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Books, Documentaries, Reviews: Michael Pollan: COOKED

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  April 26, 2014

COOKED

Michael Pollan

 

Friend Gina Caceci brought me Michael Pollan’s Cooked a bit ago…

IMG_0251

I’m only into the beginning pages, but am looking forward to reading more.

Pollan begins with describing what he calls the “cooking paradox”:

How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?  The less cooking were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that food and its vicarious preparation transfixed us (3).

Pollan goes on to note that “the amount of time spent preparing meals in American households has fallen by half since the mid-sixties, when I was watching my mom fix dinner, to a scant twenty-seven minutes a day” (3).

TWENTY SEVEN MINUTES A DAY!!

Cooking, Pollan notes, is magic:  “Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming something more than the sum of its ordinary parts.  And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story:  a beginning, a middle, and an end” (4).

And here’s a bit of philosophy that might explain the “cooking paradox”:

So maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on television and read about cooking in books is that there are things about cooking we really miss.  We might not feel we have the time or energy (or the knowledge) to do it ourselves every day, but we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives altogether.  If cooking is, as the anthropologists tell us, a defining human activity–the act with which culture begins, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss–then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that watching its processes unfold would strike deep emotional chords (5).

Other anthropologists “have begun to take quite literally the idea that the invention of cooking might hold the evolutionary key to our humaness” (6).

A few years ago, a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist named Richard Wrangham published a fascinating book called Catching Fire, in which he argued that it was the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors–and not tool making or meat eating or language–that set us apart from the apes and made us human.  According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution.  By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink.  It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing–as much as six hours a day.

Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy.  Also, since cooking detoxifies many potential sources of food, the new technology cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals.  Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture (6).

So, “if cooking is as central to human identity, biology, and culture as Wrangham suggests, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have serious consequences for modern life, and so it has” (7).

I will leave you with this quote–which contains much “food for thought”:

The shared meal is no small thing.  It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization:  sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending.  What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism”–its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on–are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there (8).

 

 

 

 

Written by louisaenright

April 26, 2014 at 6:49 pm

One Response

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  1. I love all his books and his philosophy of life and food.

    June Derr

    April 27, 2014 at 12:50 pm


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