Michael Pollan’s Dilemma

Allison Carruth

In the 20th anniversary edition of On Food and Cooking, the celebrated food writer Harold McGee claims that “to understand what’s happening within a food as we cook it, we need to be familiar with the world of invisibly small molecules and their reactions with each other.” But why, we might ask? Cooking is cultural as much as it is biochemical. To dwell on the “invisible” phenomena that govern it risks running roughshod over the diverse practices and rituals that have shaped the long history of cooking. How could we fully understand “what’s happening within a food” like cassava if we zero in on the technical processes that detoxify this tuber, the central ingredient in hundreds of dishes across Africa and Latin America, when cooked? To dwell on “small molecules and their reactions” is to elide the multiplicity and mutability of cuisine. What’s more, a scientistic view of food has been the predominant purview of agribusiness, where commodification and intellectual property, rather than cultural variation and grassroots inventiveness, have been the governing principles. To this point, biotech giant Monsanto controls an estimated 90 percent of the global GMO market, a monopoly that points to an evident conflict between molecular and cultural understandings of food. While debates rage as to the ecological, socioeconomic, and human health impacts of GMOs, one thing seems clear: the genetic engineering of commodity crops––from corn to rice––runs counter to the regional specificity of foodstuffs, flavors, and techniques that have long defined cooking practices around the world.

Nonetheless, we are currently witnessing an explosion of popular interest in the science of food, while agenda-setting scholars of science and technology (STS) are taking up the complex interplay, and thus rethinking the evident conflict, between cultural and biochemical understandings of food. Recent bestselling food writing in the United States has tended to fall into two main categories: salacious stories of professional chefs (think: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential or Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter) and intimate narratives of amateur cooks dedicating themselves to slow food and sustainable agriculture. To these recognized genres, we now must add three emergent ones that have captured large readerships since the global economic crash: (1) primers on molecular gastronomy, (2) inquiries into the microbiology of eating, and (3) investigations of culinary technologies. From French chemist Hervé This’s 2008 Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor and Nathan Myhrvold’s self-published tome Modernist Cuisine to science writer Mary Roach’s raucous survey of the “alimentary canal” in Gulp or Bee Wilson’s social history of kitchen gadgets, Consider the Fork, food writing is fast becoming a tech-savvy and fact-heavy discourse.

<i>xSpecies 1</i> (2010–11). Natalie Jeremijenko and Environmental Health Clinic + Lab. Cross Species (xSpecies) Adventure Club

Enter journalist and science writer Michael Pollan, whose latest blockbuster, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, does not fit neatly into either the established or emerging categories of contemporary food writing. Contra his previous best sellers The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked is not, or at least not primarily, an environmental story of industrialized agriculture and its alternatives. Nor, like Pollan’s In Defense of Food, is Cooked simply a manifesto on eating well. Interweaving archaeology, mythology, gastronomy, and biology with both ecology and nutrition, this sprawling book aspires to offer what I would call an alimentary epic––one that hinges on a promise to delve deep into both the science and the lore of cooking (to invoke McGee’s subtitle). Organized around the four elements, Cooked is also an intimate memoir of Pollan’s years spent as an understudy to barbecue masters (“Fire”); farm-to-table chefs (“Water”); celebrity bakers (“Air”); and a quirky cast of pickling devotees, artisanal cheese makers, and microbrewers (“Earth”).

In both its epic and its autobiographical registers, however, Cooked fails to deliver on its promise to explore the biological marvels and ever-changing technologies of cooking in conversation with its social history and cultural import. Pollan writes at the outset, “The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation”; and, throughout, the book depicts the manifold processes for turning edible matter into cooked food as “remarkably straightforward … and borderline magical.” Yet Cooked remains philosophically rooted in the division of culture from nature, on the one hand, and from science, on the other. Despite an exciting effort to describe the ecology, biochemistry, and culture of food, Cooked is pervaded by an underlying anthropocentric vision of cooking, as its recourse to Western mythology and chapters divided by the four classical elements signals. In line with his overall body of work, Pollan suggests in Cooked that even to discuss the science of food is to begin the slide down a slippery slope that ends in the culturally corrosive and ecologically unsustainable structures of agribusiness. Put simply, “good” transformations of the edible world are premodern and elemental, while “bad” ones are industrial and high tech. In making this critique of Cooked, I would suggest that the most compelling moments in the book are those that question these binaries of nature/culture and culture/science and hence open onto less humanist frameworks for thinking about cooking, in particular, and about food, in general.

Interweaving archaeology, mythology, gastronomy, and biology with both ecology and nutrition, this sprawling book aspires to offer what I would call an alimentary epic. 

Cooked begins from a premise that will be familiar to longtime readers of Pollan’s nonfiction: a lament that the steady decline over the past fifty years in the number of hours Americans spend cooking bespeaks a worrisome problem “for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land.” This ardor for leisurely, amateur cooking tends to come across as nostalgic, and the least convincing sections of the book are those where Pollan assumes a moral stance based on this nostalgia. Cooked’s “wager,” he writes early on, is the belief that we must “return [food] to a proper place in our lives … by attempting to master the physical processes by which it has traditionally been made.”

The book runs into thorny territory in “Fire,” however, when Pollan confronts a conflict between two values––culinary craft and sustainable agriculture––that inform such claims. If these values are squarely aligned in Pollan’s home territory of the Bay Area (whose chefs, bakers, and cheese makers loom large in Cooked), they collide during his time in North Carolina, where he learns the craft of slow-cooked, wood-fired barbecue from several legendary “pit masters.” One of these, Ed Mitchell, sources heritage pigs from small-scale farmers but, to Pollan’s disappointment, uses Kingsford charcoal rather than “primordial fire” to stoke his upscale restaurant’s stainless steel pits. By comparison, the Jones family, owners of a destination barbecue joint known as The Skylight Inn, are devout purists when it comes to wood-fired barbecue but utterly agnostic about industrial pig farming. These side-by-side encounters prompt Pollan to question the authenticity that both he and the pit masters ascribe to the slow roasting of whole animals: “How authentic could ‘authentic barbecue’ really be if the object of its tender ministrations was now this re-engineered and brutalized animal––the modern creation of science, industry, and inhumanity?”

The question goes to the heart of Cooked’s ideological commitments to the artisanal yet inventive, nourishing yet laborious, work of cooking. The second section (“Water”), which focuses on slow cooking at home in pots (rather than the public stage of barbecue), brings these commitments to the fore. “Water” revolves around Pollan’s weekly home cooking lessons in his kitchen with Chez Panisse–trained chef Samin Nosrat, who teaches him the solitary and painstaking work of preparing stews, braises, sugos, and other one-pot meals. The rewards of this work are not the performative spectacle of barbecue or the cult following enjoyed by professional bakers and brewers, but the private satisfaction of nurturing one’s family and delighting one’s friends. In his afterword, Pollan describes this form of cooking in similarly modest terms, as the most “sustainable and … sustaining” kind of food preparation his research taught him, one that proves both practical (a means of preparing several delicious meals for his family in one weekly session) and emotionally nourishing (a rustic, traditional style of cooking).

In between scenes in the kitchen dicing onions and carrots, braising chunks of pork or beef, and waiting patiently for stews to simmer, Pollan pursues alternating digressions into the archaeological record of cooking pots and the various evolutionary explanations of umami. It is here, in seeking evidence for the ancient origins of and universal tastes for stews, that Pollan identifies the authenticity he found wanting in Southern barbecue. In “Water,” he unwittingly reinforces Claude Lévi-Strauss’s gendered argument that cooking by water is an “inside” cultural practice done primarily within the home to care for others. “Water” ends on a strikingly different note from “Fire,” where Pollan connects the modern barbecue pit to the myth of Prometheus and history of ritual sacrifice. By contrast, “Water” (whose subtitle, “A Recipe in Seven Steps,” has a quiet, quotidian ring) closes in an understated way by highlighting the affordability of one-pot meals prepared at home.

Pollan is persistently ambivalent about biophysical accounts of cooking, eating, and digesting food.

But what about the chord of science that runs through Cooked, connecting it to the increasingly popular body of food writing that Roach, This, and Wilson exemplify? Cooked is persistently ambivalent about biophysical accounts of cooking, eating, and digesting food. At the outset, Pollan glosses the “cooking hypothesis,” according to which the dawn of cooking in a “proto-human” context is a necessary condition for the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens. While Lévi-Strauss appears in Cooked as a touchstone for the anthropocentric perspective that cooking “lifts us up out of nature” and differentiates human culture from animal behavior, such instances of evolutionary science (or microbiology) arguably unsettle this perspective. “Cooking,” the scientists Pollan cites suggest, “is by now baked into our biology … something that we have no choice but to do, if we are to feed our big, energy-guzzling brains.” In evident support of this thesis that biology fuels the culture of cooking, scientific vignettes accumulate in Cooked: a section on the umami compound glutamate underlining the role of olfaction in taste; a dense review of the compounds and processes that make dough rise (or, conversely, cause what bakers call “partial bread failure”); and a fascinating discussion of the recent paradigm shift in microbiology sparked by findings that microbes are vital to human metabolism and, more radically still, that nine out of ten cells in our bodies are microbial.

In some sense, these engagements with evolutionary and biological research constitute a book-within-the-book, a parallel narrative that winds its way through Pollan’s epic yet intimate story of cooking. Ultimately though, it is this latter story that Cooked foregrounds. Throughout, mythology and magic, rather than molecules and biochemical reactions, are what most captivate Pollan. In “Fire,” we find soaring descriptions of the pit masters whom, in comparison to urban celebrity chefs, Pollan sees as “premodern, almost epic” figures. In fact, myth displaces both history and science in “Fire,” when Pollan employs an off-putting racialized image of black pit masters. For instance, he first describes Skylight Inn pit master James Henry Howell as a “spectral presence emerging out of the smoke” and a “slightly bent black man slowly pushing a wheelbarrow.” Despite the acknowledgment that technologies––from confined feedlots to charcoal briquettes––make large-scale barbecue possible, smoking meat takes shape in such scenes as a primal ritual about power and community.

It is only in “Earth,” with its forays into the microbial world of pickles, cheeses, and alcohols, that Pollan strikes a balance between mythmaking and science writing. 

Flash forward to “Water,” which concludes with the ancient comfort dish maiale al latte (pork braised in milk), whose “creamy layers of savory and sweet” and “gorgeous shade of ochre” figure as “miracle[s] of transubstantiation.” But it is “Air” that proffers perhaps the most sweeping vision of cooking as culture, when Pollan, in tracing the developments that lead from wheat cultivation to flour milling, portrays leavened bread as a testament to the “genius of human culture” and a culminating achievement of civilization itself. It is only in “Earth,” with its forays into the microbial world of pickles, cheeses, and alcohols, that Pollan strikes a balance between mythmaking and science writing. While he opens this fourth and final section of Cooked with a riff on the religious undertones of fermentation, the real “drama” he charts unfolds at once in the cultural arena (the “fermentation underground” of raw milk advocates and pickling gurus) and the arena of pathbreaking science.

Despite Pollan’s full-bodied research into that science, the reader senses a nagging skepticism about viewing food through the lens of what McGee calls its “invisible” properties and processes. That skepticism stems, I would hazard, from one of Pollan’s longstanding concerns as a writer: the human desire to control the natural world via the cultivation and processing of food, which reaches its apotheosis in industrialized agriculture. In Cooked, scientific knowledge, particularly the kinds that take shape in either academic or corporate settings, is inextricably linked to industrial modernity, which in turn erodes cultural traditions and biodiversity. However knowledgeable of and curious about the science of food, Pollan tacitly posits monoculture, in both the social and ecological sense of that fraught term, as an inevitable outcome of scientific work and technological development. Like Pollan’s earlier work The Botany of Desire, Cooked re-situates food production and preparation on an evolutionary timescale while working to imagine an alternative ethos to that of agribusiness. In Cooked, this imagined alternative takes the form of “elemental” cooking. “The lack of control has never sat well within our species,” Pollan writes, after visiting the now-bankrupt Hostess company’s Wonder Bread factory.

Cooked’s final section, “Earth,” delivers on this critique of modernity by suggesting that fermentation, however scientifically complex and technologically sophisticated, is not a method of making food that we can “take credit for inventing.” Like fire itself, Pollan reflects, fermentation is an unruly and unpredictable force of nature. At the same time, by highlighting the roles of ritual, storytelling, and vernacular community in fermentation’s past and present, he suggests that culture ultimately trumps both science and nature.

<i>xSpecies 2</i> (2010–11). Natalie Jeremijenko and Environmental Health Clinic + Lab. Cross Species (xSpecies) Adventure Club

One hopes that Pollan’s next book-length study will move into new conceptual terrain by delving more fully into the paradigm-shifting research on microbes and metabolism that he turns to near the end of Cooked. As one of the United States’ most influential science writers, Pollan is poised to engage a wide public in imagining futures of food in which art and science and tradition and innovation work in tandem. When Cooked flips the book’s alimentary lens in “Earth” by portraying the human chef as food source for the microbial world inside his or her body, the book opens out onto a vibrant discourse that includes the scholarly work of sociologist Hannah Landecker and the late biologist Lynn Margulis as well as Mary Roach’s Gulp.

In her work on the history of metabolism as a concept with biological and social coordinates, Landecker reveals that scientific understandings of food both shape and are shaped by their social milieu just as the concept of metabolism bridges cultural, environmental, and technological realities. Thus, while “[k]nowledge of metabolism in the industrial period was framed by manufacturing and energy; knowledge of metabolism in the postindustrial period is suffused with environmental risk, regulation, and information.” In other words, to see edible matter and digesting bodies in microbiological terms is not to preclude attention to cultural and historical scales of analysis. Landecker’s framework of “postindustrial metabolism” shows us that science, even as it draws on the prevailing technological rubrics of its era (the assembly line in the industrial period and the informational network in the postindustrial period), is as inventive and transformational as the realms of mythmaking and ritual that Pollan prizes.

On a provocative parallel track to Pollan’s story of ancient foodways and Landecker’s investigation into science/culture feedback loops is a group of experimental, multimedia artists who are working against the grain of food culture and food science. From Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Cross Species Adventure Club” (a provocative supper club that incorporates wild ingredients from nonhuman diets into molecular gastronomy dishes) to Critical Art Ensemble’s “Free Range Grain” project (an art installation in which “viewers” test foods from their pantry for GMOs), these artists muddy the boundaries between organic and synthetic materials as well as between ecological, artistic, and technological processes. Consider the artist collective known as The Center for Genomic Gastronomy (CGG), whose project portfolio includes a “vending machine” prototype designed for heirloom seeds along with schematics for a community-run, in vitro meat lab. The group’s organizing rubric is that of bio-hacking, by which they mean adapting, rather than rejecting out of hand, life science techniques and emerging technologies in order to cultivate public forums in which to imagine “alternative culinary futures.” Interlocutors of both agribusiness and slow food, CGG cofounders Zack Denfeld and Cat Kramer turn our attention away from the aspiration to recover alimentary pasts and toward the question of how we might eat in the future.

<i>Seed-O-Matic Vending Machine Prototype</i>. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy together with Emma Conley and Halley Roberts

One figure at the margins of Cooked embodies a compelling balance between this provocation to imagine new food futures and the sense that each of us is what Aldo Leopold termed a “plain member and citizen” of the natural world and its geological timescale. That figure is the Spanish chef Bittor Arguinzoniz, whose restaurant Asador Etxebarri (“New House” in Basque) cooks everything, from oysters to butter, with fire. Or rather, Arguinzoniz cooks with the elemental essence of wood smoke that he harnesses via a state-of-the-art kitchen, whose grills boast a complex network of cables and counterweights that allow him to “make microadjustments in the distance between food and fire.” Importantly for Pollan’s portrait, Arguinzoniz positions himself in opposition to his famed compatriot Ferran Adrìa of elBulli in suggesting he, contra Adrìa, is a chef who aims to restore primordial relationships between cook and cooked. Yet, in his own words, Asador Etxebarri’s project is more multivalent than a simple restoration. While Arguinzoniz is “interested in going backward,” that desire stems from his belief that “the further back we can go, the more we can then advance.” He thus gives voice to an idea that stands as a counterpoint to the book’s structure based on the four elements: as plain members and citizens of the natural world, our scientific inquiries and technological innovations are as much a part of “nature” as are our social rituals and artistic inventions.

In the final pages of Cooked, Pollan displaces Arguinzoniz’s provocative model of cooking as something both elemental and technical, nostalgic and futuristic. Here, in the afterword that draws the book’s 450 pages to a close, Pollan underscores his own desire to rediscover human rituals of slow cooking. Cooked ends with a short narrative of an afternoon Pollan spent in the company of Hyeon Hee Lee, a Korean woman in Seoul who taught him a family kimchi recipe. As the two strangers pickle vegetables together, Hyeon Hee relays to Pollan the idea of “hand taste.” In contrast to the tongue taste that food corporations simulate so well, hand taste, she explains, “involves something greater than mere flavor. It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it––the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that that person has put into the work of preparing it.” As Pollan ends on an incredibly sentimental note (calling hand taste “the taste of love”), the scene in Hyeon Hee’s kitchen brings into relief that Cooked is epic in a very particular sense. In the final analysis, the book serves forth a resolutely humanist story of cooking as that which might rescue the author’s nation from “abstract” work and engineered food. In response to the felt risks that science and technology pose to the alimentary realm, Pollan works to root his American reader in an elemental purpose of cooking: to cultivate human bonds, above all else.