Michael Pollan is at it again. While the journalist’s seminal work, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, focused on the often-ghastly production mechanics of Big Food, his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin, $29.50), turns our attention to the last stage in the farm-to-table journey: cooking.
It’s a craft we increasingly embrace as spectacle—in Food Network kitchen battles and immaculately styled magazines— even as we partake in it less and less. Americans cook an average of 27 minutes per day, plus four for tidying up, Pollan notes, which represents a drop of about 50 percent in 30 years. Here, we fare slightly better, expending 42 minutes on cooking and cleaning up, according to Statistics Canada. Then again, only 65 percent of us reported cooking at all in 2010, a decline from 74 percent in 1998.
“One of the questions I started with is: Why aren’t people cooking, given what we know about its benefits for our health, and benefits for the quality of our food?” Pollan says by phone from his home in Berkeley, Calif. “Yes, we are really busy, and yes, 40 percent of women are working full-time now. But I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods by the food industry, which is very interested in getting us to stop cooking—because there’s so much money to be made.”
Disengagement from the kitchen in a period coinciding with the rise of the celebrity chef is a phenomenon Pollan dubs the cooking paradox. And the situation is even worse than that earlier statistic suggests, for the “cooking” in those 27 minutes is not what you think. In the study, “cooking from scratch” is defined only as culinary activity involving “assembly of ingredients.” Say, making a sandwich, or pouring bottled dressing over pre-washed salad mix. If you find that definition weak, be advised that without it, respondents thought it meant microwaving a frozen pizza.
Despite packing such depressing revelations, the book is far less gloomy than The Omnivore’s Dilemma, thanks largely to the narrative on which Pollan hangs his copious research—an exuberant personal journey of learning how to cook, as in making his own bread from a wild-yeast starter, fermenting his own kimchee, barbecuing a whole shoulder of pulled pork, and so on—all under the tutelage of master chefs.
“It’s very much a book about pleasure,” Pollan explains, “about a pleasure too many people are forgoing. Because they don’t see it as pleasure—they see it as a chore. One of the things I’m hoping to do is to infect people with my enthusiasm for it. It’s work that I find enormously stimulating in various ways.”
Pollan’s obvious intellectual engagement is what makes this one of the most rewarding non-fiction books on any topic I’ve read in some time. He is saddened by the current state of the North American family dinner (prepared in the antiseptic microwave, consumed anti-socially in front of the television). And he is sentimental about the pleasures of old-school cooking (a house filled with enticing aromas, the shared family table). But instead of lingering over predictable observations, he ambles in unexpected directions to uncover the reasons, both tangible and obscure, behind why things really were so good when they were good.
Pollan goes back to the very, very beginning, introducing us to Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham, whose research traces the dawn of human civilization not to the discovery of fire, but to the discovery of cooking with fire. The theory is that cooking spared us from expending vast amounts of energy on chewing and digesting raw foods that yielded less nutrition than cooked foods—and in doing so, unlocked the small surplus of time we exploited to take the first baby steps to becoming who we are.
Cooking with fire eventually led to the cooking pot. Or, as Pollan describes it, “a kind of second human stomach, an external organ of digestion that allows us to consume plants that would otherwise be inedible or require processing. These auxiliary clay stomachs made it possible for humans to thrive on a diet of stored dry seeds, which in turn led to the accumulation of wealth, the division of labour, and the rise of civilization.”
As Pollan sees it, cooking as an achievement of civilization falls into four basic types, which in turn form the four sections of his book. In “Fire,” he touches on religious sacrifice and learns to do his own Southern barbecue. In “Water,” he does the same for braising. In “Air,” he bakes traditional bread, and explains how we turned it into something as worthless as Wonder Bread. In “Earth,” he explores fermentation, making everything from kimchee to beer and mead, and covers the unhealthful consequences of our contemporary fear of microbes.
Amid those case studies of nature’s perfect foods contrasted with their over-processed substitutes, no revelation about the food industry surprised me as much as the role of the Second World War. I had accepted the received idea that if the war had a role, it was in drawing women into the workforce and out of the kitchen, but the reality is more complicated.
“So much of [processed-food] technology came from making rations for the troops—and substitutes for rations that were in short supply, like [margarine for] butter,” Pollan explains. “And to make more stable rations that have a longer shelf life. All these technologies just went looking for a new home after the war was over, which is very typical of postwar situations. Processed food is in large part a supply-driven phenomenon.” It was not, in fact, postwar working women who demanded prefab meals. Rather, it was the need to feed wartime troops that created fast-food technology. And once peace made that technology redundant, the companies that owned it turned to advertising to create a demand where none had existed.
“Food processing has turned into a very deleterious activity, but for most of our history it’s been incredibly positive,” Pollan ventures. “The question is: Could it be again? Could you take science and technology and apply it to food in such a way that you’re improving the quality of food again? And I don’t know the answer. I’d like to make a case for that.”
It seems a good subject for another book. In the meantime, Pollan wants you to cook something—perhaps one of his excellent recipes for barbecued pork (Fire), whole-grain bread (Air), ragù (Water) or sauerkraut (Earth). But even if you don’t have five to seven hours for making his meat sauce, you will at least pick up on his message: “Cooking is, by its nature, pretty democratic,” says Pollan, who urges not that we do it for every meal or every day, but rather more often than we do, whenever we can. “We all have access to this technology. We may have different amounts of time and different levels of confidence. But everybody can cook.”
Jacob Richler is the author of My Canada Includes Foie Gras: A Culinary Life, part memoir and part exploration of our country’s gastronomic identity.