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Fire, Water, Air, Earth: Michael Pollan Gets Elemental In 'Cooked'

In his systematic scrutiny of the modern American food chain, Michael Pollan has explored everything from the evolution of edible plants to the industrial agricultural complex. In his newest book, he charts territory closer to home — or rather, at home, in his kitchen.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation surveys how the four classical elements — fire, water, air and earth — transform plants and animals into food. Pollan joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss the merits of slow home cooking and his adventures in fermentation.

Interview Highlights

On the central transformations in cooking

"I discovered that there are four central transformations that all cooking can be divided into. One is fire, the most elemental; the other is water, cooking in pots; then you've got air, which is baking, and other ways we aerate our food — very significant; and then there's earth, and earth is really fermentation, because it's cooking without the use of heat and strictly with microbes, many of which come from the earth. And I basically apprenticed myself to a master in each of those transformations."

On how cooking left the kitchen

"We kind of assume that women went back to work and there was no time to make a family meal. But it isn't that simple and it's a lot more interesting. The corporations were knocking on that door for almost 100 years. And after World War II, when they had invented all these technologies for processing food and making it shelf stable and simulating real foods with fake foods, they really pushed. And they found their opportunity with the feminist revolution beginning in the '70s. There was this really uncomfortable conversation taking place at kitchen tables all across America. Men and women were trying to renegotiate the division of labor in the household. And then the food industry recognized they had an opportunity. And they said 'Don't worry about it, we've got you covered. We'll do the cooking.' And KFC even took out a billboard with a big bucket of fried chicken and the slogan, 'Women's Liberation.'

"So I really think we need to go back and finish that difficult conversation. And I've had it, you know, with my wife, over who does what in the house, and bring men back into the kitchen. And children, which I think is really, really important ... I think the most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook."

Michael Pollan is the author of five books, including <em>The Botany of Desire,</em> <em>The Omnivore's Dilemma</em> and <em>In Defense of Food</em>. A longtime contributing writer to <em>The New York Times Magazine</em>, Pollan is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
Fran Collin / Penguin Press
Penguin Press
Michael Pollan is the author of five books, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. A longtime contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

On the fallacy of convenience

"Some of the foods that hold themselves out to you as supremely convenient, like those microwaveable single-portion entrees in the supermarket? I did an experiment with those. We had what we called 'Microwave Night,' where we all got to buy one of those, you know, fast-food-in-a-frozen-bag things that they now have in the supermarket. And guess what? It took 40 minutes to get that meal on the table. Because the microwave is individualistic. You can only microwave one person's entrée at a time. And you're not sharing. And there's something magical that happens when people eat from the same pot. The family meal is really the nursery of democracy. It's where we learn to share, it's where we learn to argue without offending. It's just too critical to let go, as we've been so blithely doing."

On bonding with your kids over cooking

"[My teenage son] loved doing his homework at the island in the middle of the kitchen. And he would work while I was cooking, and he took in the smells, and he'd come over every now and then and taste what was in the pot and offer some unsolicited seasoning advice ... And the best time to connect with a teenager is when other things are going on, when you're not trying to have a face-to-face, when you're not making eye contact, basically. And so while he was doing homework and I was cooking, we had some of our sweetest times together. And then of course there was the meal."

On the resurgence and process of fermentation

We live in a very mediated life right now. We spend our lives in front of screens, and cooking is one of the best antidotes. And it's a democratic pleasure – all of us can do it

"Fermentation is hot. Who would've thought that kimchi and sauerkraut would be trendy? [Fermentation] is essentially rot that we're kind of guiding. We can't totally control it, but we can guide it. And this, I found, was the most fascinating work I did. I mean, here you cut up a cabbage, and you salt it, and you just, you know, bruise it with your hands and you put it in a crock. And then it automatically cooks. There are already just the right bacteria living on the leaves of those cabbages, that they will, without any heat, transform that food into something more flavorful, more nutritious, more beautiful in every way."

On an unexpected 'transformation'

"I definitely spend more time cooking. I just make time for it. You know, we live in a very mediated life right now. We spend our lives in front of screens, and cooking is one of the best antidotes. And it's a democratic pleasure — all of us can do it ... This is a book about transformations, and I thought it was all about transformations of nature, but in the end it became a transformation of me, too."

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