Author, journalist, and food expert Michael Pollen joined Boston Public Radio's Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to talk about his new book "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation" which touches on the profound ways cooking can change our lives.
ME: Why should we cook, Michael Pollan?
MP: It’s the only way to take control of your diet. If you’re having people prepare your food who are large industrial corporations who really don’t—are not interested in your health, they’re really just interested in selling you food. They’re not gonna be a good as you can cook for yourself, or loved ones can cook for you. So the longer I looked at the whole question of nutrition and what we should be eating, I discovered—to my surprise—that it wasn’t about finding the good or evil nutrient. That that’s a trap, and doesn’t really work. The best indicator of a healthy diet is whether it was cooked by a human being or a big corporation.
JB: The causal connection between obesity and less cooking is huge.
MP: The parallels are—in fact, this was determined by a Harvard economist, David Cutler—who looked at this, and he tracked the obesity epidemic to the decline in home cooking. The two things are in lock step, beginning really around 1980 or so. The reason is that when you don’t cook meals, people end up snacking, and they end up eating food that’s been engineered to get you to eat too much of it. I mean, the food industry has a strong interest in getting you to eat more than you should. It’s a tough industry. The margins are small, the population is growing at not as high a rate as Wall Street wants this companies to grow. There’s a fixed stomach: how much food can a human eat, and expand the fixed stomach and get us to eat more, and they do it by layering salt, fat, and sugar and when you put these things to things together, food becomes really addictive.
ME: I go by this great bakery or I'll go to like a Whole Foods, where I think that there’s not gonna be so much junk in the foods, and the meat’s not going to be full of steroids and all these antibiotics and terrible things, but I'm buying a lot of the time prepared to save time, and I thought that was it that was a good thing, and you’ve burst my bubble, Michael.
MP: You know we—I think time is really what stands between a lot of people and their desire to cook. Also a loss of confidence in their not having skills and I think that's too bad because it's me it's really not rocket science. I mean we watch these cooking shows on television, and it makes it look really intimidating: “I can't cook like that,” but the goal is not to make restaurant food at home, that’s special occasion stuff. But I think we do feel pressed on time. However I do to encourage people to look at how they are spending their time. We find time for the things we deem important, and over the last 15 years we've all found 2 hours in the day surf the internet. Like where did that come from? It’s still a 24 hour day. Well, we took some from television. We decided that was more important, and my argument is that this is really important— there's nothing more important to your health, your family's health, or the social life of your family because if you cook, people sit down together and have a meal and talk.
JB: So wait a second, Michael Pollan, you’re legendary, but if given the chance between watching the Good Wife, watching Mad Men, and then having DVR’d Veep, and watching that after, you’d actually cook something?
MP: I did cook, I mean we cooked probably more nights than we didn't and I wasn't a very good cook, and I didn't give it much thought. It was one of those subjects: there it is, big deal! What's there to say about it? Um it was really when I learned how important it was, both on the health side and on the environmental side. We’re not going to change our food system, if people insist on corporate cooked food, because corporations will buy food from the biggest monoculture farms. So I did cook, but I cooked kind of thoughtlessly and for me the journey of discovery in this book was like, getting better at it, and learning what it's all about, and that it’s a very profound transformation that that we do moving these things from nature to culture.
JB: How center stage across America is that whole movement?
MP: Well there is a local food movement all across the country now. It’s bigger in some places than others, but you can go to Iowa and you find—which is corn and soy land, which used to be a place—it was a food desert actually— there was no real food in Iowa. All the corn and soy was shipped out of state, processed into meet and fast food, and sent back in. It was like a third world country! But now there's local food. There are people who are taking some of the acreage out of corn and soybeans, and growing vegetables, and selling them locally, so this is becoming a national movement. It’s still small—It’s got a got a long way to go, but it's got legs and so I’m very encouraged by what I see going on. It's not just a costal phenomenon, and it’s not just an elite phenomenon. It's happening in inner cities as well.
ME: You touched on two things I think are a big problem: mothers working very long hours, and having no confidence in their abilities. So what do you tell the people that are listening that are in that boat?
MP: A big problem with cooking was, it was women’s work, and it was a ghetto basically. It was denigrated as not being that important and when women entered the workforce there was enormous tension over that—in families, in my family. And there was this very charged uncomfortable conversation between men and women about how to how do we divide labor at home: There was cooking, there was childcare, there was cleaning. And, as you know, it was very tense. And what happened was: the industry, which had been trying to get in the American Kitchen for a hundred years, leapt forward and said “hey stop arguing we've got you covered. We’ll cook for you. And it let men off the hook, and it let women off the hook, and we didn't finish that conversation. That’s what we need to do now because we need to get everybody in the kitchen, and most importantly children, because if they leave home without that critical life skill… I think it’s irresponsible to let your kids graduate college not knowing how to roast a chicken make 10 things, you know, some tiny simple repertoire. It's so important, and especially for boys. You know we need Home Ec again.
JB: You’re not a microwave kind of guy are you?
MP: It’s great for frozen things. Cooking in a microwave? Doesn't work.
JB: You divide into fire, water, air, and earth. Tell us about this.
MP: You know, fire is the first kind of cooking. It goes back two million years. It changed us as a species. It is the reason we developed these big brains and small guts compared to other primates. It was a big deal in our evolution, so I wanted to find the existing most primal kind of cooking there is, and then turns out to be whole hog barbecue as practiced in eastern— only Eastern— North Carolina. Western North Carolina, they do pork shoulder. The BBQ Balkans is highly divided all through the South. So I found a couple pitmasters, one in particular named Ed Mitchell— who is in Raleigh at the time, now in Durham, and he was cooking the way people have been cooking meat for hundreds of years, you know, it’s a 20 hour a process, a lot of sitting around drinking while goes on. It grew out of the tobacco harvest in the south, that's what you did while you have these fires to cure the tobacco. It was one of the few times are black and white sat down together to eat, and he said in his experience— Ed Mitchell said— that the two most integrated things his life, and in most profound things, was Vietnam and barbecue. That that’s where the racial lines were crossed. And it remains one of the few places— I mean even if the height of race tension in the south, if the good barbecue was at a black place, the whites would be there, and vice versa.
For more from our chat with Michael Pollan, listen above or tune in to Emily Rooney's conversation with him on Greater Boston below: