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Michael Pollan wants you to cook

By Lee Svitak Dean
Minneapolis Star Tribune

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    ABOUT MICHAEL POLLAN

    Age: 58.

    Son: Isaac, 20, sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and a good cook.

    Wife: Judith Belzer, a painter.

    Home: Lives in Berkeley, Calif. (born in Long Island, New York).

    Education: Bennington College, Oxford University and Columbia University.

    Occupation: Professor at University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

    Website: www.michaelpollan.com.

    What you might not know …

    • He’s an English major who took no science classes in his college career.

    • A writer about TV before he discovered nature as a topic.

    • Was overweight in his 20s, after quitting smoking. For lunch, he dined daily on a cheeseburger, fries and beer.

    • Son was such a picky eater that when the family traveled, they brought his favorite brand of pasta and tried to cook it for him wherever he was. But he would notice when it didn’t taste the same because of the local water’s flavor. His reactionary approach helped sensitize Pollan to food issues.

    • Has three sisters (Lori, Dana and Tracy Pollan; the latter is married to actor Michael J. Fox), who with mother Corky, are working on a cookbook, “The Pollan Family Table,” to be published by Scribner.



The simple, elegant words of Michael Pollan that first appeared within “In Defense of Food,” have become a manifesto for many who are concerned about what appears on their dinner plates:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Now Pollan has another message, and it’s even more basic: Cook.

The bestselling author heads to the kitchen (and outdoors) for his new volume, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, $27.95), which uses the structure of the four classic elements of ancient Greece (that all matter is made up of either earth, water, air or fire) to make his point: We’re all better off when we cook for ourselves.

The professor of science journalism uses each “element” to explore a type of cooking that has transformed human evolution, including a visit with N.C. barbecue master Ed Mitchell to explore the concept of fire. In doing so, the teacher becomes the student as he turns to experts who patiently show him the finer points of mastering these timeless culinary skills.

Reclaim the cooking process, Pollan tells us, and make a difference in your life and in the world.

Q: The premise of “Cooked” is near and dear to my heart, that cooking is one of the most important things we can do. Tell me more.

We have this perception that cooking is drudgery or it’s really hard or daunting, and that wasn’t my experience at all. One of the biggest surprises of this book was just how pleasurable these processes are once you have grappled with what’s going on, learning about the science and the history, as well as the technique. You discover that cooking is one of the most worthwhile and interesting ways to spend your time.

But we’ve been lulled into thinking that anything we can outsource, we should outsource. If someone else can do it, why do it ourselves? I think that’s a huge mistake. I understand why it happened. The industry has a very strong interest in insinuating themselves into every nook and cranny of our lives. That’s how they create new markets.

But this book is trying to reclaim cooking as a pleasure. Cooking is no longer obligatory so we have to find a new basis on which to approach it. The fact that it’s no longer obligatory actually is liberating because we now don’t just do it, we choose to do it.

The book is an argument for making that choice on many different grounds, the grounds of health – because cooking is really the most important thing you can do for your diet, far more important than counting calories or learning about different nutrients, good or bad.

It’s a way to engage in nature, as these are obviously other species we cook, and we learn about them in the process. It’s a way to support the critical institution of the family meal, which I don’t think happens very well in the absence of home cooking. If you read the book, you know I did the experiment with the microwave meal (each family member chose a different meal). I think when people eat different entrees, they are not on the same page psychologically. There’s something very special that happens when we eat from the same pot, which is, of course, something that all civilizations have understood for a very long time, but we seem to have forgotten.

Q:You talk in the book about how the notion of cooking has been redefined over the years.

It’s kind of been dumbed down. And look, I’m not a purist. I cook with canned tomatoes, and I cook with frozen spinach and canned chickpeas. And these kind of simple processed foods represent, I think, a real net gain for humanity. But if you ask a marketing analyst, they’ll tell you that the current operative definition of cooking is the assembly of ingredients, in other words, anything where you add one ingredient to another. But that could be bottled salad dressing and prewashed lettuce; that’s cooking by that definition. To my mind, if you’re using bottled salad dressing you are not yet cooking. You’re close. Homemade salad dressing isn’t that much harder than opening a bottle of salad dressing. And you could make your own salad dressing in 5 minutes to last you weeks.

Or making a sandwich is cooking, by the current definition. So when you hear that 57 percent of meals are still cooked, you have to take that with a rather large grain of salt because I don’t think that’s a real definition of cooking.

Other evidence for that is the number that the industry uses for the amount of time Americans spend cooking: It’s 27 minutes a day with 4 minutes of cleanup. The 4 minutes of cleanup makes me really suspicious. I don’t think you can really clean up a cooked meal in 4 minutes. You can crumple some packages and maybe scrape a plate, but that 4 minutes says that those meals really aren’t being cooked. There were no pots involved there.

Q: I love the definition of cooking from the young woman who shows you how to cook in a pot. She points out that cooking is “patience, presence and practice.” That totally sums it up.

I thought that was great. I really needed to hear that. I have always cooked, it’s not like I just learned how to cook, but I’ve always approached it with a great deal of impatience, and always kind of fought against it. Learning to be in the kitchen and not try to be multitasking, aside from conversation or listening to the radio, has been a great gift. I mean I approach it with a very different spirit. One of the most important life lessons of this book is “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” And that’s hard to do. But when you can do that, you’ve passed over into another state of higher consciousness.

Q: That’s a variation of the notion of being mindful, about what you’re eating or whatever else you’re doing.

Yes, you’ll slow down and you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll squeeze more out of the experience. That was an important lesson for me.

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