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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."

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Barbeque really is very democratic. But now that democratic food depends on a pretty brutal agriculture. So that’s a problem we still haven’t fixed. Good barbeque using good hogs costs more.

JR: I think the biggest epiphany for me in your book was about the wheat. How the way we mill our wheat is built around white flour, and how, well, when I try to bake bread with whole wheat, it sucks.

MP: [Laughs] That’s what Stephen Colbert said on Monday night. He said, “Is it OK if I eat pasta if I cook it myself?” and I said, “Yeah, but you might want to think about whole wheat.” He said, “Whole wheat sucks!”

Which I don’t agree. I’ve found good whole wheat pasta, and I can make good whole wheat pasta. But yeah, most of the whole wheat available to us is lousy. And the reason -- maybe, I can’t prove it yet – but the reason appears to be that the conventional way of making whole wheat, which involves making white flour and then adding back in the bran and germ that you have taken out – that there is good reason to believe that some of the large millers are not adding back the germ. And I have this on the authority of millers who have worked in such places. These are milling companies with names you’d recognize. But they deny it, and I can’t yet prove it. I may be able to soon, but I can’t yet.

That would explain a lot, because the germ is where a lot of the flavor is. And in fact, Chad Robertson, the baker I profile and spend time with in the book, when he bakes white bread, he adds wheat germ. He buys fresh wheat germ and adds that for the flavor and it’s one of his secret ingredients. But if you’re buying real stone-milled wheat, you may well be getting germ. And that is what you should look for if you are doing baking. But I did find this one company that was milling very carefully and leaving the germ in. And that wheat, I had great results with it.

The other thing is, if you have a sourdough starter, your whole wheat bread will come out a lot better. It’s very hard to do good whole wheat with commercial yeast. It gets crumbly. It just doesn’t get conditioned, the wheat just doesn’t get conditioned properly. If you’ve ever had whole wheat bread that falls apart in the toaster, that is whole wheat bread made with commercial yeast.

JR: Which part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?

I think the arts of fermentation were the ones I found most fascinating and sympathetic.

The fact that -- it's a lot like gardening in that you're in this -- you have this engagement with these other species and you can't totally control them. And if you try to totally control everything that goes on in your garden, you're going to make a mess of it. You need to surf a little bit. You guide these other species. And in fermentation, that’s what you do too, but these other species are invisible But you sense them, you smell them, they bubble. And the results are these strong, exotic, sometimes slightly disgusting flavors.

Most of these ferments offer our bodies a lot that we don't get any other way. All that probiotic bacteria dwarfs the amount of bacteria in a supplement, and all that fiber, and all the lactic acid, which is also good for you. I found that process endlessly satisfying.

And then cheesemaking too, that's fermenting milk. So that you have this anaerobic situation deep within the paste of the cheese and you have the aerobic process on the outside. And to learn that the bacteria that make a stinky cheese stinky are often the same ones that live on our skin and give us our body odor. I mean the French call stinky cheese pieds du Dieu – the feet of god. What are they saying, they are saying it reminds them of body odor of a quite exalted kind.

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