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In the Kitchen: Michael Pollan

The Berkeley author has a new rule for healthy eating: learn to cook.


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Photography by Angela Decenzo

So if you invite yourself over for a lunchtime interview with Michael Pollan about his new book, chances are you’re going to get fed—and well. Nothing flashy, mind you. A tuna sandwich, say, served on his crusty whole-wheat homemade loaf (legitimately boast worthy), with a side of nicely spiced kimchee he fermented himself. Clearly, he’s proud of his recent culinary accomplishments, which he documents in his latest book about spending a year learning to cook.

Pollan wants to share his newfound joy of cooking. In fact, this affable food-movement icon seeks to lure Americans into the kitchen with the promise of sensual pleasure rather than a sense of obligation. The cooking convert also makes a case for embracing everyday meal-making much more often than we do, and resisting the temptation to outsource dinner to food corporations. That’s the takeaway message from talking with the author about his new book, Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation.

As the 58-year-old prepares lunch in his North Berkeley bungalow, whose kitchen sports zinc countertops and an island made from local elm, he wields an impressive craftsman’s knife from Wyoming while he intently minces green garlic. While chopping, he admits to a steep learning curve in making meals from scratch in the course of working on Cooked.

“It wasn’t like I never cooked before, but it was very simple stuff—grilled meat or fish, a fairly limited repertoire,” concedes Pollan. As he writes in Cooked, “My kitchen skills, such as they were, were pretty much frozen in place by the time I turned 30. Truth be told, my most successful dishes leaned heavily on the cooking of others, as when I drizzled my incredible sage-butter sauce over store-bought ravioli.”

Now, he’s convinced, cooking matters most. For the past 10 years, the best-selling author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules has explored the food chain, and profoundly impacted our understanding of this country’s industrialized food system. He came to see that the simple act of making time to cook your own food on a daily basis—the average American spends just 27 minutes per day preparing food—could be the biggest factor of all in changing our food culture for the better.

“I realized cooking was the key toward reforming both the food system and the diet. It’s perhaps the most important piece of the food chain, and it was right in front of my nose,” says Pollan.

The UC Berkeley journalism professor had several experts guide him in his edible education, including local artisan bakers, cheese mongers, and picklers. But one of his most important teachers was Samin Nosrat, a former writing student of his and a Chez Panisse alum. Every Sunday for a year, Nosrat came to Pollan’s home to teach him how to butterfly a chicken, make fish stock, and cook hearty fare like braises.

More often than not, Nosrat would send Pollan back to the chopping board, chastised, to dice onions more finely. “Conversation, I soon came to realize, was the best way to deal with the drudgery of chopping onions,” says the author, who notes he’s undergone an attitude adjustment regarding cutting onions since learning to cook.

This may be Pollan’s most personal book. One reason he wrote it was to spend more time at home before his son, Isaac, went off to college. “Food was a way for us to connect,” says Pollan of his relationship with his only child, a former so-called picky eater. And what teen wouldn’t want to help Dad research home brewing and taste test the fruits of their labor, a draught known as Pollan’s Pale Ale? Or spend time trolling the aisles of prepared meals at Safeway for a funny and instructive dining experiment dubbed Microwave Night?

As readers have come to expect from Pollan, Cooked is a showcase for his keen journalistic mind and storytelling chops; culinary characters abound from Southern barbecue legends to fermentation obsessives. Still, the heart of the book can be found in the pages that explore routine meals prepared at home for the people he loves.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation is available in bookstores and online. For more information, go to michaelpollan.com.


 

Kitchen Wisdom

Here are the author’s tips for home cooks gleaned from his research for Cooked. 

Remember the three P’s

·  It takes patience, presence, and practice to cook well. Let yourself just be in the kitchen. It’s incredibly liberating.
 

Plan ahead

·  Season your meat a day or two early. That alone can make a huge difference to the quality of your cooking.
 

Carve out time to cook

·  I set aside a few hours on Sunday afternoon to prep some dishes for the weekdays. I might make a massive ragu and put containers in the freezer to serve later with pasta.
 

Make food that lasts

·  Instead of a chicken breast, get the whole chicken. If you’re roasting, roast two birds: You’ve got dinner for the next night and bones for stock for a third.
 

Embrace peasant fare  

·  Dinner doesn’t have to be pricey. The humblest of ingredients—cheap cuts of meat, aromatics, root veggies—can make the most flavorful food with time and technique.
 

Divvy up kitchen duties

·  My wife, Judith, is a great vegetable cook: She makes sautéed cabbage, roasted vegetables, braised celeriac. I brown the meat and grill the fish. My son has good butcher skills. We share the work in the kitchen and reap the pleasures together at the table.

 

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