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Esther J. Cepeda: The joy (and health) of cooking

First Published      Last Updated Aug 03 2016 06:00 pm

CHICAGO • I'm not a foodie. I have about six restaurants I frequent and there are no menus involved — the servers just bring out what I always get.

Nutrition and the fight against obesity and Type 2 diabetes — issues of life-and-death importance, especially for kids — are of great concern to me. But though I cook healthy (if uninspiring) meals most nights of the week, I still harbor a child-like attachment to Cheetos, Little Debbie Fudge Brownies and other items with zero nutritional value, which I keep to a minimum.

Food media, though? That, I gorge on.

I adore listening to people talk about food (run to your nearest podcast app and subscribe to "The Sporkful," which is "not for foodies, it's for eaters").



I devour books about food (even obscure ones like Michael H. Tunick's delightful 2014 tome, "The Science of Cheese").

And I greedily consume high-end documentaries about makers of food (fans of Netflix's "Chef's Table," which itself was created by the director of the gorgeous film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," are my spiritual brethren).

Last Saturday, I finally binge-watched all four episodes of Michael Pollan's documentary series "Cooked" on Netflix. I had hesitated to watch it because I had already read (and loved) Pollan's 2013 book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." But that was silly of me — the visual version was beautiful.

Broken out into four sections — "Fire," "Water," "Air" and "Earth" — the installments explore the history of humans' development of the basic cooking techniques — barbecuing meat, boiling soups, the air pockets that make bread high and light, and the fermentation that makes for cheese, beer and kimchi.

Each section tells the story of how cooking evolved and, perhaps more importantly, why it has recently fallen out of favor — Pollan notes that Americans spend less time cooking than any other nationality in the world — to our physical and spiritual detriment.

The true theme of the whole show can be encapsulated in the following Pollan quote: "Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes, and lives." And he illustrates it for us in several, powerful ways.

We meet the Western Australian Aboriginal Martu people whose traditional way of life calls for nourishing themselves by setting the land on fire to help in their hunt for lizards, wild turkeys and kangaroo. But when they were forced from their lands into missions and boarding schools, their new commercial, Westernized diets made much of their population overweight and sick with high blood sugar and blood pressure.

"We kept our fires close to us, we made fires by rubbing two sticks against each other," one elder woman tells the camera. "We weren't diabetic back then. We never had any sugar. We had bush sweets, not sugar. Sugar made us weak."

But spending all your time hunting and gathering is not the modern way. No more than lovingly raising livestock in bucolic settings before they are respectfully slaughtered and butchered is. Or hand-milling wheat for fresh bread, or waiting for a vegetable and beef stew to cook for hours, or expecting the new middle class in India to cook traditional meals for themselves after long days of working in white-collar office jobs. Why bother when KFC is just a phone call away?

As in his other writings, Pollan presents the failings of our diets as both a dire moral lapse and one that can begin to be rectified with a few modest acts.

"Cook a few more nights a week more than you already do," Pollan recites from his book at the end of the final episode. "Devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week or perhaps ... try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy."

I'll let you off the hook far easier than that. If you can't bear to read all of Pollan's wonderful book, watch "Cooked" and see if you don't hear the siren call of pork fat sizzling as it drips into a fire.

I dare you to watch one episode and not want to plunge your hands into a pile of flour to start a bread dough or to dump whatever vegetables you have on hand into a pot with a big, juicy hunk of beef for a slow-simmered stew.

Life cannot be all Cheetos burritos from Taco Bell and frozen meals heated in the microwave. Treat yourself to some TV about real food and, maybe, a real meal will eventually follow.

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