The New York Times, April 18, 2013
The seven most famous words in the movement for good food are: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” They were written, of course, by Michael Pollan, in “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” the follow-up to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Now Pollan might add three more words to the slogan: “And cook them.” Because the man who so cogently analyzed production and nutrition in his best-known books has tackled what he calls “the middle link in the food chain: cooking.”
But Pollan isn’t about to become a cookbook writer, at least not yet. In “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” out Tuesday, he offers four detailed recipes, used as examples to explore how food is transformed: for Bolognese, pork shoulder, sauerkraut and bread, each an illustration, he says, of the fundamental principles of cooking.
The recipes, while not exactly afterthoughts, are less important than his insistence that cooking itself is transformative. Almost as soon as we sit down in my living room, he says: “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.”
When you cook, you choose the ingredients: “And you’re going to use higher-quality ingredients than whoever’s making your home-meal replacement would ever use. You’re not going to use additives. So the quality of the food will automatically be better.
“You’re also not going to cook much junk. I love French fries, but how often are you going to cook them? It’s too hard and messy. But when they’re made at the industrial scale, you can have French fries three times a day. So there’s something in the very nature of home cooking that keeps us from getting into trouble.”
He points out that it isn’t just that industrially produced meal replacements are cheap; they’ve also reduced the cost of the time needed to make food and foodlike products. Some would even argue that you should be working more, outsourcing as much cooking as possible — effectively defining cooking as a waste of time for anyone making more than, say, $20 an hour.
But, says Pollan: “If we decide to outsource all our cooking to corporations, we’re going to have industrial agriculture. And the growth of local, sustainable and organic food, and farmers’ markets, is going to top out if people don’t cook. Because big buys from big, and I have little faith that corporations will ever support the kind of agriculture we want to see. That’s why the most important front in the fight to reform the food system today is in your kitchen.”
We know why people don’t cook: because the marketers of prepared food have taken over our kitchens; the Food Channel fetishization of cooking has made it look intimidating, especially for those who grew up without parents in the kitchen; and people say they don’t have the time — or they just don’t like it.
“We do find time for activities we value, like surfing the Internet or exercising,” says Pollan. “The problem is we’re not valuing cooking enough. Who do you want cooking your food, a corporation or a human being? Cooking isn’t like fixing your car or other things it makes sense to outsource. Cooking links us to nature, it links us to our bodies. It’s too important to our well-being to outsource.”
And yet Big Food has convinced most of us: “No one has to cook! We’ve got it covered.” This began 100 years ago, but it picked up steam in the ’70s, when Big Food made it seem progressive, even “feminist,” not to cook. Pollan reminded me of KFC’s brilliant ad campaign, which sold a bucket of fried chicken with the slogan “Women’s Liberation.”
“We need to complete that uncomfortable conversation about the division of domestic labor, which the food industry deftly exploited to sell us processed food,” he says. “But if we’re going to rebuild a culture of cooking, it can’t mean returning women to the kitchen. We all need to go back to the kitchen.”
How does that happen? “First, we need to bring back home ec, but a gender-neutral home ec. We need public health ad campaigns promoting home cooking as the single best thing you can do for your family’s health and well-being. A tax on prepared food, but not on raw ingredients, is another good idea. And Michelle Obama could use her bully pulpit to promote home cooking, rather than spend her considerable capital persuading food manufacturers to tweak their products.”
With an increasingly progressive population we have the potential to create a gender-agnostic cooking culture. There’s no longer a stigma attached to males cooking, and cooking is not only a democratic pleasure, it is also daily creativity, it’s economic, it’s healthy, and it’s a link to the natural world. And though it may take time, cooking can be about patience and letting things happen. Good things, on many levels.