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Patience, Practice and Presence: How Michael Pollan Fell in Love With Cooking

May 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In the age of pre-packaged food, author Michael Pollan says the most important thing about your diet is the act of actually cooking it. Jeffrey Brown talks to Pollan about his new book, "Cooked," which triumphs the gratification of home cooking and the importance of preserving it as a part of daily life.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, what are you having for dinner? Where did it come from? And, most relevant to our topic today, did you prepare it, cook it, yourself?

Michael Pollan has been exploring all things food in a series of books. His latest is “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” I sat down with him recently.

Welcome to you.

MICHAEL POLLAN, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”: Thank you. Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are making a big claim in this book that cooking has not only a history that tells us a bit about who we are, but that it even has a kind of ethical side to it.

MICHAEL POLLAN: It does, actually.

Well, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, cooking is an agricultural act. You know, what you decide to cook, whether you decide to cook has an enormous bearing all the way along the food chain, back to the land. The reason we industrialized our agriculture to the extent we did is because we had industrialized our eating.

The fast food industry basically revolutionized farming all the way back to what we grow and how we grow it. And this new renaissance going on of small farms that you see at the farmer’s markets is really supported by people who are cooking. I mean, you know, what’s for sale at the farmer’s market? Raw ingredients, by and large.

JEFFREY BROWN: New renaissance, but at the same time, the availability of so much that allows us to get away without dealing with it, right?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes. Well, we have — there’s no question that our food economy has changed dramatically in the last several decades, so that half of the money spent on food in America is going to food that’s cooked outside your home, being prepared by food service, restaurants, home meal replacements in the supermarket freezer cases.

And the rates of cook having plummeted in America. They have fallen by half from 1965.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the obvious question — and you wrestle with it in the book — is sort of, why bother, right?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: If I can have access to so much even good healthy food without having to prepare it myself, never mind all the junk food that’s there, why bother cooking?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, it’s a question for a lot of people, and a lot of people are conflicted about it.

It is something you can outsource very easily and fairly cheaply. But I would quibble with you that you can get healthy food outsourced. In general, you know, the most important question about your diet is who is cooking it. If you’re letting a corporation cook it, the odds are you’re not getting healthy food. They just don’t cook very well.

They use lots of salt, fat and sugar. They buy the cheapest possible raw ingredients, and then they have to dress it all up with lots of additives, because the food was cooked so long ago and so far away. So one of the — and they cook differently than you do, in that they make — they specialize in those labor-intensive foods made with cheap raw ingredients.

The French fry is a classic example. Right? They can make French fries so efficiently that you can have them twice a day, no problem. And a lot of Americans do. Try making French fries at home. It’s a lot of work and it’s a big mess. And you won’t do it more than once a month, which is probably about how often you should eat French fries.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the most amazing phenomenon of our time, I think — and you do write about it — you call it the cooking paradox.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That we watch so much — that cooks, chefs are celebrities, that proliferation of all these programs about cooking, that we end up watching more than we actually cook ourselves.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes.

The average American today cooks only 27 minutes a day, puts that much time into preparing food, four minutes for cleanup. Your average Food Network show is 30 minutes or an hour.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think this happens?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, to me, it was a very important clue about the importance of cooking, because there are many things in our lives we have outsourced and we haven’t looked back, sewing our clothing, changing the oil in your car.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MICHAEL POLLAN: We’re very happy to outsource that and, OK, that’s fine.

Cooking is different. I think people have very strong feelings about cooking. We all have memories of being in the kitchen when our mom was preparing a meal or our grandmother and watching those alchemies unfold and that wonderful smell and the feeling of love as she presented the thing she worked hard on.

So I don’t think we’re quite ready to let it go. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re obsessing about it. The mystery is, why don’t we do it? And I think a lot of people feel daunted. It’s — one of the interesting things about those cooking shows is they don’t actually motivate you to cook. They make it look too hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I think my favorite line in the book is about those shows, where you say, I don’t need to point out that the food you watch being cooked on television is not food you get to eat.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks for pointing that out.

You felt the need to …

MICHAEL POLLAN: People need to be reminded.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

MICHAEL POLLAN: You know, it looks scary. There’s knives flying and fountains of flame and a time clock. And that’s not really what cooking is about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the book — and we’re not going to go into all the — but you divide it into classical categories of fire, barbecue, water, cooking in pots, air, baking, and earth, right, various forms of fermentation.

And you make yourself a sort of food — a cook-to-be tourist, I guess, or not tourist, but …

MICHAEL POLLAN: A student, apprentice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Student, yes, yes.

MICHAEL POLLAN: So what I did was a found a master of each of — I divided cooking into these four big important transformations. These are the common denominators of anything you would make.

And then I looked for masters in each one, and I apprenticed myself and learned at their feet. And the book is really the story of my education.

You know, I’m willing to call it reporting, but it was really just fun. And I have never had more fun working on a book.

JEFFREY BROWN: But were you coming at it — I just wonder if people would be surprised at you’re — you’re sort of presenting yourself as a non-cook.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Naive.

JEFFREY BROWN: A naive cook.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I did cook before. I didn’t just learn how to cook. But I didn’t cook with much care or thought or curiosity.

And I cook with a lot more conviction now than I ever did before and a lot more knowledge. I understand the science at stake. I understand the history behind what I’m doing. And so I would just say I’m a more comfortable cook now as a result. This was a labor of gaining confidence in the kitchen to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what lessons did you take that you can help others think about this from the masters …

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, we are — we’re internally conflicted when we go in the kitchen. There’s always something else we could be doing. We could be taking a run. We could be watching TV. We could be reading.

And we have — we set up this conflict, because it is optional now. It’s no longer obligatory to cook. And, for me, what I learned is something from one of my teachers, Samin Nosrat, who taught me the arts of cooking in water. And she said the key to cooking is patience, practice, and presence, being there, and that when you chop an onion, just chop an onion. Don’t fight it. It’s a Zen …

… really.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is Zen, yes.

MICHAEL POLLAN: And as I learned to do that, I found it’s incredibly therapeutic to cook.

We make time for things that we value. We get to the gym because we know how important it is to our sanity and our health. My premise here is that cooking is just as important to your sanity and your health, and that the most important thing about your diet is that activity, whether it’s cooked or not.

So learning how to be in the kitchen and not fight it and realizing what a pleasure it is — I mean, this book really was my falling in love with cooking as a way to spend time. And that was the revelation to me, that just how satisfying — it’s its own gratification.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

When you chop an onion, just chop an onion.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Just chop.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

We’re going to continue talking some of your experiences. We will do that online. And I hope people will go to that later.

For now, the new book is “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”

Michael Pollan, thanks so much.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Jeff.