Journalist and author Michael Pollan starts much of his work by posing simple questions, especially on the subject of food: Where does it come from? How and why do we consume it as we do? But as simple as the questions appear, the answers he finds, through exhaustive research, firsthand experience and insatiable curiosity, have wide and complex implications.
So the crowd that packed Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel at Elmhurst College to hear Pollan speak on Sunday, April 28, might not have been too surprised to learn that his latest book was based on a simple question, born of something that the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto ironically had never given much thought to before—cooking.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation describes Pollan’s journey through the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen, and asks: Who is cooking your food, a human being or a corporation?
The answer, Pollan said, is the best predictor of health and whether you will struggle with obesity or chronic illness.
“What corporations do is buy the cheapest ingredients possible and use as much salt, fat and sugar to make them crave-worthy,” he said. “They then use lots of additives to disguise the fact that this food is from very far away and a long time ago, and to make it seem fresher than it is.”
At the macro level, the question of who is cooking your food drives how food is produced and sold, and what it means for the public health of the nation.
At Pollan’s level, researching the book meant feeding his family microwaved meals, following tribes of fermentation gurus, and hanging out with a nun who makes stinky cheese.
About 57 percent of meals in America still are cooked at home, Pollan said. It isn’t much, considering that the definition of cooking includes “nuking” a pizza or pouring a jar of sauce over noodles. On average, he said, Americans spend 27 minutes cooking a meal and a mere four minutes cleaning up, “which tells me that’s not really cooking.”
Pollan argued that “corporate cooking,” especially microwaveable meals and fast food, contributes to disjointed family meals, which already are on the endangered list. Sitting down to dinner together too often has shifted to “secondary eating,” or eating while driving or watching TV, or at one’s desk at work. Corporate cooking is also expensive, and creates an excess of trash.
Pollan recalled an evening when his teenaged son suggested that they buy several individual microwaveable meals for their family dinner. Pollan was game, thinking it would be good fodder for his book. The total cost came to $27 for three people.
“All in all, it took 37 minutes to defrost and heat up, enough time to make a respectable family meal,” Pollan said, adding that the food—after the first bite—tasted horrible. “And the fact that each of us was eating something different altered the meal experience. We all need to re-examine this idea that convenience foods are really convenient.”
In Cooked, Pollan’s call to celebrate and reclaim cooking, Pollan apprenticed himself to culinary masters so that he could learn how to prepare meals using the four classical elements of fire, water, air and earth. He studied with barbecue pit masters, bread-bakers and a tribe of “fermentos,” which included brewers and the cheese-making nun, who create delicacies through decay.
What he discovered was an intricate web of relationships that becomes stronger when people cook and serve meals for themselves and others.
“This is not a book of 20-minute recipes,” Pollan said about Cooked. “I really like going back to the fundamental principles of what I’m studying. In cooking, I knew it was about transformation,” not just of the food but of the people who do the cooking—and the eating.