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Why Cooking Matters

How does the food we eat affect us as people? Michael Pollan’s books—The Omnivore’s Dilemma [1]Cooked [2]In Defense of Food [3], 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 [4], 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 [5],” 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 where [6] no one is ever at home [7], 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 [8] 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 [9].)

The New York Times‘s Neil Genzlinger finds fault [10] 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 [11] 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.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Why Cooking Matters"

#1 Comment By vacooker On February 25, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

Good story. For what it’s worth, I (late 20s, white male, college-educated professional)consider myself liberal and I view the utility of cooking through the lens of health and finances (It’s almost always cheaper and healthier to cook the same meal you can purchase), but I concur that many of the social byproducts of cooking that you mention do in-fact exist.

I partially disagree about cooking being an entitled venture. Of course, there is the dinner party/Instagram cooking concept, where you’re cooking for others. However, I focus my efforts on stuff like brewing my own coffee, roasting my own lunch meats (Sunday night venture), and cooking sensible weeknight dinners (pasta, stir-fry, etc). I’m ambivalent about big-ag at this point because I don’t think there exists much of a consensus about the health implications.

I think many people over-estimate how busy they are, and they do that to justify cooking. One thing you could say about a stay-at-home-spouse (there’s my liberal tendencies at work!) is that it is understood that cooking is one of their duties, whereas in a dual-employed household, neither party has an inherent obligation to be the chef, either on a rotating or permanent basis.

#2 Comment By VikingLS On February 25, 2016 @ 7:59 pm

People who claim it’s too expensive too cook are engaging in argument ad absurdum. Yes organic stone ground wheat is expensive, but I bought 5 pounds of all-purpose flour at Aldi for 1.50 today. Instant yeast is about 4$ a pack. That’s cheaper than buying bread, and the “poorest amongst us” are often cash poor but time rich.

#3 Comment By Joel Miller On February 25, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

When we say we don’t have time to cook, we’re either not being honest with ourselves or just admitting we don’t know how to do it. I read Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” when it came out and have generally followed his advice since. I’ve got four kids and share cooking with my wife. Both of us have busy jobs. We still sit with the kids around an actual table for most meals. Some of it’s time consuming. Some of it’s not. The question is about priorities. It matters to us to do most of it ourselves. So we’ve learned how — including super cool stuff like fermenting vegetables and making our own kombucha. We do what we value. The issue is that we don’t value cooking, not that we don’t have time to do it.

#4 Comment By Junior On February 25, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

Great article, Ms. Olmstead. I agree wholeheartedly that cooking matters. I thought that you brought up great points about cooking traditions no longer being handed down from generation to generation and the mental benefits of cooking. I think that these are extremely important factors that are not much acknowledged in this fast-food day and age.

On a side note, this is an EXTREMELY important issue for men so that they won’t starve now that women have “left their kitchens to go out and go door-to-door and to put yard signs up for” John Kasich. 😉

#5 Comment By David On February 25, 2016 @ 11:29 pm

Nothing’s better than growing your own vegetables, catching your own fish ( & game), making your own dinner,
And brewing your own beer.

#6 Comment By La Lubu On February 26, 2016 @ 5:41 am

The lives of upper middle class professionals vs. working-class people are wildly different. As a working class woman (who loves to cook, and is really good at it!), I solidly appreciate the folks who critique foodies who are dismissive of the very different conditions the average person (as opposed to the top 20% income earners) has to deal with re: cooking.

What conditions? Well, right now I’m working 5-10s and an 8 with an 80-mile commute (welcome to the rust belt, where construction is thin on the ground!). It’s a physically demanding job. It has a weird start time, so I’m driving way before the crack of dawn (bye-bye, circadian rhythms!). And frankly? I’m feeling the perpetual lack of adequate sleep in a way that I didn’t in my early twenties. Now add in my second part-time job (that takes the edge off of bouts of unemployment) and parental duties…and yeah, cooking (one of my favorite creative outlets) loses its appeal on my priorities list.

Friends of mine who don’t have such a good job as mine, the ones working the low-wage, no-benefit service industry jobs have it worse. They never know when or for how long they are going to work (hence, the need for second- or even third- jobs, and the endless cycling through employers as very few employers are willing to keep employees who aren’t able to manage “just-in-time” scheduling.

Cooking isn’t just cooking. It’s also planning, scheduling, prepping, shopping. Insisting that working-class people have the same wherewithal of time and energy that the upper-middle class have is ridiculous.

The old foodways are disappearing not because of a lack of personal, individual willpower on the part of millions of people, but because of structural changes in our lives. No, I can’t be a “radical homemaker”, and neither can most people who haven’t inherited a farm. I’m the descendant of landless peasants—and trust me, I eat way better than they were able to.

Who among the foodies is supporting living wages and benefits? Job security (instead of growing the ranks of the precariat)? Actual affordable housing, so lower-income earners don’t have to live so far from work (and amenities like grocery stores)?

(no, I’m not kidding about grocery stores. It’s a real PITA when a real store is a thirty-minute drive away, especially when you live in the middle of the city. That’s a new thing. Newer than fast food.)

#7 Comment By La Lubu On February 26, 2016 @ 10:13 am

Also: question for Gracie (because I’m really interested in seeing the film, and I don’t like always seeming like “Dr. Nope” in the comments, *smile*): does Pollan ever get into how “Americanization” affected the disappearance of foodways? I’m thinking both of difficulty of finding familiar ingredients and of exterior pressures on immigrants to give up their traditional foods and methods. In retrospect, I feel really blessed that my family didn’t give in to those pressures, and did pass that knowledge along to me. But yeah—lunchtime in a 1970s grade school, eating next to fellow students that were wholly unfamiliar with the standard-issue foodstuffs of my heritage was quite the event. (It wasn’t until then that I discovered how food could be controversial.)

#8 Comment By grumpy realist On February 26, 2016 @ 12:44 pm

La Lubu is right. Our present employment structures have made it a bloody sight harder for people to cook food at home, and the lower you are on the totem pole, the harder it is. Let’s not even get into the problems of food deserts, the difficulty of shopping using public transportation, or the problems of keeping fresh ingredients around when you have to deal with intermittent power. No wonder people give up and duck into the nearest fast food joint.

And the solution to all of this is “stop watching TV”? Give me a break!

#9 Comment By Barbara Napoli Sehmi On February 26, 2016 @ 9:45 pm

Even if you do not have much time you can cook a healthy meal (a plate of pasta with a homemade sauce will take about 15 minutes). All excuses. Spend less time in front of a screen and care more about your health and your family’s.

#10 Comment By La Lubu On February 27, 2016 @ 5:51 am

Even if you do not have much time you can cook a healthy meal (a plate of pasta with a homemade sauce will take about 15 minutes).

Provided the ingredients are at hand. If not, add in at least an hour to get back and forth from the grocery store to rush in and just get those ingredients, and no others (but really, who does that when it takes so long to get to the store?). Also, add in the twenty minutes it’s going to take to wash, dry, and put away the dishes.

Meanwhile, a quick stop at the pizzaria literally a block away from your house on the way home means no cooking time and no dishes. No more standing on your feet that you’ve been on for the past ten hours. You get to sit and take a load off for a change, and it feels great. You can feel every tight muscle in your body r-e-l-a-x-i-n-g. And what Sam is cooking up at the pizzaria tastes just like homemade (because it is—it’s just being made in a commercial kitchen is all).

This is what upper-middle class professionals don’t get. Their bodies relax all day long in front of the “screen” they want to lecture the rest of us about. They come home to a clean house courtesy of the maid they hired. They don’t have fit yard work in at the end of the day, because the lawn care service already did that. They literally don’t get that the ordinary person is coming home to more labor, that they have to fit in to a small window of time before they have to go to bed so they (we) can get up the next morning and do it again.

They lecture us about buying time by using takeout, or not baking our own bread, while they buy even more time with the maids and lawncare guys. All excuses! Just think about the exercise your soft, pampered body could be getting if you had a more demanding job, and came home to even more physical labor! Quit that powdered-ass job in front of the screen and start taking charge of your health!

(and now, off to work!)

#11 Comment By Isolato On February 27, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

We just finished this visually stunning series last night. Not ALL cooking has to take days or weeks of chef time. Our no-knead bread recipes produce a loaf I will put up against Michael’s w/5 minutes of prep, then baking the next day. Our Weber will do an all day cook w/o further intervention. More important than time is the integrity of the ingredients (what I learned in Italy). Less Facebook more facebake!

#12 Comment By Mont D. Law On February 28, 2016 @ 2:23 am

I also have to mention that if you ask the women who actually lived the life you’re advocating, you’ll have to wait ’til they stop laughing to get an answer.

My grandmother was one of these women. She made bread for 9 people. She grew and canned her own vegetables. She made her own cottage cheese. She would find the idea that these things were something other than drudgery.

#13 Comment By Prof. Woland On March 7, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

Pollan is best taken as inspiration rather than as a solid guide to exact behavior.

I read his “in defense of food”–and found its core message to be pretty good–Eat Food, not too much, mostly plants.

That’s pretty good–and it’s something that I try to do and that I try to enable for my family by cooking for them.

Importantly–if you take his notions as ideals to strive for rather than absolutes–then it works better.

Cooking can be fun–but doing everything from scratch can quickly become drudgery.

Additionally–La Lubu’s points about time management and structural problems with work are pretty spot on. I’m an instructor at a state flagship university (at least for a couple more months until my layoff due to Scott Walker’s glorious budget cuts)–and so my work schedule is busy–but flexible enough–and my commutes are all within town and reasonable.

This gives me the time to cook–which takes about an hour/day or so and that I carry out maybe 4-5 nights a week.. (leftovers or scrounge for yourself happens the other days..).

I make soups and stir fries an noodle dishes–but I also use some ready-made mixes at times (I use a Knorr Cheese sauce with my chicken-zucchini-tomato-noodle casserole dish..)–because I don’t have the extra 30 minutes to make it from scratch.

But so what. Being pragmatic and improving stuff when we can is still helpful–IF we have the time.

Anyway–I’m an old-school Truman Liberal–own a house, have 3 stepkids in college or working–and I garden all summer long to produce fresh vegetables. I have the luxury of doing this–although it is still work.