Brain Pickings

How Cooking Civilized Us: Michael Pollan on Food as Social Glue and Anti-Corporate Activism

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What the four elements have to do with corporate exploitation and the story arc of culinary craft.

In 2006, Michael Pollan penned what became the most important food politics book of the past half-century, which spawned everything from a motion graphics tribute to an exquisite sequel illustrated by Maira Kalman. Now, Pollan returns with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (public library) — a powerful manifesto for reclaiming food in a way that liberates us from our reliance on consumer culture while at the same time strengthening our shared sense of belonging and connection. At the heart of his case is the conviction that cooking — as well as understanding the ecosystem which food occupies — is not only one of the most interesting things we do, but also one of the most human.

Intrigued by the disconnect between the dramatic drop of home cooking in the past fifty years and the increased interest that has turned food preparation into a spectator sport elevating professional chefs into celebrity status, Pollan sets out to investigate what he terms “the Cooking Paradox” and emerges with several hypotheses. First, he traces the age-old roots of our culinary voyeurism, lingering over the nostalgic memories of watching his mother cook as he considers the narrative arc of cooking:

In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” was the same — mageiros — and the word shares an etymological root with “magic.” I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming more than the sum of its ordinary parts. And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Pollan goes even deeper, down to our very evolutionary underpinnings. While some scientists have pointed to music and maps as the holy grails of civilization, Pollan turns to anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has argued that cooking is the act with which culture begins, to explain why watching food being made would mesmerize and stir us so profoundly:

According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing— as much as six hours a day.

Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy. Also, since cooking detoxifies many potential sources of food, the new technology cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals. Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.

But more than mere physical sustenance, the pivotal role cooking played in our evolution as a species was in providing the social glue that came with shared meal occasions:

Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. … But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.

Even more than that, Pollan argues, as we grew accustomed to cooked food and our cognitive capacity expanded “at the expense of our digestive capacity,” uncooked food was no longer an option, essentially baking cooking into our very biology. Pollan offers an apt aphoristic analogy:

What Winston Churchill once said of architecture — “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us” — might also be said of cooking. First we cooked our food, and then our food cooked us.

But since with any dependency comes a dangerous opportunity for exploitation, we have paid for our evolved taste and the rise of industrial cooking — which is where we’re reminded of Pollan’s razor-sharp political awareness:

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

[…]

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

And in some grim turn of cosmic irony, this contradiction has permeated our relationship with the natural world from which we evolved, funneling us further and further into a world where simulacra fill in for the real thing:

Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing — what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Pollan’s approach to cooking, his remedy to the worrisome disconnect, is guided by the four elements — Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — to each of which a section of the book is dedicated. In fact, he likens cooking to a kind of alchemy that both encompasses and transcends science:

The fact that modern science has dismissed the classical elements, reducing them to still more elemental substances and forces — water to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen; fire to a process of rapid oxidation, etc. — hasn’t really changed our lived experience of nature or the way we imagine it. Science may have replaced the big four with a periodic table of 118 elements, and then reduced each of those to ever-tinier particles, but our senses and our dreams have yet to get the news.

To learn to cook is to put yourself on intimate terms with the laws of physics and chemistry, as well as the facts of biology and microbiology. Yet, beginning with fire, I found that the older, prescientific elements figure largely — hugely, in fact — in apprehending the main transformations that comprise cooking, each in its own way. Each element proposes a different set of techniques for transforming nature, but also a different stance toward the world, a different kind of work, and a different mood.

Though Cooked is essentially a how-to book, it is also very much a kind of systems-thinking blueprint that illuminates the many interrelated processes, technologies, and social forces that propel and permeate food. To understand those is to reclaim an essential kind of knowledge that we’ve all but forsaken:

Nowadays, only a small handful of cooking’s technologies seem within the reach of our competence. This represents not only a loss of knowledge, but a loss of a kind of power, too. And it is entirely possible that, within another generation, cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.

When that happens — when we no longer have any direct personal knowledge of how these wonderful creations are made — food will have become completely abstracted from its various contexts: from the labor of human hands, from the natural world of plants and animals, from imagination and culture and community. Indeed, food is already well on its way into that ether of abstraction, toward becoming mere fuel or pure image.

Driving this deterioration of essential knowledge, Pollan contends, is the same byproduct of capitalism that Buckminster Fuller admonished against and that cheats us of doing fulfilling work: specialization. He writes:

Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.”

But besides the point of vulnerability which this learned helplessness creates for corporations to exploit, Pollan argues, the most troublesome problem with this division of labor is how, in disconnecting us from the connectedness of everything, it blinds us to our individual responsibility for the consequences of even our most mundane actions:

Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Pollan sees cooking as the connective tissue between us and the rest of the ecosystem we inhabit, the vital antidote to this fragmented, compartmentalized inclination of modern life:

Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers. Not completely, not all the time, but I have found that even to shift the ratio between these two identities a few degrees toward the side of production yields deep and unexpected satisfactions.

Thus, Cooked is at once a philosophical journey into the depths of that transformation and practical handbook for tilting the ratio back to its natural, satisfying balance.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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