For decades, the convenience of fast foods kept many Americans out of the kitchen, but a slow food movement is bringing them back. Michael Pollan helped spur that movement by guiding readers through the food chain and examining why and how we eat. Now Pollan is taking to the kitchen in an effort to reclaim cooking as an enjoyable and important part of daily life. He joins Kojo to talk about his culinary adventures.

Guests

  • Michael Pollan Author, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation"; Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism, UC Berkeley; contributor, The New York Times

Video From Inside The Studio

Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” says the family dinner table is where children learn to share, converse and take turns. “I feel funny saying this, but meals are really an important institution. I really believe that the family meal is the nursery of democracy.” Pollan adds that the individuality of frozen microwave meals is not conducive to family happiness.

Chefs & Food Writers React To ‘Cooked’

Watch as celebrated chefs Mario Batali and Alice Waters, along with food writer Samin Nosrat —- who tutored Pollan in the art of pot cooking -— discuss this seminal piece of non-fiction writing.

Michael Pollan On ‘The Colbert Report’

“Cooked” author Michael Pollan explains to Stephen Colbert that the most important thing about one’s diet is not a nutrient, it’s an activity.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan. Copyright 2013 by Michael Pollan. Reprinted here by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved.

Transcript

  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. With those seven simple words, Michael Pollan helped kick start a conversation about what and how we eat by distilling down the mind bogglingly complex food system and following food from farm to table. Now he's back to close the loop by taking to the kitchen with a look of the fundamentals of cooking. It's declined as part of our daily routine and the importance of getting it back into our homes.

  • 13:07:29

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to walk us through is the aforementioned Michael Pollan. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." He's also a longtime contributor to the New York Times and the knight professor of journalism at Berkeley. Michael Pollan, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:46

    MR. MICHAEL POLLANGood to be here, Kojo.

  • 13:07:47

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. Are you someone who cooks most of your meals? Tell us why you do it and how you find the time, 800-433-8850. Michael Pollan, much of what people take away from your books is in many ways common sense. What does it say about American food culture that we are in need of having some apparently very simple concepts, basics for choosing and preparing what we eat spelled out for us.

  • 13:08:21

    POLLANYeah, I know. I've had a career just basically selling people common sense. I feel very fortunate. I feel bad that it's necessary. You know, the story of -- a lot of my work has been telling people something everybody knew until about 50 years ago, which is where does your food come from? What should you be eating to be healthy? This was handed down through culture or direct experience. And now we're kind of so disconnected from the source of our food and the source of our good health that there's this great remembering that has to happen to undo the forgetting. So, yeah, I'm as surprised as anyone. These books would not be necessary 50 or 60 years ago.

  • 13:09:04

    NNAMDII tell you what surprised me most about this book, starting with the very introduction of the book, the fact that so many people that you and I know spend a great deal of time watching celebrity chefs and cooking shows. I could not believe that people are cooking less than ever before because I assumed that the reason they were watching these shows were because they couldn't wait to rush into the kitchen and try out some of what they were seeing. How do you explain this apparent dichotomy?

  • 13:09:33

    POLLANYeah, it's a paradox. I call it the cooking paradox...

  • 13:09:35

    NNAMDIYes, it is.

  • 13:09:36

    POLLAN...the fact that there are now millions of people who spend more time watching other people cook on TV than they cook themselves. And I don't need to point out that the food you watch being cooked on TV you don't get to eat. There's certain disadvantages. These shows, I don't think -- at least in primetime -- they don't inspire people to cook. I think they actually have the opposite effect very often. I think they're so intimidating.

  • 13:09:59

    POLLANI mean, if you look at these shows, they're competitive sporting events. You know, there's a clock ticking down in the background. There are people rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off. There's, I think, an incredible amount of anxiety and tension built into this. And plus knives flying. It looks very dangerous. I can't imagine you'd want to watch one of those shows and then get in the kitchen.

  • 13:10:22

    POLLANIt's a new kind of cooking television. We used to have Julia Childs and the Galloping Gourmet. And these kind of shows actually did, I think, empower people in a way we're not doing right now.

  • 13:10:34

    NNAMDIWhat we are doing right now, I guess, is just looking at it because of the competition involved and deriving some pleasure from that and learning nothing about actual cooking. Through your workbooks, like "Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food Rules" and long form articles for the New York Times that came before and since, you have become a kind of guru within the slow food movement. Is that a role that you're entirely comfortable with?

  • 13:10:57

    POLLANWell, I distrust gurus of all kinds actually. But, you know, I'm very reluctant to tell people what to do. And I'm very -- and I'm comfortable in the role of food super ego for people. People are often confessing their nutritional sins to me and I don't feel that that's my role. My role is to -- I'm a journalist and my role is to give people the information they need that's being withheld from them by food manufacturers and industrial agriculture so that they can make better decisions. And my role is to counter with a narrative of -- bless you...

  • 13:11:32

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:11:32

    POLLAN...a narrative of transparency, the kind of narrative that they're getting from food marketers, which is that you don't have time to cook. You can't cook as well as we can, that we can take care of you. And I don't think that's true. I think on the evidence we have corporations don't cook very well, if you're thinking in terms of health. They cook with way too much salt, fat and sugar. And they do that because they're covering up the cheapest possible raw ingredients, which is what they tend to work with.

  • 13:12:02

    POLLANAnd then they use lots of additives because their food has been cooked so far away and so long ago that the only way you can make it look acceptable is with lots of chemicals that the ordinary human doesn't keep around the house.

  • 13:12:15

    NNAMDIIn an age when a new super food or nutrient is being touted weekly, you say that more than any of those things we should focus on cooking if we want to eat well, but that none of the ingredients matter as much as the preparation, as the act of cooking itself. Why?

  • 13:12:32

    POLLANYeah, the activity is everything because I think if you're cooking there are things inherent in the process that are going to drive you to using good quality ingredients prepared simply. Take the example of French fries. We all love French fries. Corporations cook French fries really, really efficiently. And it's perfect. It's their business model. Take a really cheap raw ingredient, a labor intensive process, rationalize it and they make it possible to eat French fries two or three times a day, which many Americans do.

  • 13:13:01

    NNAMDINot that easy when you're doing it at home.

  • 13:13:02

    POLLANNo. And if you'd make French fries at home, which I've done and I'm sure you've done, you know, you -- it's such a mess and it's so much work. But you're only going to do it about once a month. The very nature of cooking is going to keep you from doing lots of cream-filled cakes and lots of fried foods. And you're going to gravitate towards simpler and, as a result, healthier preparations.

  • 13:13:24

    POLLANWe know this. We have a lot of research that suggests that people who cook for themselves or their families have better diets. And, in fact, it even undoes the usual class bias in food, you know, which is that the poorer you are the worst your diet usually is in America. In fact, poor women who cook have healthier diets than rich women who don't. And that speaks to this point of when food is prepared industrially it's just simply not as healthy.

  • 13:13:54

    NNAMDITracing the history of cooking, you found that it becomes pretty apparent that we would not be who we are today as people, either culturally or physically, without the advent of cooking. How so?

  • 13:14:07

    POLLANYeah, the discovery of cooking, which goes back -- it may go back as much as 2 million years, which is to say before we were homosapiens, when we were homo erectus -- changed our evolutionary history. Before that we, like other apes, were eating raw food. And eating raw food takes an enormous amount of energy to chew...

  • 13:14:27

    NNAMDIThere's the chewing and chewing and chewing.

  • 13:14:29

    POLLAN...and chewing, yes. And, in fact, apes our size spend six hours a day in the simple act of chewing their food. Now that doesn't leave a lot of time for radio or books or art or culture. And when cooking gave us access to this calories that we didn't have to chew or spend so much metabolic energy digesting, this is when the human brain expands and we become humans. And it sets us apart from the non-cooking animals.

  • 13:14:59

    POLLANAnd at the same time our digestive apparatus could shrink because you don't need very long -- as long intestines and things like that to absorb cooked food. It's more energy dense. It's safer and it's detoxified in many cases. So cooking really made us who we are. And when you start cooking with fire, it also leads to the rise of communal living because you -- it takes cooperation to cook with fire. Someone has to tend the fire. And when people sit down to eat meat, they have to learn how to share. And various rules come up for how to deal with the apportioning of the animal that you're eating.

  • 13:15:38

    POLLANAnd so, you know, cooking also gave us the meal. And the meal is really where civilization begins. And it's very sad to see us taking apart these things.

  • 13:15:47

    NNAMDIIndeed, if cooking is what led human beings to essentially the creation of culture and as the creation of that culture evolved, we developed and invented television. Then we created cooking shows. Then we created competitive cooking shows so that we could stop cooking again. If you'd put on your...

  • 13:16:04

    POLLANWe've come full circle. Also the move to reduce the size of the human gut and expand the brain is also being reversed before us. (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:16:11

    NNAMDIExactly right. Put on your headphones, please, because we're about to go to the telephones. We will start with Ann in Annandale, Va. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:16:21

    ANNHi, Mr. Pollan. I listened to an "Omnivore's Dilemma" on audio book several years ago and I really loved it. And I'm looking forward to your new book. I guess this is more of an observation than a question, but it seems to me that most Americans simply don't have time to cook. And if we want to change the way we eat we really need to change our culture to slow down in our personal lives and in our work lives.

  • 13:16:45

    ANNI would even go as far as to say that we need to find a new appreciation for homemakers and the art of homemaking. It's an invaluable and important job, but I feel that most Americans view it as menial and something to be (word?). And I just -- in the interest of full disclosure, I am a stay-at-home mom of three. And I consider myself to be a pretty solid cook now. But that's only because I cook every single day, Partly because I like to eat and I like to eat good food. But also because I'm a stay-at-home mom I have to watch my budget. So that means eating at home.

  • 13:17:15

    ANNAnd I'm only able to do all this because I stay at home. Otherwise, I can't imagine finding the time to do it and I'm not -- I really don't -- I really can't see how most Americans find the time either.

  • 13:17:25

    NNAMDIMichael, what do you say to somebody like Ann, working parents of young kids, people whose jobs commutes or keeps them away from home longer than most. They say they would like to cook but they truly don't know where to find the time.

  • 13:17:37

    POLLANWell, we do -- there is a real time crunch in America. There's no question. And we work longer hours than people in any other industrialized country. And that's a tradition in America and it, in fact, was a focus of our labor movement. You know, European labor movements fought for time. We fought for money and that was a tradeoff we made. And I totally respect that difficulty that people have with time.

  • 13:18:02

    POLLANBut I also encourage people to really take an inventory of how they're using their time, to make sure that really is true. I find in general people make time for things they deem important. We make time to get to the gym because we understand it's really important to our health and our sanity. And I would argue that cooking is as important as going to the gym or going to yoga class. I find it incredibly therapeutic. It contributes to the health and welfare of my family.

  • 13:18:31

    POLLANAnd the other thing I would point out is in the last ten years alone we, in America, have found two hours a day to be online, to be surfing the web. Now the day is still 24 hours long as it was ten years ago, but we decided that was important to us. So we reduce the time we spend doing other things, including watching television. TV-watching rights have gone down.

  • 13:18:58

    POLLANSo my goal in this book is to encourage people to reevaluate cooking. And yes, you can outsource it in a way you can't outsource taking a run. Having someone else run for you does you no good. It is true. But my wager here is that it is time very well spent, not just because it's good for you. Not because you should, but because it's really interesting and satisfying. I mean, one of the things that surprised me is that this activity we've been encouraged to think of as drudgery, approached in the right spirit is magic, is alchemy. And I get enormous satisfaction.

  • 13:19:41

    POLLANNot that I don't struggle too with competing time demands when I'm in the kitchen, but that's part of the practice is letting everything go, realizing I'm going to be in the kitchen for the next hour. I'm not doing anything else except maybe talking to members of my family or listening to the radio. There's a couple things you can do while you cook.

  • 13:20:00

    NNAMDIAnn, thank you very much for your call. But arguing that we don't have enough time seems that it might be a pretty glib rationale that we have come to accept, when in fact the reality of why we don't cook as much as we do, has a history. For centuries people made and came together over meals. But in the course of the last four decades or so the distance between ourselves and our dinner has grown. When and why did Americans stop cooking their meals and instead start preparing them?

  • 13:20:32

    POLLANWell, you know, the food industry has been working for a century to worm its way into our kitchens. They understood that there was a lot of money to be made getting us to outsource our cooking. And the interesting thing is that for most of the last century, American women resisted this. They did not appreciate cake mixes and things like that. They felt that cooking was, of all the domestic chores, the one that offered the most outlet for creativity. The one that seemed most like childcare in that's it's so important to the welfare of the whole family.

  • 13:21:06

    POLLANIt's only after the feminist revolution that we got into this very uncomfortable conversation in America between men and women that unfolded across kitchen tables all across the country. We had to renegotiate the division of labor in the home because women were working also. And it wasn't fair that they also had childcare and cleaning and cooking. And that conversation -- I was party to that conversation in my household. It was really awkward and could be very acrimonious.

  • 13:21:38

    POLLANAnd at that moment of maximum tension, the food industry stepped forward with a brilliant marketing campaign and said, stop fighting. We got you covered. We'll cook for you. And KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken, took out a billboard all across America with a big bucket of fried chicken under the headline women's liberation. So they helped redefine not cooking as a very progressive thing to do. And they removed the source of tension. And of course we're always happy to have someone stop us from fighting.

  • 13:22:11

    NNAMDIWhich causes me to wonder which came before, the horse of the cart, in this situation because the rationale that we use of having to work too hard and not having enough time to cook may have started out as, here is an idea. You can outsource your cooking and that will therefore enable you to work longer hours.

  • 13:22:30

    POLLANWell, that's right. It is part of the same thing. You know, this is the nature of capitalism, right, is to take as much of our time and draw it into the machine. And then use the machine to sell us products to allow us to become part of the machine. It's all of a piece. And, you know, preserving -- I mean, the reason I have, you know, such respect for the caller and the work she's chosen to do is that she's preserving a space around her family that is free from this economic interference of big corporations.

  • 13:23:04

    POLLANAnd one of the reasons to cook, I think, is to increase our self reliance and our sense that we can take care of ourselves, and that we don't -- we aren't dependent for every move, every day for a big company or an institution to help us. And there's something liberating about that.

  • 13:23:26

    NNAMDIA lot of callers on the line but we have to take a short break. So please don't go away. Stay on the line. But if you're trying to get through and join the conversation right now, you might do better sending us an email to kojo@wamu.org or sending us a Tweet at kojoshow. If you and your family eat a lot of prepared or processed foods, tell us why and whether that's something you would like to change. You can also join the conversation at our website kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:25:35

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Michael Pollan. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." He's a longtime contributor to the New York Times and he's the knight professor of journalism at Berkeley. We have several callers on the line. We're getting emails. We'd also like to tell you if you'd like to get through you might want to send us a Tweet at kojoshow or you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'd like to start with Susan in Arlington, Va. Susan, your turn.

  • 13:26:07

    SUSANWell, I can't complain -- or I can't not agree with everything Michael Pollan says. I cook all my meals at home for my husband and myself. It's an enjoyable task. We use local foods. So, yay, Michael Pollan.

  • 13:26:22

    NNAMDIThat's it? Just an endorsement?

  • 13:26:24

    POLLANYou're giving me such a hard time.

  • 13:26:25

    SUSANWell, (unintelligible) no, no hard time.

  • 13:26:29

    NNAMDISusan...

  • 13:26:30

    SUSANI -- yes.

  • 13:26:31

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please.

  • 13:26:32

    SUSANI just love cooking. I grew up in the '60s and my mom, remember being just horrified when she started using, you know, potato flakes. And I said I'd never do that, and I don't.

  • 13:26:46

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for...

  • 13:26:47

    POLLANBut, you know, that's great.

  • 13:26:47

    NNAMDI...go ahead.

  • 13:26:48

    POLLANBut we have a generation too of people who don't have those skills handed down from their parents. And I run into people all the time who would like to cook and don't have a clue. And so with that transmission -- that cultural transmission from one generation to another's been broken. And we have to figure out very, you know, novel ways to deal with that, to teach people how to cook.

  • 13:27:09

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Susan. We got an email from Rebecca in Washington who says, "Every time I go into a grocery store, I feel manipulated into almost buying something that is in some way processed, from tomatoes with added basil to prepared fish. It's hard to find whole canned tomato anymore." On the one hand, we have a resurgence of farmers markets. On the other, we have this attempt to push toward processed foods. What's going on? Is it that they want to justify higher prices?

  • 13:27:38

    POLLANWell, you've got it. Processed food is all about the business model of the food industry. The more you process food the more profitable it is. It's very hard to make money selling simple food, and ask your farmers at the farmers market. And they're doing better than most farmers. But you make money the more you trick it up. You make it convenient, you add a health claim, you complicate it. And so that's one of the reasons.

  • 13:28:05

    POLLANAnd, in fact, of every food dollar you spend on average , 90 percent of it or 92 percent, 92 cents goes to someone other than the farmer. And I don't need to remind you that all food comes from farms. But the people making the packages make more money than the farmers. And this is another important reason to cook, to put more money in the farmer's pocket. At the farmers market or the CSA, the farmer is getting that 90 cents of the food dollar again.

  • 13:28:36

    POLLANAnd if we're going to continue this renaissance of small and local farming, it's going to really depend on people cooking. There's a real link between industrial eating and industrial farming. And what drove us down this course of these huge monoculture farms, heavily reliant on chemicals and GMOs is fast food. Because fast food -- the fast food companies want their food to be consistent. They want to buy from as few people as possible. And they want a uniformity.

  • 13:29:09

    POLLANAnd so that the way you cook, or whether you cook or not, has an enormous bearing not only on your health, which is what we think of first, but on the whole food chain and the state of American agriculture. And I worry that this renaissance in local agriculture will top out pretty soon if people are not willing to cook. Because what's for sale at the farmers market, it's raw ingredients by and large.

  • 13:29:31

    NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you mentioned the way you cook, because you point out that we have, in fact, arrived at a point at which my definition of cooking may not be the same as yours. And neither of those definitions would be considered right by our great grandmothers. So for you, what constitutes cooking today?

  • 13:29:48

    POLLANYeah well, when I started doing this research I was interviewing market researchers in the industry. And I said, so what is cooking exactly? And I was using this expression scratch cooking and they were like, there's no more scratch cooking. That's over. Cooking is -- for the industry is the assembly of ingredients. So in other words, nuking a frozen pizza in the microwave is not cooking, even by their definition. However, pouring salad dressing over prewashed lettuce or assembling a sandwich from, you know, meats and cheese and things like that, that is cooking.

  • 13:30:23

    POLLANI would put the bar a little higher than that I think. And, you know, it's not that I think we need to go back to the beginning, everything we make. There's a place for canned tomatoes. There's a place for frozen spinach in my cooking. I mean, there are two kinds of processed foods. There's kind of first order process foods which has one or two ingredients. But then go -- leave the canned tomato section and go down to the tomato sauce section and read the ingredient labels. You've got ten ingredients now, and a lot of them very unfamiliar to a normal person, and lots of sugar and lots of salt.

  • 13:31:01

    POLLANSo that's an important line to draw when you're cooking. And I use canned tomatoes all the time but I will not buy bottled sauce.

  • 13:31:09

    NNAMDIOn to Aaron in Washington, D.C. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:14

    AARONHi, Kojo. Thanks for giving me the chance to speak on here. Two things that I wanted to talk about. First was modern economics and how the dollar has to stretch further. It seems that going to your fast food restaurants and being able to buy, you know, a value meal or the dollar menu to cover meals for the family, which might make your dollar seem like it spreads further, when if you go to, like, me as a single male living in Washington, D.C. A. it's harder to cook because I'd have way too much left over. It's hard to cook for one person. And B. all the money spent at the grocery store to be organic or to be healthy seems to be far more expensive than just going to McDonald's and getting something off the dollar menu.

  • 13:31:54

    NNAMDIBut is it?

  • 13:31:56

    POLLANWell, yeah, is it? I mean, in general -- cooking for one may be a special case but in general cooking is economical. You have to pay somebody to process your food, even McDonald's. And, in fact, Mark Bipman (sp?) did a wonderful column last year where he made McDonald's meals and showed that you can make them more cheaply, and, by the way, a lot more tastefully, than if you have McDonald's cook for you.

  • 13:32:19

    POLLANThere are dollar menus and they're depending on you buying sodas basically. I mean, that's where they make the money on those dollar meals. The soda is very, very profitable. You can cook much more economically than even the cheapest fast food. It does involve being strategic though. And, you know, you said that you end up with too much food. I think that that's actually a plus.

  • 13:32:43

    POLLANI try very hard -- one of the ways I am strategic in my own cooking is I overcook. I make too much. And I freeze it. I love leftovers.

  • 13:32:51

    NNAMDISame here.

  • 13:32:52

    POLLANAnd the key I think to cooking efficiently at home is one meal rolling over into the next. So if you're going to roast a chicken, why not roast two? It doesn't take much more work. There's no more dishes to clean. And then you've got the basis of all these other meals. So when you think about -- and this does work if you're eating alone -- one meal rolling over into the next. That's when you can really save on both time and money.

  • 13:33:19

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Aaron. We move on now to Nolu in Silver Spring, Md. Oh, oh,. Can't seem to get Nolu on the line. A man writing about cooking, you're very aware of the gender politics of the kitchen. How did those roles come to be so rigidly defined in the past? And is there a way, do you think, for us to move beyond them now?

  • 13:33:48

    POLLANWell, there is a very long tradition of women cooking. And men did other work in the household way back when, although there was a kind of cooking that men did and that was grilling. And that goes way back. You see that in the Old Testament. You see that in ancient Greece. Men dealt with the big animals they'd hunted and cooked them in a very self-dramatizing showy way. It was very public. It still is. I mean, the backyard barbecue is still the male preserve. It's remarkable the persistence of some of these stereotypes.

  • 13:34:20

    POLLANAnd cooking over fire is a very -- has always been a very macho thing. It's tied to the hunt, I think. And this, you know -- I mean, in the Odyssey, if you think about it, even the great heroes, you know, they do not demean themselves by cooking. In fact, they honor themselves. It's a very prestigious role. Whereas that domestic cooking in pots that happens indoors, you know, in the covered pot has always been women's realm.

  • 13:34:47

    POLLANI mean, I think we need to break these stereotypes down. I think they're kind of ridiculous at this point. And -- but I do think -- to go to your second point -- that there is an opportunity to build a culture of cooking that isn't sexist going either way. And the reason is that, at least when I think about my son, he -- those stereotypes are not present in his mind. He has grown up watching both parents cook. He's seen this at his friend's house too. And he's also watched all these macho chefs on television. I mean, the chef is a celebrity and these are tough guys.

  • 13:35:21

    POLLANAnd so I think that, you know, for better or worse we have an opportunity with this next generation, many of whom aspire to be cooks by the way -- that's become a very prestigious occupation -- to rebuild the culture of cooking on a different basis where women are not stuck with the majority of the work. And so I'm guardedly optimistic that the ingredients for such a culture are now there.

  • 13:35:45

    NNAMDISo if we've gotten out of touch for many of us, that might mean starting anew with the fundamentals, which is what you did for this book. But the techniques that you spent time learning are not the quick and easy, get-dinner-on-the-table-in-a-hurry ones we see on TV. What did you set out to learn instead and why?

  • 13:36:06

    POLLANYeah, I think it's important to make clear that this is not a book full of 20-minute recipes. This isn't going to solve your problem tonight, what to have for dinner. This is a deep dive into the soul of cooking. So I divided cooking into the four great transformations, fire, water, air and earth. And fire is cooking meat over fire, the kind of historical -- and I went to North Carolina to study barbecue with a pit master. This is whole hog barbecue cooked for 20 hours. You're not going to do this this weekend probably.

  • 13:36:35

    NNAMDINo.

  • 13:36:36

    POLLANAlthough I urge you to do it once in your life because it's such a powerful experience. And by learning how that is done, whether you're watching me or doing it yourself, you learn a lot about grilling. You learn how flavor is created by fire. You learn how meat responds over time to salt and heat. So it's by doing the extreme case I think you inform the everyday case.

  • 13:37:00

    POLLANAnd then in water I did pot cooking and I learned the basic vocabulary for doing brazes and stews, which is -- I was so intimidated by it, but in fact it's remarkably simple. It's just, you know, if you can chop an onion, you know, you're on your way. And then for air, the third element, I learned about baking and I learned to bake bread. And that too is very daunting. I thought that bread baking was the carpentry of cooking. You know, demanded incredible precision. You had to have a scale calibrated in grams in order to do it. And I was intimidated by it.

  • 13:37:34

    POLLANBut I found that, in fact, you can use your senses. And your senses are very important when you're baking bread, to smell the dough, to taste the dough, to figure out when it's ready to be baked. And it was a very sensual process making it, that I threw away my cookbook at a certain point. And I really enjoy making bread without it.

  • 13:37:52

    POLLANAnd then the last section, earth, doesn't sound like cooking at all but of course it is, and that's fermentation. Some of the most powerfully flavored and interestingly flavored and healthful foods we eat have been cooked without the use of heat at all. Strictly by microbial action, bacteria and fungi, breaking down things, starting the process of rot, which we then guide and interrupt to make sauerkraut and Kimchi and cheese. And of course, alcohol, one of the great fermentations and blessings of mankind.

  • 13:38:27

    NNAMDIWhich is what helped you, it is my understanding, to bond with your son.

  • 13:38:31

    POLLANYes, it did. We started brewing beer together. And if you want to get a teenager in the kitchen, that is an excellent way to do it. And we had some wonderful afternoons learning how to brew beer. And, you know, it's not that hard. You have to buy a kit and a little bit of equipment. But there is something -- I mean, talk about moving from drudgery to alchemy. I mean, that is really alchemy. You take this mash of grain, this sweet syrupy liquid and a week alter you have beer.

  • 13:39:06

    POLLANIt really is -- one of the things I love about fermentation in particular is it's a little like gardening in that it engages you in this dialogue with these other species. Although in this case, they're unseen, these fungi. And you start this process and within 12 hours this thing is bubbling away like mad. It's come to life. And one of the things -- even if you're never going to brew beer again -- I appreciate a good beer in a way I never did before. I understand the craft that goes into it. I don't begrudge somebody, whatever they're charging for these crafts, because they're so -- I really admire people who can do them well.

  • 13:39:46

    POLLANMy beer didn't come out that good. It tasted a little like -- it smelled a little like Band-Aids.

  • 13:39:50

    NNAMDIBut when you talk about air, when you talk about earth, when you talk about fire, you talk about water, you talk about fermentation, I feel like I'm in a science class here because there's a process of learning that takes place, you know, earlier Chef Jose Andres dropped by the station. He was looking for you. And he is teaching a class in the science of cooking at George Washington University, and he likes to emphasize that you have to understand the basic elements in order to understand what cooking is in the final analysis all about.

  • 13:40:17

    POLLANI would love to take that class because I think he's right. I think you cook much more successfully when you do understand the science. When you understand say, what salt does to meat, and why salting one or even two or three days before you're going to cook has a magic effect on the quality of that, the science of that is very interesting. I mean, it has to do with the salt drawing the liquid out, and dissolving in that liquid, and then the vacuum in the cells drawing that liquid back in and really like building the flavor cell by cell.

  • 13:40:51

    POLLANThat scientific understanding for me has informed my cooking in that I understand why I'm doing something. And when I understand why I'm doing something, I remember to do it.

  • 13:41:01

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Michael Pollan. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." If you'd like to join the conversation, for the time being stick with our website kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. Have you tried to learn new cooking techniques and expand your kitchen repertoire? How'd it go? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:08

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Michael Pollan. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is called "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." Michael Pollan is also a long-time contributor to the New York Times. He's the night professor of journalism at Berkeley. Michael Pollan, we're not only not making our meals, we're often distracted while we're eating them. What is secondary eating, and how does that factor into equation here?

  • 13:43:37

    POLLANYeah. I wasn't familiar with that term, secondary eating, but now it's a category that the Department of Agriculture uses to analyze how we're eating. Turns out, secondary eating is eating while doing other things. Eating while walking down the street, eating while driving, where 20 percent of the food that people under 55 eat is eaten in the car today. It's, you know, eating while you're watching television or at work, and it now takes up 78 minutes of the day.

  • 13:44:09

    POLLANThat is more time than we spend in primary eating. Now what's primary eating? Well, that's what we used to call meals. But apparently now we call it primary eating, and that's only 67 minutes a day. So we're spending more time grazing, snacking. That's what this really means. And the problem is what are the kind of foods that you can eat while doing all these other things? They tend to be not cooked food. They tend to be snacks. They tend to be this industrially prepared, highly caloric junk food.

  • 13:44:43

    POLLANBut that is really taking over, and it's swapping mealtime. And, you know, meals -- I feel funny saying this, but meals are really an important institution. I really believe that the family meal is the nursery of democracy. This is where our children learn to share and take turns and argue without offending one another. This is where they get -- they learn about the art of conversation from adults and learn about the world.

  • 13:45:10

    POLLANI remember my dad lecturing us about the Vietnam War, you know, at the table, and that's how I got my news was at the table. And to lose that, to move to a time where, you know, kids are just kind of -- many family meals today, which are microwaved, say, or reheated, you know, people don't coincide at the table because the nature of the microwave oven is when your food is hot, the next person's food is not yet hot, or has already gotten cold. So you have people kind of crossing in the night at the table, and maybe mom sits there for the whole time, but nobody else does.

  • 13:45:48

    POLLANAnd those kind of meals, I think are really not conducive to family happiness, to the education of our children, and we used to have a stigma on snacking. When I grew up, it was called, you know, the between-meal snack.

  • 13:46:04

    NNAMDIMm-hmm.

  • 13:46:05

    POLLANAnd there was this kind of -- no. It was something you minimized. You never hear that. There's no stigma on snacking anymore, and in fact, if you look at ads for television, it's all encouraging us to eat outside of the meal.

  • 13:46:18

    NNAMDIWell, one difference in our memories during the Vietnam War, I remember lecturing my father. He supported it. Here is Nolu (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. Nolu, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:46:31

    NOLUHi guys, Kojo and Mike, Thank you so much for this show. I agree with everything. My question has to do -- and I've been reading you for years, Mike Pollan, how do we bring about policy changes when it comes to big food and big business? I spend 10 years in Africa and that really...

  • 13:46:47

    NNAMDIOh, that Nolu. Hi Nolu Tanday (sp?). How are you?

  • 13:46:50

    NOLUYes. And that really took my cooking up a couple of notches, because I came to see that salad dressing, it takes like two seconds, you know, olive oil, vinegar, lemon, you know, whatever. So how do we get back to things, especially given what I think is the relationship between processed foods and obesity and diabetes?

  • 13:47:11

    NNAMDIAnd Nolu is a long time journalist, you should know.

  • 13:47:13

    POLLANAh. Well processed food we know is at the heart of the obesity epidemic. There's no question about that, and there is very good research tracking the decline in cooking with the rise in obesity. These two things are closely linked. You're absolutely right about that. So how do we change it? Well, there are many things we need to do. One is, our tax dollars are now subsidizing processed food. We subsidize the production of corn and soy. These are the basic building blocks of, you know, the soy turns into the oil in which all the fast food is fried, and the corn turns into the high fructose corn syrup in the sodas, and we're, you know, we do nothing for -- or very, very little for farmers growing real food, for diversified farmers, for organic farmers, and for vegetable farmers.

  • 13:48:04

    POLLANWe need to -- we need to align our agricultural policies with our health goals. Right now they're at odds. We are in effect subsidizing diabetes at the same time we're paying for the war on diabetes. So we really have to look at our agricultural policies. I also think in the same way, you know, we now have public health campaigns about obesity and soda, I just came from Manhattan, and there are, you know, ads in the subways about soda and the risks of obesity, I think we need public health campaigns promoting home cooking.

  • 13:48:36

    POLLANI think this is a tremendous boon to public health, the more people are cooking means than not. I also think we need to bring home Ec back into the schools. A different kind of home Ec, one that's much less sexist than it was in my time. When I went to school, the boys took shop and girls took home Ec.

  • 13:48:53

    NNAMDIMm-hmm.

  • 13:48:53

    POLLANYou didn't have to do that, but the social pressure was such that you did. There was only one boy in my school who had the nerve to take home Ec, and we thought he was weird. Now I was ultimate admiration for him. He learned something useful. We did not. I know how to make a Japanese lamp.

  • 13:49:10

    NNAMDINolu, thank you very much for your call. Good to hear from you. On now to Michael in Hershey, Pa. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:20

    MICHAELHi. Thank you for taking my call. And I just heard Michael allude to the home economic courses that used to be offered in high school, and in middle, and that was exactly my comment, is that those have vanished. And I remember a similar situation where -- yeah. The boys would go into shop class, the girls would go into home Ec. I think when I went to school there was one boy who actually took the course of home Ec, and of course he was criticized and so forth. But I think it should be a compulsory, and I think it should be offered to both men and women, boys and girls.

  • 13:50:01

    NNAMDIWell, Michael and Michael, listen to this. We got an email from Larry in Falls Church, who says, "When I was a junior in high school in 1948, both boys and girls were assigned to home economics class where we learned to cook such staples as sunny side up eggs and cinnamon toast. I still cook all my meals." So apparently there was a time...

  • 13:50:20

    POLLANThere was.

  • 13:50:21

    NNAMDI...when boys were taking home economics. Michael, thank you very much for your call. We move on now -- please.

  • 13:50:27

    POLLANI think we could -- we could bring back home Ec, and, you know, think about -- I mean, I know we only teach things that can be tested now, so we may have to have some roast chicken tests, but I think that, you know, we -- my son, when we went to high school, took a whole health course where he learned about safe sex and alcohol and drug use, and these are very important life skills, and -- but so is cooking. There is no more valuable life skill that we can teach our kids if we're concerned about their health and their happiness, than knowing how to cook.

  • 13:51:02

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Michael. Trying to get in as many caller as possible, so here is Kara in Fort Washington, Md. Hi, Kara.

  • 13:51:11

    KARAHi, good afternoon. Thank you, Kojo, for this show, and thanks, Michael, for this new book. I'm really looking forward to reading it. I've been enjoying your books for a number of years. I started with "The Botany of Desire," and I really loved "Omnivores Dilemma," and I especially enjoy how you dive into the history of the ideas, the sources of our food, and I was particularly interested in the processed food and KAFOs. And it was a revelation to me that everything we eat processed food wise, including meat, down to salmon, chicken beef, pork, of course, comes from corn.

  • 13:51:50

    POLLANYeah.

  • 13:51:50

    KARAI had no idea that that, you know, we're forcing animals who don't normally eat this stuff to eat corn. So, I just -- I found -- a number of your books have been revelations to me in that respect, and not to sound too much like a fan, but you're kind of inspiring month to take over my parents' farm down in North Carolina.

  • 13:52:13

    POLLANOh, well, that's great. I mean, I don't think there's any more, you know, noble beautiful work than farming, although, I warn you, it's incredibly hard, and hard to make a living at. But thank you for that. You know, that's what I like to do in my work when I approach a subject, is take it all the way back to the beginning, take it back to the earth, and what I found is that the processed food economy was built on a foundation of corn. Why is that? Well, that's the crop we subsidize.

  • 13:52:40

    NNAMDIIt's a form of investigative journalism if you will, Kara.

  • 13:52:43

    POLLANWell, exactly right.

  • 13:52:44

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. After a year or so of cooking lessons with a former student of yours spent carefully preparing and slowly cooking all manner of dishes, you and your son decided to take on a contrary experiment that took you to the frozen food aisle. What did you find there?

  • 13:53:01

    POLLANYeah. We did -- we had this interesting night. We'd been making all these home cooked nights, and my son said, you know, wouldn't it be fun to do a microwave night? And so we went and we bought all these home -- they're called home meal replacements, these single serving entrees that you can buy in the frozen food section, and it's amazing what is now there.

  • 13:53:18

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 13:53:19

    POLLANEvery fast food chain, you can buy their food, or fast casual restaurant. So my son had a stir fry. He got the stir fry from P.F. Changs, and I got an Amy's curry, and my wife got a Stouffers lasagna, and my son also got an onion soup. He went French and Chinese in the same meal, and we set out to have a meal around this, and to see how much time would we save, how would it taste, and what would the meal be like? Well, the surprise -- the big take away for me was, it didn't save any time.

  • 13:53:52

    POLLANIt took us 40 minutes to microwave all this stuff, because, you know, the microwave is the individualistic technology...

  • 13:54:00

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 13:54:00

    POLLAN...that's ever been invented. You can only do one thing at a time. So by the time the third entrée came out, the first was cold, and it had to be nuked again, and so someone was constantly leaving the table to go check on the status of their food. When we finally got it all out, and my son ended up having to put one of them in the oven because there wasn't enough space in the microwave for everything, we had this incredibly disjointed family meal where you were, you know, passing in the night at the table, and we were eating this -- and we were obsessed with our own entree, and it's like how did it taste, did it really taste like the food it was simulating, maybe that one was better. And in the end, we sat around, we had this very unhappy meal, and there was a huge quantity of trash.

  • 13:54:49

    NNAMDIAnd that ladies and gentlemen is how that experiment ended, not to happen again. Karen from Silver Spring writes, "I'm reading 'Consider the Fork,' which is giving this home chef a new appreciation for advancement of cooking technology. If you had to name one kitchen appliance to not own or eliminate that would encourage healthier eating, which one would that be?"

  • 13:55:13

    POLLANWell, you know, I could -- the easy answer is the microwave oven, however, they do have a place. I use the microwave oven to defrost things, you know. We eat a lot of frozen spinach in the winter, and it's very easy in you've got a microwave to defrost it. And I use it to reheat my tea. So I'm not ready to get rid of it. I'm trying to think what else? You know, I would go the other way, and the things that are essential is a very small number. You need a good knife, you need a cast iron pan, you need some kind of casserole with a cover, and call it good. Cutting board.

  • 13:55:51

    NNAMDIWorks for me. Here is Elizabeth in Alexandria, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:56:00

    ELIZABETHI called in earlier. I am forced to cook. I originally never thought I would be in this position. I have three children with very severe high end multiple allergies, one of which is to corn. As you well know, it's in everything. And my children's school, even if they could eat it, doesn't provide them with lunch. So there really -- it's easier than a lot of people think, and it doesn't -- it's not as time consuming as you think. I make them a hot breakfast every morning and I don't get up at 0 dark hundred.

  • 13:56:38

    ELIZABETHEverybody gets something hot in a thermos, and they're normal kids. We've got sporting events, and they work. And last night we flew in from work and school, and everybody changed and something was on the stove literally cooking, you know, while we were changing, put it in Tupperwares, and while one was at practice, the rest of us had a picnic under the tree.

  • 13:56:52

    POLLANOh, you really have it dialed in.

  • 13:57:04

    ELIZABETHI do. And, you know, and the funny thing is what you were saying about the microwave, we have a built in microwave vented to the outside, you know, custom. It broke a couple months ago, and I thought my life was over, and I've actually survived a couple months.

  • 13:57:17

    NNAMDIWell, you know, we're running out of time very quickly, Elizabeth, but you have underscored everything that is in Michael Pollan's book, "Cook." It's not that difficult.

  • 13:57:26

    POLLANIt, you know, it really isn't. I think if you get over that hurdle of thinking you don't have the time and thinking it's beyond you, you find that you pick it up pretty quickly, especially if you find someone to teach you. I really encourage you to ask a friend who knows how to cook something well that you've really enjoyed at their house and, you know, offer to help out one day, and you will pick up so much in a day. And it's also pleasurable, and I think we haven't talked nearly enough about that.

  • 13:57:55

    POLLANApproached in the right spirit, there is nothing more satisfying than an hour spent in the kitchen at the end of the day, especially if your kids are around helping.

  • 13:58:02

    NNAMDIMichael Pollan. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is called "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." Michael Pollan is a long-time contributor to the New York Times, and he's the night professor of journalism at Berkeley. Michael Pollan, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:16

    POLLANThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:58:17

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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