Michael Pollan: Food As Culture

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

We’re cooking less and buying more prepared meals. Since the mid-sixties, the amount of time spent preparing meals has fallen by half. While the global trend is the same, Americans lead the way. They spend less time cooking than any other country.

One thing we do more of, however, is talk about cooking. Celebrity chefs are everywhere with books and television shows. The sad reality is that we spend more time watching food shows than we do thinking about and preparing our own meals.

Food is cultural. Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, explores “how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.”

In Cooked, Pollan argues that taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the food system healthier and more sustainable.

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

What constitutes “cooking” takes place along a spectrum, as indeed it has for at least a century, when packaged foods first entered the kitchen and the definition of “scratch cooking” began to drift. (Thereby allowing me to regard my packaged ravioli with sage-butter sauce as a culinary achievement.) Most of us over the course of a week find ourselves all over that spectrum. What is new, however, is the great number of people now spending most nights at the far end of it, relying for the preponderance of their meals on an industry willing to do everything for them save the heating and the eating.

This is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Cooking changes your relationship to the food. Now you are making something not just consuming. Meals become achievements, expressions, discovery, and relationships.

I discovered there was much to learn from attempting, even if only just once, … more ambitious and time-consuming forms of cookery, knowledge that might not at first seem terribly useful but in fact changes everything about one’s relationship to food and what is possible in the kitchen. … By itself, this added increment of eating and drinking pleasure would have been enough to justify all the so-called work.

Of course, we never have time to cook. We reason that cooking, let alone baking bread or fermenting something, is probably not the best use of our time. We are so easily convinced that we’re better off staying at the office late and picking something up on the way home. This, after all, lets us do what we do best and lets other people do what they do best.

Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization. It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house. I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking. Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another—our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves—anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better. (I recently heard about an agency that will dispatch a sympathetic someone to visit your elderly parents if you can’t spare the time to do it yourself.) It seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.

Dividing labour up in this economic way “obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences.” When connections are not visible they are easy to forget. Where were your clothes made? Where did your coffee beans come from? What conditions did the chicken you’re about to eat for supper enjoy? Most of these are hidden from us.

To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.

Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the “home-meal replacement” have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated. To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility, too, to become, at the very least, a little less glib in one’s pronouncements.

Pollan warns that within another generation or so, it’s possible that “cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.”

In the video below, the NYT brought together Pollan and Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, to talk about home cooking, the food industry, and navigating a typical supermarket.

Michael Pollan and Michael Moss visit a typical supermarket and talk about cooking and the food industry.

Cooked reminds us that food is so much more than what we read on the label.