You may have already assumed that I am a Michael Pollan fan, and this lucky fan was treated to a live sighting recently. He came to the University of Vermont (UVM), where his latest book, Cooked, was required reading for all first year students. He visited several classes, and then offered a Q & A session for a wider audience.
I read Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation when it first came out, and I was consumed. I turned the pages wanting to be in the kitchen, and cooked dinner wanting to get back to my book. It inspired me to buy wheat berries to grind, then mix, knead, let rise and finally bake into bread, instead of just picking up another prete-a-manger loaf. It encouraged me to continue experimenting with kitchen counter fermentation projects (kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, and my latest experiments, home-cured olives and hard cider). The BBQ chapter was not able to pull me out of three decades of meatless eating, but if/when I do give meat a try again, I would like to do it his way: thoughtfully, mindfully and intentionally.
I became absorbed by the idea that cooking is what makes humans human (taking raw nature and turning it into cooked culture being something only humans do). Cooking – partnering with fire, sometimes in combination with water, other times in collaboration with microorganisms – to begin the process of digestion, thereby sparing our bodies the full work load of breaking down food, sets people apart from other beings. Apparently this adaptation served to shrink the size of our guts, while boosting the growth of our brains. Now that we don’t have to sit around chewing and digesting all day, we have time for other things. Ironically, we don’t seem to be spending this extra time on cooking, since today, we are spending less time cooking than ever before.
My mother was told cooking was drudgery, and that she was a more independent woman if she feed her family with the least amount of time spent in the kitchen. Interestingly, it was not until my mother discovered the macrobiotic diet, and started cooking with real, whole ingredients that she learned to enjoy cooking, and later gardening. Maybe the package takes the fun and satisfaction away? Maybe we’ve created a dangerous spiral where the convenience eliminates the required cooking time, but takes with it the pleasure, leading to unmotivated cooks, followed by unabled cooks, resulting in a population of packaged food dependents. This progression seems to be happening at the same time as we are becoming sicker and consequently a nation of pharmaceutical dependents. Is there a connection?
If this wakes you up as quickly as it does me, you find yourself off the couch and in the kitchen before the opening credits of the latest cooking show have finished scrolling. Many of us now spend more time watching people cook on tv, than doing it ourselves. While we watch, we are eating food (snacks, mostly) which other people (or rather, machines) have fixed for us. The result is a general trend toward eating more, while cooking less, and growing not only larger, but also farther removed from the knowledge and intrinsic connection to what feeds, nourishes and sustains us. Meanwhile, researchers are discovering more and more benefits to home cooking, from improved personal health and cost savings, to having a hand in improving our food system as well as influencing the global environment (the climate change implication of our daily food choices are staggering), improved time with friends and family, a creative outlet, greater self-reliance…the list goes on.
According to Pollan’s research, cooking is a defining human characteristic, or in his words, “is baked into your biology.” “Cooking,” he writes, “is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do.” The result tastes good, and effectively removes the discomfort of hunger too. So what is the unavoidable lure of food cooked by others (large corporations, faraway factories and fast food restaurants, etc), when home cooking offers so many rewards? Perhaps rebranding cooking as an innate part of the human experience instead of an inconvenient time drain will help turn us around and get us back in the kitchen. If you are interested in exploring a healthier (and perhaps more human?) you via a good self-created meal, you will savor Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Consider it the next short sentence in Pollan’s simple food rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Cook.
Along these lines, you may also be interested in a National Food Policy. Popular food writers, including Michael Pollan, recently collaborated on this article: How A National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives. If this were on the ballot, it would get my vote, but since it is about food, we actually all already get to vote for (or against) it 3-4 times a day with every food buying decision we make. A healthy, green, fair and affordable food system would go a long way to support our personal health, public health, local economies and the climate — all at the same time. Bon appetit!