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Fire, Water, Air, Earth: Michael Pollan Gets Elemental In 'Cooked'

In his systematic scrutiny of the modern American food chain, Michael Pollan has explored everything from the evolution of edible plants to the industrial agricultural complex. In his newest book, he charts territory closer to home — or rather, at home, in his kitchen.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation surveys how the four classical elements — fire, water, air and earth — transform plants and animals into food. Pollan joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss the merits of slow home cooking and his adventures in fermentation.


Interview Highlights

On the central transformations in cooking

We live in a very mediated life right now. We spend our lives in front of screens, and cooking is one of the best antidotes. And it's a democratic pleasure – all of us can do it
Michael Pollan

"I discovered that there are four central transformations that all cooking can be divided into. One is fire, the most elemental; the other is water, cooking in pots; then you've got air, which is baking, and other ways we aerate our food — very significant; and then there's earth, and earth is really fermentation, because it's cooking without the use of heat and strictly with microbes, many of which come from the earth. And I basically apprenticed myself to a master in each of those transformations."

On how cooking left the kitchen

"We kind of assume that women went back to work and there was no time to make a family meal. But it isn't that simple and it's a lot more interesting. The corporations were knocking on that door for almost 100 years. And after World War II, when they had invented all these technologies for processing food and making it shelf stable and simulating real foods with fake foods, they really pushed. And they found their opportunity with the feminist revolution beginning in the '70s. There was this really uncomfortable conversation taking place at kitchen tables all across America. Men and women were trying to renegotiate the division of labor in the household. And then the food industry recognized they had an opportunity. And they said 'Don't worry about it, we've got you covered. We'll do the cooking.' And KFC even took out a billboard with a big bucket of fried chicken and the slogan, 'Women's Liberation.'

"So I really think we need to go back and finish that difficult conversation. And I've had it, you know, with my wife, over who does what in the house, and bring men back into the kitchen. And children, which I think is really, really important ... I think the most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook."

On the fallacy of convenience

"Some of the foods that hold themselves out to you as supremely convenient, like those microwaveable single-portion entrees in the supermarket? I did an experiment with those. We had what we called 'Microwave Night,' where we all got to buy one of those, you know, fast-food-in-a-frozen-bag things that they now have in the supermarket. And guess what? It took 40 minutes to get that meal on the table. Because the microwave is individualistic. You can only microwave one person's entrée at a time. And you're not sharing. And there's something magical that happens when people eat from the same pot. The family meal is really the nursery of democracy. It's where we learn to share, it's where we learn to argue without offending. It's just too critical to let go, as we've been so blithely doing."

On bonding with your kids over cooking

"[My teenage son] loved doing his homework at the island in the middle of the kitchen. And he would work while I was cooking, and he took in the smells, and he'd come over every now and then and taste what was in the pot and offer some unsolicited seasoning advice ... And the best time to connect with a teenager is when other things are going on, when you're not trying to have a face-to-face, when you're not making eye contact, basically. And so while he was doing homework and I was cooking, we had some of our sweetest times together. And then of course there was the meal."

On the resurgence and process of fermentation

"Fermentation is hot. Who would've thought that kimchi and sauerkraut would be trendy? [Fermentation] is essentially rot that we're kind of guiding. We can't totally control it, but we can guide it. And this, I found, was the most fascinating work I did. I mean, here you cut up a cabbage, and you salt it, and you just, you know, bruise it with your hands and you put it in a crock. And then it automatically cooks. There are already just the right bacteria living on the leaves of those cabbages, that they will, without any heat, transform that food into something more flavorful, more nutritious, more beautiful in every way."

On an unexpected 'transformation'

"I definitely spend more time cooking. I just make time for it. You know, we live in a very mediated life right now. We spend our lives in front of screens, and cooking is one of the best antidotes. And it's a democratic pleasure — all of us can do it ... This is a book about transformations, and I thought it was all about transformations of nature, but in the end it became a transformation of me, too."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Michael Pollan didn't love to cook. That's right, the Michael Pollan, noted food journalist, booster of organic produce, hater of convenience foods, author of the best-selling "In Defense of Food," just wasn't a great wiz in the kitchen, Even though he forced himself to do it now and then. But in all of his meditations about what food says about us as a culture, Pollan realized he hadn't done nearly enough thinking about the act of turning food into food, the art and science of cooking.

MICHAEL POLLAN: It's an argument from pleasure because what surprised me most is approached in the right spirit, cooking is not drudgery. Cooking is magic. It's alchemy.

MARTIN: Pollan's new book, "Cooked," is an exploration of several different elemental kinds of cooking.

POLLAN: I discovered that there are four central transformations that all cooking can be divided into. One is fire, the most elemental; the other is water, cooking in pots; then you've got air, which is baking, and other ways we aerate our food - very significant; and then there's Earth, and Earth is really fermentation, because it's cooking without the use of heat strictly with microbes, many of which come from the Earth. And I basically apprenticed myself to a master in each of those transformations.

MARTIN: There are some interesting social aspects that you learned about each of these styles of cooking. I'm thinking about boiling water.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We're talking about braising.

POLLAN: We're talking about - yes, soups and stews, and braises, which is probably my favorite. And this is the kind of the whole vocabulary of everyday home cooking. And that's where I really take up these questions of gender and time, and why we've allowed this critical human activity to get outsourced to corporations.

We kind of assume that, you know, women went back to work and there was no longer time to make a family meal. But it isn't that simple and it's a lot more interesting. The corporations were knocking on that door for almost a hundred years. And after World War II, when they had invented all these technologies for processing food and making it shelf stable and simulating real foods with fake foods, they really pushed. And they found their opportunity with the feminist revolution beginning in the '70s.

There was this really uncomfortable conversation taking place at kitchen tables all across America. Men and women were trying to renegotiate the division of labor in the household. And then the food industry recognized they had an opportunity. And they said, don't worry about it, we've got you covered. We'll do the cooking. And KFC even took out a billboard with a big bucket of fried chicken and the slogan: Women's Liberation.

MARTIN: Really?

POLLAN: So I really think we need to go back and finish that difficult conversation. And I've had it, you know, with my wife over who does what in the house, and bring men back into the kitchen. And children, which I think is really, really important. I

MARTIN: You talk about the slowness; braising, working with water.

POLLAN: You can't rush it.

MARTIN: That's a lot of time.

POLLAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLAN: You can't rush it, I know. And so many recipes I read, you know, say, you know, you can make this in 20 minutes. And it's, you know, it's complete crap. You can't make this in 20 minutes.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLAN: And so, you know, I spend a lot of time on this issue of time. And I came to see as it as a kind of practice, as a real effort to slow ourselves down and not fight to rush things. So...

MARTIN: But I have to say though, Michael, you hear this and you think: Cooking is meditative and I know that's a good thing, and I should be more present. But I have three kids and a full-time job, and I come home and I have got to get food on the table. And I do not have the simple luxury of being in the moment.

POLLAN: Well, I have to ask a couple questions. One, is where is your husband? And are your kids old enough to help? And are they old enough to chop an onion? I think that's very important. I think the most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook. But, I would also say some of the foods that hold themselves out to you as supremely convenient, like those microwaveable single-portion entrees in the supermarket - I did an experiment with those.

And we had a night, we have what we called microwave night, where we all got to buy one of those, you know, fast-food-in-a-frozen-bag thing that they now have in the supermarket. And guess what? It took 40 minutes to get that meal on the table because the microwave is individualistic. You can only microwave one person's entree at a time. And you're not sharing.

And there's something magical that happens when people eat from the same pot. You know, the family meal is really the nursery of democracy. It's where we learn to share. It's where we learn to argue without offending. It's just too critical to let go, as we've been so blithely doing.

MARTIN: You also have a nice story about a Sunday afternoon when you're cooking and your teenage son is not necessarily helping, but he's just with you.

POLLAN: There. Yeah. Well, you know, we - it's funny. He loved doing his homework at the island in the middle of the kitchen. And he would work while I was cooking and he took in the smells. And he'd come over every now and then and taste what was in the pot and offer some unsolicited seasoning advice.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLAN: And it was a great time. You know, the best time to connect with a teenager is when other things are going on, when you're not trying to have a face-to-face, when you're not making eye contact, basically. And so, while he was doing homework and I was cooking, we had some of our sweetest times together. And then of course there was the meal.

MARTIN: I guess that's the answer to my next question, is how has this project changed you in real ways, in you're everyday life?

POLLAN: Yeah. I definitely spend more time cooking. I just kind of make time for it. And the same way I make time for exercise or, you know, doing my email, I make time to cook. But it's also given me this way to slow down a little bit and not fight with myself, not feel divided over time. And, you know, I am present in the kitchen right now. And, you know, we live in a very mediated life right now. We spend our lives in front of screens, and cooking is one of the best antidotes. And it's a democratic pleasure - all of us can do it. This is a book about transformations, and I thought it was all about transformations of nature. But in the end, it became a transformation of me, too

MARTIN: The new book is called "Cooked." Michael Pollan joined us from our bureau in New York. Michael, thanks so much for taking the time.

POLLAN: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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