In the 10 years since he wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan has occupied a comfortable space on the conscientious American's bookshelf. The Berkeley professor has written four New York Times bestsellers, each examining, from different angles, the ways that we consume food. His research and writing about sustainable agriculture and the food industry even earned him a spot on TIME’s 2010 list of the world’s most influential 100 people.
In his latest endeavor, Pollan has teamed up with Netflix to create Cooked; a documentary miniseries about humans' relationships with cooking. Taking a far more global view than his previous work, the series looks at cooking from physiological, anthropological, and environmental perspectives. We learn about the science behind fermentation and the health benefits offered by kimchi. We watch Martu women in Australia breaking the limbs of giant, wriggling lizards and setting them over a fire to cook. And we get a fair dose of Michael Pollan himself, coaching us from his own light-filled kitchen to mirepoix our way away from processed foods.
Why should people learn how to cook?
Because it's very pleasurable, because it tends to lead to other good things like sitting down to a meal with the people you cook for, because you learn a lot about the world and about nature by doing it. Because it's the only way to take back control of your diet from the food industry, which doesn’t cook as well as you can. Even if you don’t think you can cook well, you can cook better than the food industry. For me, I would say because it’s fun. I enjoy the process, I find it intellectually stimulating. I’m a gardener — that’s my other big hobby — and I get great pleasure from working with plants. But I see cooking as part of that whole process of engaging with nature to feed ourselves.
Cooked looks at your own journey learning how to cook. How did learning to cook inform your ideas about food systems? Did you learn anything that you wish you'd known while writing The Omnivore's Dilemma?
It sort of was the other way around. I was learning things during The Omnivore's Dilemma that made me realize that cooking was a really important part of the story and that you couldn't understand what had happened to our food system without looking at the decline of home cooking. To a very great extent, it's the fast-food industry that really industrialized our agriculture — that drove the system to one variety of chicken grown very quickly in confinement, to the feedlot system for beef, to giant monocultures to grow potatoes. All of those thing flow from the desire of fast-food companies for a perfectly consistent product. So you could go into a restaurant anywhere in the world and get the same thing, and it would taste the same way. You have all the same kind of potato — you have russet Burbank potatoes in every McDonald's in the world.
So that industrialization of our farming grew out of an industrialization of our eating. The fact that we were eating so often at McDonald's and places like that. So that meant we were complicit in the creation of this new agricultural landscape. And I wanted to examine that. Because you really can't understand what we've done to our agriculture and our land without understanding what’s going on in our kitchens or what's not going on in our kitchens.
What were some of the other benefits of doing a show? What were some of the things that you could show with TV that you couldn’t show with a book?
Here's one example: Most of my research was confined to the United States, which is partly a function of budget. And Netflix very much wanted an international series because they are an international company now — they're in 190 countries. And so every episode traveled somewhere I hadn't been and tells a story I hadn’t told in the book. And they’re great stories. I mean the story of the system in India that put fresh, hot home-cooked meals on people’s desks at lunchtime all over Mumbai was amazing. And the story of the bread being baked every day in community ovens in Morocco. And then the story of the Martu people — the hunter-gatherers in Western Australia. So they were able to go places I couldn't go and bring back stories that have the effect of deepening my story and making it much more global. This is really a universal human activity at the very heart of who we are as a species, as a culture, and as members of a family.
On the show, you talk about the fact that humans are the only species that has evolved to need their food cooked. Do you think people on raw or paleo diets are fighting evolution? Are they in denial?
Raw foodists are kind of paddling upstream against evolution. The only reason they can do it, and they don't all keel over, is that they are using blenders. They're very Cuisinart-dependent. Because if they didn't use machinery to grind up all that vegetable matter, they would spend their days as the apes did — that is, half their waking hours chewing. That is the only way to process all that stringy, fibrous plant material.
Do you have a least favorite fad diet? What's the worst fad diet to take up from a sustainability perspective?
I would say the paleo diet, in that it’s so meat-heavy. Meat is a mighty contributor to climate change and other environmental problems. The amount of meat we’re eating is one of the leading causes of climate change. It's as important as the kind of car you drive — whether you eat meat a lot of how much meat you eat. So I think that’s one problem with the paleo diet. They’re not eating hunted game. If they were, that wouldn't be an issue — hunted game is actually a very sustainable meat since it doesn’t compete with people for calories and the animals are not living on feedlots, and all these kinds of things. So, I would say from a sustainability point of view, the paleo diet leaves a lot to be desired.
What can policymakers learn from Cooked? What do you think needs to change at the government level in order to foster a better food system in this country?
I would hope they would take a couple of lessons. One is that time is really important to people. Giving people enough time — and I'm talking about family leave, I'm talking about a shorter work day — is a good way to foster healthier families that get to eat home-cooked food. Over time, we've moved toward an economy where rather than having time to do things for ourselves, we make money to buy those things or make money to pay others to do those things for us. And cooking is only one of those things. But there's a lot to be said for doing those kind of things on your own. You’re more independent, you're more autonomous, and you’re going to do a better job than the food industry’s going to do.
So That's one thing. One of the other themes of the film is the importance of the quality of ingredients — the way the animals live really matters to the quality of food and how we feel about eating it. And right now we have a set of agricultural policies that makes processed food really cheap by subsidizing corn and soy (and those are the two building blocks of processed foods) and also subsidizing directly and indirectly feedlot life for animals.
I think that we could have a set of agricultural policies that favor sustainable agriculture — that made fresh produce more competitive with junk food. Because right now, if you’ve got a dollar to spend and you're on a really tight budget or you’re on food stamps, make no mistake; you will come home with chips and things like that rather than carrots because you can get 800 calories or 900 calories of chips with that dollar verses 250 calories of carrots or broccoli. It shouldn’t be that way. And the reason it is that way has to do with our policies. And so you could favor cooking more by making the raw ingredients less expensive and junk food or pre-processed food more expensive. We’re subsidizing precisely the wrong kind of calories and we’re subsidizing the move away from cooking, and that needs to change, certainly if we’re worried about the health of our public.
What are some ways that someone without a lot of disposable time — someone in the current economic climate — what could someone without a lot of disposable time or income do to start taking the first steps toward cutting down on processed foods and eating sustainably?
Most people still have a day off a week or two days off a week. One of the things I've found the most helpful to eating in a new way and eating in a more healthy and pleasurable way is cooking a big pot of something on a Sunday — either in the morning or the afternoon. Just the other Sunday, we made a double portion of vegetarian chili — we wanted to try this recipe. And doubling a recipe is not twice as much work — maybe 20% more work, depending on how much chopping is involved.
We'll often make a stew on a Sunday or we'll roast a chicken, which could turn into two or three meals over the course of the week. And having some home-cooked food in your freezer is having your own ready-to-eat meal; only it's so much better. So I sort of feel like I have money in the bank if I've got a couple of those dinners in the freezer. And then all you have to do is make a salad to go with it. I use the microwave to defrost something like that if I don’t think to take it out in the morning, and that's a way to put good home-cooked food on the table two to three nights a week and at an enormous savings. That big pot of stew, even if it's meat-based stew, is going to be much cheaper than anything else you’ll eat if you get two or three meals out of it.