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-sufficiency? And then there were the more philosophical questions, the ones I’ve been chewing on since I first 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 find 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 fixed 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 confirms 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 fix 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 first 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 find, 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 little 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, fire 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 soufflé 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 defining 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 emotional chords.
The idea that cooking is a defining 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 definition 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 fire, 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 detoxifies 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 fire,” 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 conflicts 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 benefits. 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 ind...Revue de presse :
It's not often that a life-changing book falls into one's lap ... Yet Michael Pollan's Cooked is one of them. One it's impossible to read and not act on ... Embrace bacteria, cook thoughtfully and slow, and taste some of the most luscious food you've ever eaten, this powerful book says. And do it for the people you love as well as the invisible soldiers inside you who are fighting to keep you strong. Cooked is a book of revelations for today's hungry human animal. Be changed by it ( Sunday Telegraph)
In Cooked, Pollan continues his campaign to get us to eat properly and pleasurably by making meals from scratch ... a warm, thoughtful narrative in which Pollan encounters everything from a surfing baker who makes the perfect sourdough to a cheese-making nun. This is a love song to old, slow kitchen skills at their delicious best (Kathryn Hughes Guardian BOOKS OF THE YEAR)
[A] rare, ranging breed of narrative that manages to do all ... In Pollan's dexterous hands, we get the science, the history, the inspiration, ultimately the recipe. What feels like all of it. It doesn't hurt that he also happens to be very funny ( Boston Globe)
Pollan's book is many things, among them a memoir of learning to master the absolute basics of culinary creation: fire, water, air and earth. As Pollan chats with cheesemaking nuns and discovers Walt Whitman's views on composting, he reminds us that cooking used to be all about connection - with the world around us, with other times and cultures, and with those we cook for ... this book [is] both approachable and rewarding (Hephzibah Anderson Prospect)
As in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan is never less than delightful, full of curiosity, insight, and good humor. This is a book to be read, savoured, and smudged with spatterings of olive oil, wine, butter, and the sulfuric streaks of chopped onion ( Outside)
Pollan eloquently explains how grilling with fire, braising (water), baking bread (air), and fermented foods (earth) have impacted our health and culture ... Engaging and enlightening ( Publishers Weekly)
A thoughtful meditation on cooking that is both difficult to categorize and uniquely, inimitably his ... Intensely focused yet wide ranging, beautifully written, thought provoking, and, yes, fun, Pollan's latest is not to be missed by those interested in how, why, or what we cook and eat ( Library Journal)
Having described what's wrong with American food in his best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), New York Times contributor Pollan delivers a more optimistic but equally fascinating account of how to do it right ... A delightful chronicle of the education of a cook who steps back frequently to extol the scientific and philosophical basis of this deeply satisfying human activity ( Booklist)
[Pollan] explores the same way a naturalist might, by studing the animals, plants and microbes involved in cooking, and delving into history, culture and chemistry ... he describes the remarkable transformations that take place in the humble saucepan ... Side by side with Mr Pollan the naturalist is the author as activist ... his book is a hymn to why people should be enticed back into the kitchen ( Economist)
Delicious (Jay Rayner Guardian)
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