"The secret to good cooking," Michael Pollan said emphatically, "is good farming." A round of applause greeted that remark, the last of an hour-long talk we were fortunate enough to host with the author in conversation with The Kitchen Sisters' own Davia Nelson on May 3 at SHED.
Pollan was in town to promote the paperback release of his latest title, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Exploring the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air, Cooked took Pollan on a journey from barbecue to bread to cheese to fermentation. "As soon as you think about cooking," he explained, "you start thinking about transformation. All of my books are about that, actually."
As he began to explore cooking, Pollan refined his philosophy somewhat, realizing that by relying on corporations to cook for us — as, say, at a Burger King — not only are we doing our health a disservice, we are doing poorly by our very souls.
Along the way, Pollan says that he came to a greater appreciation of the role bacteria play in our health and our food. "Bacteria wants all the same things we do," he told the sold-out crowd at SHED. "Food and sex and babies." In researching Cooked, Pollan says that he delved deeply into the world of the "fermentos," those fermentation geniuses who do everything from brew beer to make cheese to coax kombucha and beyond. "Bacteria are our friends," he said, and "are responsible for our favorite things. Getting on better terms with bacteria was one of my main goals."
Fire, Pollan said, is directly responsible for the growth of the human brain over the millennia. As our brains grew, he explained, our guts shrank. Think of cows and how much energy their bodies devote to digestion, he suggested. Then consider their intelligence level. Spending less time processing food and more scheming to get food helped us leap forward evolutionarily.
Water and air inform bread, and Pollan soon found himself a man obsessed. He searched out the owner/baker at Tartine Bakery, Chad Robertson, and also made bread with baker Nathan Yanko (who now co-owns M.H. Bread and Butter in San Anselmo, which bakes SHED's bread). Robertson was then so protective of his sourdough starter that Pollan says he would take it with him on vacation.
Host Davia Nelson hailed Pollan as the "George Plimpton of food." Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, was known for his "participatory journalism" (think: playing pro football in order to write about it). Examples of Pollan's participatory journalism include his travails purchasing a steer and following it from field to plate. Along the way, he says that he came to understand why ranchers might use hormones to promote steer growth. One shot results in $50 more at the slaughterhouse.
Soliciting audience input, the conversation soon ran to children's lit versions of Pollan's books, distributed in schools, and the health care industry, Pollan pointing out that most hospitals still serve unhealthy food. "Ask your doctor how much nutrition training he or she received," he exhorted. "The answer will be in hours and minutes. Their training is in pharmaceuticals."
But he saved his criticism for food service corporations. "It was the outsourcing of our cooking to corporations that got us in trouble," he said. "When you layer fat and salt and sugar together, food literally becomes addictive. Cooking is the only way to take back control of our diet. It's a critical life skill. We need to teach our kids to cook. Ten dishes is all they need."
The talk moved to allergies and gluten. Pollan attributes the rise in celiac disease to the gluten that is added to commercial foods as a protein; now, it's even found in tortillas. "We are allergic to a lot more things than we used to be," he said, "this may owe to a general stressing of our species or to the community of microbes in our guts." Noting that Wonder Bread can now be made from yeast to loaf in two hours, he circles around to making your own food yourself.
It's worth reiterating: "The secret to good cooking is good farming."