He explored the industrial, organic and foraged food chains in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Gave us rules on how to eat and shop — “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” — in In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
In his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, food journalist Michael Pollan turns his attention to what happens in between — the cooking part of the food chain. With the help of experts, he explores the science and history of using fire, water, air and earth to respectively barbecue, braise, bake bread and ferment.
Tickets for his book tour stop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 7, are sold out. But The Salt Lake Tribune caught up with Pollan by phone recently. (Question and answers have been edited for space.)
Why write a book on cooking?
I’ve been following the food chain and writing a series of books and articles on it since 2000 or 2002. I worked on the earth end of the food chain … and worked on the body side — the health questions raised by diets. Along the way I realized the key link in the food chain I needed to examine was cooking … because cooking has an enormous impact on health. [What has the biggest bearing on health is] a question of was your food cooked by humans or corporations. This remarkable renaissance of local agriculture … depends on people cooking for it to grow any bigger. I don’t think we can count on large corporations to support the kind of farms we want to see.
You say cooking is the single most important thing you could do to improve the health of your family and the most important thing a person can do to reform the American food system. So wearing an apron is a political act?
Whether you cook or not is a political act. It’s a choice for a certain kind of food and a certain kind of food system. People who cook take back control of their diets and their agriculture … from industrial corporations who really want to insinuate themselves and control this whole process. When you cook you suddenly take an interest in where all this comes from. It draws you into this alternative food economy because you really care about quality. [Cooking is also] a transformative personal act. It changes you. If you cook you will have meals instead of just grazing all day. Cooking and meals are inextricably entwined. … If you cook you’re going to share, you’re all going to be eating the same thing. … Eating from the same pot is a powerful metaphor.
When you talk about cooking, you’re not talking about cooking from a box?
You can cook beautiful food from canned tomatoes and frozen spinach. We denigrate that at our peril. … I’m not saying the only way to cook is farmers market fresh produce. Say you’re making a soup from canned chickpeas. … You’ll discover [organic] actually taste better and they’re not as salty and they’ve been grown with more care and it shows up in the flavor.
You note that Americans are cooking less than ever — just 27 minutes a day — and that it’s possible within a generation that cooking from scratch will be seen as foreign and impossible as brewing beer. But that doesn’t seem to jibe with the DIY obsession with food, from pickling to home brewing. Is cooking really a lost art?
We’re really at a fork in the road about cooking. That’s one of the reasons I want to intervene with this book. There are two contradictory trends. There is this do it yourself trend … It’s still a fraction of the whole food economy. Then you have on the other side this powerful marketing that’s driving us away from cooking. There is some evidence in the most recent marketing studies that home cooking is up by a few percentage points from where it was in 2008. We can take encouragement from that or [say] it’s a function of a bad economy.
We could look back and say well scratch cooking is like brewing beer or going out and killing a chicken for a dinner — so exotic people don’t know what to do. I’m hoping that won’t be the case [because] we will be so fat and diabetic at that point, we will have bankrupted the country with health care costs.
The best thing we can do for our health is eat food cooked by human beings.
What’s the role of the low-income person, who may not have the time or money to cook with fresh food, nevermind seasonal and locally grown?
A key goal of the so called food movement is to democratize good food and healthy food. We give a lot of food aid in this country without regard to what kind of food is bought. You can use your food stamps to buy soda and candy. We’ve subsidized the raw ingredients of fast food — we’ve subsidized a lot of corn and soy. Why aren’t we doing the same for fruits and vegetables?
Those issues need to be addressed at the level of agriculture policies and frankly, I think public health advertising. In the same way Mayor Bloomberg [of New York] is running ads to reduce soda consumption … he should have public service advertisements to encourage home cooking.
Time is an issue. Where both partners work it’s hard to find time to cook. It’s important to understand when you cook you save a lot of money. … We also need to get kids involved in cooking again. … We need to bring back a non-gendered home economics.
For skeptics who don’t cook — and for those whose best cooking comes out of a box — what can you say to win them over? What’s the value in, as you argue, becoming producers instead of consumers of food?
In a word, pleasure. It’s all in your head whether you regard this work as drudgery or magic. That, for me, is what this book has been about. I fell in love with cooking as a way to spend leisure time. It will hold your interest much more than you can ever expect. It’s one thing to tell people, ‘Cooked food is good for you.’ It’s quite another to tell people you’re going to have a really good time if you get back in the kitchen. And it’s not that hard.
For people who have jobs, they have to approach it more strategically. They have to figure out what are those 20-minute dishes to get on the table.
What’s the worst thing you cooked in the course of researching this book?
There were some bad ones. We once got a farmers market chicken that was so fresh that it still was in rigor mortis. We cooked this thing and it just never got tender. It was just really tough and stringy. … I made a batch of sauerkraut that acquired this white beard of mold. I made a batch of beer that had a weird Bandaid smell to it. We still drank it.
Your favorite home-cooked meal?
A roast chicken is one of the most satisfying meals, with roasted root vegetables. … Braised anything. I really do like braised meat. I think it’s delicious. You can use really cheap cuts, cheap cuts are better. … It sounds really hard, it takes six hours, but again it’s not your six hours. You get it going and you can go for a run.
I’m interviewing you on Earth Day: Any connection between cooking and protecting the environment?
Without a doubt. Look, cooking is an act of profound engagement with the natural world. You [have a choice]: Are you going to support factory farms or are you going to support diversified family farms? It’s an opportunity to vote for a completely different way of managing the land. All my work on food has been work on the environment [including climate change, and air and water quality]. … When you solve for food, you solve for a lot of problems.”