Of course Michael Pollan, the man who taught the world a lot about modern eating, already knew his way around a kitchen. But he always had a greater hunger for questions of food production and politics than for mastering cooking techniques.
For his latest book, though, “Cooked,” the author spent three years delving into the elemental basics of food transformation — he classifies them as fire (barbecue), water (braising), air (baking bread), and earth (fermentation). It’s a more personal journey than his other works, he said in a phone interview before his upcoming Seattle appearance, though “I’m always aware of the larger political context in which I work.”
Pollan wrote that he took on the kitchen-based question after considering the “curious paradox” of how Americans began handing over so much of our meal preparation to the food industry just when we began spending so much time thinking about food and watching people cook it on TV. By the end of his studies, he’s concluded that cooking doesn’t just transform the food we eat, it transforms us too — from consumers to producers.
His well-reported journey wends through sourdough starters, gender politics, a Wonder Bread factory, cheesemaking, an onion’s “strategy” for not being chopped, and one memorable microwaved frozen dinner.
Pollan will speak at Benaroya Hall on May 13. Tickets ($24-52) are available online. There’s also a $125 reception benefiting the Neighborhood Farmers Market Association. Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation:
Q: When you hear people talking about the new book, what makes you think ‘They really got it!’
A: “When they say, ‘I’m baking a loaf of bread this weekend,’ or ‘I’m making my first pot of kimchi,’ that’s when I get really excited. I want to inspire people, and I’m stressing the pleasure and the interesting-ness of these processes (more) than the obligation. There is a politics to it, and I think it would be a wonderful thing if more people cooked, but I really didn’t want to lecture people.”
Q: Some of your other books have made a real change in the way people think about food and the way they eat. Are you hoping this one does the same, or just exploring these questions for your own curiosity?
A: “I think those two things go together. I see myself as the designated explorer for readers. That’s kind of what we do as journalists, as we go out and do something new or learn a new set of skills, we’re allowing readers to have that vicarious experience. I think it would be wonderful if people were inspired to follow me in the same way that you read a great piece of travel writing and you want to go there. Some people will get all they need from the experience reading about it, and that’s fine, but other people will be inspired to do it.”
Q: When I started reading your work years ago, you were a reporter. Now you’re also a public figure (Time magazine named Pollan one of the world’s 100 most influential people.) Does that affect the access people give you?
A: “There are places I can’t go anymore, but then the wheel turns completely, and there are certain people who say ‘come so we can convince you.’ I’ve been invited back to Monsanto, which I never thought would happen.”
Q: I was very struck by the market researcher in your book who thought people who cooked from scratch were too rarified a segment of the market to track. Is that true? The Seattle Times is a mainstream newspaper, and I feel like most of our readers are comfortable chopping onions.
A: “I don’t think it’s as bad as he thinks it is. I think they don’t care about the distinction between people putting together different processed foods, ingredients like bottled salad dressings and prewashed lettuce, and scratch cooking. That’s just all a big mass to them…There are still people out there cooking. I wish I could say it’s 10 percent of the market, or 5 percent, or whatever it is — 15 percent? — but I couldn’t find out what the number is. It might be there’s a trade group or market research firm working with the raw food manufacturers, but in general those people don’t have the dough. The money is all on the processed food side.
“And, I don’t define scratch as, ‘You’re making tomato sauce, you have to start with tomatoes.’ I think there’s a first order of processed food that is great and a boon to mankind. I’m talking about canned tomatoes, I’m talking about canned chickpeas, frozen spinach. I rely on all those ingredients. What I’m focusing my negative comments on are hyper-processed foods, stuff with a lot of ingredients. And the difference between a can of tomatoes and a jar of tomato sauce is dramatic if you read the ingredients.”
Q: So that gets us back to the politics of food?
A: “We don’t subsidize people making simple foods. Anyone in the food industry will tell you, the way you make money in the food industry is, do anything but grow it. The more you process it, the more money you make. The USDA put out numbers last month, I think, that 92 percent of the average food dollar is going to someone other than a farmer. The people making the packages make more than the farmer.”
Q: That’s really depressing. Are we just doomed?
A: “We’re never doomed (laughter). Nothing is foreordained. I see a lot of reason for hope. This food movement, and this interest in food, I think there is a rediscovery of everything food gives us, above and beyond what the industry is telling us it gives us… I mean, food service is now getting interested in local food. I think that’s remarkable.”
Q: Your son is in college now. Has having no children at home changed the way you eat?
A: “It has in that we now eat a lot more fish. He would just not eat fish, with a couple bizarre exceptions like octopus, which I don’t cook. Less meat, and more seafood, more vegetarian meals…We’re still making family dinners, even though it’s just the two of us. I cook when I’m alone. I know it sounds bizarre, but I’ll make a real meal with sides and everything and a glass of wine — I’ll do it for myself.”
Q: Which books have you been reading yourself that you admire?
A: “The most exciting book I’ve read on food (recently) was Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal. It didn’t get nearly enough attention. She’s a chef, and she was trying to rewrite MFK’s Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf — how to cook, as she says, in economy and grace in hard times. She’s a beautiful writer and her philosophy is that each meal should roll into the next… (Yotam Ottolenghi’s) Plenty, I liked that book a lot. Outside of food, I just finished Billy Lunn’s Long Halftime Walk, a book about the Iraq War that’s fantastic – that’s the best novel I’ve read this year – and now I’m reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Q: Reading your chapter on fermentation, it sounds like some of the science of food safety is less reliable than I might have assumed. We had a cheesemaker, Estrella Family Creamery, shut down in Washington state for food safety violations a few years ago. After reading your visit with the “cheese nun” (Sister Noella Marcellino), I’m more inclined to see the cheesemakers side of how old-school techniques might be safer than regulators think. Will food safety regulations reflect that kind of thinking as scientists learn more?
A: “It’s going to be very awkward. I think what we’re going to learn is that different people respond very differently to a given pathogen, and that it’s too simple to say that we can freely expose ourselves to bacteria and not worry so much. As Sister Noella says, yes, this is your grandfather’s milk and your grandfather’s cheese, but you don’t have your grandfather’s immune system and you don’t have your grandfather’s gut. I would add to that, I think our health is so disordered by this junk food diet that people are on, and the overuse of antibiotics, and the fact that processed food is not feeding the ecological community in your gut, that there is a new vulnerability to pathogens that may always have been around. I don’t know the details of the Estrella case, so I shouldn’t address it, but I think there is a change going on in us as well as in the microbial community out there that makes it very difficult to figure out how to regulate it….It’s more complicated than people on both sides are willing to acknowledge. But I think we’re going to learn a lot in the next few years, and I think we’re going to learn a lot about how to heal the gut, too.”
Q: Anything more people in Seattle should know?
A: “I have very warm feelings about Seattle, because it was there (at an Elliott Bay Book Company reading) for Omnivore’s Dilemma when I realized that something was really happening, not just with my work, but with this food movement. There was so much energy in that room, and I hadn’t felt it anywhere else…for the first time, I was like ‘Whoa. Something big is going on in this country.”