Michael Pollan at Elmhurst College

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By Emily Paster

This past weekend I attended a lecture by best-selling author Michael Pollan at nearby Elmhurst College. Pollan, a science journalist, is best known for his writing about food and agriculture, including the books The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is about how our food is raised, and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, which is about nutrition. His latest book, Cooked, explores what happens between the farm and the dinner table, namely the act of cooking. The radical premise of Cookedis that the very best thing that we can do for our health — better than any single medication we could take — is to cook our own food.  As you might imagine, this statement is music to my ears.

Pollan is a funny, conversational and engaging speaker. The thing that struck me most about Pollan's talk was how reasonable and down-to-earth his approach to food is. In response to questions about what he himself eats, food deserts and the future of agriculture, Pollan advocated a kind of radical moderation. He said that he is an omnivore – he does not adhere to any restrictive diet — but that he is careful about the meat he buys and only buys grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken. Yes, those products are more expensive than conventional beef and chicken, but the added expense means that his family eats less meat, which is frankly healthier. This harkens back to one of Pollan's food rules: pay more, eat less. Pollan strives to cook for himself as much as possible. At the same time, Pollan is realistic about the demands of modern life and travel. He himself has to eat out in restaurants and airports and hotels when on a book tour. In response to a question about certain fast food restaurants that strive to offer healthy choices, for example, Pollan acknowledged that it is possible to eat healthy on the road.

When asked about food deserts, Pollan acknowledged that food deserts are a real problem. But he also pointed out that the good food movement has placed too much emphasis on local and seasonal eating — a practice which is not realistic for everyone — and argued that there is a lot of healthy food that is affordable and accessible in the typical supermarket, such as frozen and even canned vegetables. Sure, those living in food deserts do not have always have access to basic supermarkets, and we must address that, but an equally large problem is the decline of cooking skills. Studies show, for example, that poor women who cook their own food have healthier diets than rich women who do not. Pollan cites examples of food pantries that give away fresh foods and find that the people who receive the food, don't know what to do with it. Teaching cooking skills to low-income families is a way to help them achieve better food security. (For more on this check out Cooking Matters, part of Share our Strength's anti-hunger efforts.)

Lastly, when asked about whether we will ever return to farming practices of yesteryear, Pollan quickly responded that we need to move forward, not back. Agriculture today must be more productive than agriculture was in the past — there are so many more people to feed – but that at the same time, we must find more sustainable practices because we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels, toxic pesticides, and the heavy use of water and antibiotics indefinitely. Pollan is certain that agriculture in 50 years will look different than it does today — for one thing, climate change will force us to find new practices — but he is hopeful about our ability to fed ourselves in a more sustainable way. Pollan's optimism was very encouraging.

In sum, Pollan does not urge us to all become vegetarians, raw food fanatics or die-hard locavores. He doesn't want us to return to some romantic, idealized version of the past in which we all drink raw milk and raise our own vegetables. Rather, he wants us to return to eating real foods and to cook these foods for ourselves as much as possible for our health and for the health of our planet. It's a simple prescription for two big problems.

Cooked, Pollan's new book, focuses on how we transform food through different forms of cooking, from grilling to baking to fermentation. It is hard to underestimate the importance of cooking in human society. Cooking is one of the things that makes us human. No animals cook — unless you count squirrels burying nuts in the ground, which causes the nuts to ferment — and the move from a diet of mostly raw food to one of cooked foods changed the course of our evolutionary history. Once we started cooking food, we could spend less time chewing and digesting and we started to use our time in more productive ways. Cooking also helped create civilizations because it led to the division of labor and cooperation. It is not surprising, then, that so many rules developed around food — think of the ancient kosher laws, for example. Once the group was pooling its resources to catch, cultivate and prepare food, we had to develop rules to ensure that food was then shared equitably.

Yet despite the elemental role of cooking in human society, it is a dying art. Pollan cites statistics showing that Americans spend only 27 minutes a day cooking and 4 minutes cleaning up from cooking. How much cooking can you do in 27 minutes? Not much. The 4 minutes of clean-up time is also pretty telling. Perhaps not surprisingly, cooking in this context means only that you combined two or more ingredients. So, microwaving a pizza is not "cooking" in this definition, but making a peanut butter sandwich is. Yet, even with this extremely loose definition of cooking, studies show that only 53% of meals are "cooked" at home.

Why is the decline of cooking so worrisome? As it turns out, when people cook for themselves, they do it very differently than corporations do. Pollan cites the example of French fries. Have you ever tried to make French fries from scratch? It's labor-intensive. You have to peel and slice the potatoes, and then fry them, which is messy and smelly. And that what do you do with all that oil? No, if we cooked french fries for ourselves, we'd eat them once or twice a year, tops. And that's probably a good thing given how fattening and unhealthy fries are. For a corporation, however, French fries are the ideal food. Take a cheap raw ingredients, namely potatoes, and process it within an inch of its life — because processing food is how to extract the most money from it. The they load it with fat and salt to make it addictive and add chemicals — of dubious safety — in order to make it last indefinitely on the shelf or in a freezer. That's how corporations make French fries. Suddenly we can have this most unhealthy of foods twice a day if we like with no work and no mess. But at what cost?

One quick note about processed foods: Pollan emphasizes that the processed food industry provided the impetus for the industrialization of agriculture, not the other way around. In other words, McDonald's demand for perfectly uniform French fries has led to a system of giant Idaho potato farms where only one kind of potato is grown and the fields are sprayed with chemicals so toxic that farmers don't even go into the fields until 5 days later. Because the money to be made in food comes from processing, farmers themselves only receive $.10 of every dollar spent on food in this country. If we return to lifestyles in which we eat whole foods that we cook for ourselves, we will not only fix our health, we will fix our agriculture system as well because it will decrease the demand for food that is grown for the sole purpose of being highly processed and put more money back in the pockets of farmers.

For someone who loves to cook as much as I do, hearing Pollan's thesis that cooking is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves as well as for our planet is incredibly affirming. I have not yet had a chance to read Cooked, but as an avid fan of Pollan's work, I am looking forward to doing so. If it is anything like last night's lecture, I'm sure the book will have plenty of food for thought.

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