Americans spend more time watching televised cooking shows than actually cooking. "We've managed to turn cooking into a spectator sport," said best-selling author Michael Pollan. Plus, wouldn't you know, "the less we cook, the fatter we are." While Pollan's visit to Queens University Thursday night was thoroughly entertaining, such depressing truths sprinkled throughout made the food star's talk pretty scary, too.
The way Pollan writes, food is history and culture, as well agriculture; cooking is therapeutic, a political act. If "the family dinner table is the nursery of democracy," he said, grabbing fast food on the run really could be the decline of civilization we suspected all along. Pollan explores where what we put in our stomachs really comes from, something that would have been obvious 75 years ago, he said, but now results in such revelatory New York Times
best-sellers as The Omnivore's Dilemma
, The Botany of Desire
and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
After his description of a vast, industrialized potato farm with machines spewing toxic insecticides just so those fried spuds sprouting from bright cartons remain unblemished, you immediately vow to start digging out a patch of dirt or trolling farmers markets. "If you grow vegetables, you will cook them; you will feel guilty if you don't," he said - even though you might have to learn to use more than the microwave.
So it was a relief to hear Pollan bring the discussion close to home. The heart of Cooked
is elemental, taking readers back to the basics of cooking, which, he said, "made us who we are as a species." There are sections on fire, water, air and earth, with fire translating to a foray into barbecue. Pollan's exploratory pilgrimage led him through North Carolina to learn the secrets of cooking the whole hog. (He never knew there were so many rules.) Stops included learning from the masters at the Skylight Inn in Ayden and The Pit in Raleigh.
Charlotte's own bread-making master, Peter Reinhart, was name-checked to applause by Pollan, who included two of the Johnson & Wales University instructor's books - The Bread Baker's Apprentice
and Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads
- on the short list of indispensables in Cooked
Among the ideas Pollan encouraged the Queens crowd to think about: an ode to "earth" cooking (fermentation) that might change your attitude toward the healthful kind of bacteria we spend so much effort trying to destroy; government policy that rewards growing things that are not good for you ("the more you process food, the more money you make"), and advice to get children into the kitchen ("when kids cook, they like home-cooked food").
And if that cooking statistic doesn't worry you, consider that putting any two ingredients together is interpreted as cooking. Making a sandwich counts.
Mary C. Curtis
, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post's "She the People
" blog, theGrio and WCCB News Rising Charlotte every Wednesday. She also loves to cook. Follow her on Twitter