Thoughtful food journalist Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books, is out with a new one called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In it, he admits with typical modesty that he doesn’t really know what he’s about — but he dives in anyway, examining the basic techniques people use to convert raw food into meals that are safe, palatable, enticing, and/or comforting. (Here’s a brief and revealing interview with Mr. Pollan. Click on the media player and listen to the whole 6:19.)
To tackle such a huge subject, Mr. Pollan uses the ancient scientific framework of the four elements: fire (broiling, grilling), water (boiling, etc.), air (baking) and yes, earth (fermentation, fungi, and such — think sauerkraut and kimchi).
This method of breaking down the breaking down of food’s molecules intrigues me because, against all odds, I love to cook. It approaches a need.
I say against all odds because not many people do this anymore, at least not according to the social data-gatherers. In one interview, Mr. Pollan cites a survey that says home cooking — something more than microwaving a frozen meal — is down something like 77 percent over the last two decades. But foodie-outlier that I am, I choose to buck the trend. Here’s why:
- I like good food. So does my family. The industrial food movement (of which Mr. Pollan has fomented a healthy suspicion over the years) has mastered a couple key functions, shelf stability perhaps being the chief success. But for freshness, taste, and very often prime nutritional value, nothing beats a homemade meal.
- Cooking is a perfect wind-down. Chopping onions and browning chicken breasts isn’t mindless. But it’s different enough from promoting premium golf clubs to draw a nice dividing line between the work day and the evening. And if, because of grander culinary plans, I have to get going in the kitchen earlier and tack on some evening work time afterwards, it’s always worth it. Playing music and drinking a little wine while assembling shish-ka-babs and seasoning rice pilaf simply enrich the experience.
- I’m good at it. I make the occasional mistake, and an experiment falls on its doughy face from time to time. But most of the time, I rock in the kitchen. Years of experience have made me pretty confident. I like the fact that I can survey an open refrigerator, pluck out what’s available, and manufacture a tasty, nutritious three-course meal (protein, starch, vegetable) without too much trouble or delay. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh fruit for dessert too.
- The rapid rewards of accomplishment. Daily work in a business corporation –even a small one — involves moving things to their successful conclusion in steps. Projects require cooperation, and time. I push several boulders up several hills. The results may be invisible beyond any number of ridges. Similarly, as a parent, seeds that I plant by declaration or demonstration may take years to bear fruit. But with cooking, laudable results (and gratification) come the same day, sometimes in the same hour in which I began. Yet the effort is a recent enough memory to make me feel as if I’ve earned something.
- It’s a daily way to show my family how much I love them. I very much want to do a good job for them. They deserve it. The repay me with appreciation and constructive criticism, which I definitely employ the next time. I set the table (or ask one of them to do it); I pay attention to presentation and how it increases enjoyment; I encourage them to try new things and comment. I promote the enjoyment of eating together.
- Corollary to the daily way above: Academic breakfast. I firmly believe that if I make Joseph a satisfying, nutritious breakfast, he will do better at school. I have a repertoire of simple but subtsantial dishes I can whip up for him in minutes. Each exceeds the bald, just-pour-it barrenness of cereal and juice. Example: scrambled eggs and shredded cheese wrapped with tomatoes in a warmed flour tortilla, served with a cup of salsa and side of sliced strawberries. Yogurt too, or chocolate milk made with Ovaltine.
- It gets us all together. I have heard all about the death of the family dinner. Not in my house. I refuse. My memory of family dinners with my parents and brothers and grandmother is too valuable. I’ll never be in so much of a hurry that I can’t make that happen — with the occasional exception for school play rehearsals, etc. Even when Joseph has honors band rehearsal Wednesdays at 6, I just back up the schedule so we can eat at 5.
- Going out back and cutting fresh basil from our own plant makes me feel like a badass chef. Uh-huh. Sage, stevia, chives and mint, too.
- I love this exchange. TERESA [coming in from garage after a client visit]: Whoa! What smells so good? ME: Fresh rosemary, garlic, your mother’s canned tomatoes, and ground veal. JOSEPH: [coming in from school]; Whoa! What smells so good? ME: Everyone just be ready by 6.
I could go on and on, but I have something simmering in the slow cooker….♦
© 2013 Adam Barr