"When we learned to cook is when we became truly human," Michael Pollan says
Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," has a new Netflix series, "Cooked"
Michael Pollan has one request: Can we please get back in the kitchen?
In his recently released Netflix series, “Cooked,” Pollan tells the story of cooking and how it makes us uniquely human.”When we learned to cook is when we became truly human,” he says.
The four-part series is full of beautiful images of exotic locales and families gathering, and close-ups of lovingly prepared meats and breads. It’s based on the four classicial elements: fire, water, earth, air. Pollan points out that each is a method of cooking.
Pollan has long been a proselytizer of the local food movement. In his books “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food” and “Cooked,” which the Netflix series is based on, Pollan argues that knowing where our food comes from is vital to our very existence.
In the series, Pollan points to the Martu people of Australia. When they moved away from their traditional aboriginal diets toward a more Westernized one, their incidences of heart disease, cholesterol and obesity rose. One of the Martu women profiled says, “Sugar made us weak.”
Pollan says that it is a matter of health to understand where our food is from. In the series, he argues we’ve ceded control of that to large corporations, especially as women entered the work force. While there has been a slight increase in men cooking at home, women are still the dominant force in the kitchen. Since 1965, the amount of time spent preparing food has been cut nearly in half, from 112 minutes a day to 65 minutes a day.
“You have an industry that is trying to undermine cooking as an everyday practice,” he says. In fact, one study found that half of all calories consumed by children at home come from fast food.
But for many of us, the reality of having the time to make our food, let alone know where it comes from, can seem like an out-of-touch luxury. Pollan agrees that we have less and less time, but he also says we haven’t made food a priority and have let the food industry dupe us into thinking that cooking is difficult.
CNN had a chance to talk with Pollan – in just about as much time as he had to make a quick meal – about the challenges of truly knowing our food and making time in the kitchen. This is an edited version of that conversation.
CNN: How do you reconcile living the fast-paced life that we live and finding the time to cook?
Pollan: It’s complicated, but it isn’t all or nothing. It’s not about cooking every single night of the week. … I hope that if you’re cooking two nights a week, you can try for three.
As a culture, we have fought for money in our fair labor movement, instead of time. In Europe, they have fought for time. So our priority has been having money, and then using the money to, in effect, buy time. And maybe that was a mistake. Maybe we should be out there fighting for more time.
There are things that the food industry could do to make it easier to cook, like meal kit companies (such as Blue Apron, Plated and HelloFresh). I don’t know if that solves the problem. For some people it does, and for some it may be an entry drug. But at least it gets them started. It would be great if you can go to your corner store and buy things that can help with the setup, like pre-cut onions, carrots, and celery. That would take lot of time off the process.
I think it’s worth encouraging people to take stock of their time. We’ve figured out how to get two more days a week to be online every year, yet the day is still 24 hours. So we’ve decided that we are less important. But this is really important, and maybe this activity should compete with some of our online time.
CNN: We watch cooking shows on TV where they’re making things into foams. Chefs are celebrities. Cooking is really removed from most people’s kitchen.
Pollan: We are trying to shift that image of cooking, from something that is new and elite to something that is universal and part of human life.
French cooking is really the result of peasants figuring out how to extract flavor from pedestrian ingredients. So most of the food that we think of as elite didn’t start out that way.
Some of it has become fetishism – “This is beyond my reach, skills or time.” We hope to question that and realize that we have everything that we need to cook.
Yes, you have to make time, but not as much as you think. It’s not any more than if you go to the restaurant. You can make real food in 20, 30 minutes, but we’ve convinced ourselves that it is a rocket science. It’s a shame. It’s the media, and the food industry, they’ve fed our panic around time.
CNN: The industrialized, fast-food system we live in isn’t going away. Is there a way to operate in that system but still make healthier, better food?
Pollan: There are some new concepts that I hope will bear fruit. But I think it boils down to that they don’t have to cook badly. But I think if they are making food to last a shelf life of six months, then it’s not going to be good. But you see there are ways to do fast food concepts where they’re not just microwaving and reheating. And that’s all helpful for dealing with the time-strapped. But even then, you still miss certain things, you miss the satisfaction that comes with cooking, that sense of accomplishment.
It feels really good to put a meal on your table. Amazing things follow. But when we stop cooking, that falls apart. People tend to eat more separately. There’s a social dimension that goes beyond the nutritional dimension. There’s everything you learn when you engage in nature.
When you cook, you get to shop. You get to vote if you want the pastured raised pork or the organic grain. You can get to help produce your agricultural system, and you give that up when you outsource your cooking. You become dependent on what’s offered – and that’s a shame.
There’s a lot of good reasons to cook. We want to shift the balance a bit by inspiring. Cooking is really fun and interesting and all that flows from it is at the core of who we are.
CNN: You have 15 minutes to get a meal on the table. What do you make?
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Pollan: I always have boxed, dried, whole grain pasta. I always have frozen spinach in the freezer. And I always have Parmesan cheese. What I will do is boil some water and then microwave the spinach partially. Once the water is boiling I add the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, I sautee the spinach with some garlic and add some red pepper flakes. Put the greens over the pasta, and add some Parmesan, and that’s a pretty great meal, and you can do that in 20 minutes or less.
If you want you can add some canned salmon on top – it’s still quasi-industrial, but it’s far better than a frozen lasagna, and half the amount of sodium.