Michael Pollan used the framework of the four classical elements — fire, water, air and earth — to discuss his experiments in the kitchen in his bestselling book “Cooked” in 2013.
On Friday, the pages of that volume come to life in a four-part series by the same name on Netflix, from Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney.
It looks at our basic need to cook, what Pollan defines as the singular evolutionary moment that makes us human: We cook, therefore we are different from all other animal life.
His message throughout the series is simple and clear: Return to the kitchen. “When you let a corporation cook your food, they cook differently than you do,” he says in the film. “You have an industry that is trying to undermine cooking as an everyday practice.”
Each 50- to 60-minute episode focuses on one of the four elements from Pollan’s book, bringing the story (though not the author himself) around the world to examine an extremely diverse display of cooking efforts that tap into the framework of those categories.
There’s an Aboriginal tribe in Australia that fire-roasts lizards, a Connecticut Benedictine nun and microbiologist who makes French cheese, Peruvian brewers who ferment a traditional beverage with human saliva and a Moroccan granary powered by rivers.
It’s a powerful cinematic display created by four pairs of directors and cinematographers, who dramatically present what are generally humble efforts to prepare food that to them is homespun.
Pollan narrates throughout the series and appears in scenes in his home kitchen in Berkeley, Calif., where he demonstrates a recipe that reflects the headliner element.
In each episode, Pollan preaches to the choir of home cooks who are bound to be watching:
“Is there any practice less selfish, any time less wasted than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?”
Of course not. That’s why we who advocate for home cooking keep banging the drum for it!
We meet Nathan Myhrvold, author of “Modernist Cuisine,” who delves into the science of cooking. There are fleeting glimpses of chefs Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay tasting rotten shark.
“Fermented foods are one way that we build cultural identity. ‘We are the people who like this food. And it’s an acquired taste,’ ” says Pollan in the episode “Earth,” which focuses on fermentation.
“All cooking is transformation,” he says. “One-third of the foods in our diet are fermented.”
He talks about breadmaking and its start in ancient Egypt, “creating more food from less,” he notes, as a sack of flour becomes loaves of bread that feed many, in the episode called “Air” (which refers to what causes the volume in bread). This may be the most compelling of the four parts, as the food and process for making it are so familiar and the historical perspective (a tale of Wonder Bread) is well done.
We also meet Pollan’s son Isaac in the Berkeley kitchen, as the author notes, “If we’re going to introduce a culture of cooking, we have to bring our own kids back into the kitchen.”
No one will quibble with that.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste