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Michael Pollan: Americans Cook Less Than Ever, But Love Watching It on TV -- New Book Takes Food Revolution into the Kitchen

An interview with the acclaimed writer about his new book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation."

This article was published in partnership with Global Possibilities.

Clearly, author Michael Pollan can take the heat, because he’s in the kitchen. And in the barbeque pit, the bakery and the cheese cave. After revolutionizing the way our nation thinks about agriculture in his previous bestsellers like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan has taken on cooking in his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Loyal Pollan reader s will recognize some of the memes in Cooked from previous newspaper columns by Pollan, like a 2009 piece remarking on how Americans now cook less than ever, but love watching people cook on TV.

In Cooked, Pollan looks at four different processes to transform our food, corresponding to the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. The four processes examined are, respectively, barbeque, pot cooking, bread baking, and fermentation. As he goes, he reflects on the impact spending hours cooking in the kitchen and sharing home-cooked meals has on his family, even in ways that have nothing to do with food. He also shares the science behind why certain cooking methods work the way they do, like why slowly cooking meat over wood and smoke for a long period of time at low temperatures produces the flavors it does, or what – exactly – the “fifth flavor,” umami, is.

Readers might find the most exciting parts of the book the ones on processes that are likely the least familiar to us: bread baking and fermentation. If you’ve ever tried to bake whole wheat bread and wondered why it came out poorly, or you’re grossed out by the idea of eating bacteria (even though you likely eat plenty of fermented products regularly, including beer, wine, yogurt, and even coffee and chocolate), then you might find the answers you didn’t even know you were looking for in Cooked.

JR: At what point in your work did something jump out at you and you knew that this was the book you had to write?

MP: When I was working on Food Rules, you know I had a couple years working on nutrition and nutrition science. And I kind of discovered that nutrients really don’t explain all you need to know about how to eat – nor do calories – but along the way I got this email. I was soliciting food rules from everyone I could think of, and I heard from a doctor, a transplant cardiologist, I don’t even remember where he was, and he said, you know I help people get new hearts and after they’ve had their transplants, they have one last meeting with me about their heart health and what to do going forward, and I take out my prescription pad, and they really expect me to give them a prescription for a drug, for Lipitor or whatever. And, he said, “But I don’t give them that. On my prescription pad, I give them a recipe for roast chicken. On the other side, I tell them what to do on day two, what to do with the leftovers, and how to make a soup on day three. And I give that to them.”

And his idea, imagine getting that from your doctor. It’s very powerful. It’s saying, this matters more than a drug to your health. And it is by doing this kind of work that you will keep your heart healthy and keep yourself alive. And that had a powerful effect on me when I read it. That kept knocking around in my head because it was becoming clear that that act, that activity, of cooking mattered greatly to our health. But we don’t think of our health that way. We think of it in these narrow biological terms, this chemical in or not in. But who’s cooking your food and how they are doing it matters enormously to your health.

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