Michael Pollan Wants to Rewrite the Narrative on Cooking
"We’ve been brainwashed to think of [cooking] as drudgery," says Michael Pollan. With his new Netflix docu-series Cooked, Pollan, the acclaimed food journalist and bestselling author, is trying to rewrite that narrative. Based on his 2013 book by the same name, the four-part series delves into the history of eating habits in America and around the world, and the factors that have led so many people to move away from the home-cooked meal. "The story I'm telling is a very simple story," Pollan says. "Which is: Look how valuable [cooking] is. Look how interesting it is. Look how pleasurable it can be." We spoke with Pollan about the politics of food, the limitations of voting with your fork, and why he believes that celebrating the pleasures of home cooking can help change the world—at least a little bit.
F&W: How and why did you decide to bring Cooked to the screen?
MP: Well, I’ve done films or TV projects based on several of my other books. I love documentary, and I also understand the limitations of books. A very successful book only reaches a couple hundred thousand people—and that’s a big bestseller—whereas with television we can reach a much bigger audience. I'm very interested in meeting my readers, or viewers, wherever they are. So that was appealing to me. I also really like watching what another head does with a subject that I’ve worked on for a couple of years. There are many things in the film that were not in the book. It was very exciting that [filmmaker] Alex Gibney was interested in doing it, and working with him was really gratifying.
F&W: In the film, you talk about the history of processed foods in America and how we became so reliant upon them. You also suggest that teaching future generations how to cook and appreciate homemade food is a way to get away from that reliance a little. But in so many ways these days it seems like cooking with great ingredients is kind of a privilege, in terms of both time and money. Do you agree with that?
MP: I don’t, entirely. I mean, I agree with it as a matter of time. We are pressed for time. There’s no question. We work very long hours. They’re not though the longest in history, though, by any means. Remember, we fought for the 8-hour workday or the 40-hour week a few decades ago, and that was a big reduction in worktime. But it’s crept up again, and Americans work more than people in any other industrialized country—and we have long commutes. So I think there is a time crunch that people really have to grapple with. But the idea that cooking with good ingredients is so expensive… yeah, if you’re insisting on organic and local and farmer’s market produce, sure. But the step from processed food to real food is the key step. And that doesn’t involve great expense. In fact, it’s very economical. People have done various studies. Mark Bittman did a series of articles where he cooked McDonald’s meals to see if he could make them for less than McDonald’s, and he could, and they were far better, as you could imagine.
But the issue is the time. And that is the big thing. But the idea that only the affluent can afford to cook is, I think, a false one. The affluent work very long hours, too. We’re all very busy. I think the challenge is to find ways to cook that are practical. A mid-week meal doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to take more than a half hour. There are so many great recipes that you can put on the table in less time than it takes to order in.
I think to some extent we tell ourselves a story that this is rocket science and it’s impossible. But my conviction is—and other people may come to a different conclusion—we make time for the things we value. The story I'm telling is a very simple story, which is: Look how valuable this is. Look how interesting it is. Look how pleasurable it can be. I'm just trying to put forward a different narrative than the narrative you’re hearing from the food industry, which is, 'you don’t have time to do this. You can’t do it as well as we can and you can’t do it as cheaply as you can.' That’s a story that marketers are telling us and I want to tell a different story, because I don’t believe their story is true. For some people it may be true. Some people are never going to cook. They don’t like it and that’s fine. But I also think we’ve been brainwashed to think of it as drudgery. The real message of the film is to celebrate all that it is, and that it’s not drudgery.
F&W: Watching the Fire episode, which discusses the meat industry and the benefits of eating ethically sourced meat, it struck me that many of the obstacles to eating in a more mindful way—eating ethically sourced protein, for instance—seem to be pretty straightforward. Our food industry is driven by capitalism and capitalism doesn't favor the types of small businesses that sell ethically and sustainably produced food.
MP: No question. And that’s the ideal, is to be able to use sustainable pork and/or organic vegetables. But the point is that you can still get great food. I mean, most barbecue in the South is made with conventional pork. And one of the reasons I wanted to focus on Ed Mitchell [the pitmaster featured in Fire]is that he’s paying attention to sourcing. But, for instance, when I cook a pig at my house, I buy a sustainable pig from a local farm. It’s much more expensive, probably by a factor of two or three, than conventional pork, but it’s still a tremendous bargain. Because that one pig, which might cost $150 instead of $75, can feed 100 people. So, yes, you could do it more cheaply, but there are still very few ways to feed people a meat meal quite as cheaply as cooking a whole pig. Not that most people are ever going to do that, but I think that we are driven to this lowest cost common denominator, just as a matter of course—the idea that you should always get the cheapest ingredients you can even if the more expensive ingredients still aren’t that expensive.
F&W: Right. I guess my question is, when you’re thinking about creating a better future of food in America, how do you resolve the tension between this mindful eating that you’re talking about and the systemic obstacles to it?
MP: Well obviously we can't all address it individually. I talk a lot about voting with your fork. And those of us who can afford to, I hope, will vote with our forks. But that’s not going to be enough to change the system. And that’s why we have to vote with our votes. A big part of my work is working on food policy and on changing the farm bill and on changing the fact that the system is rigged against sustainable food right now. We subsidize junk food. How absurd, that our government is encouraging the production of things like high-fructose corn syrup by subsidizing corn at the same time we’re having to pay for all of this Type II Diabetes? All my thinking on how to change the system is not reflected in this film. I took on a piece of the problem because I did realize that the decline in home cooking has driven the industrialization of eating. I mean, if you look at the history, McDonald’s really had a lot to do with how we changed chicken production, how we changed potato production. When we let McDonald’s cook for us, a certain kind of farm suddenly appears on the landscape. And it’s a place that horrifies us when we learn about it. So I realized that to a certain point, we could regulate that and demand diversity on farms. But in the meantime what we could as individuals do is try to take back control of those buying decisions. And the great thing about cooking is you get to decide what ingredients you want to buy. If you care about organic, you can buy organic. If you care more about local, you can buy local. But if you’re letting industry cook for you, you lose all control over those decisions.
F&W: You mentioned politics and policy. Obviously, food is very political.
MP: And that’s a good thing. We need to have a big political debate about it.
F&W: As I was watching the film I couldn’t help but think about the current presidential election. What do you think’s at stake with this election in terms of food policy, and is there a candidate that you believe would be especially good or especially bad for food policy?
MP: [Laughs] God. I don’t see a lot of rays of hope. You know, there’s nobody who brings Michelle and Barack Obama’s interest in the issue to the table right now. When Hillary Clinton was a senator from New York, she did do a lot to help small farmers upstate, because it was a constituency and the only kind of farmers we have in New York are pretty small. On the other hand, her political sponsors, or the Clinton political sponsors, were Wal-Mart and Tyson when they got started. So the Clintons have pretty close ties to industrial agriculture. If you wanted to make your decision based on food issues, I'm not exactly sure where you would come down. I would focus your efforts on Congress. Bernie hasn’t really spoken out about these issues. You know, Vermont is a very progressive agriculture sector. His Vermont colleague, Patrick Leahy, started the Organic Act, and there’s a very vibrant food scene. But I haven’t seen that he’s spoken out.
F&W: Ted Cruz is not at the top of your list, I'm guessing?
MP: [Laughs]. My guess is, he really likes Texas barbecue. But I like North Carolina barbecue. [Laughs] So that’s my problem with Ted Cruz.