PHOTO: Christopher Lewis/For Postmedia News; Author Michael Pollan is pictured at the Park Hyatt Roof Lounge in Toronto on Thursday, June 6, 2013
Laura Brehaut/Postmedia News
Originally published on June 10, 2013;
Montreal Gazette: June 22, 2013; page H7
Calgary Herald: June 15, 2013; page I3
When was the last time you fermented a crock of kimchi, or made yogurt? Or cultured yeast and baked a loaf of bread? Have you ever braised a pork shoulder, let alone barbecued a whole hog?
Author Michael Pollan learned how to do all of this and more while researching and writing his latest book, Cooked (Penguin Press, 2013). If this sounds like extreme cooking to you, you’re definitely not alone. Increasingly, we think of cooking as pouring jarred tomato sauce on pre-made pasta, and see scratch cooking as simply requiring more time than we have. We live in a world where prefab peanut butter and jam sandwiches exist in the freezer aisle, as Pollan mentions in Cooked.
What kicked off Pollan’s investigation was the realization of what he terms the “Cooking Paradox”: Why are millions of people spending more time watching other people cook on TV than cook themselves?
“It made me think that maybe there’s something special about cooking in terms of human experience at several different levels,” Pollan says in an interview in Toronto. “Most of us have really powerful, sweet memories of being in the kitchen as children with our parents or grandparents, and watching these transformations unfold. It’s part of our bond with our caregivers in a way. And then there’s the fact that it’s been so important to our species for possibly millions of years, and is really central to what sets us apart from other animals. We are the cooking species.”
Pollan explored industrialized agriculture and its effect on the environment in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2007), and what to eat from a health perspective in In Defense of Food (Penguin Press, 2008): “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” In Cooked, he examines the step in between the two – cooking – “the missing link” between our food supply and the effect of food on our bodies.
He explains it’s not certain that we will be able to recover the culture of home cooking. “There is a chance that, as one of the people I interviewed said, in the next generation we’ll look back on home cooking the way we look on quilting or some other equally archaic tradition,” Pollan says. “I think the cost of letting that happen is much higher in cooking. The immediate effects on our health from the failure to cook are becoming evident all around us.” He emphasizes that the rise in obesity and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes have been linked to the decline in home cooking and outsourcing our daily meals.
However, Pollan sees positive changes, too. There are men, women and children who are spending more time in the kitchen, and are finding joy in the work there. “Even people whose parents didn’t cook are learning that reconnecting with food is a powerful social force right now,” he says. “It connects us to nature; it connects us to our bodies, and gives us control over our health. I think we’re engaged in a culture-wide remembering, really, in the last few years of what food is and what it can do for us. That’s encouraging people back into the kitchen, too.”
In an effort to recover the culture of home cooking by learning traditional methods, Pollan apprenticed with experts and took a thoroughly hands-on approach. In Cooked, he focuses on four cooking transformations, which correspond to the elements: fire (barbecue), water (cooking in pots; braising), air (baking) and earth (fermenting; cooking with microbes). This recovery process proved to be a great deal of fun for Pollan, whose apprenticeships took him from Ayden, North Carolina where he learned the art of whole hog barbecue, to Seoul, South Korea where he made kimchi, and back to his own kitchen in California where he and his family re-established their own cooking rituals while learning how to braise with a local chef, Samin Nosrat.
Pollan was a self-described impatient cook prior to studying the method of braising with Nosrat. He credits her as instrumental in changing his mindset in the kitchen. “I never gave the onions enough time to sweat and I always chopped them too roughly because I was in a hurry; there was something else I could be doing,” Pollan says. “We’re caught in this time panic and some of it’s real but some of it is manufactured by marketing, and our own sense that since cooking is not obligatory anymore, for any of us as individuals, there is something else we could be doing every time we’re doing it. There is the temptation of not doing it and she really taught me the importance, as she said, of practice, patience and presence.”
He credits the fermentos (brewers, cheesemakers and the like) he worked with in the Earth section of Cooked, such as Sandor Katz, for being influential in a different way; Pollan no longer sees himself as “a foot soldier in the war on bacteria.” The more he learned about fermentation, the more he respected the fermentos’ pacifism towards bacteria, and its role in the natural world. “They understood that it really is the bacteria that make the cheese or the pickles. And that you can guide them but you can’t tell them what to do,” Pollan says. “Look at how loose those recipes are; you can’t even write them down. And so there’s a stance with regard to the rest of nature that I really admire.” Now that the research for the book is long over, Pollan still has a crock of kimchi or sauerkraut going at all times, although he has decided that cheese making is best left to the professionals.
Pollan took on the all-too-common convenience food solution for time-strapped families in an experiment conceived by him and his son, Isaac: Microwave Night. To determine how much time they would really save by not cooking, they took a trip to the supermarket freezer aisle, and selected their own entrées. It took nearly an hour to get the microwaved dishes on the table, which as Pollan points out, is enough time to cook a meal. As for the gustatory experience, Pollan describes the taste of the meals as closely resembling airline food. And despite the Italian, Chinese, French and Indian cuisines represented in their $27 purchase, all entrées “tasted remarkably similar.”
So convenience food can sometimes take a lot of time, as much time as cooking in fact, and can sometimes cost more money than buying actual ingredients. Linked to the “I haven’t got the time” excuse for not cooking is the drudgery aspect: it’s work, and not always fun work. Take cutting onions for example, which Pollan discusses in the Water section of Cooked – for mirepoix takes plenty of finely-chopped onions. “Examine your time and you will see that you make time for things you deem important,” he says. “All I’m suggesting is this is really important, fun and worthwhile, and pays so many rewards and satisfactions that we need to rethink this assumption that it’s drudgery. Because I don’t think it is. I think drudgery is in your head. The same thing can appear as drudgery or alchemy, depending on what you bring to it.”
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