In Defense Of Cooking

Michael Pollan needs no introduction. Since The Omnivore’s Dilemma (The Penguin Press, 2006) established him as a prominent food-system American luminary, the New-York-Times-journalist-turned-best-selling-author has been speaking at sold-out events around the country—and abroad. These days, his fans can rejoice in having plenty of opportunities to hear him live, in the mainstream media or in the blogosphere, as he discusses his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

“It was never my plan to write about cooking,” he recently told packed pews in the beautiful church of San Francisco First Unitarian Universalist Society. A couple of epiphanies changed all that. While working on Food Rules, he was told by a transplant cardiologist that the post-surgery prescription to his patients is a recipe for roast chicken and suggestions for how to turn left-overs into a meal on day 2 and a soup on day 3. The good doctor had clearly been honoring his Hippocratic Oath with zeal. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” Greek doctor Hippocrates famously preached in the 5th century B.C.–he’d most likely be aghast at the contempt given nutrition in medical schools by the way.

A second epiphany was the realization that Americans love watching TV cooking shows a lot more than they do spending time in their kitchen preparing meals. On average, that activity takes up 27 minutes a day, with just 4 minutes spent cleaning up, according to the NPD Group‘s Harry Balzer.

And so it is that Michael Pollan thankfully awoke to what many before him have stressed is the obvious keystone to transforming our food system: cooking–day in day out preparing meals from unprocessed, fresh ingredients (“Not too much. Mostly plants.”)

Truth be told, there’s no alternative to reclaiming our health and the health of the natural ecosystems we depend on. For no amount of inspiring story-telling or high-budget entertainment, of grassroot organizing or citizen mobilizing, will make a dent in our current, industrial, globalized, unsustainable food economy if people don’t cook at home from scratch. Without cooks, no farmers’ markets, and no CSA. When we desert our kitchens, we effectively allow the food industry to make food choices for us—what ingredients are used, how they’re grown, where they’re produced, by whom, under what conditions. Refined sugar, CAFO meat, genetically-modified ingredients and nutrition-free/calorie-rich foods rule.

“If you outsource cooking, you’re going to eat a lot of crap,” as Michael Pollan put it bluntly. Conversely, once you start cooking, you start caring about the food you put on your plate. The kitchen is where a new consciousness about food, and food systems, can be born.

You’re right if you think that Cooked doesn’t teach us anything radically new with regard to the vital, strategic importance of home cooking. At the same time, it fuels a conversation that unfortunately remains highly relevant, necessary even.

Michael Pollan: "Cooking is in our DNA, we can't let go of it."

It also makes for an enjoyable read. The Omnivore’s Dilemma took the reader on four personal journeys through which the author would cleverly and beautifully spin out the unnerving truth about food production in America. Through a comparable construct, Cooked reveals the historical, cultural and scientific wonders of four cooking technologies (neatly tied to the four elements) that have accompanied the evolution of humanity: grilling (fire), cooking in pots (water), rising bread (air) and fermentation (earth).

In each case, Michael Pollan meets and learns from an expert in the field. Throughout it all, he weaves in stories shared from his kitchen-centered family life. As it turns out, cooking is not just good for the health of our bodies and of the land, it also works wonders for the relationships in our lives.

Cooked does make a most interesting point, virtues of the family dinner aside. ”Cooking is in our DNA, we can’t let go of it,” emphasized Michael Pollan the other night in reference to our collective obsession with cooking shows. So let’s embrace it already, honor our true nature, and save ourselves by the same token–my edits.

It may be important to stress at this juncture that there’s nothing remotely elitist about cooking—ask my mother and grand-mother who would go through the motion day in day out, even when they weren’t inspired. Also, it’s time we get over our feelings of inadequacy in the kitchen, and give it our best shot. Noble as it is, cooking is not rocket science, it’s been practiced for millennia, it can even be the best strategy available to eat on a budget (websites and articles on how to cook a family meal on less than 5 dollars a day abound).

The only question that remains for each of us to answer is this: how high do we put cooking on our priority list? Consequently, what plan can we put in place to make it happen, one little step at a time? And how can we support each other in reclaiming our kitchens?

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