For his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan, who has ventured far and wide exploring the inner workings of the food chain, opted to spend more time in the kitchen — including his own in north Berkeley — to focus on what he calls ‘the middle link,’ namely cooking.
Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism as well as a highly regarded author, learned how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.
In the course of his journey he discovered that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. His education led Pollan to conclude that taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable.
Berkeleyside caught up with Pollan to quiz him a little more about his cooking instruction, and next steps.
You invested time and effort in learning many cooking skills. What single skill has been the most valuable — and what would you advice a novice cook to learn first?
Perhaps the most important skill is not a skill per se, but an approach, or mental skill, which I learned from Samin Nosrat, my teacher. She told me that the key to cooking well was “patience, practice, and presence”– none of which I had the patience for before. Learning to really BE in the kitchen, without fighting it — without thinking about all the other “pressing” things you might be doing with the same time — has not only made me a better cook, willing to let the onions sauté long enough to get really sweet, but it has allowed me to enjoy the work so much more.
Berkeley and the Bay Area are blessed with a disproportionate number of wonderful restaurants/cafés. What motivates you to go into your own kitchen to cook rather than going out to eat?
Well we’re equally blessed with great farmers markets and shops offering incredible raw ingredients, which you can only enjoy if you’re going to cook. I hate walking through the Thursday farmer’s market knowing I should not buy anything because I’m going out that night. I love eating out now and again, but those are special occasions, and I try to keep them that way.
Berkeley-based chef Samin Nosrat spent many Sundays with you teaching you cooking skills. Why did you choose Samin to be your teacher?
I knew Samin well enough to know she was not only a superb cook, but an excellent explainer and patient teacher. She understood immediately what I needed from these lessons, and we shared some fundamental attitudes toward cooking. Though she has been a restaurant cook, she’s not dazzled by the restaurant scene and has a great feeling home cooking — “Grandma cooking” as she calls it. I couldn’t have done much better.
The message of your book is that the secret to good nutrition is to know who is cooking the food you eat — and it should be a person rather than a corporation. How, other than by buying your book, will America hear this? Do you think the government should be doing more to encourage people to cook and eat together, and if so, how?
I think public health education campaigns promoting the value of home cooking and family meals would make a lot of sense — this might not seem like a public health message, but it is. Bringing Home Ec, or something like it, back into the schools is important too. The Edible Schoolyard has proven the value of teaching kids how to grow, cook, and eat food at school. There are few more important life skills we can give our children than knowing their way around food. We already teach them about driving, alcohol and drugs, and safe sex in school, and it seems to me cooking is just as important.
You have written several books now about the food chain. Have you closed the circle? What’s next for you, your teaching at UC Berkeley and your writing?
No idea what’s next. With this book, I’ve completed the investigation of the food chain, from earth to body, that I’ve been working on for more than a decade — cooking and food processing were the last link. But I’ve thought I was done with food before. I still haven’t written about the global food story, and may want to do that. My next project will be an exploration of the human gut microbiome for the New York Times Magazine, looking at the fermentation within. This grew out of my work learning about fermentation for Cooked.
Catch Michael Pollan at one of his local appearances this month and next, including at Corte Madera, El Cerrito, and Walnut Creek.
UC Berkeley’s Edible Education course: Stories, revelations [12.12.12]
Podcast: The Three Michaels in conversation [Listen to Michael Pollan, Michael Chabon, and Michael Lewis engaging in lively banter on stage at the Berkeley Rep at a special Berkeleyside event in December 2012.]
UC Berkeley serves an edible education this fall [08.28.12]
Samin Nosrat: Ex Eccolo, co-creator of the Pop Up General Store [06.25.10]
Would you like a digest of the day’s Berkeley news sent to your inbox? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.