A Coffee Date with Michael Pollan [Interview]

Photo courtesy of http://hilaryrobertsphoto.com
Best Selling Author takes the time to talk to CP about a variety of issues

Last week New York Times best selling author and one of Time Magazine's 2010 Top 100 Most Influential People, Michael Pollan paid a visit to the Twin Cities to promote his new book, Cooked; A Natural History of Transformation. The book walks readers through a history of cooking while drawing attention to the greater implications of the industrialized food movement which has lead to an overall decline in home cooking.

Pollan is also the author of several other well known books including The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food; An Eaters Manifesto and Food Rules; An Eaters Manual. We had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Pollan over coffee at Downtown Minneapolis restaurant Mona, to not only discuss his new book, but also a variety of other topics which include the challenges of being a home cook in Minnesota in the wintertime.

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Cooked; A Natural History of Transformation is available in bookstores now
You've been writing about food for quite a while at this point, but what was the motivating factor in making that the primary body of your life's work?

I didn't feel like it was a switch, it kind of grew out of things that I'd been doing. I'd been writing about the relationship between humans and the natural world for a long time, with particular attention to the places where one has to engage with the other. It began for me writing about the garden. My first book was about gardening and I always loved growing food. Since I was eight I was growing food in the garden, and that kind of drew me into agriculture. As soon as you start struggling with pests, diseases and critters you get drawn into this very complex, charged relationship where you have to figure out how to behave ethically and how to get what you want. It was pretty natural for me to go from writing about the garden to writing about agriculture. 

So Cooked is going to be your sixth book?

Seventh. Well, 6 ½. You know, Food Rules was kind of slender and it was crowd sourced too [laughs]. Seventh book technically.

Your new book Cooked is about the transformation of nature's bounty using basic elements (water, air, fire, and earth). How did you come to this revelation?

The reason I decided to write about cooking, which was never in my plan, but the more I learned about agriculture and the more I learned about health, the two far ends of the food chain right - the earth and the body, the human body - the more I saw that cooking or food processing, which is what we call corporate cooking basically, has a profound influence in both directions. It may be the most influential link of the food chain. The best predictor of a healthy diet is whether it's cooked by a human or not. So, that's when I kind of realized that I had to deal with that middle link in the food chain, cooking. I mean, there are politics to it and health implications to it. 

The first thing I did was to divide cooking into these four transformations and it's not a perfect typology, you could probably come up with some examples that are not one of those four, like sushi, I don't know where I'd put that exactly and that's cooking and there might be others. Basically, for the most part, they're consecutive also. 

Fire is the most primitive kind of cooking. It's what we've been doing for 2 million years. When we first got control of fire it changed our evolution giving us our big brains and our smaller guts, or our relatively smaller guts. Then much later you have the invention of ceramic pottery that can withstand the fire so that you can boil water. As soon as you could do that you can make amazing new things that you couldn't make over the fire. You can't really do vegetables very well over a fire, I mean you can grill them, but you can't do grain. So, the birth of agriculture and cooking in pots go together.

Air is baking which is another incredible technology which we don't think of as a technology, and it happens about 6,000 years ago. Suddenly these mushy porridges of grain and water become invested with air and baked. The most interesting quote on that subject that I got was from a scientist that said you cannot survive on flour alone. If that's all you had to eat, flour and water, you would die eventually, but you can survive on the bread baked from it. What that tells us is that the baking process so enhances the nutritional value of that flour. The way it does it is that the sour dough culture that ferments it has all these enzymes that the bacteria use to break down food to feed themselves and they break down the minerals and they break down the proteins into usable building blocks. 

The last of the four is earth, which is the shorthand I use for fermentation since, like the soil, it's a microbial process and indeed a lot of the microbes we use to ferment food come from the earth. This is kind of the most miraculous of all because here you're cooking without the use of any heat whatsoever; bacteria are doing all the work. So it was kind of an ingenious technology, but over time people came to love the flavors and it turns out there's a lot of benefits to eating all of those bacteria.
So that's the book in a nutshell and now you don't have to read it!

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