was a story to be told. Think about it. A bestseller to be written on such an ordinary question: Where does your food come from?
Q: Why do you think people are so interested in food?
A: We’ve had this large culture-wide forgetting of what food is, where it comes from, how it connects us to nature, how it connects us to other people. We’re in the process of remembering all that, recalling it. That process has involved the work of some chefs and the work of some writers and storytellers. This industrial food chain, like most things in capitalism, doesn’t want you to connect the dots, doesn’t want you to pay attention to who made it, or where it came from or how it made its way to you (and that is true of clothing as much as food). But that’s breaking down.
And the reason it broke down is because things were breaking down in the system. We had mad cow disease, we had various outbreaks of foodborne illness, we had videos of abuses in animal factories. Suddenly people are asking hard questions about how the food is being produced and getting curious to know.
And they also got excited about more positive stories about how food was produced. They realized it felt really good to eat from a food chain that they knew something about and could feel good about. That’s how I see it. It began with a certain amount of fear. And there were important episodes in the growth of the food movement that were driven by things like mad cow disease and Alar [chemical sprayed on apples].
Each of these scandals, and they really were scandals, became teachable moments and they parted the curtains on the food chain briefly and people looked and they really didn’t like what they saw, and they began looking for alternatives.
And if you talk to organic farmers, they will tell you that it was the so-called Alar scare that was the first major surge in demand for organic food. There was a “60 Minutes” story [in 1989] and Meryl Streep got involved. There was a cover story in Newsweek: “Panic for Organic.” People remember it as an overreaction, which may or may not have been fair. I don’t think it was an overreaction. It really was a carcinogen they were using on apples.
The fact is that, with food, whenever there were problems at hand, there were alternatives on hand. And people flocked to those alternatives and they still are.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste.