Michael Pollan on How Reclaiming Cooking Can Save Our Food System, Make Us Healthy & Grow Democracy
We spend the hour with Michael Pollan, one of the country’s leading writers and thinkers on food and food policy. Pollan has written several best-selling books about food, including "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," and "In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto." In his latest book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," Pollan argues that taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make our food system healthier and more sustainable. "There is a deliberate effort to undermine food culture to sell us processed food," Pollan says. "The family meal is a challenge if you’re General Mills or Kellogg or one of these companies, or McDonald’s, because the family meal is usually one thing shared." Pollan also talks about the "slow food" movement. "Slow food is about food that is good, clean and fair. They’re concerned with social justice. They’re concerned with how the food is grown and how humane and chemical-free it is." He adds, "Slow food is about recovering that space around the family and keeping the influence of the food manufacturers outside of the house. ... The family meal is very important. It’s the nursery of democracy."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We spend the hour today with one of the country’s leading writers and thinkers on food and food policy: Michael Pollan. He has written several best-selling books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. He has just written a new book called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In the book, Michael Pollan argues taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make our food system healthier and more sustainable. Michael Pollan is the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism. He joined me in New York when his book was released just a week ago. I started by asking him about the journey he took in writing Cooked.
MICHAEL POLLAN: It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer. And it’s hard to describe it as work exactly. When I figured out what I wanted to do, which was kind of drive cooking back to its most elemental reality, I decided to apprentice myself to a series of masters. And I divided it into four essential transformations that—you know, kind of the common denominator of all cooking: fire, cooking with fire, you know, the oldest; water, which is to say cooking in pots, which comes much later in history and involves a whole different set of ways of transferring heat; air, for baking; and earth, for fermentation. And so, in each case, I found somebody or a couple somebodies who were really good at the mastery of that element, and I worked for them, you know, a number of shifts, a number of events, and—or lessons, and just kind of acquired these skills that I had never had before.
AMY GOODMAN: So tell us about your trip to North Carolina, to the barbecue maker.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I wanted to start with fire because fire is where cooking starts, probably two million years ago, according to the current thinking, which is before, of course, we were Homo sapiens. We were still Homo erectus at that point. And when we acquired the control of fire and the ability to cook meat especially over fire, but other things, as well, we unlocked this treasure trove of calories, of energy, that other animals didn’t have, because when you cook food, you basically predigest it outside of the body, so you don’t have to use as much energy—your body doesn’t have to use as much energy to break it down. You don’t have to chew it as much. And it’s a huge boon, and it probably led to the larger brain that we have compared to other apes our size, and the smaller gut—although we seem intent on enlarging that gut right now.
But so I figured what was the—what was the cooking most like that? And it was whole-hog barbecue as practiced in eastern North Carolina. You know, barbecue is very balkanized, and every region in the South has very different rules on what constitutes barbecue and an abhorrence of all other forms of barbecue, which they won’t even call barbecue. So I went to North Carolina, to eastern North Carolina, and I worked with a man named Ed Mitchell, who is a pretty well-known pitmaster, African American, who’s been at it for many, many years, after being a Vietnam vet and working as a Ford—in the Ford dealership network. And I went—we did a couple barbecues, where we cooked these whole pigs over wood and very slowly, and then we had these amazing public events, where you have to take an entire pig and chop it up, mix it with various spices and vinegar, and turn it into sandwiches. It’s actually remarkably simple kind of cooking. It’s like pig, heat, wood, time. That’s the whole recipe. But you need a whole pig, and you have to be able to move it around, which is a little tricky.
What I liked about Ed is, unlike almost every other pitmaster I could find, he cared about the pigs and where they came from. Barbecue is an incredibly democratic food. It’s cheaper than McDonald’s in many places and far more delicious. On the other hand, the only reason it can be that cheap is they use commodity hogs, the worst of the worst, which is—you know, it’s an industry kind of ruining North Carolina. Ed Mitchell is a little different in that he really cares where the hogs come from. And in fact he’s paid a price for that with the industry. And—
AMY GOODMAN: In what way?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, they—when he started kind of evangelizing about using small farmers’ hogs raised outdoors, all of a sudden he had tax audits and prosecutions for various business practices. And, you know, no one’s been able to prove the quid pro quo, but the timing is awfully suspicious. And he lost one of his restaurants because of this initiative against him.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what his concern was about commodity hogs.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, hogs today are raised indoors in brutal conditions in these confinement—CAFOs—confinement operations. They’re—the sows live in little cages too narrow for them ever to turn around in their entire lives, because they don’t want them to crush their babies, and it just makes it easier to inseminate them, which they do over and over and over again. And these pigs, you know, go crazy gradually. I mean, I’ve written about this before, and that’s one of the reasons I had trouble celebrating barbecue that wasn’t in some sense humane or sustainable. And Ed has figured out how to do it. And, of course, he has to charge $9 or $10 for a sandwich. Other places charge $3. But on the other hand, it’s a whole meal, so I don’t begrudge him that price.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain how he does it.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, Ed does whole hog exclusively. He thinks the way they do it over in, you know, the western part of the state, where they just do pork shoulders, it’s good, but it’s not barbecue. And he does it in—over wood and charcoal very slowly. So you—the key to making barbecue is getting the temperature consistent and low, like 200 degrees. None of us cook at 200 degrees. That’s like a hot tub—I mean, it’s a hot hot tub. But when you do that, the fat kind of slowly renders into the meat, and the meat gradually breaks down. And after 20 hours or so, you could pull the whole thing apart with a fork, and it’s really delicious.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you went from fire to?
MICHAEL POLLAN: To water. And, you know, fire cooking is very male. It’s very—there’s a lot of self-dramatizing guys doing barbecue, as there still are in every backyard in America. And it’s very ritualistic and very public and very communal. It has some wonderful and stupid, you know, bombastic qualities.
Cooking in pots is more domestic, traditionally more feminine, more modest. You know, it happens under a lid. You can’t see what’s happening. You can’t watch a pot boil, because it won’t boil. But it’s a very important technology, and the second important cooking technology. It comes—doesn’t happen until about 10,000 years ago, because you need pottery that can hold water and survive heat to start cooking this way. But when you can cook with water, by boiling water, you can soften grains, for example. A revolution happens in human society, because you can feed old people and very young people who don’t have teeth. So, the elderly live longer as soon as you can boil food, and you can wean babies earlier. So, it’s a wonderful method for that. And it also allows you to combine plants and meat or just plants. It allows you to eat grain, which you can’t really eat without water. And it really, you know, was a revolutionary way of cooking.
And I approached it as a lesson, a series of lessons in braising stews and soups. And I worked with this wonderful chef named Samin Nosrat, who is Iranian American, trained at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And she would come to my house every, you know, couple Sundays, and we’d make a big meal together. And my wife and son would get involved, and then we’d invite friends over. And I learned these wonderful lessons from her. And every time, she’d have a theme. You know, "Today we’re going to learn about emulsification." And—
AMY GOODMAN: So, what is emulsification?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Emulsification is basically combining fats and waters in a stable solution, like when you whip eggs or—salad dressing is an emulsification, basically. And how do you get those particles to stay together? Or we do a lesson in the Maillard reaction, which is how, in the presence of heat, amino acids and sugars turn into these wonderful flavor compounds, thousands of them, that makes food much more flavorful, much more allusive. One of the—one of the interesting common denominators of all cooking is that you take these very straightforward given simple flavors, and you complicate them, and you make a food taste like other things. It might taste like—give it the aroma of flowers or, I mean, bacon or—it’s sort of like poetic language, I mean, basically, you know, where you inflect everyday language into something more heightened and allusive to other things, more metaphorical. And you do that with cooking, too. And so, we worked on that. And these were the most practical skills I learned, the ones I use every day. I love making braises. It’s incredibly simple, but time-consuming.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by braises?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, a braise is basically a stew where you don’t cover the meat, or whatever the central character of your dish is, with liquid. You basically make a mirepoix, which is just a dice of onions and carrots and celery, and you sauté that for as long as you can bear—the longer, the better—and then you add the—you brown your meat, say, if you’re doing chicken, and you put that in, and then you add a liquid. But you only have the liquid come up an inch or so, and it doesn’t cover the meat. And what that does is—and you only cook it very slowly, again, like 225 degrees, for as long as you can stand. You know, four hours is better; chicken, you can get away with two hours. And what happens is the—the part that isn’t covered with liquid browns beautifully: Maillard reaction takes place. And then the bottom kind of stews. And the whole thing kind of gets soft, and the muscle fibers relax and become gelatinous and delicious. And so it’s a really nice way to cook. It’s a way to cook on a Sunday to have several meals during the week, because it’s even better as leftovers than it is the first time around. So, in a way, it was the most sustainable kind of cooking I learned, in the sense that I’ve been able to fold it into my life on a weekly basis.
AMY GOODMAN: Journalist Michael Pollan. His latest book is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. We’ll return to our interview in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: As we return to my conversation with the award-winning journalist, author Michael Pollan, his new book called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, I asked him about the slow food movement and the role of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California, restaurant known for using local organic foods, known for slow foods.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Chez Panisse, which was founded in 1971, has had a revolutionary effect on our food culture wherever you live in this country. Alice Waters, who started it, made a point of supporting small farmers, organic farmers, and sustainable farmers in other ways, and cooking a very simple food based on high-quality American ingredients. So the earmarks of that kind of cooking are everywhere. And it’s been a great place for hundreds of chefs to train. It’s an incredibly humane kitchen where they’ve just taught—I mean, chances are good that there’s a chef, wherever you live, that went—passed through Chez Panisse and learned something important. But their values are—it’s a famous, elegant restaurant, but it’s incredibly unpretentious, too. People who go there are often underwhelmed. It’s like, "This is it? You know, no fancy sauce?" But it’s just beautiful food cooked with real conviction.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does "slow food" mean?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, slow food is a movement—I mean, and it actually is an organization, although it’s bigger than the organization—that arose in protest against fast food. And it begins in Italy in the '80s, specifically when McDonald's was coming to the Spanish Steps—you know, this kind of hallowed part of Rome. And Carlo Petrini was a left-wing journalist who was outraged that this was a challenge to Italy’s brilliant food culture. So he had a great idea. Unlike José Bové, who kind of, you know, drove his tractor into a McDonald’s plate glass, he did a much more Italian protest, which was, he set up a trestle table on the Spanish Steps outside the new McDonald’s and got all the Italian grandmothers he could find to come bake their—cook their best dish and say, "Here’s real food. What’s better? What do you really want?" And it was a protest based on pleasure and which is—you know, it was just—and it was galvanizing. And it started this movement. And, in fact, Carlo—even though this starts after Chez Panisse, Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters became, you know, close allies, and they share the same values. And so, that’s some of the DNA behind the whole food movement we see rising and this interest in—slow food is about food that is good, clean and fair. They’re concerned with social justice. They’re concerned with how the food is grown and how humane and chemical-free it is.
And they’re concerned with the experience—the loss of the family meal, the loss of eating as a communal activity—everything that fast food and food marketing is doing to our food culture, because—and this is an important theme of the book—there is a deliberate effort to undermine food culture to sell us processed food. The family meal is a challenge if you’re General Mills or Kellogg or one of these companies, or McDonald’s, because the family meal is usually one thing shared. It’s not each member of the family gets to pick what they’re going to eat and get it out of the frozen food section. And it also is a meal where the parent is really in charge and makes the decisions for the family. And the food industry very much has wanted to insinuate itself into our family, get between parents and kids, to market them food. So slow food is about recovering that space around the family and keeping the influence of the food manufacturers outside of the house. And I think it’s very, very important, because, you know, one of the inspirations of this book was discovering that we’re doing so little home cooking now and that the family meal is truly endangered. And, you know, the family meal is very important. It’s the nursery of democracy. I mean, it really is. I mean, it’s where we learn and where we teach our children how to share, how to take turns, how to argue without offending, how to learn about the events of the day. I mean, I learned all this at the table. And if kids are spending all their time in their rooms, you know, passing through the kitchen, nuking a frozen pizza, they’re missing something really important.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a quote from your book, Cooked. We’re talking to Michael Pollan, well-known food writer, thinker, really challenging food policy in this country. Michael, you write, "Today, the typical American spends a mere twenty-seven minutes a day of food preparation, and another four minutes cleaning up. That’s less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning up in 1965." You also note that market research shows more than half of the evening meals an American eats are "cooked at home," but that number may be misleading.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, well, how do they define "cooking"? It’s pretty loose. Basically, cooking, in the marketers’ terms, is just any food that has more than one element, that’s assembled. So, for example, if you took some prewashed bagged lettuce and put a little bit of dressing on it, you’re cooking. Or if you took some cold cuts and put them on bread, you’re—and made a sandwich, you’re cooking. You know, my definition of cooking would be a little more strenuous than that, a little more rigorous—not that I think you always need to cook from scratch. I use, you know, canned tomatoes all the time and canned chickpeas and frozen spinach. And there is a kind of first-order processed food that I think is a real boon to us. These are these one- or two-ingredient processed foods. I think they’re wonderful. You know, I don’t want to have to mill my own flour if I want to bake. But there’s another kind of processing that’s become much more common in the last decade or two, and that is what’s often referred to as hyper- or ultra-processed food. These are processed foods that are meant to be entire meal replacements. They’re called home meal replacements. And this is where we get into trouble, because corporations don’t cook the way humans do. They really don’t. All you—and to know that, all you have to do is read the ingredient labels. Those home meal replacements are full of ingredients that no normal human ever has in their pantry. Polysorbate 80, do you have that in your pantry? I don’t think so. Soy lecithin? Carboxylated—I forget the other two words. I mean, all these—
AMY GOODMAN: No, because the exterminator came and [inaudible].
MICHAEL POLLAN: So, the—so, they cook differently. They also use lots—as you said, lots of salt, fat and sugar to disguise the fact that they’re using the cheapest possible raw ingredients—and to press our buttons.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, how does that disguise?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, if you make anything sweet or salty or fatty enough, you’re not—you’re not going to notice the quality of the meat or the quality of the vegetables involved. We love salt, fat and sugar. We’re hard-wired to go for those flavors. They trip our dopamine networks, which are our craving networks. And, you know, Michael Moss has talked about this in his new book, and David Kessler talked about it, too.
AMY GOODMAN: We actually did just recently interview Michael Moss, the New York Times reporter who wrote Salt Sugar Fat, which he looks at how food companies have known for decades that salt, sugar and fat are not good for us in the quantities Americans consume them, yet every year convincing most of us to ingest about twice the recommended amount. I asked Michael Moss how he thought the problem could be addressed. This is part of his answer.
MICHAEL MOSS: You just can’t throw fresh carrots and fresh apples at kids without engaging them. They’ll chuck them out in the lunchroom. But if we could invigorate the home economics program in this country, which fell by the waysides, I think that would be a huge—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, home economics?
MICHAEL MOSS: Well, home economics—kids in school used to be taught how to shop, how to cook from scratch, how to be in control of their diets. Doesn’t happen anymore. And I write about this in the book. What did happen is we got Betty Crocker, a figment of the imagination of a marketing official at a food company. She began pushing processed foods, convenience foods, as an alternative to scratch cooking.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain more.
MICHAEL MOSS: This was back in the '50s and ’60s. Betty Crocker, as you all know—I mean, I used to think she was a real person. She wasn't. She started out just as a marketing tool for the companies. But she was—became emblematic of the food industry’s usurpation, if you will, of the home economist. And their notion was, "Hey, look, who’s got time for scratch meals anymore? Let’s encourage consumers to buy our convenience foods to make things easier for them."
AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York Times reporter Michael Moss, who wrote Salt Sugar Fat, which is a very good accompaniment to Cooked, Michael Pollan’s new book. In fact, you, the Michaels, cooked a meal together?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, we did. We recently—I went out to his house, and we did a meal for the dining section of the Times where we cooked together. He made a pizza. He makes very good pizza. And I made a chickpea soup. I was trying to make something to show that you could make a delicious dish for like two or three bucks. Two cans of chickpeas, a lemon, little olive oil, an onion, you’re set, and—in an hour, and you have this delicious soup. But—and he’s—I have great admiration for Michael’s reporting. This book is terrific. And in a way, they are companion books, because I’m kind of trying to work on the solution to the problem that he did such an amazing job of anatomizing.
AMY GOODMAN: But the—you know, the picture of the two of you, two men cooking in the kitchen—
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: A lot of women may be thinking right now, "Well, the reason we went to fast foods is we didn’t have time anymore to do this stuff."
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, and there’s some truth to that, although the story about how we moved to processed food is a little more complicated. And the gender politics are really interesting. First of all, the food industry has been trying to worm their way into our kitchens for a hundred years. Betty Crocker goes way back and—as he was talking about. And Betty Crocker was resisted, and the food industry was resisted. Women felt that it was part of their solemn obligation as parents to cook from scratch, and they really resisted processed food. And the breakdown in their resistance doesn’t come until after World War II, well after World War II. And when women went back to work, marketers found that in fact cooking was the housework they didn’t want to give up. It was the creative outlet, compared to cleaning, say. But there was such an uncomfortable conversation unfolding at kitchen tables across America over the—renegotiating the division of labor in the house between men and women. And, you know, there was child care, there was housework, there was cooking. And the food industry recognized there was an opportunity here. And what they did was they leapt in with an advertising campaign directed at women, and it was symbolized by this KFC billboard. Kentucky Fried Chicken runs this huge billboard all across America, big bucket of fried chicken under the words "Women’s Liberation." And it was brilliant, because they associated not cooking with progressive values, and it had never been so associated before. And that was really—it was the era of Virginia Slims, too, right? It was using feminism to sell products. And it succeeded.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to an ad for cake mix in 1978.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Great.
GRANDFATHER: When did you start baking from scratch?
GRANDDAUGHTER: It’s not scratch, Grandpa. It’s Pillsbury Plus.
GRANDFATHER: Devil’s foodcake this firm? It’s got to be scratch.
GRANDDAUGHTER: It’s Pillsbury Plus.
GRANDFATHER: A cake this moist? It’s got to be scratch. A cake this rich? It’s got to be scratch.
GRANDDAUGHTER: It’s Pillsbury Plus. The "Plus" is pudding, pudding right in the mix to add that moistness.
GRANDFATHER: Mmmm, rich flavor. Pillsbury Plus. Looks like scratch has met its match.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan?
MICHAEL POLLAN: That’s great. Well, you know, one of the—one of the breakthroughs in selling cake mixes to women, who—and they bombed when they introduced them in the '50s. All you had to do was add water, and then you had a cake. Then they did some market research, and they said, "You know, if you left out the powdered egg and made women crack an actual egg and add it to the mix, they could take ownership of this cake in a new way." And that's when they took off. So, it was a very interesting game that was played between marketers and American women to get them to accept this food.
It’s worth saying that there is a time crisis in the American household. We work really long hours in this country, much more than they do in Europe, where, by the way, there’s still a lot more home cooking going on, and that one of the earmarks of the labor movement in America, as opposed to Europe, was always to fight for money rather than time. The Europeans fought for time. And that’s kind of their slow food values, in a sense. You know, and we’re also working a total—couples are working a total of an extra month a year since the '70s. I mean, it's a very high amount of time. So, there is a real challenge: How do you cook in the absence of time?
And, you know—but one of the things I found is that convenience food is often not as convenient or time-saving as people think. It doesn’t take a long time to get good food on the table. There’s an episode in the book where we did a microwave meal, where we—everyone in the family could go out and buy whatever home meal replacement they wanted. And my son had French onion soup and hoisin beef stir fry, you know, in a bag. And my wife had lasagna, and I had a curry. And we microwaved them all. It took 40 minutes to get this meal on the table. It was ridiculous, because the microwave is such an individualistic technology, you can just do one—one person’s food at a time. You can’t put them all in. So, by the time the last one was done, the first one was cold and had to be renuked again. And then my son finally said, "I’m moving mine to the oven." And it was just a disaster. And so, it didn’t save time. I mean, I could have made, you know, a perfectly good meal in 40 minutes.
AMY GOODMAN: Like what? What would you make?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I could have made, let’s say, a stir-fry. I could have made a stir-fry. And we do that all the time. You know, that’s a 20-minute dish, even with all the chopping.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re talking to Michael Pollan—
AMY GOODMAN: Journalist Michael Pollan, on his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. We’ve talked fire and water. When we come back from break, air—that’s baking—then earth, fermentation’s cold fire, brewing, in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my conversation with journalist Michael Pollan, author of the new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I asked him to talk about the art of baking bread.
MICHAEL POLLAN: I mean, it sounds really intimidating, but basically, if you put some flour in water and get it to the consistency of like pancake batter—don’t even measure—don’t worry about measurement; just get it to batter. Turn it with—you know, give it a lot of air. Mix it vigorously every time you walk by the kitchen for about a week. At a certain point, you’ll see it will start bubbling. Leave it open to the air. And at a certain point, it will come to life. It’s an amazing moment. And you’ll see little bubbles. And you’ll smell it, and it will smell kind of bready or like yeast. And then you’ve got your starter.
AMY GOODMAN: Even though you didn’t use yeast.
MICHAEL POLLAN: You don’t use yeast, no. Yeast is a—if you want to make great bread, I’m afraid you can’t use yeast. And you don’t need yeast. I mean, yeast is a refined version of a starter. It’s basically one species of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that’s been optimized for rapid increase of air in a loaf of bread. A sourdough starter gives you so much more flavor. It’s such a more complicated little culture. And it reflects the microbes in your area. I mean, it has a terroir to it. It’s a wonderful thing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this thing, of the yeast and water you’re talking about, where you’re making the sourdough starter, some people pass that down for centuries.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes. And there are sourdough starters in the Bay Area that go back to the gold rush. There’s a real fetishism. There’s actually a hotel in San Francisco where you can put your starter if you have to go on vacation, and they’ll feed it for you, like, you know, where you take your pets.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, my god.
MICHAEL POLLAN: I find if I just kind of feed it well and stick it in the back of the refrigerator, it’s fine. I mean, I’m on book tour, and I know when I get home in three weeks, I’ll be able to wake my starter up. It’ll take a—you know, it’ll take a week, but I’ll wake it up. It is like a pet, and you do have some sense of responsibility to it. And you smell it, and you know, oh, it’s getting a little sour, I want it to be a little sweeter, so you give it some more flour. And this is—it’s a miraculous thing. I mean, the whole idea of cooking with microbes, you know, with biology instead of physics, is an astonishing thing. And so, with that starter, you can—you can make beautiful breads, and you can make whole grain bread. It’s very hard to make whole grain bread without a starter. You know, if you’ve ever had one of those whole grain breads that just falls apart in the toaster, that’s because it was made with yeast. The starter conditions the flour in ways that are—make it really delicious and hold together a lot better.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of sweetener do you use?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I don’t use any sweetener.
AMY GOODMAN: I used to use barley malt.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, there’s a whole kind of culture, and it grows out of the '60s revival of whole grain, which was I don't think, you know, the proudest moment in American baking. There was a lot of heavy bread that came out of that era, bread that seemed more virtuous than delicious. And so, a lot of sugars were used to make up for the fact that whole grain flour can be more bitter. The bran, which is included, is a little bit bitter. But there’s really good quality whole grain flour now, and it’s being milled really well—and there’s a local wheat movement growing all over the country right now—where the quality of the flour is such that you don’t need to add sweeteners.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you get it?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, there’s a beautiful mill in California, and company, called Community Grains, which is—I just saw is on the shelf in New York—that’s doing flours and milling it really beautifully and very fresh. The problem with whole grain is that it goes bad. One of the reasons we moved to white flour, which is a really momentous shift in the history of eating—it’s really the beginning of the industrialization of food, happens in the 1880s. Roller milling technology is invented, that allows you to completely remove the bran and the germ, OK? Those happen to be the healthiest parts of the wheat berry. And we sell those off to the pharmaceutical industry so they can sell us back the vitamins that we’ve removed from the flour. It’s a great business model, but terrible biology. And so, when we figured out how to do that, white flour is stable, so you could mill it anywhere, and it sits on the shelf for years. Whole grain flour is volatile, because it has all these volatile oils. It has omega-3s, for example. And, you know, its helpfulness is directly tied to its perishability. So they didn’t like that, and they were happy to get rid of whole grain.
Now it’s coming back. It has to be milled fresh, though. It doesn’t last as long on the shelf. And, in fact, one of the things I learned, although I wasn’t able to confirm it, as much as I’d like, but many millers told me that when you buy commercial whole grain flours from large companies, the germ is not there. They don’t put it back in. They just put back the bran, because they want it to be more stable. I’m working with some scientists who are trying to test this, so that we could actually prove that when you buy whole grain flour from a big company, you’re actually not getting whole grain. But in the meantime, look for stone-milled, a stone mill flour, if it’s really stone-milled. There’s a lot of deception in the baking industry, and there has been for hundreds of years. It’s no reason—it’s no accident they were stringing up bakers during—and millers, during the French Revolution, because they would put anything in flour, just to fool people—bone meal, chalk. And they would put bakers in the stocks and throw old bread at them.
AMY GOODMAN: When we had this bakery in Maine, in Bar Harbor, I thought the greatest coup would be to get the whole grain bread into the schools of Bar Harbor.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: That was my goal. But we could not compete with Wonder Bread. I mean, as you said—
MICHAEL POLLAN: Uprise.
AMY GOODMAN: Wonder Bread could stay on—well, on—staying on the shelf for two years, versus ours—
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —which after a week, of course, and less than that, it would be moldy, because it was alive.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Exactly. Food should go bad. I mean, there’s something wrong with food that doesn’t go bad. I bought a loaf of Wonder Bread the day they went bankrupt and closed, and—because I wanted to have it for old times’ sake. And it’s still soft. And they went bankrupt, I think, in December. This bread, if feels just like new. How do they do that? In fact, I did go to a Wonder Bread factory and watched them make Wonder Bread, and it was an astonishing process. But it’s not bread, and it’s not baking. It’s something else.
AMY GOODMAN: What is it?
MICHAEL POLLAN: It’s brilliant food chemistry. I mean, there are so many chemicals in that, and a huge amount of yeast, by the way. I mean, it’s up to 10 percent yeast by volume. I mean, as a baker, you know that that’s an outrageous amount of yeast. But the idea is to get this giant cough of carbon dioxide into that dough as fast as possible. And then there are all these dough conditioners and texturizers so it won’t stick to the equipment. I mean, it’s totally automated. Hands never touch this dough. And so, the result—and then they’re trying to have these health claims about fiber, so they’re putting in fiber from God knows where—I mean, from trees, from—you know, from the roots of chicory. I mean, anywhere they can find fiber, they’re putting that in. And it’s just—
AMY GOODMAN: You mean just to say—
MICHAEL POLLAN: Just so they could say "high fiber."
AMY GOODMAN: —it has fiber. So why didn’t they just keep it in and keep the original fiber in?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Because it was—whole grain bread is—I mean, whole grain wheat is just this volatile, difficult substance to work with, and they wanted something that was consistent. And so, it was just about rationalizing the process. And I think they probably don’t want to deal with the germ. The germ is troublesome, even though the germ is delicious and healthful. And then they put lots of sugars in. You look how much sugar is in a typical supermarket loaf of bread, it’s a lot of sugar. It’s just become one of those sugar delivery systems in our food economy.
But I found this moment when we came up with white flour was a turning point, because—in human history, because, going back to the fire two million years ago, every advance in food processing or cooking technology improved our health, gave us something really important, gave us more nutrition, gave us more energy, and for some reason we turn a corner in 1880. And from then on, most food processing makes food less healthy—takes out fiber, for example, adds—it refines it so that the sugars are more readily absorbable. And what we now have is a processed food system of foods that are very high energy but not very high nutrients, and they’re absorbed in the upper gastrointestinal tract like this. And I think that that wrong turn—we kind of got too smart for our own good.
The invention of bread was an amazing advance, because you can’t live—you can’t survive on flour, even whole grain flour. You can survive on bread made from it. The cooking process unlocks the nutrients in that seed. And seeds have everything you need to live, but it all must be unlocked. And a slow fermentation unlocks all that, and a cooking at a high temperature. The loaf of bread itself becomes a pressure cooker. See, instead of—you’re going beyond the temperature of boiling water in a loaf of bread, and steam can get much hotter than water. And so, you’re steaming the starches, which breaks them down. It’s just the most beautiful technology. But, of course, then we screwed it up.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s move on, finally, to earth, to fermentation.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, this is the pure cooking with microbes and no heat at all. And this, to me, was the most fascinating journey of all. I learned how to pickle vegetables, make sauerkraut and kimchi, and I learned how to make cheese. I worked with the Cheese Nun, this famous nun in Connecticut, Sister Noella, who makes a beautiful French-style cheese from raw milk and—in Bethlehem, Connecticut. And then I worked with brewers and learned a whole lot about microbiology and this unseen world. And I kind of rethought my whole relationship to bacteria, which I had the normal fear and loathing of, like most of us. I grew up in a, you know, bacterially hostile environment—lots of antibiotics, lots of antiseptics, lots of, you know, "Let’s throw out that can; it might possibly be dented, it might have botulism." And I kind of learned—I fell in love with bacteria and the amazing things they can do to flavor. And the fact that you can cut up a cabbage, salt it, mush it around with your hands to bruise it, put it in a crock, do nothing else, and it will turn into sauerkraut in a week or two, it’s an amazing thing, and that there are bacteria—
AMY GOODMAN: No water?
MICHAEL POLLAN: No. The water comes out of the sauerkraut. The salt draws the water out, and that becomes the brine. And the bacteria are already present on the leaves. The bacteria that can break down anything alive is usually accompanying it. There are bacteria on your body that will go to work as soon as you die. And the same is true on a plant. And so, the bacteria you want are there, and it’s a managed rot, essentially, and rot interrupted, basically. And then there’s this wonderful succession of species, ever more acidic, until it stabilizes with all this lactic acid and ends up being a—you know, creating all these very strong—you know, to some people, kind of edgy—flavors that bacteria do. I mean, you think about a stinky cheese. And these are flavors on the edge of acceptability. And I talk a lot, in fact, about the erotics of disgust, which is a big, big factor in cheese that we never talk about.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about it.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, think about this. You know, I mean, the vocabulary surrounding cheese is like—compared to wine, is really impoverished. People say, "Mmm, that’s really good." The furthest they’ll go is: "That’s kind of barnyardy." What is that? Well, that’s a euphemism for animal manure and animals, in general.
And I explored this whole issue of these foods that are on the edge of disgust that we like. And every culture has one, it seems, that they prize and other cultures think is really gross. And so, if you go to China, as I did for the research in this book, they think cheese is one of the most disgusting foods imaginable, even just the cheddar. I mean, I’m not talking about a really stinky cheese, not Limburger. But they are just grossed out by cheese. And yet, they love stinky tofu, a food so garbage-like in its stink that it’s only eaten outdoors. And it’s basically blocks of tofu that are set into a rotting, pussy mass of vegetables, and it lives there for a very long time, and then it’s fried or just eaten that way. And it’s—it’s intense. I tried it. And—or the Icelandic—people in Iceland love this shark that they bury for six months and let rot underground, and then it gets like this ammoniated taste that they love. It’s very defining, I think, for cultures to have a food that every other culture—that you—that is an acquired taste, because people don’t like it, by nature, but that becomes this socially cohesive thing. We’re the people who love a good stinky cheese.
And so, anyway—and some of the bacteria that make a cheese stinky—this was a shock and revelation to me—are more or less the same bacteria that grow on your skin and give the human odor to you, that are—they’re fermenting your perspiration, the same ones that are fermenting the rind of a washed-rind cheese. And so it’s no accident—you know, the French call the stinky cheese the pieds de Dieu, the feet of God, which is—what a weird term. All right, so foot odor, but of a very exalted kind. So, anyway, food takes us in the most amazing places. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Brewing—what about brewing?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Brewing was great fun. And I am—I’m not very good at it yet. My first batch, which I thought tasted fine, I brought to the brewmaster who was teaching me, and he took one sniff, and he said, "Getting a little off, off odor in here. Yes, Band-Aid." And it did, as soon as he said that. There’s something about a metaphor that makes you smell something that you wouldn’t smell otherwise, like, yeah, I’m getting that Band-Aid smell. It’s kind of antiseptic. So I’m working on it. I’m getting better.
You know, brewing beer is—it’s probably the first kind of alcohol, that or mead, which is honey wine. It is—it may well be, I learned, as I studied the history of it, the inspiration for agriculture may not have been food; it may have been alcohol. And there’s some very interesting evidence to suggest that the reason people gave up hunter-gatherers and settled down to have these row crops, which were all fermentable, the first ones, was because they wanted an easy, steady supply of alcohol. It was easy to find food in the world. It was very hard to find alcohol. You had to find some honey that you could—or some ripe fruit, and that was hard to do. But as soon as you could grow grain and mash it and add water and boil it, you could then introduce some yeast from a past batch of beer, and you had this wonderful panacea and pleasure-giving substance.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your favorite dish to cook?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I still love a roast chicken. That’s my comfort food, you know, and I’ll always fall back to roast chicken. I love braises. I find that’s a great winter comfort food. It’s all broken down. There are vegetables in it, and it creates its own sauce. And so, those are great comfort foods for me. But I also have developed a taste for kimchi, and I make kimchi, and I always have kimchi going. I have a pot burbling somewhere in my kitchen. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what kimchi is.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, kimchi is basically the Korean version of sauerkraut. It’s a cabbage ferment, but with lots of—it’s easier to make than sauerkraut, even though it has more ingredients, because it’s got lots of spices in it. It has garlic, and it has ginger, and it has red peppers. And all those things keep funguses from forming, which can be a problem making sauerkraut. It will get mushy, because you’ve got some fungi in there you don’t need. Doesn’t happen with kimchi. Koreans live by it. It is a very healthy food. It feeds the—you know, we have an internal fermentation going on, too, in our large intestine that’s really important to our health. And fermented food helps feed that fermentation, both with substrate fiber and really good bacteria. You’re getting—you know, if you’re interested in probiotics, you can get them in pills.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean by probiotics?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, probiotics are a healthy bacteria. They’re bacteria that—you know, yogurt has probiotics in it. These are basically bacteria that contribute to our health, either by stimulating the immune system or changing the expression of genes in our own bacteria. I got kind of deep into the microbiology of this. It turns out we’re only 10 percent human and 90 percent microbes. And one of the problems with the modern Western diet is it only feeds the 10 percent. It offers very little to the 90 percent, which are these microbes, which you really depend on to be healthy. And fermented food is a way to give them something that they really like to eat. So I try to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael, what were you most surprised by in writing Cooked?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I guess I was surprised that some of these things I found incredibly daunting are not, that even baking, you can throw away your recipe book at a certain point and trust your senses. Cooking has been so fetishized in our culture and so complicated and professionalized. You know, we watch these shows on TV that make cooking look like, you know, competitive sports. There’s a clock running down. Knives are flying, fires, you know, fountains. And it looks really intimidating. Once you actually get in the kitchen and you’re willing to fail a little and trust your instincts—I now bake by sense. I know when the dough is getting billowy, and I know when it smells—you know, it’s getting a little too acidic, I better stop the fermentation. You know, we need to—there was this interesting moment when Dr. Spock came along in the '60s, and everybody had gotten so intimidated about child rearing by all the experts telling them what to do and the companies selling formula and the modern way of birth and all this kind of stuff. And he came along and just kind of restored people's confidence in their instincts. I think that needs to happen in the kitchen, too. I think we’ve really been separated from this fundamental—cooking is in our DNA. It really goes deep in our species, in our culture. And it is true that we need to—that we need to rebuild a culture of cooking that can’t be like the old one. It can’t be women’s work. We have to get everybody back in the kitchen.
But one of the other most surprising things I learned is that if you cook, if you eat food cooked by a human, either yourself or a loved one, you don’t have to worry about your diet. It takes care of itself. You won’t eat crap. You won’t make French fries every day. You won’t make cream-filled cakes every day. It’s too much work. You’ll be eating real food. You won’t have to count calories. Home cooking is a guarantor of a healthy diet. We know, in general, that the poorer you are, the worse your diet. Not if you’re cooking. Poor women who cook have a healthier diet than wealthy women who don’t. So, it is really—cooking is the key to health. Not to mention, all these amazing pleasures. You know, I don’t see it as drudgery anymore. I see it as alchemy.
AMY GOODMAN: Journalist Michael Pollan, author of the new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation . You can visit our website to see our interviews with Professor Pollan talking about his books, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. You can go to our website at democracynow.org.
Oh, and we have a job opening at Democracy Now!, an annual giving manager to head up our individual giving program. Apply if you’re passionate about funding independent media and have experience with online fundraising, annual giving campaigns, donor relations and database management. You can find out more at democracynow.org.
Also, you can read transcripts of all shows, and you can see the shows at democracynow.org, as well as listen to them. Tell your friends. You can also tweet about us and go to our Facebook page, as well.
Help build resilience. DONATE NOW