Michael Pollan thinks the act of cooking could save our lives.
Pollan and Wendell Berry joined each other on stage to discuss Pollan’s new book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” on May 1, at the Clifton Center’s Eifler Theatre in Louisville. The event was sponsored by the Louisville independent book store company Carmichael’s.
Pollan’s book makes a strong case that cooking allows a person to control the ingredients in their food, and that choice, naturally makes for a healthier alternative to processed food full of cheap commodity ingredients loaded with fat, sugar and salt.
“There are also dubious ingredients in processed food that don’t exist in your kitchen,” Pollan said. “If you look at the ingredients in a can of tomatoes, a staple in almost anyone’s pantry, is significantly different than a can of tomato sauce. They look the same but they are entirely different.”
Pollan dedicated his book to author Wendell Berry, saying Berry has been an inspiration to him.
“Michael, I got into this out of gratitude to Carmichael’s bookstore for being an independent book store and out of gratitude to you,” Berry said to Pollan on May 1. “Because you have made the connection between us and our land… and I say that out of a sense of relief.”
Berry admitted his pleasure in realizing Pollan’s book wasn’t just a regurgitated set of ready-made facts, but a journey of discovery and revelation.
“Robert Frost said that he wanted his readers when they read one of his poems to have a sense of what a hell of a good time he had writing it,” Berry said. “And your book communicates that.”
Pollan divided his book into the four elements: fire, water, air and earth in regards to cooking. Pollan’s journey supports the idea that culture started with cooking where culture and nature meet.
Pollan’s anecdotes include studying culinary traditions from a pit master in Durham, N.C., cooking whole hogs in the fire chapter, to braising with a Chez Panisse chef in the chapter titled water.
“So much of my work is essentially the unpacking of something you said once that eating is an agricultural act,” Pollan said. “I have been dining out on that for a very long time as a writer. This book is dedicated to you because it’s very much about your way of connecting the dots.”
Pollan said that the food industry attempted to get into the American kitchen for the last 100 years. As the production of food changed so did agriculture production.
“How we eat has an immense bearing on how healthy we are,” Pollan said. “We can’t continue living the way we do and the thing that stands in the way is that we can’t imagine another way of surviving with out our dependency on, as you say, cheap energy.”
Cooked makes the case that although the consumer can’t turn back time and go back, change is happening.
“A food marketing consultant in Chicago told me candidly from his experience in market research that, ’…It will never happen. We are too cheap and too lazy’,” Pollan said. “Cooking has been declining in the American household since the mid-‘60s. The compelling thing he said to me was, we were talking about the obesity crisis and he was talking about… completely acknowledging that processed foods are at the heart of that and not cooking is at the heart of that. Industrial cooks, i.e. food processors, make the kinds of food you would never make at home. Who is going to make a Twinkie?”
Pollan mentioned other foods that processors make more efficiently like French fries and pizza.
“…’You want to know the one diet that will work for America,’ he said and I took out my pen,” Pollan said. “He went on to say, ’…The one diet that will work — you can eat anything you want as long as you cook it yourself.’ there is wisdom in that.”
Pollan spoke of how through the pursuit of whiter flour, the food industry separated grain and stripped it of its nutrients.
“It’s at this (time) that Type II Diabetes starts running rampant,” Pollan said. “It is at this time that we became too smart for our own good. We fix the problems, as capitalism always does by not going back, we put a Band-Aid on it and start fortifying our bread. Wonder bread came out of that.”
Similarly to the progressive thinking, which liberated women from the kitchen by outsourcing cooking to food processors, Pollan said baby formula also was considered progressive and didn’t look at the health benefits, not just to the infant, but the bacteria in its digestive system.
“The fermentation in your large intestine may be one of the keys to your health,” Pollan said. “You are only 10 percent human and 90 percent microbes. The western diet feeds the 10 percent but not the other 90.”
For more information about Michael Pollan visit: www.michaelpollan.com.