Main Course

Michael Pollan’s Elementary Approach to Cooking

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Photo by Alia Malley

Michael Pollan made major waves (of grain?) with his 2006 best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma which became a touchstone in the conversation about how Americans produce and consume food. In his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” he studies what happens to food from the time it enters our kitchens to when it ends up on our plates, as well as the consequences of not cooking. He tells Brendan about (among other things) baking anxiety, the dark side of cheese, and crackerjacks.

Michael had lots more to say that didn’t make it into the broadcast, but you can listen to our full interview.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Michael Pollan has a new book out called “Cooked,” where he examines the art and history of cooking by setting out to learn how to cook, which sounds fascinating, but then it occurred to me: Michael Pollan didn’t already know how to cook?

Michael Pollan: I was a cook, I mean we did cook and we probably cooked more nights than we didn’t, but I was a kind of careless cook, a thoughtless cook.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you also suggested, cooking is essential to who we are as human beings. You quote James Boswell, right? “Humans are a cooking animal.”

Michael Pollan: We’re the cooking beast, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Then you link that up to a larger hypothesis, the cooking hypothesis.

Michael Pollan: Cooking turns out to have been very important to our evolution as a species, in that we would never have left the world of the apes if we hadn’t mastered the power of fire.

Richard Wrangham is an anthropologist and primatologist at Harvard who’s put forward something called the cooking hypothesis. You know, there’s always been this question among anthropologists: how did our brain suddenly get so big?

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you’re talking biologically, like how did our brain grow so large?

Michael Pollan: Yes, actually got large. What happened to us? If you compare us to an ape of the same size, we have a much larger brain, and a much smaller gut.

They have a lot more apparatus to digest food. And the reason they need that is cause they’re eating lots of raw food, and that is hard to digest. At some point we figured out a way to get more nutrition from what we were eating, more energy, and that was cooking. And as we acquired this incredibly energy-dense diet, our evolution, natural selection, kind of reoriented our focus from the gut to the head.

And that allowed us to do language and culture and all these wonderful things.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You cleverly divide your book up based on the classic elements, right? There’s fire, water, air and earth. So maybe we could just hop through each of these, and we can talk about one little fact.

Michael Pollan: Sure. So I started with fire, and fire is the first element of cooking. It may go back as much as 2 million years.

And for fire cooking, I really like to barbecue. I mean, what’s the closest thing we have now to traditional fire cooking, which is to say, whole animal, slow-burning wood fire, a lot of people hanging out, having a big party afterwards.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you actually relate barbecue all the way back to kind of animal sacrifice.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, ritual sacrifice. It’s really interesting when you go back and you look at the Old Testament or the Greeks, and they both had ritual sacrifices of animals.

They both kind of moved in the same direction. First they were sacrificing people, then they said well let’s just give them an animal, and this is it. And they said, you know what, let’s just give them the smoke from the animal so we can eat the animal.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I thought that was a really beautiful thing – that the Gods can’t consume meat, right? So the smoke…

Michael Pollan: Somebody figured this out. They said hey, Gods don’t need to eat meat, because if they eat meat, then they need to eliminate, and it raised all these theological issues. All they really want is the smoke, and that’s the only way we can get it to them anyway. So let them have the smoke, and we eat the meat in a big party.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay, after fire you move on to water. You learn how to cook with water using pots, and you talk about how the cooking pot is “a second human stomach.”

Michael Pollan: Amazing things happen when humanity invents ceramic pottery. It’s long after fire. It’s not until about 10,000 years ago that we learn how use clay, fire it so that we can boil water in it, and when you can do that, there’s all these other things you get to eat. You couldn’t eat grain for example very well with a fire. You could toast grain, but that didn’t really work.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Again, too much work to break down for our bodies.

Michael Pollan: Exactly, and grain has got nutrients locked up in these polymers, and they need a slow cook in water. I mean, think about oatmeal. And so this is a tremendous advance, because once you’ve got pots, you can use vegetables in really interesting ways.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you talk about how the pot is also responsible for extending our human family, in that older people could eat food that was broken down in pots and infants could survive.

Michael Pollan: Exactly right, and infants, you could wean infants. Because before this, you needed teeth to eat, and so you couldn’t wean babies as early. But now that you can soften food and grain, you can keep old people alive longer, and that has a huge effect on society. And you can wean earlier, and have more kids and all sorts of interesting things happen. So it’s a really key technology.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so let’s move on to the air section of the book, where you learn how to bake bread. Bread is 80% air, and you say at the beginning of this chapter that baking is “the carpentry of the food world.” What did you mean by that?

Michael Pollan: Carpentry of cooking, I thought it was. I’m intimidated by carpentry. I’m a gardener, where there’s tons of margin of error, right? You really can’t screw it up too badly in the garden.

And I thought that’s what baking was. It struck me as the rocket science of cooking and that you needed a scale calibrated in grams, and if you didn’t get everything just right it might collapse.

I was terrified of baking. But it turns out it isn’t really that way. Once you’ve done it a few times, you do it by the senses. I mean, you feel that your dough is billowing and has air in it, and you taste it and you see is it getting a little sour, and you see how big it’s gotten, and you really rely on your senses.

So it’s a lot more improvisational than I thought. That was a surprise.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well the last section of your book is earth. You explore the world of fermentation. You make beer, you pickle cucumbers, and you also make cheese with Sister Noella Marcellino, aka The Cheese Nun.

Michael Pollan: The Cheese Nun, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: She’s a nun, microbiologist, and cheesemaker, and she says something really interesting. She suggests that cheese should be included in the Holy Eucharist. What’s that about?

Michael Pollan: It’s interesting. The Eucharist is when you take communion – which I don’t do as a Jew, but I’ve watched it done – you’re basically working with fermented products. Bread, which stands for the flesh of Christ and the body of Christ, and wine, which stands for the blood. And it’s very interesting, they’re both fermented.

Fermentation is a transcendence of the given into something, an elevation into something else. And she was saying, there’s a third fermented food that belongs in there, and that is cheese.

And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Well, cheese is about the dark side of life. It reminds us of our mortality.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So what does she mean by that?

Michael Pollan: Well, it’s a lot like flesh.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh right, the texture of cheese.

Michael Pollan: It lives and dies, it smells, it is about decay. You know, talk about dust to dust, it is the rot of animal flesh in a way, and I sort of didn’t see that. I think she’s saying, you either add that or swap out the bread, and that this is a wonderful symbol of the human body.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So I’m sure now you carry all this information with you after your research. I’m wondering, do you carry anything with you from before your research? Like, does Michael Pollan still have a guilty pleasure? Does he still eat Cool Ranch Doritos? There’s not one kind of modern guilty pleasure?

Michael Pollan: I like Cracker Jacks, actually. That’s one of my favorite junk foods. It’s just caramelized popcorn.

I would say the prizes have gone way downhill, they’re just paper now. You know, you used to get a toy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This explains that fake tattoo on your hand right now.

Michael Pollan: Good one, that’s an old radio trick.