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

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 readers 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.

And I found all this cool research when I was working on Food Rules about people who eat a homecooked meal – you know, every one of those rules, they are very folksy and culture-based, but they all have science behind them. I made sure that the data was vetted. And we found this research, my researcher and I that found that people who eat a homecooked meal eat a healthier diet. Even poor people who eat homecooked meals eat a healthier diet than rich people who don’t. So it actually undoes the usual class bias of diet. So that was a big – that was one big prod about that end of the food chain, the influence of cooking on the health end of the food chain.

And then, as someone who’s been looking at agriculture for a decade, in watching this amazing renaissance of local, sustainable agriculture, it also became clear to me that how food is cooked has a big influence on agriculture. And this renaissance was gonna abort, basically, if people weren’t going to cook. We couldn’t count on large corporations to support local agriculture, and we still can’t. A few of them are trying. I don’t have a lot of confidence that they can pull it off.  Big buys from big.

And you know the reason our agriculture was industrialized was because we were eating industrially. That’s the story Eric Schlosser tells in Fast Food Nation. It was McDonald’s need for the chicken nugget to be a certain way and a certain price point that revolutionized the chicken and the way we grow meat. So, to the extent we want to reform that system, one of the most important things we can do is buy ingredients from farmers that also allows them to capture more of the food dollar.

There was this new USDA numbers that suggested that 92 cents of the food dollar is now going to someone other than the farmer. The people who make the boxes and the cellophane wrapper get more of your food dollar than the farmer. We’re not going to undo that unless we buy more directly from farmers and buy unprocessed food.

JR: In your new book, you ate two barbeques from two different pit masters, who sounded amazing, both of them, but one of them used commodity, factory-farm hog, and one of them did not. And you made the commodity hog sound delicious –

MP: You know, and it was. It was a real crisis for me, because even the worst commodity meat, if you cook it for 24 hours [laughs] it tastes pretty good.

JR: Did the other one taste different?

MP: It wasn’t a heads up comparison, exactly. And certainly the more sustainably grown hog, there was more fat on it. But even on a commodity pig you still have pork belly, the shoulder, there’s still plenty of fat, not the way a commodity pork chop would be.

But, you know, taste is not all on the tongue. What we know about how food is produced affects our ability to enjoy it. And I was a little troubled celebrating that kind of pork, even though it did taste good. And so I worked, I did some real digging to find a pit master who cared about these issues as much as I do.

And that’s what led me to Ed Mitchell, who was working with small farmers, still growing their animals outside. And he was working with a really small slaughterhouse, one of these custom plants that mostly caters to hunters, to slaughter his pigs and clean them. But the fact is that he had to charge a lot more for his sandwich. The commodity hog guy was charging less than the price of a Big Mac – it was like $2.75 for this incredible sandwich.  

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.

Fermentation appears to be a cultural universal. And many cultures have a strongly flavored fermented food that is defining-- an acquired taste beloved by a people and regarded as disgusted by other people. The Chinese regard cheese, for example, as disgusting, while we tend to gag on stinky tofu, their disgusting ferment of choice. These foods help knit a culture together. It's defining. We're the people who love stinky cheese. We're the people who love stinky tofu.

People don't make the connection. They really don't. We don't realize that a third of our food is fermented. And we make an exception for yogurt. Everyone happily eats yogurt. For some reason that's different. And the tang of yogurt is the lactic acid excreted by bacteria. And of course, beer and wine. So falling in love with bacteria was a major... You know I'd fallen in love with plants before and I hadn't had another big love affair until these microbes before. And it's a similar story, there's really a symbiotic relationship.

JR: In Kenya, they put milk in a gourd and allow it to sour. And it freaked me out. Here, I make yogurt, but I very carefully bring the milk to a boil to kill everything in it and then I add a packet of yogurt culture. I said that to a Kenyan friend, and he wagged his finger at me and said, “Monocultures.”

MP: And that's the problem with commercial yeast of course, that's using a monoculture to do your fermentation, which gives you a very unidimensional kind of bread. Whereas in sourdough or kombucha, you've got a polyculture.

JR: I loved Sister Noella, the Cheese Nun! How did you find her?

MP: She was actually at my book party the other night. She's quite the party animal, I had no idea. She's actually very well-known. I saw a documentary on her a few years ago. I actually spent time with several cheesemakers but she was the one who let me get my hands dirty and she's so relaxed about sanitation. Plus she's a nun, she’s a microbiologist, and she had all of these ideas about why cheese should be in the Eucharist. And she was willing to talk about disgust, which so many people selling food shy away from.

JR: You mention your teenage son quite a bit in the book. How did your experience writing this book impact him?

MP: Well, you know, he's impacted me too. He got interested in cooking when he was 13. He had an internship in a restaurant for a couple years. So his whole experience with food had a big impact on me.

He was one of those world-class picky eaters for about eight years of his life. He would only eat white food, he would not mix food. He sensitized me to a lot of issues. And then when he was 13 he got an internship at Chez Panisse.

He liked to cook with us and he cooks for his friends, too. He liked to do his homework in our kitchen while we cooked, so we had really great times together. And you'll see when your kids are teenagers, the easiest way to talk to them is when you're not looking at them, when you're doing something else. Eye contact is not always helpful with teenagers. And then when we began brewing beer together... Having those projects together was really great. And, now that he’s in college, we still do it. He came home over Christmas break and we brewed a batch of beer, of nut brown ale.

JR: You wrote in the book about using a beer brewing kit. Have you progressed to doing it from scratch?

MP: I have not at home done whole-grain brewing, but I aim to. I have to buy one more piece of equipment, a sparge tank. But I have a good friend who has all that equipment so I've done it with him a couple of times.

There really is a renaissance of home brewing. You know when they posted the beer that they are making at the White House? It was the second most downloaded thing that the White House had posted during the entire administration. I forget what the first was, but it was something like the press release that they got Osama.

I've had great home brewing. I've had lousy too. In the book, I described the one that tastes like Band-Aids.

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