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Why Cooking Matters

"Cooked" / Courtesy of Netflix

How does the food we eat affect us as people? Michael Pollan’s books—The Omnivore’s DilemmaCookedIn Defense of Food, and others—consider the history and science behind the way we eat, and how our eating habits have changed over time. His books often lead us on a sort of journey: in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he spends a few weeks farming with Joel Salatin, then goes on to learn how to forage for mushrooms and hunt wild boar. His journeys are usually structured around a question about food and our relationship to it: why do we farm this way? Is eating meat ethical? Is there a right—or better—way to eat than our current one?

Cooked,” a documentary just released on Netflix, takes Pollan’s book of the same name and gives it cinematic color and texture. It’s divide into four segments, each named after one of the four classical elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth (or, according to their primary subject matter: Meat, Soup, Bread, and Cheese). It’s a journey into our oldest traditions of cooking: from roasting meat on a spit, to preparing cheese in old wooden barrels, to making kimchi. Throughout, Pollan considers why cooking has developed in the way it has, and why the old traditions—baking bread from scratch, say, or fermenting our vegetables—are important and worth preserving. In this way, it’s a rather conservative piece.

“Cooked” crams a lot of material into four 50 to 58-minute segments. Parts feel a bit rushed. Additionally, crusader that he is, much of Pollan’s documentary levels a variety of attacks at big business and capitalism for all our current food woes; it’s the advertising industry, he believes, that have undermined our old traditions of cooking. And while there’s some truth to this, less considered are the ways in which the decline of private association and the family may have also affected our eating habits. After all, in a home whereno one is ever at home, there isn’t really time to cultivate the cooking habits of yesteryear.

Pollan, in the documentary’s “Air” episode, targets food companies in the 1950s who convinced housewives they could do better buying canned goods and Wonder Bread than making meals from scratch. “The collapse of cooking can be interpreted as a byproduct of feminism, but it’s a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting than that,” Pollan said in an interview with Mother Jones. “Getting it right in the film took some time, but it was important to tell the story of the insinuation of industry into our kitchens, and show how the decline of cooking was a supply-driven phenomenon.”

To his credit, Pollan acknowledges the vital and under-appreciated work that homemaking consisted of up to this point. He implies (though carefully, considering how politically charged the subject is) that the work of women in the home contributed to the flourishing of the entire family, and that our lack of this presence has had consequences to our diet, and thus to our health and happiness. (For more insights on this subject, consider reading Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers.)

The New York Times‘s Neil Genzlinger finds fault with “Cooked” because he thinks it’s too gentrified—because only rich people can feasibly cook in the way Pollan demonstrates:

It would be great if all 7.4 billion of us could hunt our own lizards and cook them over an open fire, spend hours baking our own bread from grain milled on stone, and so on. But there’s a gentrification to Mr. Pollan’s brand of culinary advocacy.

The world’s poorest people — some seen in idyllic imagery here — have to devote long hours to basic subsistence, and the world’s relatively well off have the luxury to indulge in artisanal cooking. Yet applying his ideas across the whole range of human circumstances is a trickier subject than this pretty series wants to tackle.

Part of the appeal Pollan seems to be making, however, is that such cooking used to be common among people of all backgrounds and incomes—he suggests that, rather than being a meager and debilitating practice (as “devote long hours to basic subsistence” would imply), the work of creating food actually elevated the lives of those who created them. It lent grace, rhythm, beauty, and fellowship to their lives. It built up communal bonds, fostered traditions of hospitality, encouraged health and wellbeing. He shares the story of Moroccan communities who bake their bread in communal ovens. This is part of their heritage and culture—yet as Pollan’s documentary shows, this practice is growing rare as people turn to the ease of grocery store loaves.

I can see Genzlinger’s point—not because I think the barbecuing, soup-making, or bread-baking that Pollan describes are only for “rich people,” but rather, because we’ve largely lost the skills associated with this work. Many of the people throughout Pollan’s documentary refer to cooking traditions their mothers or grandmothers taught them: skills that were handed down through generations. It seems that we’ve lost a lot of these skills, and thus re-learning them presents a challenge of time and resources that many of us just don’t have. But baking a loaf of bread requires the cheapest of ingredients: flour, water, salt, a little yeast. Buying a whole chicken and roasting it with a few spices needn’t require an entire paycheck. Without an understanding of how to do these things, however, they become a costly endeavor.

There’s also a sense in which we think we don’t have time or money, because we apportion our resources differently; as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tara Duggan notes in her “Cooked” review, “If we shouldn’t let corporations make our food, as Pollan argues, should each of us rise before dawn to bake loaves of bread and homemade granola bars for our children’s lunch each morning? There’s something about his idea of cooking as a moral imperative that feels insensitive to the realities of modern life.” But when she asked Pollan about this, he reminded her that, while it’s true we often work longer hours and spend more time commuting, we also spend more time in front of the television and computer than we used to.

Each segment of the series features a person, family, or tribe who complete a culinary ritual because this is how it has been done for generations. Making beer out of yucca root, cheese in old wooden barrels, Indian food with homemade coconut milk: these things have scientific reasons for being good, but that’s not usually why we embrace or enjoy them. They emanate from a sense of worship, a desire to nourish loved ones, an enjoyment of ritual, an eagerness to show hospitality. This is what cooking traditionally does: it brings us together, and fosters a sense of belonging. It involves a very conservative respect and reverence for the past, for the rituals and traditions of our forbears. Pollan’s documentary helps us remember the “why” behind our cooking, the human love and fellowship at the heart of it all.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epMAq5WYJk4]

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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