When it was time for the audience at Portland’s Newmark Theatre to ask Michael Pollan a question, the first out of the gate was: What are the five things that are always in your fridge? His answer: “Eggs. Milk. Yogurt. Mustard. Ketchup.” Other people wanted to know what he thought of Mark Bittman’s idea of being vegan before 6 p.m. And what Pollan thought of edamame.
It was a spirited evening that centered around Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In it he talks about barbecuing and braising, baking and fermenting. It’s basically his journey of relearning how to cook, divided into themes: fire, water, air and earth. But like all of Pollan’s books, the content becomes much bigger. It’s about community, spirituality and family.
Pollan told Think Out Loud‘s Dave Miller that although he has written about our relationship with food for over a decade, his approach to cooking was one of necessity, not pleasure. “I was one of these very impatient people in the kitchen,” he said. “Like a lot of people I was kind of divided against myself in the kitchen. None of us have to do it any more. It’s not obligatory. So we have to find a reason to do it.”
During the conversation, Pollan shared stories from his search for reasons to cook and why we should dedicate more of our time to the process of making our own food. He talked about learning patience and presence from his cooking teacher, becoming a barbecue pit master for a day, experiments with microwave cooking and his new fascination with fermentation.
On the lessons he learned from his cooking teacher:
Samin would teach me that the key to cooking is ‘patience, practice and presence’ and I thought about that a lot because I wasn’t present in the kitchen. My mind was always, ‘I should check my email or I should take a run or do something else.’ So I kept repeating this little koan to myself, ‘When chopping onions, just chop onions.’ And when I could actually do that was when I became much happier in the kitchen. It became a very therapeutic, transformative thing for me to be in the kitchen. And now it’s that time of day when I can reset, I turn off screens, connect with my senses and I reconnect with my family.
On how cooking shows on TV discourage us from cooking:
I was surprised how little I learned about cooking from watching cooking shows. This isn’t the era of Julia Child — my mother watched Julia Child and she actually would try things. She was empowered by that show. Even when my dad was away the kids would get boeuf bourguignon on a Tuesday night because she wanted to try it out before cooking it for guests.
So there are two kinds of cooking shows. There are those that empower you to try things and you can learn technique from — those are on during the day. But the prime-time shows are very different. They are about spectacle. They are sports or reality shows. And they look really daunting. There are knives flying, there are mountains of flame, there’s a clock ticking down like the end of a soccer game. Your takeaway is: ‘This is work best left to the professionals.’ … I think one of the reasons that we’re not cooking very much is that this foodie culture and this ‘fetishization’ of food — which I bear some responsibility for — has made people feel that they are not up to it and if you can’t cook like a restaurant chef, you are not a cook and you don’t know how.
On discovering the culture of fermentation:
I fell in love with fermentation. And I fell in love with the culture, the human culture that goes along with the microbial culture — these people I call ‘fermentos’ and they are fascinating people. They are so relaxed about bacteria. You should watch them do the dishes; it’s terrifying. They are pacifists in the war on bacteria and the rest of us are foot soldiers. But you know they are right, they are so right. We have demonized bacteria, much to our detriment. I think we are going to learn that we are driving some of those [beneficial] bugs to extinction and it’s probably a huge mistake. So I learned a lot from the ‘fermentos’ about renegotiating our relationship with microbes.