Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation – Interview with Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan wants women to get back in the kitchen. And men. While we’re at it, he’d like to hustle the children in there, too! Because according to Pollan, the way we cook (or avoid cooking) defines our culture. The influential food journalist’s new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, borrows from the format of his genre-defining 2006 work, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by looking at a subject through four different lenses. Here cooking is considered via the four elements, each of which is associated with a different form of food-making: Fire (barbecue), Water (braises and stews), Earth (fermenting cheese and beer), and Air (baking bread). In each section Pollan seeks to master a particular recipe with the help of some experts—or very passionate amateurs. Pollan talked to interviewer Jade Chang about gender roles in the food world, how one’s cooking style can predict personality type, and the question of the moment…

Goodreads: So…our members really want to know how you feel about paleo!

Michael Pollan: What about gluten? Were there questions about gluten?

GR: Some, but paleo really is the front-runner right now. Before we tackle that, let’s start with your subtitle—”A Natural History of Transformation.”

MP: You know, the subtitle came to me before the title. I realized that that was what I was dealing with: the transformation of nature into culture. I’ve always been interested in transformation. I think you find it as an important theme in all my books going back to Second Nature, which is about gardening and how we transform the earth.

Humans are in the transformation game in a way that very few other animals are. We take what nature gives us and then make something else out of it. And cooking, by the way, is the prototype of all transformations—it’s the first one. Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that all these different cultures think of nature as the raw and culture as the cooked, because that’s kind of the paradigm—taking something that’s just given by the natural world and making it into something that’s more useful, more appealing, more like us.

GR: Does it make you feel like the whole raw food world is somehow…

MP: Missing out? I mean, I do have a couple critical words about the raw food world in the book, and it’s science, not my own problems with raw food—but I do think there’s altogether too much cashew butter in raw food. That seems to be the fallback. When in doubt, mush some nuts together!

I’m kind of skeptical of all forms of nutritional absolutism. I think there’s elements of truth to all of them, but they also miss a lot. Extreme diets, they work for a handful of people, but they don’t work for most people. And there’s a reason for that. We are omnivores. We’re designed to eat a lot of different things.

Animals really do eat raw food, and when you eat raw food, you need a lot more to get a comparable amount of energy.

GR: That was such a revelation to me—it’s one of those things that we should all know, but you don’t realize until someone points it out!

MP: Yes, apes have to spend six hours a day chewing because they’re eating raw food that is very hard to digest. When we figured out that we could predigest food by cooking it, this gave us an enormous boon that other species don’t have. And we could therefore do things like, oh…invent opera!

GR: How much of the book is discovery and how much was proof of theory?

MP: I’ll tell you, in this book there was very little theory going forward!

I’ve been on this, now, 10- or 12-year project to follow the food chain in America. Along the way I began to understand that…I don’t think that this renaissance of local and regional and organic food can really reach its full development if people are not going to cook.

If we continue to export our cooking to big corporations, they are going to support a very large, industrialized monoculture because they’re interested in the cheapest food ingredients they can buy and also because big likes to deal with big. They understand each other. That’s how the system works. And I realized that the failure to cook was really going to retard the development of local agriculture.

And on the other end, my examination of nutrition had convinced me that the most important thing about your diet was not any nutrient in it, not any food or kind of food but the activity of cooking…. There’s something about the activity of cooking itself that makes for a good diet.

How to do it, what the history of it was, how it worked, why it worked, the science—all that I learned on the job. This book is the story of an education. I really prefer to write books where I’m not an expert, where I start out as an idiot and have to learn. I think readers like to go on that journey with you.

GR: We meet so many amazing people throughout this book who take you on that journey. How did you choose them?

MP: You know what I’ve been doing the last week is writing notes to people I’ve interviewed, sometimes over the course of a week, used a lot of their time and didn’t put them in the book.

GR: That guilt!

MP: I know—I feel terrible about it! And I have to warn people before they read the book, because they’ll go through the book looking for themselves.

GR: So how does someone actually make it into print?

MP: Usually that person offered me something special. They were a particularly good teacher or good explainer or just a particularly colorful representative character. The casting of a book like this is a big part of the reporting process. I’ve interviewed probably ten people for every one that’s in the book. It’s the hard work of it—figuring out, OK, there’s five cheesemakers, but this is the one who allows me to tell the story in the most entertaining way possible.

GR: One of the people, a beer brewer, is an amateur, which was nice to see. You talk in the book about how much cooking relies on instinct, and I feel like right now people are afraid of trusting their instincts.

MP: That’s absolutely true. Our culture is so professionalized that we don’t have the confidence that we can do these things ourselves. And I certainly lacked that confidence when I started out. But I think we’ve been brainwashed about that. There’s that line I quote in the intro from Tim and Nina Zagat, the guidebook people, and they have that line that’s this very, very interesting, very revealing line about our culture: “Instead of cooking, you should stay at work and work the extra two hours doing what you do well, and then pay someone in a restaurant to cook for you.”

That is the philosophy of hyper-specialization. But I think that it makes us feel really dependent, makes us feel really infantilized. There was a time when beer was made in the home, and cheese was made in the home, and the home was this factory of amazing productivity. And I know we’re not going to go back to that, but to discover that you can make something like a decent bottle of beer is incredibly satisfying.

GR: You talk a bit about the gendered roles in the food world, and I couldn’t help noting that the people you chose kind of broke down along gender lines—the home cook was a woman, the pit master was a man.

cookedMP: Writers work with stereotypes because they’re very real in reader’s minds. You can play with them, you can play against them, but they’re there. As it happens, they held remarkably true, and I really wanted to explore the gender issues in cooking. I thought it was good in the home cooking chapter to have a woman who really thought of it as “grandma cooking,” and then I was really surprised that most bakers were men. It was a really macho area. And most cheesemakers are women.

These are very old roles. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be challenged, and maybe I should have worked harder. I don’t know what this thing’s about. Whether it’s just history and tradition, or there really are aspects of our sexuality that play out in different foods that we’re really not aware of.

GR: You said that there was an appeal of loaves of bread rising, that it appeals to the male ego—

MP: Yes, this is to indulge in some large gender stereotypes, but there’s the Apollonian side of things and the Dionysian side of things, and the Apollonian side is more male, more visual, more sharply edged, essentially more like a penis—and there’s a whole history, going back to the Greeks and the Egyptians, making these distinctions. And the Dionysian world is much more feminine, much more changeable, appeals to other senses besides the eye—Camille Paglia has written about this brilliantly—and bread definitely conforms to that! I mean, men like to make things, and they like artifacts, and bread is more an artifact than a lot of other food we make. And I won’t even talk about baguettes!

GR: So of the different types of cooking, which feels like the best fit for you?

MP: I found that fermentation chimed the most. Bread or pickling. I really liked working with these unseen microbes, and the fact that you could not completely master them. You had to sort of guide their interests down the path you wanted them to go. The reason I think I like that so much is because I’m a gardener, and that’s what a gardener does—you’re dealing with a lot of other species who are dealing with their own lives, trying to get what they want, and you try to make what they want and what you want rhyme, essentially. And it’s very hard to do, but very satisfying when you can do it. It’s a real dialogue with nature. And I really got that from baking and from fermenting, and I continue to do it—I have a big crock of kimchi going right now, and my starter is temporarily in retirement in my fridge because I’m on book tour, but as soon as I get back I’ll be baking again.

GR: Do you have those thoughts about people in your life? Like, “Oh, that guy’s totally a fellow baker!”

MP: Oh, you know, that’s interesting…that’s a good idea. I haven’t thought of that, but I’m sure it’s true. Certain friends I can already say are grillers. And the fermentos, they’re very odd people. They’re very comfortable with dirt, they’re the opposite of OCD, they’re very loosey-goosey, and they’re comfortable with doubt. I think you could divide your friends among the four elements.

GR: What about your wife and son?

MP: My wife…is definitely not a fire person. But she’s an improviser, she’s a painter, so even though she hasn’t baked, she’d be a very good baker. She works with her hands, and she has good intuition when things are the way they should be. My son is not a fermenter—he doesn’t like strong odors. I think he’s a griller. Because he’s extroverted, and he likes to perform in public. People who like to be onstage are grillers. It’s very public—the man in command of fire, commanding a lot of attention, also.

GR: What are you reading these days?

MP: If you’re really interested in going further into cooking, Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal, is a beautiful book, and there’s a really good philosophy of cooking in there, of one meal rolling into the next. You’re continually taking the wild rice you had tonight and making it into fried rice tomorrow, soup the next day, and I think that’s a really sane way to think about cooking. So I love that book, and she’s a beautiful writer. It’s kind of an attempt to update M.F.K. Fisher’s book How to Cook a Wolf. And it’s a good book for cooking in hard economic times.

There’s a cool new book coming by Daphne Miller called Farmacology. She’s a doctor, and she’s looking at the links between sustainable agriculture and medicine, and what does sustainable agriculture have to teach medicine, and she thinks quite a lot.

GR: What do you read when you’re not reading about food?

MP: I read fiction! I just read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It’s great! It’s hilarious, it’s very fresh, that’s the best novel I’ve read in a few months.

GR: Here’s a question from Goodreads member Daniel Saucedo: “What are your thoughts on nonconventional foods such as insects being part of an American diet?”

MP: There’s no rational reason to be disgusted at the thought of eating bugs, but we are, and it just shows you that our cultural preferences go really deep and are fundamentally irrational. It also goes to show that cultures like to have a food that defines them in opposition to other cultures. “We are the culture that eats bugs.” “We are the culture that eats rotten shark.” We are the culture that eats rotten milk, and we think that’s normal—in Asia they’re disgusted by it.

But yeah, to the extent that we want to eat animal protein, and animal protein comes at an enormous cost to the environment, we should be eating more bugs! Do I think it will happen soon? No! I think our objection to it goes too deep.

GR: Goodreads member Abigail Welborn asks, “If you could make one policy change to help people eat better, what would it be?”

MP: I don’t know that there is one policy change, but I do know we need to try a lot of things and see what works. I’m in favor of trying Mayor Bloomberg’s idea in New York to limit the size of cups. I just don’t think that’s trampling on people’s liberty! If you want 32 ounces of soda, you have to get two sodas instead of one. I think that’s one of these minor noodges that’s a big part of right-wing social engineering. Everyone’s treating it as this affront to people’s freedoms; that’s a little extreme. Let’s see if it works, let’s see if that pause between the first 16 ounces and the second 16 ounces just might discourage people from doing something that might really be bad for them! We need to try taxing soda and other forms of junk food. I think we need a federal definition of “What Is Food,” and we need to exclude things like soda that are not food, [that are] what I call edible, foodlike substances, and not let federal dollars support feeding those things to our children or including them in food stamps.

We need to experiment with many, many social approaches to changing people’s diets, and we’ll see what works. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll throw it out! So I say…let a thousand strange flowers bloom.

GR: I don’t know if using Communist terminology to make this point is your best bet!

MP: You may be right, but not a lot of people remember that’s Communist!

GR: Goodreads member Lindsey Hinkins asks, “When I find myself at a chain restaurant with conventionally raised meats, what is the best choice? Chicken, pork, beef, seafood, vegetarian?”

MP: Uh, turn around and go out the front door.

No, OK, when I’m in a place like that, I go vegetarian. I just don’t eat meat in fast food or airports or those kind of chain restaurants. I would eat pizza, the rice and bean burrito, the veggie burger.

GR: What about seafood? Fish or shrimp?

MP: Fish is tricky. Most shrimp is grown in a way that’s really devastating to the environment. There is sustainable shrimp, but you’re not going to find that in a fast food joint. The kinds of fish that they’re using in fish sticks and that, it’s probably tilapia…so yeah, if I were to make one choice, it would probably be the seafood choice as opposed to chicken and pork and beef.

One of my rules is, don’t eat meat in airports. It’s just a good rule of thumb.

GR: Goodreads member Nikee Huntington asks, “I read a review that this book starts out with cooking meat and continues on that path for about 100 pages. What happened to, ‘Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.’?”

MP: Good point! The reason I started with meat is because I wanted to take us back to that period, before we were even Homo sapiens, when we were just learning to control fire. I still believe meat is a special occasion. When you ate meat, it was a ritual, it was a big deal, and I’m hoping you read that chapter and think, OK, this is a sometimes thing.

I do eat meat, but I only have it once or twice a week. I have barbecue once a year, and we do a whole pig in my front yard.

GR: OK, now for all of our readers, how do you feel about paleo?

MP: Haha! OK. The idea behind paleo is sound. It’s probably the diet that we evolved to eat. It has a lot of plants, not too much grain, and it also has a lot of meat. And yes, we were meat eaters, but meat may have been a special-occasion food even back then. I think the problem with the paleo diet is that we can’t get the same meat, unless you’re a hunter. Our meat comes from feedlot. We’re not eating wild ruminants that have been fed on grass. We’re eating domesticated ruminants that have been fed on corn. So the fat profile, the nutritional profile, is very different, so unless you’re willing to hunt and eat animals that had their own natural diet, their own paleo, you’re not getting what you think you’re getting. It might look like meat, but it’s something new—it’s corn-fed meat. Not to mention the pharmaceuticals that go into meat.

Now grain is an interesting issue. I think refined grain, the way we eat most of our flour, is very deleterious to our health, but I think whole grains are important to our diet, they feed the gut really well, they offer us a lot. People who eat whole grains have less chronic disease.

Whole-grain wheat, rye, brown rice, quinoa, farro—all these wonderful grains that still have their bran coat on them. And the paleo people avoid them, because they want to go back to a time before agriculture. But we have an enzyme people didn’t have before the birth of agriculture, specifically to help us break down grain. Starch. Amylase. We’ve evolved since then in certain interesting ways. They’re also against milk, but the gene that allows you to digest milk, lactase, has become very common, except in Asia. So we’re not the same people as when we were paleos, and the food is not the same food. I think we have to update a little bit. On balance, I think it’s far superior to the standard American diet. I would say that. But I just think they need to be conscious about these limitations.

GR: A very reasonable answer, Mr. Pollan.

MP: Thank you.

Courtesy of Good Reads.

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