For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienating, any time less wasted than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love. – Michael Pollan
Netflix recently released a new documentary series Cooked, based on Journalist Michael Pollan’s 2013 book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. As an audience we are treated to a series of stories, histories, and philosophies – from all around the world – building a larger global narrative, along with Michael’s personal journey into cooking. Anyone with a love of food or food culture will instantly meld with this series because it affirms all of your beliefs and emotional responses to food, and for many, the very act of cooking.1, Cooked is more accessible to a wider audience because it works towards demystifying the world and narrative of cooking. Instead of presenting what seems too impossible to reach ideals and values, Cooked presents food through a variety of lenses – scientific, personal, spiritual, global, etc. – that offer a greater understanding of our species’ relationship to it. Simply, it brings a more tangible understanding of food that for many remain forgotten or abstract.
Michael Pollan’s journey takes us through the four elements of nature: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth2. The elemental progression marks our own co-evolution with cooking, and how all four transform the raw world around us into food. Through explaining the scientific process and the our own historical relationship to these elements, he manages to stir the instinctual nature with in tapping into your emotional responses to food, cooking and cuisine.
The narrative of fire reminds us that cooking with fire is what originally made us human, allowing a hunter-gather society. It reminds us how, in many ways, society will evolve around fire to birth tradition and culture. The aboriginal tribe featured in the docushow still practice, on weekends, a hunter-gather type of lifestyle in the bush. You hear the tales of how fire is incorporated into every aspect of their lives: hunting, cooking, baptism, etc. It is in their history, way of life and, is the primary element that stitches together their community. You can’t help but to stop and think about your own connection to fire. Even if you don’t cook with it yourself, you’ve been around it your whole life. It can tie you back to your hometown, your family, and that basic human allure. Making the connection to home in America, the story also visits a Southern Pit Master smoking hogs and features Michael Pollan BBQing in his own backyard.
Water explores the birth of what we consider cuisine; providing the ability to combine plants and animals in various ways to create a wide variety of new flavors. Using water opened up endless possibilities for creativity, not just in making food tastier, but also making it more nutritious and comforting. Michael Pollan and chef/ writer Samin Nosrat demonstrate and explain the process of braising; how the slow breaking down combines the molecules of your different ingredients to create something undeniably tantalizing. This episode amazingly presents the joy and satisfaction in the personal handling of ingredients and the creation of food. Pollan is constantly trying to provoke that a yearning to cook which he believes to be instinct for all humans.
Air in the series is heavily tied to the production of bread3, which for many cultures throughout human history has been an essential cooked4product foundational to the development of civilization. Air and bread literally allowed humans to turn grass seeds into something nutritious and magically delicious. Seeing a mill and wheat farm in its traditional form in Marrakesh is a reminder for how long bread has part of our society and how it still affects the daily lives of those in many other countries. More importantly, this segment takes you to the home kitchen turning something viewed as bought, as to something that can be made. Pollan argues that studying the traditional ways of making bread can will always lead to something more delicious and “naturally5” more nutritious.
The final chapter, by far the most abstract in terms of an element, is earth. In this case not necessarily the dirt or physical earth, but the inevitability that all living things will eventually return to the earth, also known as decay. Human mastery over the microbes of these processes has not only been key to survival 6, but often allowed us to create foods and dishes unique to cultural identities. Every culture has a fermented product and Cooked shows that the processes of making cheese, beer, and cacao are all heavily reliant on a variety of microbes and decay to make them delicious and unique. Like the other cooking methods, fermentation is an old and global practice. This episode, even more so than the others, works toward moving American perception food away from the spectacle, commercialism, and separation we’ve created around cooking and ingredients; gently guiding our views to be comprehensive, appreciative, and unafraid.
Michael Pollan points out the clear contrasts between modern7 food culture and traditional cooking. There is a loss in connection to our food either turning it into an unreachable spectacle, or reducing it to a time saving measure. For many of us, we could not be farther away from our ingredients. Corporations do the work for us, save us time, and at that point, food becomes an after thought. For many other countries, we are shown that it this is not the case. In Mumbai, we see the importance of the home cooked meal, even in the contemporary work place; and how the rural farming communities of Marrakesh are brought closer together by the process of making bread, from growing the grain to milling the flour, and baking in the community oven. Pollan urges us slow down, look around at what were doing, and evaluate if it is right for us. He offers an alternative way to look at how our lives and well being are deeply connected our food and, explains the best way to get to find understanding in this is to explore cooking.
Michael Pollan is unashamed in his views against the unsustainable nature of vegetarianism, corrosive nature of processed foods and industrial meat farming, and how wheat has now been given a bad name with out properly evaluating how modern methods have been processing it. However, Cooked, is not a statement for an immediate call for change, and uses Pollan’s views more to tell a story than make a point. He offers insight and visual examples of how cooking can transform your life and, asks us to make simple choices to guide cooking back into the core of our lives.
To cook or not to cook is a consequential question. Though I realize that is putting the matter a bit too bluntly. Cooking means different things at different time for different people; seldom is it an all or nothing proposition. […However,] cooking has the power to transform more than just plants and animals. 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. – Michael Pollan
Cooked validates all of my beliefs about food, and turns them into a visual reality both familiar and strange. If you love cooking or food, you can’t deny the human allure towards it, and our dependency on it. Take time to explore the primal, instinctual, and nostalgic nature of that relationship through the four elements of Cooked.