The saucier’s apprentices

Humanity’s relationship with cookery is unique—and shouldn’t be lost

Before Michael Pollan came along, eating as a form of politics was a fringe activity. Dubbed the “liberal foodie intellectual” by the New York Times, the American activist and author has spent the last two decades writing bestselling books, such as “In Defence of Food” (2008) and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006), in an effort to popularise cooking and highlight the defects of the food industry and the rich world’s bad eating habits.

Mr Pollan’s latest book, “Cooked”, is divided into four sections: fire, water, air and earth. Although something of an authorly conceit, these divisions allow him to explore a range of culinary topics from the joy of making soufflés that rise to why bacteria are needed in fermentation. He also returns to a conundrum he has previously described as the “cooking paradox”: why it is that people now spend less time preparing food from scratch and more time reading about cooking or watching cookery programmes on television.

Mr Pollan explores the same way a naturalist might, by studying the animals, plants and microbes involved in cooking, and delving into history, culture and chemistry. With help from experts he masters the “whole hog” barbecue, a loaf of bread and the cooking pot. He describes the remarkable transformations that take place in the humble saucepan, where fibres are broken down, seeds softened and rendered edible, plants detoxified, and flavours brought together from far-flung taxonomic kingdoms.

Side by side with Mr Pollan the naturalist is the author as activist. Although the fruit and vegetable areas of supermarkets have grown ever bigger over the past two decades, cooking has expanded to take in heating up a tin of soup, microwaving ready-meals and frozen pizzas or breaking open a bag of mixed lettuce leaves. Mr Pollan places great emphasis on the work of Harry Balzer, an expert on food, diet and eating patterns in America. Collecting data from thousands of food diaries, Mr Balzer concludes that, since the 1980s, fewer and fewer people have been cooking their evening meal. (The most popular meal in America, at lunch and dinner, is a sandwich accompanied by a fizzy drink.)

Mr Pollan is keen for this trend to be reversed and his book is a hymn to why people should be enticed back into the kitchen. Cooking, he believes, creates bonds between humans and the web of living creatures that sustain and nourish them. Turning away from this means that foods that are tasty and healthy (as bread once was) are being taken off the menu with far-reaching consequences. Industrially produced food almost always trades in quality ingredients for higher amounts of sugar, salt and fat—with a corresponding rise in levels of obesity.

Before refrigeration, bad food often killed people. Bacteria, such as E. coli, occasionally still do. In recent decades a great deal of research has been done on the array of good microbes humans carry within them and which they need in order to stay healthy. “Cooked” is particularly informative about the rapidly moving scientific frontier of microbial ecology and how, in a post-Pasteurian world, the live-culture foods which used to make up a large part of the human diet are good for people and for the microbes that live inside the gut.

The book dwells on fermented foods, for example. These have largely vanished from supermarkets but many cultures have developed such specialities, including Malaysian tempoyak, (fermented durian fruit), Russian kefir (similar to yogurt) and Mexican pozole (a maize stew). Even bread, cheese and chocolate all depend on harnessing the power of microbes. These invisible forces travel alongside humans, Mr Pollan says, in a “dance of biocultural symbiosis”, cleverly transforming, sterilising or even adding nutrients.

Mr Pollan recognises that cooking today is very different from what it was in his grandmother’s time, and that decades from now even a limited desire to cook may be seen as quaint. This would be a shame. Real cooking (not just heating up) allows people to create, to put their own values into food, to escape the industrialised eating that has created health crises all over the world. Cooking is part of being human. The alternative is to evolve into passive consumers of standardised commodities that promise more than they deliver. Best of all, argues Mr Pollan, cooking makes people happy.