“Cooked,” is Michael Pollan’s latest book on what he has described as “the middle link in the food chain: cooking.” Pollan is the New York Times bestselling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and The Botany of Desire, and has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Last year Netflix made Cooked into a four-part documentary covering the transformation of food by fire, water, air, and the earth. In both the book and the series Pollan tackles the all-important question, “Why Cook?”
The documentary is a beautiful food expedition focusing on cooking processes and techniques and their impact on civilization. Pollan explores the chemistry of slow cooking, smoking, and fermenting with people who have been practicing their crafts for years. He interviews and cooks with a third generation pit-master from North Carolina, a former writing student and table-busser-turned-chef at Chez Painesse, a Connecticut cheese-making nun with a PhD in biochemistry producing a style of unpasteurized cheese made for centuries in France, and a Moroccan woman making her daily bread to be baked in the town’s one shared oven. Watching this series helps explain the satisfaction you get from slow cooking a roast, biting into bread made by hand from unrefined grains, or eating a special aged cheese. Most of all, it inspires you to share meals with others as an essential form of community.
Cooked, the book, tells the story of how we got to the place we are in. The decline of cooking has had serious consequences, but not all bad in that it has provided free time to devote hours to other pursuits. But it has done so at a cost to our collective health and we have lost a feeling of connectedness to food and to each other with the decline of the shared, home-cooked meal. Industrial farming and processed foods have an impact not only our health but on the health of livestock, workers, and the American food system.
A FEW OF POLLAN’S OBSERVATIONS:
Americans spend less time cooking—now only 27 minutes a day—than any other people.
We are a generation that devotes hours to watching other people cook food that we will not even eat ourselves, yet are unwilling to cook our own food.
When you let a corporation cook your food, they do it differently.
Studies show that when we don’t have to cook our own food, letting other do it for us, we eat more. About 500 calories more a day since the 1970s.
We indulge “impulsively” in food we can have immediately without the effort of planning, shopping, or cooking it. This has been referred to as the time cost of food.
There are now frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches available to buy for children’s lunches; as one expert wrote, “we had 100 years of packaged foods, and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.”
Eighty-percent of the cost of home food goes to industrial cooking, packaging, and marketing.
A Harvard obesity study demonstrated that most of increase in American obesity over last 20-30 years was due to the rise of eating food prepared outside the home.
This same Harvard study also examined cooking patterns across cultures, and found there is an inverse correlation between obesity and food prepared within the home.
“Time spent cooking matters—a lot.”
The “cooking hypothesis” is accurate in that the advent of cooking and having cooked food altered the course of human evolution.
There is something about cooking that we really like and miss when it is absent from our lives, which is why we are so attracted to cooking shows and reading about cooking.
Anthropologists are right when they consider cooking as a “defining human activity.”
Specialization, and the belief that our time is better spent working more or making more money and just getting other people to cook for us, contributes to a form of helplessness (we can hire anything) and a lack of connectedness with food and farmers.
Cooking transforms us into producers from consumers—we can work directly to support ourselves and the people in our family we feed.
“Cooking is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do.”
Transforming raw ingredients into nutritious and satisfying items for us to eat and share with others helps us learn the importance of health, tradition and ritual, community and self reliance.
We do it “outside the cash economy for no other reason but love.”
“Cooking is all about connection…between us and other species, other times, other cultures (human and microbial both), but, most important, other people. Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes.”