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Author Michael Pollan makes the case for home-cooked meals
Interview » Author, whose Salt Lake stop is sold out, looks at science and history of preparing food.
First Published May 01 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:30 pm

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.

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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.

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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.

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