Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

March 24, 2017

Cooking made us human, and continues to remind us of what that means.

In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, author Michael Pollan follows up on his best-known work, The Omnivore’s Dilemma to explore the role of preparing food in both our history and our humanity. Cooked isn’t so much about cooking itself, but rather the social and moral role of cooking in our lives, and what stand to lose when we stop cooking.

How essential to our humanity is cooking? Pollan delves into “The Cooking Hypothesis” of primatologist Richard Wrangham, which is the idea that because cooking makes food easier to digest, it was a factor that allowed our species to begin spending less energy on our guts and more on our brains:

If the cooking hypothesis is correct, it is fire that—by unlocking more of the energy in food and partly externalizing human digestion—fed the spectacular growth of the human brain. So, in this sense at least, Bachelard is correct to credit fire with the invention of philosophy. He might have added music, poetry, mathematics, and books about fire itself.

Beer, as well, may have helped water the seeds of human civilization:

Some anthropologists believe that beer making, which began in earnest around the same time that farming did, helped the early agriculturists compensate for the decline in the nutritional quality of their diet as they turned from hunting and gathering a great many different foods to a monotonous diet of grains and tubers. The B vitamins and minerals in beer, for example, helped compensate for the loss of meat from their diet.

I was intrigued that Pollan considers fermentation a kind of cooking, but it makes sense. Of course alcoholic beverages like beer and wine depend on it for their preparation, as do famously fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. But I was surprised at the sheer number of fermented foods which include things like buttermilk, salami, and Worcestershire sauce, not to mention staples like bread and cheese. In that light, the discovery of fermentation had a profound impact on how we eat and live. Though this was less a discovery than an alliance:

So it made very good sense, evolutionarily speaking, for us to join forces with the microbes, which are simply more skilled than we are at all the ways of biochemically contending. During the two billion years of natural selection that bacteria have undergone before more complex multicellular creatures arrived on the scene, they managed to invent virtually every important metabolic trick known to evolution, from fermentation to photosynthesis.

Cooked is a paean to the many ways both simple and monumental that humans have learned to change our food, to make it both more flavorful and nutritious. But while most of human history is the story of processing our food to our benefit, the middle of the twentieth century was a inflection point:

Our species’ discovery and development of cooking (in the broadest sense of the word) gave us a handful of ingenious technologies for rendering plants and animals more nutritious and unlocking calories unavailable to other creatures. But there eventually came a moment when, propelled by the logic of human desire and technological progress, we began to overprocess certain foods in such a way as to actually render them detrimental to our health and well-being. What had been a highly adaptive set of techniques that contributed substantially to our success as a species turned into a maladaptive one—contributing to disease and general ill health and now actually threatening to shorten human lives. When and where did we pass over, from processing food to make it healthier to making it less so?

“When and where” turns out to be the United States around the Second World War. The food industry had expended great wartime effort toward extending the shelf-life of food—at whatever cost to nutrition—so that it could be shipped to soldiers in Europe and the Pacific. After the war, the industry cashed in by selling Americans at home on these technological advancements:

Beginning after World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell Americans—and American women in particular—on the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant and superconvenient everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in her social history, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, the food industry strove to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.”

These days, we seem to be waking up to the nutritional (not to mention economic) costs of highly-processed foods. Consumers are demanding healthier food, and because capitalism is not known for its sense of irony, the food industry is happy to sell us marked-up, “healthier” versions of processed foods fortified with the very nutrients that have been stripped out in the original processing. This is not a new trend:

the milling industry and government came up with a clever technological fix: A handful of the vitamins that modern milling had removed from bread would now be put back in. So in the early 1940s, in what was called “the quiet miracle,” the U.S. government worked with baking companies—including the Continental Baking Company, makers of Wonder Bread—to develop and promote a white bread fortified with a handful of B vitamins. Here was a classic capitalist “solution.” Rather than go back to address a problem at its source—the processing of key nutrients out of wheat—the industry set about processing the product even more. This was sheer brilliance: The milling industry could now sell the problem and the solution in one neat package.

And yet, Pollan ends Cooked on an optimistic note similar to The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

I predict that, just as the 20th century was defined by increasing technological and industrial control over nature, the 21st will be defined by working with nature and the systems and ecologies in which we live. Clearly the project of the last century was a moral and practical failure: industrial war, factory farms, the rise of historically novel diseases in the supposedly advanced west, linked to novel ways of farming and eating. The twenty first century will be a century of ecology, of understanding our place instead of forcing our way to an imagined apex. Otherwise, there will not be a twenty-second.

Real food, especially when you have some role in preparing it, nourishes not just the body but the soul:

even better, I found, is the satisfaction that comes from temporarily breaking free of one’s accustomed role as the producer of one thing—whatever it is we sell into the market for a living—and the passive consumer of everything else.

To eat is to enter into a relationship, to cook even moreso:

To brew beer, to make cheese, to bake a loaf of bread, to braise a pork shoulder, is to be forcibly reminded that all these things are not just products, in fact are not even really “things.” Most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships, between people, yes, but also between ourselves and all the other species on which we still depend. Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget.