Accalimed author and food expert Michael Pollan joins today's conversation.
After a long day do you just throw whatever you have in the fridge together and call that dinner? According to Michael Pollan, Author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and the best seller Omnivore’s Dilemma” how we transform plants and animals into our daily meals really does matter. Renowned author Pollan explores cooking basic techniques in a four-part approach: fire, water, air, and earth.
Be sure to tune in at 3:40 p.m. for the full conversation with Pollan who points out in his book that so much of our cooking is about comfort. “The smell of bread baking never fails to improve a house or mood,” he says in his book.
You can check out a full excerpt from his book below.
Excerpted from COOKED by Michael Pollan. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Michael Pollan, 2013.
At a certain point in the late middle of my life I made the unexpected
but happy discovery that the answer to several of the questions that
most occupied me was in fact one and the same.
Some of these questions were personal. For example, what was the
single most important thing we could do as a family to improve our
health and general well-being? And then what would be a good way
to better connect to my teenage son? (As it turned out, this involved
not only ordinary cooking but also the specialized form of it known
as brewing.) Other questions were slightly more political in nature.
For years I had been trying to determine (because I am often asked)
what is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help
reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable?
Another related question is, how can people living in a highly
specialized consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and
achieve a greater degree of self-suffi ciency? And then there were the
more philosophical questions, the ones I’ve been chewing on since I
fi rst started writing books. How, in our everyday lives, can we acquire
a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species’ peculiar
role in it? You can always go to the woods to confront such questions,
but I discovered that even more interesting answers could be had simply
by going to the kitchen.
I would not, as I said, ever have expected it. Cooking has always
been a part of my life, but more like the furniture than an object
of scrutiny, much less a passion. I counted myself lucky to have a
parent—my mother—who loved to cook and almost every night
made us a delicious meal. By the time I had a place of my own, I
could fi nd my way around a kitchen well enough, the result of nothing
more purposeful than all those hours spent hanging around the
kitchen while my mother fi xed dinner. And though once I had my
own place I cooked whenever I had the time, I seldom made time for
cooking or gave it much consideration. My kitchen skills, such as they
were, were pretty much frozen in place by the time I turned thirty.
Truth be told, my most successful dishes leaned heavily on the cooking
of others, as when I drizzled my incredible sage-butter sauce over
store-bought ravioli. Every now and then I’d look at a cookbook or
clip a recipe from the newspaper to add a new dish to my tiny repertoire,
or I’d buy a new kitchen gadget, though most of these eventually
ended up in a closet.
In retrospect, the mildness of my interest in cooking surprises me,
since my interest in every other link of the food chain had been so
keen. I’ve been a gardener since I was eight, growing mostly vegetables,
and I’ve always enjoyed being on farms and writing about agriculture.
I’ve also written a fair amount about the opposite end of the
food chain—the eating end, I mean, and the implications of our eating
for our health. But to the middle links of the food chain, where
the stuff of nature gets transformed into the things we eat and drink,
I hadn’t really given much thought.
Until, that is, I began trying to unpack a curious paradox I had
noticed while watching television, which was simply this: How is it
that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning
the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to
the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking
about food and watching other people cook it on television? The less
cooking we were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that
food and its vicarious preparation fascinated us.
Our culture seems to be of at least two minds on this subject. Survey
research confi rms we’re cooking less and buying more prepared
meals every year. The amount of time spent preparing meals in
American households has fallen by half since the mid-sixties, when I
was watching my mom fi x dinner, to a scant twenty-seven minutes a
day. (Americans spend less time cooking than people in any other nation,
but the general downward trend is global.) And yet at the same
time we’re talking about cooking more—and watching cooking, and
reading about cooking, and going to restaurants designed so that we
can watch the work performed live. We live in an age when professional
cooks are household names, some of them as famous as athletes
or movie stars. The very same activity that many people regard as a
form of drudgery has somehow been elevated to a popular spectator
sport. When you consider that twenty-seven minutes is less time than
it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or The Next Food Network Star,
you realize that there are now millions of people who spend more
time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually
cooking it themselves. I don’t need to point out that the food you
watch being cooked on television is not food you get to eat.
This is peculiar. After all, we’re not watching shows or reading
books about sewing or darning socks or changing the oil in our car,
three other domestic chores that we have been only too happy to
outsource—and then promptly drop from conscious awareness. But
cooking somehow feels different. The work, or the process, retains an
emotional or psychological power we can’t quite shake, or don’t want
to. And in fact it was after a long bout of watching cooking programs
on television that I began to wonder if this activity I had always taken
for granted might be worth taking a little more seriously.
I developed a few theories to explain what I came to think of as the
Cooking Paradox. The fi rst and most obvious is that watching other
people cook is not exactly a new behavior for us humans. Even when
“everyone” still cooked, there were plenty of us who mainly watched:
men for the most part, and children. Most of us have happy memories
of watching our mothers in the kitchen, performing feats that sometimes
looked very much like sorcery and typically resulted in something
tasty to eat. In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and
“priest” was the same—mageiros—and the word shares an etymological
root with “magic.” I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured
her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of
fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a
pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an
everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle,
as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold
nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation,
magically becoming something more than the sum of its
ordinary parts. And in almost every dish, you can fi nd, besides the
culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle,
and an end.
Then there are the cooks themselves, the heroes who drive these
ittle dramas of transformation. Even as it vanishes from our daily
lives, we’re drawn to the rhythms and textures of the work cooks
do, which seems so much more direct and satisfying than the more
abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs these days.
Cooks get to put their hands on real stuff, not just keyboards and
screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi.
They get to work with the primal elements, too, fi re and water, earth
and air, using them—mastering them!—to perform their tasty alchemies.
How many of us still do the kind of work that engages us in a
dialogue with the material world that concludes—assuming the
chicken Kiev doesn’t prematurely leak or the souffl é doesn’t collapse—
with such a gratifying and delicious sense of closure?
So maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on television and
read about cooking in books is that there are things about cooking
we really miss. We might not feel we have the time or energy (or the
knowledge) to do it ourselves every day, but we’re not prepared to see
it disappear from our lives altogether. If cooking is, as the anthropologists
tell us, a defi ning human activity—the act with which culture
begins, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss—then maybe we shouldn’t
be surprised that watching its processes unfold would strike deep
The idea that cooking is a defi ning human activity is not a new one.
In 1773, the Scottish writer James Boswell, noting that “no beast is a
cook,” called Homo sapiens “the cooking animal.” (Though he might
have reconsidered that defi nition had he been able to gaze upon the
frozen-food cases at Walmart.) Fifty years later, in The Physiology of Taste,
the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin claimed that
cooking made us who we are; by teaching men to use fi re, it had
“done the most to advance the cause of civilization.” More recently,
Lévi-Strauss, writing in The Raw and the Cooked in 1964, reported that
many of the world’s cultures entertained a similar view, regarding
cooking as the symbolic activity that “establishes the difference between
animals and people.”
For Lévi-Strauss, cooking was a metaphor for the human transformation
of raw nature into cooked culture. But in the years since
the publication of The Raw and the Cooked, other anthropologists have
begun to take quite literally the idea that the invention of cooking
might hold the evolutionary key to our humanness. A few years ago,
a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist named Richard Wrangham
published a fascinating book called Catching Fire, in which he argued
that it was the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors—and
not tool making or meat eating or language—that set us apart from
the apes and made us human. According to the “cooking hypothesis,”
the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By
providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest
diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious
energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes
much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other
primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and
spend many more of their waking hours chewing—as much as six
hours a day.
Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion
and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of
energy. Also, since cooking detoxifi es many potential sources of food,
the new technology cracked open a treasure-trove of calories unavailable
to other animals. Freed from the necessity of spending our days
gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing)
it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic
resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.
Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice
of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something
new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have
likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. (Or,
come to think of it, like the industrial eaters we’ve more recently become,
grazing at gas stations and eating by ourselves whenever and
wherever.) But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact,
sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.
“Around that fi re,” Wrangham writes, “we became tamer.”
Cooking thus transformed us, and not only by making us more
sociable and civil. Once cooking allowed us to expand our cognitive
capacity at the expense of our digestive capacity, there was no going
back: Our big brains and tiny guts now depended on a diet of cooked
food. (Raw-foodists take note.) What this means is that cooking is
now obligatory—it is, as it were, baked in to our biology. What Winston
Churchill once said of architecture—“First we shape our buildings,
and then they shape us”—might also be said of cooking. First we
cooked our food, and then our food cooked us.
If cooking is as central to human identity, biology, and culture as
Wrangham suggests, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in
our time would have serious consequences for modern life, and so it
has. Are they all bad? Not at all. The outsourcing of much of the work
of cooking to corporations has relieved women of what has traditionally
been their exclusive responsibility for feeding the family, making
it easier for them to work outside the home and have careers. It has
headed off many of the confl icts and domestic arguments that such a
large shift in gender roles and family dynamics was bound to spark.
It has relieved all sorts of other pressures in the household, including
longer workdays and overscheduled children, and saved us time that
we can now invest in other pursuits. It has also allowed us to diversify
our diets substantially, making it possible even for people with no
cooking skills and little money to enjoy a whole different cuisine
every night of the week. All that’s required is a microwave.
These are no small benefi ts. Yet they have come at a cost that we
are just now beginning to reckon. Industrial cooking has taken a substantial
toll on our health and well-being. Corporations cook very
differently from 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 rise of fast food and the decline in home cooking have also
undermined the institution of the shared meal, by encouraging us to
eat different things and to eat them on the run and often alone. Survey
researchers tell us we’re spending more time engaged in “secondary
eating,” as this more or less constant grazing on packaged foods
is now called, and less time engaged in “primary eating”—a rather
depressing term for the once-venerable institution known as the meal.
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.
These are, I know, large claims to make for the centrality of cooking (and not cooking) in our lives, and a caveat or two are in order.
For most of us today, the choice is not nearly as blunt as I’ve framed
it: that is, home cooking from scratch versus fast food prepared by
corporations. Most of us occupy a place somewhere between those
bright poles, a spot that is constantly shifting with the day of the
week, the occasion, and our mood. Depending on the night, we might
cook a meal from scratch, or we might go out or order in, or we might
“sort of” cook. This last option involves availing ourselves of the various
and very useful shortcuts that an industrial food economy offers:
the package of spinach in the freezer, the can of wild salmon in the
pantry, the box of store-bought ravioli from down the street or halfway
around the world. What constitutes “cooking” takes place along a
spectrum, as indeed it has for at least a century, when packaged foods
fi rst entered the kitchen and the defi nition 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 fi nd 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.
“We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods,” a food-marketing
consultant told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of
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.
Now, for a man to criticize these developments will perhaps rankle
some readers. To certain ears, whenever a man talks about the importance
of cooking, it sounds like he wants to turn back the clock, and
return women to the kitchen. But that’s not at all what I have in mind.
I’ve come to think cooking is too important to be left to any one gender
or member of the family; men and children both need to be in
the kitchen, too, and not just for reasons of fairness or equity but
because they have so much to gain by being there., In fact, one of the
biggest reasons corporations were able to insinuate themselves into
this part of our lives is because home cooking had for so long been
denigrated as “women’s work” and therefore not important enough
for men and boys to learn to do.
Though it’s hard to say which came fi rst: Was home cooking denigrated
because the work was mostly done by women, or did women
get stuck doing most of the cooking because our culture denigrated
the work? The gender politics of cooking, which I explore at some
length in part II, are nothing if not complicated, and probably always
have been. Since ancient times, a few special types of cooking have
enjoyed considerable prestige: Homer’s warriors barbecued their own
joints of meat at no cost to their heroic status or masculinity. And ever
since, it has been socially acceptable for men to cook in public and
professionally—for money. (Though it is only recently that professional
chefs have enjoyed the status of artists.) But for most of history
most of humanity’s food has been cooked by women working out of
public view and without public recognition. Except for the rare ceremonial
occasions over which men presided—the religious sacrifi ce,
the July 4 barbecue, the four-star restaurant—cooking has traditionally
been women’s work, part and parcel of homemaking and child
care, and therefore undeserving of serious—i.e., male—attention.
But there may be another reason cooking has not received its
proper due. In a recent book called The Taste for Civilization, Janet A.
Flammang, a feminist scholar and political scientist who has argued
eloquently for the social and political importance of “food work,”
suggests the problem may have something to do with food itself,
which by its very nature falls on the wrong side—the feminine side—
of the mind-body dualism in Western culture.
“Food is apprehended through the senses of touch, smell, and
taste,” she points out, “which rank lower on the hierarchy of senses
than sight and hearing, which are typically thought to give rise to
knowledge. In most of philosophy, religion, and literature, food is
associated with body, animal, female, and appetite—things civilized
men have sought to overcome with knowledge and reason.”
Very much to their loss.
The premise of this book is that cooking—defi ned broadly enough
to take in the whole spectrum of techniques people have devised
for transforming the raw stuff of nature into nutritious and appealing
things for us to eat and drink—is one of the most interesting and
worthwhile things we humans do. This is not something I fully appreciated
before I set out to learn how to cook. But after three years
spent working under a succession of gifted teachers to master four of
the key transformations we call cooking—grilling with fi re, cooking
with liquid, baking bread, and fermenting all sorts of things—I came
away with a very different body of knowledge from the one I went
looking for. Yes, by the end of my education I got pretty good at making
a few things—I’m especially proud of my bread and some of my
braises. But I also learned things about the natural world (and our
implication in it) that I don’t think I could have learned in any other
way. I learned far more than I ever expected to about the nature of
work, the meaning of health, about tradition and ritual, self-reliance
and community, the rhythms of everyday life, and the supreme satisfaction
of producing something I previously could only have imagined
consuming, doing it outside of the cash economy for no other
reason but love.
This book is the story of my education in the kitchen—but also in
the bakery, the dairy, the brewery, and the restaurant kitchen, some
of the places where much of our culture’s cooking now takes place.
Cooked is divided into four parts, one for each of the great transformations
of nature into culture we call cooking. Each of these, I was
surprised and pleased to discover, corresponds to, and depends upon,
one of the classical elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.
Why this should be so I am not entirely sure. But for thousands of
years and in many different cultures, these elements have been regarded
as the four irreducible, indestructible ingredients that make up
the natural world. Certainly they still loom large in our imagination.
The fact that modern science has dismissed the classical elements,
reducing them to still more elemental substances and forces—water
to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen; fi re to a process of rapid oxidation,
etc.—hasn’t really changed our lived experience of nature or the
way we imagine it. Science may have replaced the big four with a
periodic table of 118 elements, and then reduced each of those to evertinier
particles, but our senses and our dreams have yet to get the
To learn to cook is to put yourself on intimate terms with the laws
of physics and chemistry, as well as the facts of biology and microbiology.
Yet, beginning with fi re, I found that the older, prescientifi c
elements fi gure largely—hugely, in fact—in apprehending the main
transformations that comprise cooking, each in its own way. Each
element proposes a different set of techniques for transforming nature,
but also a different stance toward the world, a different kind of
work, and a different mood.
Fire being the fi rst element (in cooking anyway), I began my education
with it, exploring the most basic and earliest kind of cookery:
meat, on the grill. My quest to learn the art of cooking with fi re
took me a long way from my backyard grill, to the barbecue pits and
pit masters of eastern North Carolina, where cooking meat still means
a whole pig roasted very slowly over a smoldering wood fi re. It was
here, training under an accomplished and fl amboyant pit master, that
I got acquainted with cooking’s primary colors—animal, wood, fi re,
time—and found a clearly marked path deep into the prehistory of
cooking: what fi rst drove our protohuman ancestors to gather around
the cook fi re, and how that experience transformed them. Killing and
cooking a large animal has never been anything but an emotionally
freighted and spiritually charged endeavor. Rituals of sacrifi ce have
attended this sort of cooking from the beginning, and I found their
echoes reverberating even today, in twenty-fi rst-century barbecue.
Then as now, the mood in fi re cooking is heroic, masculine, theatrical,
boastful, unironic, and faintly (sometimes not so faintly) ridiculous.
It is in fact everything that cooking with water, the subject of
part II, is not. Historically, cooking with water comes after cooking
with fi re, since it awaited the invention of pots to cook in, an artifact
of human culture only about ten thousand years old. Now cooking
moves indoors, into the domestic realm, and in this chapter I delve
into everyday home cookery, its techniques and satisfactions as well
as its discontents. Befi tting its subject, this section takes the shape of a
single long recipe, unfolding step by step the age-old techniques that
grandmothers developed for teasing delicious food from the most
ordinary of ingredients: some aromatic plants, a little fat, a few scraps
of meat, a long afternoon around the house. Here, too, I apprenticed
myself to a fl amboyant professional character, but she and I did most
of our cooking at home in my kitchen, and often as a family—home
and family being very much the subject of this section.
Part III takes up the element of air, which is all that distinguishes
an exuberantly leavened loaf of bread from a sad gruel of pulverized
grain. By fi guring out how to coax air into our food, we elevate it and
ourselves, transcending, and vastly improving, what nature gives us
in a handful of grass seed. The story of Western civilization is pretty
much the story of bread, which is arguably the fi rst important “food
processing” technology. (The counterargument comes from the brewers
of beer, who may have gotten there fi rst.) This section, which
takes place in several different bakeries across the country (including
a Wonder Bread plant), follows two personal quests: to bake a perfect,
maximally airy and wholesome loaf of bread, and to pinpoint the
precise historical moment that cooking took its fatefully wrong turn:
when civilization began processing food in such a way as to make it
less nutritious rather than more.
Different as they are, these fi rst three modes of cooking all depend
on heat. Not so the fourth. Like the earth itself, the various arts of
fermentation rely instead on biology to transform organic matter from
one state to a more interesting and nutritious other state. Here I encountered
the most amazing alchemies of all: strong, allusive fl avors
and powerful intoxicants created for us by fungi and bacteria—many
of them the denizens of the soil—as they go about their invisible work
of creative destruction. This section falls into three chapters, covering
the fermentation of vegetables (into sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles of all
kinds); milk (into cheese); and alcohol (into mead and beer). Along
the way, a succession of “fermentos” tutored me in the techniques of
artfully managing rot, the folly of the modern war against bacteria,
the erotics of disgust, and the somewhat upside-down notion that,
while we were fermenting alcohol, alcohol has been fermenting us.
I have been fortunate in both the talent and the generosity of the
teachers who agreed to take me in—the cooks, bakers, brewers, picklers,
and cheese makers who shared their time and techniques and
recipes. This cast of characters turned out to be a lot more masculine
than I would have expected, and a reader might conclude that I have
indulged in some unfortunate typecasting. But as soon as I opted to
apprentice myself to professional rather than amateur cooks—in the
hopes of acquiring the most rigorous training I could get—it was
probably inevitable that certain stereotypes would be reinforced. It
turns out that barbecue pit masters are almost exclusively men, as
are brewers and bakers (except for pastry chefs), and a remarkable
number of cheese makers are women. In learning to cook traditional
pot dishes, I chose to work with a female chef, and if by doing so I
underscored the cliché that home cooking is woman’s work, that was
sort of the idea: I wanted to delve into that very question. We can
hope that all the gender stereotypes surrounding food and cooking
will soon be thrown up for grabs, but to assume that has already happened
would be to kid ourselves.
Taken as a whole, this is a “how-to” book, but of a very particular
kind. Each section circles around a single elemental recipe—for barbecue,
for a braise, for bread, and for a small handful of fermented
items—and by the end of it, you should be well enough equipped to
make it. (The recipes are spelled out more concisely in the appendix,
in case you do want to try any of them.) Though all the cooking I
describe can be done in a home kitchen, only a portion of the book
deals directly with the kind of work most people regard as “home
cooking.” Several of the recipes here are for things most readers will
probably never make themselves—beer, for example, or cheese, or
even bread. Though I hope that they will. Because I discovered there
was much to learn from attempting, even if only just once, these
more ambitious and time-consuming forms of cookery, knowledge
that might not at fi rst seem terribly useful but in fact changes everything
about one’s relationship to food and what is possible in the
kitchen. Let me try to explain.
At bottom cooking is not a single process but, rather, comprises a
small set of technologies, some of the most important humans have
yet devised. They changed us fi rst as a species, and then at the level of
the group, the family, and the individual. These technologies range
from the controlled used of fi re to the manipulation of specifi c microorganisms
to transform grain into bread or alcohol all the way to the
microwave oven—the last major innovation. So cooking is really a
continuum of processes, from simple to complex, and Cooked is, among
other things, a natural and social history of these transformations,
both the ones that are still part of our everyday lives and the ones
that are not. Today, we’re apt to think of making cheese or brewing
beer as “extreme” forms of cookery, only because so few of us have
ever attempted them, but of course at one time all these transformations
took place in the household and everyone had at least a rudimentary
knowledge of how to perform them. Nowadays, only a small
handful of cooking’s technologies seem within the reach of our competence.
This represents not only a loss of knowledge, but a loss of a
kind of power, too. And it is entirely possible that, within another
generation, 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.
When that happens—when we no longer have any direct personal
knowledge of how these wonderful creations are made—food will
have become completely abstracted from its various contexts: from
the labor of human hands, from the natural world of plants and animals,
from imagination and culture and community. Indeed, food is
already well on its way into that ether of abstraction, toward becoming
mere fuel or pure image. So how might we begin to bring it back
My wager in Cooked is that the best way to recover the reality of
food, to return it to its proper place in ours lives, is by attempting to
master the physical processes by which it has traditionally been made.
The good news is that this is still within our reach, no matter how
limited our skills in the kitchen. My own apprenticeship necessitated
a journey far beyond my own kitchen (and comfort zone), to some
of the farther reaches of cookery, in the hopes of confronting the essential
facts of the matter, and discovering exactly what it is about
these transformations that helped make us who we are. But perhaps
my happiest discovery was that the wonders of cooking, even its most
ambitious manifestations, rely on a magic that remains accessible to
all of us, at home.
I should add that the journey has been great fun, probably the
most fun I’ve ever had while still ostensibly “working.” What is more
gratifying, after all, than discovering you can actually make something
delicious (or intoxicating) that you simply assumed you’d always
have to buy in the marketplace? Or fi nding yourself in that
sweet spot where the frontier between work and play disappears in
a cloud of bread fl our or fragrant steam rising from a boiling kettle
Even in the case of the seemingly most impractical cooking adventures,
I learned things of an unexpectedly practical value. After you’ve
tried your hand at brewing or pickling or slow roasting a whole hog,
everyday home cooking becomes much less daunting, and in certain
ways easier. My own backyard barbecuing has been informed and
improved by my hours hanging around the barbecue pit. Working
with bread dough has taught me how to trust my hands and my senses
in the kitchen, and to have enough confi dence in their reporting to
free me from the bonds of recipe and measuring cup. And having
spent time in the bakeries of artisans as well as in a Wonder Bread
factory, my appreciation for a good loaf of bread has grown much
more keen. Same for a wedge of cheese or bottle of beer: What had
always been just products, good or bad, now reveal themselves as so
much more than that—as achievements, as expressions, as relationships.
By itself, this added increment of eating and drinking pleasure
would have been enough to justify all the so-called work.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned by doing this work
is how cooking implicates us in a whole web of social and ecological
relationships: with plants and animals, with the soil, with farmers,
with the microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of
course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Above all
else, what I found in the kitchen is that cooking connects.
Cooking—of whatever kind, everyday or extreme—situates us in
the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side
and the social world on the other. The cook stands squarely between
nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.
Both nature and culture are transformed by the work. And in
the process, I discovered, so is the cook.
As I grew steadily more comfortable in the kitchen, I found that,
much like gardening, most cooking manages to be agreeably absorbing
without being too demanding intellectually. It leaves plenty of
mental space for daydreaming and refl ection. One of the things I refl
ected on is the whole question of taking on what in our time has
become, strictly speaking, optional, even unnecessary work, work for
which I am not particularly gifted or qualifi ed, and at which I may
never get very good. This is, in the modern world, the unspoken
question that hovers over all our cooking: Why bother?
By any purely rational calculation, even everyday home cooking
(much less baking bread or fermenting kimchi) is probably not a wise
use of my time. Not long ago, I read an Op Ed piece in The Wall Street
Journal about the restaurant industry, written by the couple that publishes
the Zagat restaurant guides, which took exactly this line. Rather
than coming home after work to cook, the Zagats suggested, “people
would be better off staying an extra hour in the offi ce doing what
they do well, and letting bargain restaurants 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.
One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy
is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility,
between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences.
Specialization makes it easy to forget about the fi lth of the coal-fi red
power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking
labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the
misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon.
Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our
behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.
Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a
powerful corrective to this way of being in the world—a corrective
that is still available to all of 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 fl esh 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.
Especially one’s pronouncements about “the environment,” which
suddenly begins to seem a little less “out there” and a lot closer to
home. For what is the environmental crisis if not a crisis of the way
we live? The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total
of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer
spending represents nearly three-quarters of the U.S. economy)
and the rest of them made by others in the name of our needs and
desires. If the environmental crisis is ultimately a crisis of character,
as Wendell Berry told us way back in the 1970s, then sooner or later
it will have to be addressed at that level—at home, as it were. In our
yards and kitchens and minds.
As soon as you start down this path of thinking, the quotidian
space of the kitchen appears in a startling new light. It begins to matter
more than we ever imagined. The unspoken reason why political
reformers from Vladimir Lenin to Betty Friedan sought to get women
out of the kitchen was that nothing of importance—nothing worthy
of their talents and intelligence and convictions—took place there.
The only worthy arenas for consequential action were the workplace
and the public square. But this was before the environmental crisis
had come into view, and before the industrialization of our eating
created a crisis in our health. Changing the world will always require
action and participation in the public realm, but in our time that will
no longer be suffi cient. We’ll have to change the way we live, too.
What that means is that the sites of our everyday engagement with
nature—our kitchens, gardens, houses, cars—matter to the fate of the
world in a way they never have before.
To cook or not to cook thus becomes a consequential question.
Though I realize that is putting the matter a bit too bluntly. Cooking
means different things at different times to different people; seldom
is it an all-or-nothing proposition. Yet even to cook a few more nights
a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few
meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make
something you only ever expected to buy—even these modest acts
will constitute a kind of a vote. A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a
world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose
to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization—against the total
rationalization of life. Against the infi ltration of commercial interests
into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to
devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence
from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment
into yet another occasion for consumption. (Come to think of it, our
nonwaking moments as well: Ambien, anyone?) It is to reject the debilitating
notion that, at least while we’re at home, production is work
best done by someone else, and the only legitimate form of leisure is
consumption. This dependence marketers call “freedom.”
Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals:
It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers. Not
completely, not all the time, but I have found that even to shift the
ratio between these two identities a few degrees toward the side of
production yields deep and unexpected satisfactions. Cooked is an invitation
to alter, however slightly, the ratio between production and
consumption in your life. The regular exercise of these simple skills
for producing some of the necessities of life increases self-reliance
and freedom while reducing our dependence on distant corporations.
Not just our money but our power fl ows toward them whenever we
cannot supply any of our everyday needs and desires ourselves. And
it begins to fl ow back toward us, and our community, as soon as we
decide to take some responsibility for feeding ourselves. This has
been an early lesson of the rising movement to rebuild local food
economies, a movement that ultimately depends for its success on our
willingness to put more thought and effort into feeding ourselves.
Not every day, not every meal—but more often than we do, whenever
Cooking, I found, gives us the opportunity, so rare in modern life,
to work directly in our own support, and in the support of the people
we feed. If this is not “making a living,” I don’t know what is. In the
calculus of economics, doing so may not always be the most effi cient
use of an amateur cook’s time, but in the calculus of human emotion,
it is beautiful even so. For is there any practice less selfi sh, any labor
less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious
and nourishing for people you love?
So let’s begin.