Edible Q&A: Michael Pollan On Cooking and His New Netflix Series

By Dina El Nabli | March 07, 2016
michael pollan
Courtesy of Netflix "Cooked"

For years, legendary food writer Michael Pollan has called for a renaissance in home cooking, urging us to stop outsourcing the preparation of our food to corporations. “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. Don’t eat anything your great‐grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.” 

In his new Netflix docu-series, Cooked, based on his 2013 bestseller, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, the tradition and ceremony of cooking takes center stage. The series is divided into four episodes, focusing on fire (cooking with heat), water (braising and boiling with pots), air (breadmaking), and Earth (fermenting). 

We watch Pollan roast a pig, encouraging a vegetarian to try her first piece of sustainably slow-roasted pork. In another episode, we see a mother in Morocco showing her son how to make flatbread and then we watch Pollan bake his own loaf. And we get a look at the traditional home-cooked hot lunch a Mumbai woman makes for her husband. 

cooked by Michael Pollan
Courtesy of Netflix "Cooked"

Though the cooking in the series is complex and time-consuming, Pollan reminds us that it need not be an all or nothing proposition. We can make time for cooking in our own lives by preparing meals on a Sunday or aiming to cook a few nights a week. And we can challenge ourselves to make something we only ever expected to buy. 

Cooking, says Pollan, is both an act of generosity and love and a declaration of independence from corporations seeking to infiltrate every last cranny of our lives. We caught up with Pollan to talk about cooking—his earliest memories, what he cooks when he's short on time and his favorite spring find at the farmers market—and what it will take to get more of us back into the kitchen.

Edible: In the series, you talk about the powerful memories we all have of being cooked for and regardless of whether we cook, we all have those memories. Can you share a favorite memory from your childhood that helped shaped your views about cooking?

Michael Pollan: I was very fortunate in that my mother was a pretty passionate cook and she had a period where she had worked before I was born. I’m the oldest of 4 kids and she went back to work when my youngest sister went into school but in between she wasn’t working and I think a really important creative outlet for her was in the kitchen. She watched Julia Child and she would try to make those recipes and we were her guinea pigs and how lucky was that. On a Thursday night we would have beef bourguignon or coq au vin or all these amazing French recipes and we sort of thought it was normal because whatever happens in your house is normal although I did notice when I went to my friend's house there were more TV dinners and less beef bourguignon.

And I liked hanging around the kitchen and watching her cook and there were certain dishes I loved to help with. For some reason and I don’t know why I didn’t get into it in the book but frying I found incredibly magical and we would make homemade French fries and homemade potato chips and I just loved having a big pot of fat and dropping things in and watching what happened to them.

My favorite fried dish was a pretty complicated one that we mostly made for my birthday and that was chicken kiev. It is a pounded thin piece of chicken breast rolled up into kind of a torpedo shape with a big chunk of butter and herbs in the middle and then you dip it in flour, then you dip it in egg and then you dip it in breadcrumbs keeping it tightly sealed the whole time and that’s the challenge. Then you put in fat and deep fat fry and it turns gold and it’s this torpedo you put on your plate and when you slice into it you get this gust of herbal aroma and then this pool of butter spreads out and encircles the chicken kiev and ideally you have it with rice or wild rice even better. That was a pretty big memory. It didn’t happen that often and I loved working on it. The process of making it was almost as good as eating it.

Michael Pollan cooking
Courtesy of Netflix "Cooked"

Edible: You talk about the huge popularity of cooking shows coupled with the notion that the more we watch, the less we actually cook. What do you think is causing this tremendous disconnect?

Pollan: I think the cooking shows are – the ones in primetime now this doesn’t go for the ones during the day which have much smaller audiences of course but the ones in primetime are daunting and sometimes scary. I mean think about these shows...you’ve got knife slashing and people wielding knives in a way you can’t possibly do they’re so fast. There are fountains of flames erupting and there’s a time clock running down the time and it looks like work best left to professionals. It doesn’t seem approachable at all...It just looks too hard.

And I think that these shows have confused us a little bit and created an unreasonable expectation for what putting a meal on the table means. A Thursday night dinner or a Wednesday night dinner is not like that and it’s not like restaurant food. It’s not even like Guy Fieri. It’s taking something really simple and grilling it or sautéing it and making some vegetables to go with it and a grain and something you do in a half hour. It’s not that glamorous but now we think well to cook means to be a professional and frankly this is what television does. Television is not fundamentally interested in you leaving the couch. Television wants you to watch more television. This has always been true and so it has a way of making this work look like celebrities should do it. It’s like sports. Are you encouraged to play sports by watching sports on TV? Are you encouraged to have sex by watching pornography on TV? I don’t think so. So it’s just kind of television’s master plan, which is to keep you pinned to the couch.

Cooked Netflix series
Courtesy of Netflix "Cooked"

Edible: Speaking of accessible, everybody wants to know what’s in your refrigerator. I’m sure you get asked that all the time. Can you tell us what a couple of less labor-intensive dinners in your house look like?

Pollan: We just flew to Berkeley from Boston where we’re living this year from Cambridge and Monday night we had to pack and we had a lot to do to get ready so we had to do a pretty fast dinner and here’s what a fast dinner is that I love. We had pasta. I happened to have some really good whole grain dry pasta in the fridge so I put on some water. Then I took a bag of frozen spinach, organic Cascadian Farms spinach from the freezer. I defrosted it in the microwave and then at the same time, I started some garlic and olive oil in a pan and when it was ready to go in, I sautéed it with some pepperoncini and served that over the pasta and I happened to have a ball of mozzarella in the fridge and I cubed that up and put that on top and there was dinner. One pot. Everything was there. It was really simple and it was really delicious. Frozen spinach is one of the great blessings of industrial agriculture and so is dried pasta. That literally took 20 minutes. I mean there are a lot of recipes that pretend to be 20 minutes out there and as you know they aren’t really but this one really was 20 minutes and it was delicious. So that’s cooking too, right, and it doesn’t have to be a big production and it could be very satisfying. We could have gotten a pizza that night but it wouldn’t have taken any less time and it wouldn’t have tasted as good.

Edible: For many of us at Edible, spring is a favorite time of year, especially in the Northeast when we can get to work on our gardens and start to think about asparagus, peas and all the other spring bounty. What do you get most excited about in the farmers market in the spring?

Pollan: I would say it’s when the asparagus shows up. Asparagus and tomatoes are these two crops that I only eat in season. Every now and then you end up with a slice of tomato in the winter on a sandwich and I’ll take it off. It’s usually just so nasty and you deprive yourself of that moment of getting the first tomato or peaches, too, is another one. I see asparagus on menus all year round but I won’t order it because it’s seldom any good. How much better to have that moment of drama when there you are at the farmers’ market or in the supermarket and there’s the first local asparagus and it’s so good and I really like asparagus. So I would say that’s a big spring moment for me.

Michael Pollan baking bread in Cooked
Courtesy of Netflix "Cooked"

Edible: Throughout the series, you talk about cooking as a form of alchemy and bread being the greatest alchemy of all. It’s hard to believe that Michael Pollan could find the notion of baking bread intimidating. Why was making a decent loaf especially satisfying to you?

Pollan: Because it was intimidating. I always thought of baking in general as the rocket science of cooking. I always thought you had to be super precise. Much more so than cooking other things...It seemed like a daunting form of magic. I had made a few loaves in the past or tried to and they were never that impressive and I just didn’t get the kind of oven spring that I had hoped for so I was intimidated by it and it took me a while to get good at it. It’s easy to make OK bread. It’s hard to make really good bread bread that people go like wow, this is really good bread.

So I kind of worked my way up through some pretty simple recipes towards the Tartine recipe which is a very challenging recipe....A bread recipe is completely different than any other kind of recipe. It’s calculated in percentages rather than quantities and the percentages add up to more than 100 so it makes no sense at all. Just Google baker’s math and it’ll hurt your head so I had to learn that. What surprised me is I started doing it and at a certain point you can throw away the recipe like the way you would throw away your crutches and realize you know, I can do this by feel. I kind of now know how it’s supposed to feel when it’s fermented and also how it tastes. I would taste it and see is it getting a little bit sour or not and at a certain point I could rough out the amount of flour and water because I knew the consistency I was looking for and now I bake bread without a recipe and that’s really liberating.

Every now and then I get one that’s not as good and I have to go back and think what’s going on with my starter? Has it lost some of its oomph? I find it enormously satisfying and it is a big alchemy because the difference between dough which is just this kind of sodden inert mass and bread
this kind of fragrant risen ethereal thingis so dramatic and yet what’s simpler than bread? I mean it’s flour and water and a little bit of salt and your starter. It’s funny. It hasn’t lost its drama for me because there’s always that moment of truth when you take the top off the pot and you see how big did it get and it’s still thrilling.

Edible: You’re advocating for a renaissance in home cooking in an age where most of us have limited time and money and a lot of the recipes in the series are difficult and time consuming. We did talk about a doable recipe and, as you mention in the film, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Can you talk about some of the actionable things you feel most of us can do to cook in the way our grandparents did or to just get back into the kitchen?

Pollan: Start with small steps. Obviously, you’re not going to grill a whole pig in your front yard but there’s some amazing recipes for making a pork shoulder, say. There’s a Momofuku recipe for barbecued pork shoulder that’s amazing and incredibly simple with a rub of sugar and salt and a long slow cook in any oven and you get something very close to that barbecued pork. 

I know the film presents some pretty ambitious recipes and these are things I don’t make every day. I do the pig once a year. These are kind of more ceremonies of cooking in a way than every day home cooking and you know I don’t want to do what those food shows are doing to people which is make people think that the ideal is the enemy and the good or the decent because it shouldn’t be. So I just think start small. If you want to make bread start with Jim Lahy’s no-knead bread recipe. It’s a great way to start. It doesn’t use a starter. It uses yeast but you still get good results and you get the same sense of satisfaction that I had. And use YouTube. YouTube has amazing resources for techniques like how to fold bread. It’s much easier to learn from a video than it is from a book.

Watch Cooked on Netflix.