As one of the leading voices of the slow food movement in the US, Michael Pollan has long advocated that we put down our beloved bags of chips and examine exactly what we're eating. In his vision of a better food future, we're spending our evenings with one arm stirring a simmering pot of non-GMO beans and heritage breed bacon while the other is shaping a loaf of well-fermented sourdough made from local flour. We're breaking that bread with our loved ones and taking seriously the provenance of our dinner, not shoving microwaved Frito pie into our maws while binge-watching So You Think You Can Be America's Next Extreme Housewives or whatever.
He's been saying this for years—in far more refined terms—through his books Food Rules, The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food, among others, in which he's investigated factory farms, unpronounceable additives, and the many corporate interests that have hijacked our food system. He's given us the oft-quoted but still-vital credo: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Pollan's latest opus is Cooked, a four-part docu-series conceived with filmmaker Alex Gibney (of Going Clear and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that premiered on Netflix earlier this month. Based on his 2013 book of the same name, the series examines the diminishing role that cooking plays in American lives while highlighting its endurance in other parts of the world.
"Whether or not we make the time to cook is a really decision about our priorities," Pollan told me by phone this week. "It's very easy not to cook. But we have all found time in the last ten years to spend between two and five hours a day online."
Each of the four episodes (produced by Stacey Offman, Caroline Suh, Lisa Nishimura, and Adam Del Deo, respectively) tackle one elemental aspect of cookery: fire, water, air, and earth. Their interdisciplinary approach to cooking is distinctly Pollanian, combining history with anthropology, chemistry, and food politics, along with some good old-fashioned finger-wagging.
As one YouTube user commented on the show's trailer, "This looks really interesting but it will probably make me feel horrible about what I fix for dinner every night."
Indeed, it might. But should we expect anything less from the guy who advised people to "get out of the supermarket whenever you can"?
Over the years, Pollan's critics have argued that his farmer's market-driven food evangelism doesn't jibe with the financial realities of low-income Americans. Others have questioned his interpretation of kitchen history and the gender politics embroiled in it. In a 2013 Salon article that objected to Pollan's culinary nostalgia, Emily Matchar asserted, "Contrary to the myth of the happy, apple-cheeked great-great-grandmother, cooking has rarely been seen as a source of fulfillment, historically speaking."
That nostalgia persists somewhat in Cooked, both the book and the series. In the book, Pollan contends that "most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen"; in the series, his relatability falters somewhat when he recounts an idyllic childhood summer spent in Martha's Vineyard with his very own pet pig, which he later gave to his neighbor, folk singer James Taylor.
But the show offsets Pollan's sentimentality with dynamic and frankly gorgeous vignettes of people hunting, cooking, and eating—and not simply for the pleasure of sitting around a glowing hearth. We see a mother in Marrakech preparing khubz by hand and sending her son off with the risen bread dough to be baked in a communal oven. We see the Martu people of Western Australia hunting goanna (a large species of monitor lizard) and burying a bush turkey in the embers of a fire. These scenes take us out of Pollan's nicely appointed Berkeley home and into the real world, where people are cooking as they have for generations.
The series also succeeds beautifully in highlighting people who treat food as more than simple sustenance or just another business—from lauded pitmaster Ed Mitchell to nerd-savant Nathan Myhrvold of The Modernist Cuisine fame, as well as people like Eliza MacLean of Cane Creek Farm, who pasture-raises pigs and other livestock in North Carolina.
"I think we are in this great period of cultural remembering after a period of forgetting," Pollan said, "and that anyone for whom the question of 'Where does my food come from? Where does it get made?' is in mind will be very interested in this film."
Perhaps inevitably, the barbecue-focused episode touches on feedlots and the abominable conditions inside factory farms. Considering the show's premise to pull back the curtain on where our food comes from, I asked Pollan why we never get to see one of MacLean's (very adorable) pigs get slaughtered.
"We could have shown a farm slaughter, which wouldn't have been difficult, and which I wouldn't have been opposed to," he said. "One of the things about that episode is that it's not food porn. There's a lot of hard-to-look-at things [in it]. There's a lot you have to endure before the pleasure of watching that woman try her first bite of pork at the end. It's making the point that making meat is a very ambivalent, emotionally complex transaction."
It's true that the series may give some viewers a fresh perspective on meat, especially those whose tastes in food TV gravitate more toward Chopped than Food, Inc. But meat (and our typically hands-off experience with it) is just one of the many issues that Cooked raises. In roughly four hours, it tackles an admirably large swath of the nebulous web of commerce, tradition, and savor that constitutes the 21st-century approach to eating.
If Cooked has a shortcoming, it's that Pollan doesn't seem to have a concrete solution for getting people back in the kitchen, besides exhorting them to find the time to do so. When I asked him how a single parent who works two jobs might fit home-cooked meals into their schedule, he returned to the question of priorities.
"We make time for things we value," he said. "The message of the film is: Look how valuable this is. Look what it can do for you. Look how intellectually stimulating it is, how sensually pleasurable it is. And maybe this is something you want to make a little time for. I totally appreciate that we work really hard and we're pressed for time, but I also think that's a story we tell ourselves, a story the industry tells us. And before we simply accept it, [we should] ask ourselves, 'Is there a way to do a little bit more of this? One night a week, could I do a little more home cooking?'"
Pollan also acknowledged that the series often depicts "big, primal experiences," and that most viewers probably won't be inspired to gut a goanna or build a backyard barbecue pit.
"The film is ambitious," he said, "but home cooking is not. It's not the kind of food you see in restaurants or in food porn shows, which is very intimidating and time-consuming. My Wednesday night meal takes me 20 minutes to put together. I don't know that that's any more time than it takes to dial [a restaurant], to look at a takeout menu and call them and wait for them to show up with the food. It might be easier, and maybe I get to watch a food show while I'm waiting for it to come."
But Pollan isn't dismissing the impulse to order takeout as one of pure laziness. He believes we've lost a critical culinary literacy that would otherwise steer us into the kitchen, rather than toward Seamless.
"We need to teach cooking in schools so everybody knows that very basic human skill of how to roast a chicken. There's three meals if you know how to roast a chicken," Pollan said. "And you know what? It's not rocket science."